Christian spirituality, it doesn’t start with you – Sermon 4/5

It’s not uncommon today to hear people talking about spiritual things – or talking about spirituality. Not every uses this kind of language – and not everyone is comfortable taking about spirituality. But there are plenty of women and men in our culture who believe that spirituality, or spiritual things, are important to life – and who are interested in exploring such questions.

As with many other subjects, it’s a challenge to discuss about spirituality because there are very different ideas out there about what it means to be spiritual. But I want to begin this morning by reflecting on what I think is one of the most common approaches to spirituality in our culture. And to do this, I’d like to begin with some words I found on the website of the Wellness Centre at a Canadian University. It seems to me that these words capture a very common understanding of spirituality that is “out there” today. So here on the screen is the definition given:

Spirituality is unique to each individual. Your “spirit” usually refers to the deepest part of you, the part that lets you make meaning of your world. Your spirit provides you with the revealing sense of who you are, why you are here and what your purpose for living is. It is that innermost part of you that allows you to gain strength and hope.

As this quotation makes clear, spirituality in our culture has to do with our deepest identity. Spirituality has to do with finding meaning and purpose in your life. Spiritual questions are questions that relate to something deep inside you – the core of your being, where you find energy and hope and joy. 

As these words also make clear, spirituality in our culture is very much an individual reality. It’s about your personal sense of meaning, your personal identity, your personal source of energy and strength, found in the depths of your own personal being.

This quotation represents a pretty good statement of how spirituality is understood today.  On this website, this Wellness Centre goes on to describe some of the attitudes or actions that go along with spirituality. For example:

be quiet and take time for yourself,

have an open mind and don’t be judgmental,

pray or meditate,

be receptive to times of pain or sorrow,

allow yourself to believe things that can’t be easily explained.

Now in some sense this definition of spirituality, and these elements of spiritual existence, are consistent with Christian spirituality. There’s nothing particularly troubling or wrong with this definition or this list. Words like purpose and joy and hope and prayer and quiet and meditation and openness can certainly find a home within an account of Christian spirituality.

But at the same time we have to recognize that there remains a very large gap between this common understanding of spirituality and a Christian understanding. Our reading from John’s gospel will help us say a little bit about what sets Christian spirituality apart from this other approach. And one of the reasons I want to distinguish between these different approaches to spirituality is because the common sense of our culture often becomes our common sense. The assumptions of the wider culture about spirituality are so widespread and powerful that they easily begin to shape our thinking and our feeling and our acting and our living. So much so that it’s possible to lose touch with what Christian spirituality is – to lose touch with what makes Christian spirituality distinct and meaningful.

Perhaps the first and most important thing we have to say is that Christian spirituality doesn’t begin with us – it doesn’t begin with me and it doesn’t begin with you. The decisive moment in Christian spirituality isn’t a moment when we look into our own hearts and lives – the decisive moment in Christian spirituality isn’t a moment when we go inside ourselves to discover our particular joy or hope or strength. Christian spirituality begins, rather, very much outside of ourselves – it begins with a divine person who dwells outside of us – it begins with the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit that has a life independent of us.

The Holy Spirit that comes from beyond us and outside of us.

The Holy Spirit that is sent to us from God and through Christ his Son.

As we’ve said over the past few weeks, the Holy Spirit comes to us in and with the creation. If we have eyes to see, and if we have ears to hear, and if we have hearts open to receive, then we may find the Spirit’s blessing through earth and wind and water and fire. We have said, too, that the Holy Spirit brings the future kingdom of Jesus to life in our world today – bringing his justice and peace and forgiveness and compassion and comfort to life in the present moment. So Christian spirituality doesn’t begin or end with you or me. Christian spirituality doesn’t begin or end with reflection on our own lives, our own values, our own needs, our own inner sources of strength – rather, it begins and ends with the Spirit of God moving in the world and toward us with goodness and grace.

Of course there is still something deeply personal about any and every encounter with the Holy Spirit. If Christian spirituality begins outside of ourselves in the life of God’s Spirit, then there is also certainly an inward movement to our encounters with the Spirit. As Jesus says in our passage for today, “The Spirit abides with you and will be in you.” There is a profound intimacy in the Spirit’s drawing near to us. The Spirit can only meet us within our particular need and brokenness – can only meet us in relation to our particular abilities and creativity – can only meet us in the complexity of our own narratives. And in any such encounter with the Spirit, our own thoughts and emotions and our very bodies are implicated. The Spirit comes as close to us as our own breath to speak and renew and transform. As the missionary and writer and poet Patricia St. John has put it: “..stooping very low, He engraves with care His Name, indelible, upon our dust;” (repeat)

There is something so freeing about this possibility – that our spiritual lives are not built on the foundation of our own activity, our own reflection, our own prayers, or our own discovery of meaning and purpose. Our spirituality doesn’t begin with our attempt to do something or create something. Rather, our spirituality begins with simple openness to the moving of God’s Spirit – a Spirit that has its life outside of us and comes graciously to us. Our only response can be arms open – waiting with hope and expectation.

There is a second way in which Christian spirituality can be distinguished from the common spirituality of our culture. We go back and read again part of that definition we began with: “Spirituality is unique to each individual. Your ‘spirit’ usually refers to the deepest part of you, the part that lets you make meaning of your world.  Your spirit provides you with the revealing sense of who you are, why you are here and what your purpose for living is.”

With this definition, and with many other expressions of spirituality in our culture, we notice that almost the whole focus is placed on the individual person. You have to find your own sense of meaning. You have to discover who you are as a person. You have to find your own source of hope and strength. You have to develop your own sense of identity. If there is any place for community here, by definition that community is only secondary to the individual’s own search for meaning and life and purpose.

The vision of life and faith given to us in the New Testament simply cannot abide this almost singular focus on the individual person. Yes, in our individual lives God’s Spirit comes to bless and to heal and to encourage and to equip. But Christian spirituality does not begin and end with the individual – it begins and ends with the community of God’s people that the Spirit is creating.

In our passage from John’s gospel for today, when Jesus promises the Holy Spirit to the disciples, he is speaking to them precisely as a community. He is promising the Spirit to them as a community. When Jesus breathes the Spirit upon them later in John’s gospel – he breathes his spirit upon them gathered as one around the table. Jesus doesn’t promise the Spirit to each person as a source of fulfillment or meaning for their individual lives. Jesus promises the Spirit to them as a community so that they may dwell together in the faith and in the goodness and in the beauty that are embodied in him and his kingdom.

Tom Wright is certainly correct when he says: “Those in whom the Spirit comes to live are God’s new Temple. They are, individually and corporately, places where heaven and earth meet.” The individual person and the community – the community and the individual person – these two are intimately linked when we speak about Christian spirituality. We could put it this way, and rather strongly:

There is no joy in the Spirit if joy is not sung together in worship.

There is no hope in the Spirit if we do not share our hope around the table.

There is no love in the Spirit if we are not dwelling in love with sisters and brothers.

There is no gifting in the Spirit if our gifts aren’t used to build others up.

There is no kindness in the Spirit if kindness is not shown in the Body of Christ.

There is no healing in the Spirit if other women and men are not there to speak the Spirit’s healing to us.

Christian spirituality isn’t my discovery of my life’s meaning, or my discovery of hope deep in myself, or my discovery of joy and strength deep within.

Christian spirituality is openness to the Spirit who forms the Body of Christ, and who is forming me as joyful and faithful member of that Body. Christian spirituality is openness to the Spirit who is leading the community of his people into the kingdom of Jesus, and is leading me there as part of that community…..  By definition, Christian spirituality isn’t about me – it’s about us.

A final word this morning to help describe Christian spirituality. Last week we saw that our freedom in the Spirit has a specific shape – a specific content – a specific direction. And in the same way we can say that Christian spirituality has a specific shape – a specific content – a specific direction.

Going back to that quotation we began with, there is, again, something strangely empty about this account of spirituality. Of course that is because questions of meaning and beauty and truth in our culture are considered private questions. Each person is free to decide for him or herself, must decide for him or herself what the meaning of life is. So spirituality in our culture is like having an empty box that must be filled with whatever content we find worthy and meaningful.

But again, Christian spirituality has a content – and as Jesus makes clear in our passage for today, he is that content.

In our passage Jesus speaks about his departure and he says to his disciples, with reference to the Spirit: “I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you.” A few verses later he adds: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

Christian spirituality is not an empty component of human identity that we fill however we can. Christian spirituality has content, and that content is Jesus.

The Holy Spirit makes the absent Jesus present to us.

The Holy Spirit teaches us about Jesus and his way.

The Holy Spirit brings the love of Jesus to our lives.

The Holy Spirit brings the healing of Jesus to human lives and community.

The Holy Spirit of Jesus brings his resurrection joy to his people.

As a community of God’s people here at Kensington – as individuals and as a Body – may we be open to the moving of the Holy Spirit in us and around us. May we be open to the Spirit who blesses us with joy and grace and healing and strength on the journey with Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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