It`s quite fashionable in some places to think of St. Paul as being a bit obscure and difficult to understand; and sometimes the snippets of his letters that we hear Sunday by Sunday- if we don`t provide some context- only serve to confirm this view. But there are occasions when you simply can`t mistake what St. Paul is driving at.
In the passage we heard this morning he says to the Church in Corinth: “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready,…” This is Bible-speak for “grow up the lot of you”. And the strength of his words is only emphasised when you realise that he was writing to a bunch of people who clearly thought they were a long way down the road to holiness…. But, no, Paul will have none of it…`You`re still infants where Christ is concerned` he`s saying. You really don`t get it. His expectation of them- and this is the point I want us to reflect on this morning- is that they should be what he calls `Spiritual` people. Again, they thought they were very spiritual indeed but to his way of thinking they were clueless.
So what might he be driving at? Well, the first thing we might want to ask is what come to mind when we hear that word `spiritual`. Do we find ourselves thinking of `spirits` and things that go bump in the night? Do you think of `spiritualism`; that bogus and unhealthy obsession with the dead? Do you think of those New Age types who call themselves `Spiritual but not Religious` and in a somewhat self-absorbed way indulge themselves in a range of `airy fairy` activities like hugging trees and so on? And what do you think it might mean to describe yourself as `Spiritual`? After all our worship today is laced with references to the Holy Spirit- the presence of God within us. So, I repeat, it`s Paul`s expectation that those who profess faith in Christ should carry the label `spiritual`… so what might this mean?
Well, in time-honoured fashion, let me suggest three things: Firstly we want, I think to say that the Christian is Spiritual because we are centred on God. To be `spiritual` is to be quite deliberately and actively open to his indwelling and deep down there where it matters there is a desire for God to be immediate. We see this when Paul criticises the Corinthians for being, as he put it “infants in Christ”. In other words he regards the goal of the Christian life to be about `the fullness of Christ`; the life of Jesus finding its fullest expression in and through us.
We can describe it by using that word `Spirituality`. It`s often bandied around but a `spirituality` is best defined as `a way of being in relationship with God`. It`s the way our relationship with him finds its expression. So, someone might talk about Franciscan spirituality- and you might know that they have a particular concern for the poor and a simplicity of life. Benedictine spirituality is renowned for its balance of work and worship and hospitality and so on. In other words each of these describe a way of life; a way of keeping company with Christ so that we are formed by him and allow something of His Spirit to come through in the things that we say and do.
So, if you see what I mean, this definition of Spiritual has nothing to do with ethereal, nebulous or abstract things; it`s the most practical thing in the world. To be `spiritual` is to keep company with God. It`s about how we live out our response to the reality of God and how Christ is made present in and through us. So the first questions we then have to ask are `How would you describe your spirituality? What things help you keep company with God? How does he tend to speak to you? And as the season of Lent gets closer what habits might you get into that will help your life become more centred on him?
So to be spiritual in Christian terms is about being in relationship with God but secondly it includes being in relationship with others as well. Being spiritual is in no way a flight from reality and even less is it a flight from other people. This was the point St. Paul was making to the Corinthians. He`s saying `You can`t begin to think of yourself as spiritual while ever there is jealousy and quarrels among you`. This is of course a direct challenge to those who, as I said earlier like to describe themselves as `spiritual but not religious`. Because more often than not what they are really doing is attempting to create their own pseudo holiness, without the inconvenience and challenge of living in community. You see it in those who hop from Church to church; moving on when relationships become a challenge- forgetting or avoiding what the Spirit may wish to teach in that difficult context. It`s so much easier to be `holy` without them others around isn`t it?
No, Paul points to the significance of good relationships for those who would be called spiritual. And of course he`s echoing the words of Christ in this morning`s Gospel reading isn`t he? Jesus says “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift”. The joke behind this particular saying is of course the absurdity of leaving your offering- a lamb or whatever- there at the altar for the best part of a week whilst you `leg it` back to Nazereth to get things sorted out. But how easy it is, as Paul illustrates to allow relationships in the community to fester and not to deal with them. It`s so much easier to cling to our own little group who are just like us. When that`s the case we have to hear Paul saying “Grow up the lot of you!”
So to be spiritual is to live a life centred on God. It`s to live in the here and now and in the midst of community. And thirdly, to be spiritual means to be enlivened and guided by God. As I have said endlessly the Christian life is not about what we do but what Christ does in and through us. And much of the time we won`t notice it- so there`s no room for smugness! This is how Paul makes the point; he tells the Corinthians that they are far from being spiritual because they are still as he puts it “behaving according to human inclinations”.
Paul is saying you`re not spiritual at all. You`re actually guided by a range of other considerations and if we`re honest this is where the rubber hits the road isn`t it? He`s pointing to their guiding principles; the way they actually respond to life`s events and the ups and downs of every day. That mixture of home spun wisdom and self-interest that gets us through the day; keeps a roof over our head and just enough money on the bank account. It`s a challenge isn`t it?
It`s what I call our `default setting`- our basic response to life. A default setting is what you have on a computer. It basically means that for instance, each time you switch it on you`ll get the same opening picture on your screen; it works using the English language and so on. But the point is that you can change the default setting. It doesn`t have to be like this. So, in this sense, being spiritual is to be all too conscious of the challenge we face when we realise how far our default settings are from what Christ would do in and through us.
Now this could be the recipe for despair but one sign of an authentic spirituality is becoming conscious that we have a God who labours within us. That mix of upbringing, background and experience that has brought about or formed our basic outlook and default setting will not be the final word. The Gospel- the good news- is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We say things like “a leopard doesn`t change his spots”- “you can`t teach an old dog new tricks” and so on. And the way we real off these quotes just makes the point. We rely far more on our pseudo-wisdom and outlook than the God who says things like “A new heart I will give you”. But to be spiritual is to be open to this kind of transformation- this continuing work of God within us. And so as Lent approaches I want to invite you to reflect on your default settings. How would you describe your basic outlook and response to life and what needs to change?
I don`t read a lot of poetry. But there are a few poems people have passed on to me and said look at this. One of them is by a man called George Herbert. He wrote a piece called `The Flower`. It`s very appropriate for Lent- which is course is the old English word for `Spring`. George Herbert simply said: “Who would have though my shrivel`d heart could have recovered greenesse?
To be Spiritual people: here`s the challenge for Lent. Try to put yourself in a place and pattern of living which will find you more centred on God. Reflect on what it might be like to become more mature in your relationships with others. It`s usually when there`s a disagreement that the work will be done. And steel yourself to have your basic response to life – your default setting – changed by the grace of God. Or as St. Paul would probably put it: it`s time to `grow up` in Christ.