So, I was in church this morning, and we had three readings … extracts below:
From the final words of the letter to the church in Ephesus, encouraging the community of believers to stand firm in their faith:
For our struggle is …. against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
From John’s Gospel, chapter 6, words of Jesus
It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
And from the book of Joshua chapter 24, Joshua addressing the Israelite nation:
“Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
The thing that really struck me today was the way that God works through everyday living.
I was once in a class where we were asked this question by a visiting professor:
“What is the opposite of spiritual”
As we sat around waiting for one of us to be brave enough to respond, I think we were all asking ourselves – ‘Is this a trick question?’
Eventually someone piped up – ‘maybe the opposite of spiritual is physical ?’
The professor smiled, because someone had fallen into the trap he had laid.
No, no, no! He cried.
We waited. The rest of us who had been too cowardly to answer, feeling bad for the one who had stuck his head above the parapet, so to speak.
He looked at us intently. Clearly this was an important lesson that we needed to learn.
“The opposite of spiritual is unspiritual.”
Oh. Well yes, that seems logical. But what’s your point, we wondered.
Here I quote Eugene Peterson to explain the point that the professor made. “When we talk about something being spiritual, we are talking about something that God is doing.”
The mistake is to think of ‘spiritual things’ as things going on in the ether. Airy fairy. Things that don’t have any connection with life, but are more in the realm of ‘ideas about God.’
But if we take Eugene Peterson’s definition, then we’re talking about events, experiences and actions that are very much to do with real life.
In Christian Spirituality, there is an undestanding that the words and works of God are made apparent through the material stuff of our lives. In 21st century life, it’s sometimes hard to see this, since so much of our lives are lived in a bubble that removes us from the earthiness of life. We used to eat with our fingers, but now most of us use a knife and fork. There’s something about a connection with the basic essential of life – food that we have lost. I remember being invited to an Ethiopian friend for a meal, and being given no knife and fork, but quantities of ‘Injera’ – a soft sourdough type bread, slightly spongey, to gather up the food on my plate.
In his book ‘Run with the Horses.,’ Eugene Peterson describes that ‘earthy spirituality’ in this way:
“Biblical faith everywhere and always warns against siren voices that lead people away from specific and everyday engagements with weather and politics. Dogs and neighbors, shopping lists and job assignments. No true spiritual life can be distilled from or abstracted out of this world of chemicals and molecules, paying your bills and taking out the garbage. With the current interest in spirituality, we must be on guard not to revert to an other-worldly piety.”
To get back to the passages at the top of this post.
When Paul writes about contending with spiritual forces, we might picture among those forces the drive to make us want to produce more and more to satisfy our desire for aquisition and consumption. These forces are very real, and make themselves known in work places and board rooms. In lecture halls and classrooms. In shops and on T.V. and social media. In fact anywhere and everwhere you look.
When Jesus talks about the flesh being useless, he is talking about that side of our ‘fleshly’ human nature that is all about trying to be our own gods and goddesses – a seductive temptation that in the end leads nowhere.
He contrasts that kind of flesh with his own flesh – his physical body that he will give ‘for the life of the world.’
And in the third passage quoted, Joshua is challenging the people – not so much on what they believe, but how they will live. Again, moving the realm of the spiritual from ideas and beliefs to the lived life.
We had a wonderful example of that in our service this morning. Heather, our curate, was to be taking a baptism service after our morning communion service. She explained that at the moment of baptism, the minister pours the water of baptism using a scallop shell, which has long been a sign of baptism and the Christian journey. In recent months, as well as giving a baptism candle and a bible, we now give the baptised the shell that was used in their baptism.
What a powerful lesson to take away from this! Baptism is the beginning of a journey of faith, in which we are daily looking to see what God is doing in our lives and the lives of those around us – activity which is very real, whether it is made known in work places or board rooms. In lecture halls or classrooms. In shops or on T.V. and social media. In fact anywhere and everwhere you look. And in the life of the church – it is the everyday that speaks of God’s activity: water in baptism, bread and wine that we share around the table of reconciliation, and in the very beauty of creation all around us – all of life can speak to us of what God has done and is doing.
Grace and Peace.