"Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit". Galatians 13:25
In one parish in the North, we had a Canadian family as members of the church for eighteen months. Rod had been a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada for 38 years prior to his retirement; he and his wife Susan had two teenage children. They were at once the most charming and the most disarming people I knew. They were very always warm and friendly but they would come up with questions we had never even thought about – why does your church do things this way? Most of the time I had to admit that I had no idea, we had always done things this way: people were used to doing things this way; we didn’t know any other way of doing things; people wouldn’t like another way of doing things.
Rod and Susan made me think about the church I was in. Why did we do things in the way we did? What were we doing about making our church a place where people who were not members would want to come? The questions were asked, and changes were made.
Look at what Paul says in the reading from the letter to the church at Galatia, ""Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit." Paul’s words would have annoyed some people, "neither circumcision nor uncircumcision have any value". Paul is saying to the people in his own time that they need to ask questions, that they need to change, because their old traditions, their old ways of doing things, no longer counted for anything. The only boast of Christians, Paul concludes in the letter, was to be in the cross of Christ and through the power of the cross they were to be new people.
Paul doesn’t say these things for the sake of it, he doesn’t suggest things should change because he likes novelty, he does this so that the Good News of Jesus Christ can be carried out to different people and different cultures. If all the Jewish rules and traditions had been attached, the Church would have been so weighed down by its history that it could never have made any progress in new and different areas.
If Paul was with us today I wonder what he would say. When he looked at our traditions I wonder which ones he would say counted for nothing. His comments could be painful. Things we held dear might have to go. We would be made to realise that if we live by the Spirit, then we must keep in step with the Spirit.
Rod and Susan asked questions, not to be awkward, but because it was part of their experience of the church in Vancouver. To be continually asking questions about what one was doing and why one was doing it was vital in one of the most secular places in North America. To fail to touch the lives of the people in their parish would have been to fail to keep Jesus’ command to go out and make disciples.
Looking at Paul’s words to the Galatians and looking at how secular society is faced by the church in Canada, perhaps we need to ask questions about how we are going to face the increasingly secular society that surrounds us now.
How does the world out there see us? And, when they meet with us, are they presented with the Good News of Jesus Christ, or are they presented with traditions that they cannot understand which seem to have little to do with the man from Nazareth?
How are we reacting to the daily changes around us in Ireland? The Church as a whole is thought strange by an increasing number of people who go nowhere and believe nothing. The people amongst whom we live are becoming like people elsewhere in the western world. They are content to let us carry on with our traditions, but they themselves have no real interest in what who we are or what we say.
What questions do we need to ask of ourselves if we are to become like those whom Jesus sent out? What changes do we need to contemplate if we are to be Jesus’ people for our time?
It is hard for us to imagine what it is like for someone to step inside a church for the first time – when they look around how much of what they see is part of the Good News of Jesus Christ and how much of what they see is part of more recent tradition? When they join in worship, how much of what we do is at the heart of the Gospel and how much is a matter of our own custom and preference?
Next time you are in a different church imagine yourself as someone who has never set foot inside a church before. Ask yourself about what is going on and what is being said. Then compare what is done and said with the straightforward Gospel story of Jesus – how much was at core of what it means to be Christian? How much was tradition and custom that had been added on?
"Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit," says Paul. He is concerned only with what is essential. We have to ask ourselves what is essential. If we are to be a church that is reaching out we have to ask ourselves how much we have which is not important. "The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love", says Paul. Are we like the supporters of the old ways, the people Paul opposed? Or are we people in step with the Spirit?