21st May 2017
Revd. Cheryl Collins
I’m always interested and often amused to see what passes for spirituality these days. A while ago I succumbed to the temptation of the Oprah magazine( some of you will know I love a magazine). I was fascinated to see what it delivered when the front cover promised a practical guide to the spiritual side of life. Here’s what one writer said inside: ‘You know me, I’ll look under any rock. And there isn’t a spiritual practice I won’t try. We read psalms and Thich Nhat Hanh. We powered through C.S Lewis and Be here Now. We’ve done seminars in est, lifespring, the landmark forum and transcendental meditation...We’ve gone on compassion retreats, silent mediation retreats and long-life empowerments. We’ve met with tarot card readers, mediums and a guru with his own South Pacific Ashram.’
Believe it or not I cut a bit out the middle of that list and here’s what the writer said at the end of it: ‘I used to feel embarrassed by our spiritual experimentation, it felt so hapless, so random. But on reflection our explorations aren’t so random after all; they linked by a unity of purpose, a common goal, which for lack of a better word I’ll call authenticity.’
Why am I quoting this at such great length you might ask? Well, because I couldn’t help thinking about the similarities between our own context and St. Paul’s in Athens. The article I’m quoting from goes on to claim that everyone wants to discuss spirituality at the moment, just as Paul found many people willing to debate it with him. The Athenians loved a good argument and like nothing better than a new religion.
Paul correctly identifies their religious instincts, they like novelty and variety. They want to control God through the service they offer him, and they think this is best done by keeping all their options open and performing sacrifices at as many altars as possible. They are aware that their lives are limited and transitory, and they seek to find their meaning by seeing themselves as part of the divine life. Paul understands and ruthlessly confronts them, their lives do have meaning and will be seen in their entirety and judged by God in Jesus, he tells them. But the Athenians want affirmation not responsibility and certainly not judgement. They want to buy God with worship, bind him to them, but Paul tells them that on the contrary God is utterly free and needs nothing, he is the source of all there is to give. It seems as if the Athenians, like many of today’s spiritual seekers like to keep themselves in firmly in the middle of the picture, rather than God.
Perhaps, not unexpectedly Paul doesn’t even to get to introduce the name of Jesus to the Athenians before they get fed up. Some of them look forward to more debate another day, but really he lost them at the word judgement.
The Athenians prided themselves on their love of, and ability in, rational discussion and philosophical enquiry. They prided themselves on being open to new ideas, new Gods, but this prevented them ever being committed to any particular God or particular way of faithful living. Today’s spiritual seekers as we have heard, eschew intellectual argument in favour of the search for authenticity but they are equally reluctant to commit. How can we turn consumers of spirituality into disciples? Move them from tasters and buyers of apparently authentic experience into givers and receivers.
Like Paul we have a fine line to tread, trying to meet people where they are and engage with the surrounding culture, while being prepared to challenge and demonstrate another way to live than some of the realities around us. Today’s questing seekers do not want to be confronted by spiritual smart alecs with all the answers, they need to see the authenticity of our connection with God.
That neatly brings me to the gospel and to the promise that Jesus makes- that the disciples will not be deserted but receive another comforter. The root of the Greek word parakletos, used in this passage to describe the Spirit is of the ‘one who answers the call’. Who doesn’t leave us to mourn alone, who doesn’t desert us when we are challenged to speak of our faith but is our advocate as well as our comforter.
The spirit is the one who sustains and undergirds our life together, uniting us with the Father through the Son and with each other through living out the self giving love of one for another which is the hallmark of Christian community as Jesus envisions it for us.
Community is at the heart of our living differently from the world around us. Today, people start with me and my own fulfilment. But to know how to be fulfilled implies a degree of self-knowledge that Christians believe can only come through being a self in relationship to others, principally to God. In Him we live and move and have our being, says Paul. We only understand ourselves properly when we recognise our fundamental dependence upon God and let this lead us into worship.
Christianity is only a religion by accident, with all the attendant dangers of ritualisation, hierarchy and institutionalism. Christianity is designed to be a way of life. Remember the early Christians were called followers of the Way. The way was literally incarnated in Jesus, and so it is back to Jesus we must go.
So our life together needs to lead us deeper into the encounter with God, to nourish it and enable it to flourish so that all our lives can flow forth from that encounter, what we do at the bus stop or the supermarket, how we are at work, at home, down the pub.
Authentic living for Christians is living out of this encounter with God in Christ, making it obvious that in Him we live and move and have our being through the one who answers the call, the Spirit who binds us to God in Christ.
It’s a tough calling and more often than not our lives get knocked off that still centre by our own innate restlessness or unwillingness to really commit our whole selves. God knows that and God wants to help. God will not leave us orphans, fumbling and failing and feel inadequate in our attempts to show His life in our lives. All we have to do is to stop and let God find us, to be still and know that God is God, the God who calls us and loves us and whose capacity for remaking us is inexhaustible.
Recently, I’ve been discovering the joy of podcasts. These are recordings of talks and conversations, sermons and worship services among many other things. One I have become particularly fond of is called ‘The practice’.
To quote from their website, practicetribe.com
‘The Practice is an experimental gathering where we immerse ourselves in God’s dream for humanity, practice the historic disciplines that align us with His dream, and carry each other along the way. We are learning to live out Jesus’ teachings in the world.’ Their podcasts often include the opportunity to practice spiritual disciplines together, so I’m going to end by inviting you to practice one with me now.
Remember that Paul talked about God as the one in whom we live and move and have our being , this practice invites us to experience that reality as we breathe. Have a little shuffle round to get comfortable, then close your eyes gently and breathe slowly and rhythmically- as you breathe in say softly to yourself
God of love and as you breathe out- I belong to you.
God of love, I belong to you.
God of love, I belong to you.
Let’s take a moment together to breathe in and out our consciousness of God’s love for each one of us and our identity as God’s beloved children, before Maggie leads us in responding by declaring our faith in God.