A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 24, 2010
Text: Luke 4:14-21 [Isaiah 61:1-3]
“I’m spiritual but not religious.” That is the way more and more people describe themselves in this culture. “I want a piece of the spirit world”–I guess they mean—“but I don’t want to bother with all the fol-de-rol that comes with religion. Buildings and bureaucracies and budgets are not worth my time." The sentiment is not far from that of the 19th century poet Robert Southey, who said, “I could believe in Christ if he did not drag behind him his leprous bride the Church.” There is nothing much new about preferring the “spiritual” over the “religious.” The latter seems all balled up with the material—money and property and organization—and there is a long, long tradition that pits spirit against matter with a clear preference for the former. Spirit is assumed to be good whenever it rivals matter.
To be spiritual but not religious would appear, at first glance, to be an attractive choice. (And, lest you think I’m going to come down on the side of being religious, let me warn you that I have nothing whatsoever against being “spiritual” per se.) But, whatever its advantages, “spiritual” is not necessarily easy. For one thing, I haven’t yet met a person who can successfully say what being “spiritual” is. Does it mean saying one’s prayers? Does it mean serving the sick and needy? Does it mean reading the Bible? Does it mean meditating on the Tao? Does it mean using beads and feathers and doing dances? Does it mean hitting the streets and demonstrating for universal health care? It can mean any or all or none of those things, depending on what anybody decides it will mean. And, incidentally, none of the things on that particular list is easy.
But one thing seems clear. To be spiritual has something to do with spirit. That is not much help, given the long list of things that “spirit” can mean—including such disparate things as “ghost” and “liquor” and “enthusiasm for one’s school.” Let’s cut to the chase. Spirit has to do with God. Perhaps the most memorable equation of the two comes from St. John’s gospel where Jesus says to a Samaritan woman, “God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.” Luke no doubt would agree with that, but makes the point in his own way. Twelve times before we reach Chapter 4, where we find today’s story of Jesus’ inaugural sermon in his hometown synagogue, Luke has referred directly or indirectly to him as a person uniquely shaped by the Holy Spirit and therefore uniquely “spiritual.” But Jesus is more than a practitioner of spiritual things. He is literally filled with Spirit.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he says in the words of Isaiah. His is going to be a ministry of bringing good news to the poor, bringing release to the captives, of opening the eyes of the blind, of freeing the oppressed, of proclaiming the Lord’s favor. In a real sense, Luke answers the question of what a spirit-filled life looks like by telling the story of Jesus’ ministry. All those things that Paul writes about to the Corinthians (which you heard in our second lesson today) are manifestations of Holy Spirit. But the fullest manifestation of Holy Spirit is Jesus. Praying and healing and feeding and teaching and forgiving and giving his very life when there was nothing else left to give: these are the things that a life full of spirit does.
Let’s drop back for a minute and view Jesus through a longer lens. How would we know he was “full of spirit”? A word of caution here. It is tempting to imagine (and that is all we can do, imagine) that being saturated with spirit has something to do with personality traits such as being animated versus being quiescent. There is no way of telling what Jesus was really like, and to suggest otherwise would only betray what we ourselves project onto him. But Luke, I think, would tell us that Jesus’ personality was not the point in the first place. The point is what holy spirit does, not how it appears. On the other hand, Luke has inherited some key ideas from the Jewish experience, and one of them is the close connection between spirit (ruah) and breath. Spirit is life. Another is the notion that the outpouring of spirit, on David or Elijah or Gideon, for example, enables one to do deeds of surpassing power. Life and power are thus what, for Luke, Jesus supremely manifests.
But, unlike the other gospel writers, Luke does not stop with telling the story of Jesus, as if the point were that Jesus was the beginning and the end of it all. He writes a whole other book that we call “The Acts of the Apostles.” That is, as much as Volume I, the Gospel According to Luke, a document about spirit. It did not stop with Jesus. Spirit-filled lives continue in the Church. It is not insignificant that the title we give to Volume II is Acts. The Spirit is not about having a degree in God and retiring into pious dreaming or something of the sort. The Spirit is life and power that gets expressed in re-interpreting scripture to those honestly searching, as did Philip; in healing the way that Jesus healed, as did John and Peter; in boldly confessing the Truth in the teeth of oppression and even going to jail because of one’s witness, as did Peter and Paul; of letting one’s heart and mind be changed to include the previously excluded, as did Peter; and of redefining the vision of the Church, as did Paul; of practicing generosity and hospitality, as did Lydia; of doing works of charity, like Dorcas; of turning around and making good after failure, as did John Mark. And all of those stories of the spirit have to do with you. They are told to make the connection between the Spirit that possessed Jesus and the Spirit that possesses the Body of Christ.
Yes, the Body of Christ, the Church. Have I pulled a fast one on you? Here we were only a minute ago talking about being spiritual, which sounds like such an individual thing, freed from association with that leprous bride of Christ who married so unfortunately beneath himself, and here we are talking about the Church. But the very reason that Southey and others, perhaps even you, complain about “religion” and find the Church to be so leprous is precisely because, stripped of spirit, it is at best dead and at worst deadly. What a pitiful caricature of Jesus’ body we are if we are lifeless, energy-less, dispirited, in a word. It is a sad and terrible day when one has to choose between being “spiritual” and being “religious,” if by spiritual we mean “filled with spirit” and if by “religious” we mean being lifeless. Bodies are meant to be vivified by spirit. Your body is that way. Jesus’ body was that way. And the Body of Christ, the Church, is that way. Quite simply, the Church, as the example of “religion,” is meant to be spiritual, and cannot be truly itself if it is not.
Yet in the popular mind a person does not need community in order to be fulfilled or whole. But we Christians have a different point of view. The New Testament understands that it is precisely by being united to Christ and to Christ’s new community that we in fact find and know and feel the Spirit. I do not mean to suggest that somehow a person’s worth is tied to how much they “go to church.” But I do mean to underscore that true Christian spirituality involves practicing the life of the Holy Spirit—which is another way of talking about the Life of Christ and thus the Life of God—in community. It is even possible for a person to lead a solitary life as a hermit and be Christian, so long as one is connected in some major ways to the community. Some of our forefathers and foremothers in the faith, like St. Seraphim of Sarov and Julian of Norwich, have been sterling examples of Spirit-filled lives while living as solitaries. But they lived solitary lives so that by their prayer and counsel they could contribute to the Body of Christ, not to get away from irritating people.
If you have noticed, I have drawn no sharp line between “spiritual” and “spirit-filled.” I concede that the two terms sometimes seem quite distinct. But at the end of the day to be authentically spiritual is to be thoroughly alive, and to be filled with the Spirit is likewise to be totally alive. And to be both is to be unmistakably full of life and power. That is why we are here today. If you are charged and ready, great! Lend your spirit to the whole body of the faithful, which in turn empowers you. If you are dispirited and doubtful, come to the table and be fed by and with the one whose life is full of Spirit. And if you are quaking in your boots with fear of what faces you tomorrow or the next day, sip the wine of wholeness which is a spirit that will quicken you. To a small and fear-struck army, Shakespeare’s King Henry V, grown from a playboy into a leader, says,
Now set the teeth, and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height…
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit,..!
Follow your spirit. Your spirit. The Spirit. The Lord and Giver of Life. Follow.
© Frank G. Dunn, 2010