What is religion?

Sermon Sunday 8 March, 2020

Lessons Genesis 12: 1 – 4 St John 3: 1 – 17

Prayer of Illumination

Let us pray.

Holy God, bless our meditations; fill our emptiness with Your fullness; strengthen and guide us along the many paths of our inner pilgrimage. Amen.

What is religion? On one level, it is a lifestyle shaped by questions of goodness and evil; by things we ought to do and ought not to do. It is a lifestyle in which we want to help others, serve, be compassionate, and care for those less fortunate than ourselves.

In Edinburgh, I helped to staff the Bethany Care Van. Churches across the city and beyond work together to provide food and clothing for those who are homeless on the streets of the capital. 365 days of the year the care van goes out at 10.00pm to serve soup and offer clothing to men and women, old and young, Scottish, English and European, who have no home of warmth and love. On one occasion, as I handed a young man a cup of hot soup, I asked him where he would be sleeping that night. He said he would be going home. He paused, then said that he cannot go home before midnight otherwise his father would punch and beat him. Not strictly homeless, the nineteen year old had so few resources that he was reduced to taking free soup from strangers.

Whether in a church hall for members or on a city street for those who are homeless, providing soup and caring for others is an example of what it means to be Christian, a person living out their faith. Similarly, on the streets of Leith, the Sikh community regularly gives out food to those in need. Helping others less fortunate than ourselves is not the reserve of religious people but there is something inherent in the world’s great religions that their followers are inspired and motivated to help, serve, be compassionate and care. On one level, religion is practical, ethical action.

On another level, religion is about naming sin, both societal and personal. One of my heroes is the founder of the L’Arche community, an international charity which journeys alongside people with learning disabilities. The late Jean Vanier was, I believed, a spiritual giant. At the centre of his theology is the profound belief that all human beings are broken and that God dwells in every one of them. With decades of experience, Vanier had volumes of stories of people with learning disabilities teaching him and the world of the depth, beauty and tenderness of God. I once heard Vanier speak and he did so with immense eloquence; Jesus was a very present reality for him. It was with great shock and tremendous disappointment to hear the recent news that he had abused six women, not core members with learning disabilities but vulnerable women nonetheless. The charity had set up an independent inquiry because of allegations and, to their immense credit, published their findings. Over the course of my ministry at St Columba, I shall almost certainly draw from the professional work of Vanier; a theology of brokenness is one that needs to be preached. Vanier’s work and insights cannot be taken away, but the world now sees him in a different light. An American colleague wrote, ‘Every saint has a past, and every sinner a future’. Whatever else religion is, it is a means of naming sin and, while truly acknowledging and honouring the pain of those who suffer wrongdoing, religion is a means offering everyone who sins a future, a new beginning.

How else might we define religion? At its deepest level, religion is an awareness of God, of the Divine Mystery, of the One who holds all things in being. It is to breathe in and exhale the essence of life. Religion is to be struck, amazed, by the breath-taking beauty of life, nature, the stars and the enormity and complexity of the universe. Centuries ago, a rabbinic mystic defined religion as ‘radical amazement’. Religion is to celebrate the Mystery.

In the richly crafted story of Abraham, in the poetic language of faith narrative, we read an account of God’s first direct involvement in human history. In Judaism, Abraham is abinu: ‘our father’. Likewise, in the Book of Romans, Paul describes Abraham as ‘our father’. The name Abraham means ‘father of the people’. In the Qur’an, Abraham is described as a friend of Allah.

Every year over 15 million Muslims journey to Mecca. Situated in modern-day Saudi Arabia, Mecca is the ‘City of Abraham’. In the Islamic tradition it was at Mecca that Abraham moved away from idols and the gods of polytheism to affirm belief in one God. In the Gospel of Luke, in Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, when the poor man Lazarus dies, he is taken by the angels to be with Abraham.

At night Abraham encountered God. Under the stars God promised Abraham that he would have many descendants. Set in the darkness, it is a story of new birth. What does God say to Abraham? God’s very first word to Abraham is ‘Leave your own country’, ‘Go from your country’ or in the King James Version ‘Get thee out of thy country’. Abraham’s spiritual encounter began with the word ‘Go’, which in Hebrew is lekh lekha.

Lekh lekha had never appeared in Genesis before this point. Lekh lekha means ‘Go towards yourself.’ It is an invitation to journey to a new land, a piece of physical land surely, but it is also and more deeply an invitation to journey within. God’s first word is to Abraham, to the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is ‘Go towards yourself.’ The story of Abraham is about new birth. It is a call to embark on the inner journey.

In prayer, often, we close our eyes or cover them with our hand in order to be still and enter the darkness within. It is in the darkness of the soul, in the undisturbed consciousness, that we seek to encounter the Eternal. We close or cover our eyes to avoid the distractions of the world. The liturgical act of prayer, whether in public or private, is a means of being at one with the Sacred, the Divine, the Holy One; in peace, shalom and stillness. To my mind, the experience of Abraham was an inner, mystical encounter with God: the Divine whisper in the dark silence of his soul. What then of the story of Nicodemus?

Again, the drama takes place at night. It could be that Nicodemus sought Jesus under the cover and safety of darkness. A leader of the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus needed to protect his position and reputation: it could have become a problem for him if he was seen to be engaging with Jesus. In parts of the world today being a follower of Jesus can be dangerous. The story of Nicodemus could have been a covert meeting with Jesus; a secret conversation.

However, the dialogue is forced and false, deliberately so. It is constructed to elicit a point. In the story, Jesus spoke of being born again, born anew, or born from above. Only if we are born anew will we see the Kingdom of God. It is a spiritual, inner seeing. Set at night, it could be that we are eaves-dropping on the wrestling, the inner struggle, in the soul of one of Israel’s religious leaders. Nicodemus was wrestling with the nature of God and the teaching of the rabbi from Nazareth. In the soul’s dark stillness, Jesus was born. This is the discovery of the mystics, the giants of the Christian faith. Referring to God as ‘the Divine Dark’, they teach that through stillness, amazement, the Son, the Christ, is born in the soul. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, our inner pilgrimage is a journey of deification; we grow into union with God. The darkness of night maybe the darkness of Nicodemus’ soul: it is there that he encountered Jesus.

Jesus described God as the ruach; the wind, Spirit or breath. We do not know where it comes from or where it is going. An image from the opening verses of Genesis, it was in the darkness that the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. Whether in the opening verses of Genesis, the first word of God to Abraham, or the encounter of Nicodemus with Jesus, each of these stories are of new birth and encountering God, the Divine Dark, in the darkness.

At its deepest, most profound level, religion is an inner journey to God; it is the spiritual practice of stillness, of discovering the true self, casting aside all false notions and images of God, all false theologies of supernatural miracles, and opening a space in the mind, in the soul, that Jesus may be born within us.