Over the past week I`ve had several conversations with people who noticed that some of the words we used in our worship last Sunday morning were as they put it, “a bit challenging”. At the beginning of the New Calendar Year we took the opportunity to pray with what it might be like to renew our response to Christ. Among other things, we said this:
“I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal”.
As I say, for some of us these words brought us up short by their directness and sense of abandonment to Christ; and I suspect they stand out all the more because they contradict how most of us have been brought up to think about the way we will conduct what we call `our` life. But my first response to these conversations (without being at all unkind) was to invite us to hold on to this sense of tension and to welcome it as a place of potential growth and of encounter with the Holy Spirit.
Yes, these are what we might call extreme things to say … And yes, in the background we may have that little voice whispering “don`t get too religious” not just because we value our sense of `control`… and `reasonableness` but maybe also because we`ve encountered that somewhat obsessed member of the family, the neighbour or colleague who drives everybody nuts by their misguided enthusiasm and their attempts to convert anything that has a pulse! But putting all that aside I did find myself wondering wherever we got the impression that faith was anything other than this committed?
I mean, in our Gospel Reading this morning we`re told that encounter with Jesus means that `He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire` (Luke 3). In other words He will drench and literally drown you in the life of God; now that doesn`t sound like half-measures does it? Is it that we just plead ignorance or pretend this stuff isn`t in the Bible or perhaps pretend John got his ideas of Jesus all wrong? Or are we going to allow ourselves to be brought up short and say “Ah!… so that`s what it means to be a Christian”; to be immersed in the life of God?
At this point we are of course welcome to have second thoughts about the whole exercise… and we can go off and do something else with our Sunday mornings… but at least let`s be clear about what we`re dealing with. Think for instance of our family story and the heroes of our faith … of those people we call `the saints`. Have we really failed to noticed how passionate and utterly devoted to Christ they all were? I know we treat them as special… they are! But they`re not exceptions… they are examples. And we`re not talking here about how comfortable we are with outward expressions of emotion; what it boils down to is how far we have allowed the truth of God and what he is doing among us to touch us and change as the gut level.
This is certainly what you find in the writings of St. Paul. He told the Philippians “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain”. (Phil 1.21) He told the Galatians: “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me”. (Galatians 2.20) Now we might doubt our own capacity to stick with our professed commitment to Christ; so welcome to the human race! And welcome to the people of God… because the Lord knows that of course we have a track record of fickleness.
I like the way Morning Prayer during Lent always includes these words: The Lord says to his people: “Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early”. (Hosea 6.4) So he`s not blind to our weakness … and over time we come to learn that for much of the time the Christian life is about living with our humility … but then you can do that when you realise (as Paul and the others did) that what matters is how HE is changing us… rather than how we change ourselves.
I was in conversation with someone a while ago who was talking about introducing `meditational practices` into their workplace. Essentially and from a good heart they wanted to cut down the levels of stress and all the rest. We talked about this for a little while and then I gently tried to point out that this was probably just a sticking plaster and it would be far more effective if they would simply employ a few more staff, adjust the shift patterns and work on treating people with a bit more humanity.
Now, this conversation stayed with me because it was just another example of how religion and pseudo-religious practices are perceived these days…. It`s as if we have this thing called `our life` over here and when I need it (as we always say) I go `over there` to get some religious product or resource to help me with `my life`. It`s what`s called `bolt-on` spirituality. It`s a veneer… a sticking plaster… a coping mechanism… something to help me get by whilst the essential pattern or character of my life remains unchanged.
We see it most clearly I in the way Western folk like us have filleted Eastern religions and philosophies to add a little cache to an otherwise busy lifestyle … So we see people importing statues, meditating and indulging in all manner of designer-stretching exercises! But again (and I don`t wish to be too cynical) it`s all about coping.. it`s about religion as a `resource`. And the `mantra`(see how that word is now part of the culture!) …the mantra is “Whatever works for you”. But that`s not what we`re about.
Again, we`re told that encounter with Jesus means that `He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire` and this means that the veneer and sticking plaster view of faith will not do. Christ calls us to abandonment to Him and His kingdom. And one way into this might be if we got hold of a new understanding of that word `spiritual`. Far too often it`s a word that`s used to describe a cosy glow, a warm feeling or something which gives a `specialness` to life.
Now there might be some truth in some of that but on its own it leads, as I say to the pursuit of as it were `any religion on the market` that will give us exactly that… a cosy glow over `our` life. But this again, is effectively a matter of evasion and escapism because real Spirituality begins with ordinary stuff. Your spirituality is how you go about loving your husband or wife, forgiving your neighbour or being a better parent. It`s ordinary stuff… ordinary stuff which becomes infused with the life of God when we say `Yes`… a daily and complete `Yes` to him.
The problem is that for the most part there is no cosy glow, no sense of achievement; just a lot of wrestling and questioning and wondering what`s going on.. it feels as though we`ve been sold pup. As the Pastor Eugene Peterson puts it, “The Christian life is wonderful …..but not in the way we want it to be”, and he`s quite right.
When John tells us that Jesus `will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire` there is no demand here just a promise, an invitation to follow; to come and see; to cast out into deeper water; to as he put it “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls”. (Matthew 11.29) But let`s not pretend our `Yes` is to be anything other than complete. It`s a way of death… in so many ways… it`s the way of the Cross. We may not like or understand what he`s on about; we may continue to wrestle with the completeness and all-encompassing nature of his call but at least he spells it out plainly. “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it “(Mark 8.35). There really isn`t any other way.