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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

If your spiritual journey feels good all the time, you're doing it wrong

My sermon for today was based on John 6:56-69.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

I think most of us pursue some kind of spiritual path, whether it is within the confines of an organized religion, outside of one but loosely based on one, a secular philosophy, or some kind of patchwork of our own making.  Heck, even most atheists I know describe themselves as spiritual and take their spiritual journey as seriously as any religious person.

Spirituality is of course a very broad term that means different things to different people, but you should know that when I say it, I mean it to refer to those aspects of our humanity which are not physical, but cannot exactly be described as intellectual or emotional.  So for example, our definitions of good and evil, sacred and profane, our more or less universal agreement as a species on what constitutes virtue and vice, our ubiquitous wonder at the marvels of creation, existence and consciousness, and our willingness to embrace and explore mystery.

Fact is, no religion or philosophy has a monopoly on those things.  At their best, religions and philosophies merely represent a framework upon which we can hang these questions.

But I digress...

The thing about spirituality is that it is supposed to make us better people, and if it never felt good, well, aversion theory alone would dictate that we would not pursue it.

But if your spirituality feels good all the time, you are doing it wrong.

Let me give you an example.  Most of us would say that we uphold justice, peace and freedom.  But how did we come to that conclusion?  Usually by witnessing firsthand or through the media examples in injustice, war and slavery.

Did it feel good to see those things?  Of course not.  It probably made you feel queasy and shaky and furious.  That didn't feel good, but it strengthened your resolve to go out and make sure the same things didn't happen to you or to anyone else.

Going out into the world and defending these virtues was and is probably equally uncomfortable, but if you are being true to yourself, you have no choice but to defend them,

Therefore, you progressed spiritually, but with some discomfort.

Spirituality is not about retreating into a little bubble of incense and incantations, isolating yourself from reality.

Spirituality is about staring reality in the face and refusing to back down because you have a firm grasp on what is good and evil, right and wrong, no matter how uncomfortable or downright terrifying it can be.

That's where some people failed in the Gospel passage for today.  When Jesus says, "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them", some disciples lament, "This teaching is too difficult; who can accept it?", and they actually turn away from Jesus and wander home,

I don't think the disciples found this teaching difficult because they had trouble believing it.  I think they found it difficult to follow.

Let me explain.

The words Jesus spoke might have sounded a little odd to his listeners, as they do to us.  I mean, superficially, Jesus is inviting them to cannibalism (and certainly early Christianity was accused of just that).  But his listeners had a frame of reference that we as modern readers don't: the Jewish sacrificial system.

It was the duty of the faithful to present a sacrifice at the Temple.  These sacrifices were animal, grain, vegetable, fruit, wine or oil.  Only a small portion would be burned at the altar, but the rest would be eaten by everyone present.

Quite literally, bountiful crops and healthy livestock were believed to be a gift from God, and during the sacrifice, the faithful presented back to God just a little of what He had given them.  It was kind of like sending a thank-you card for a gift.

The meal after the sacrifice was seen literally and figuratively as filling oneself with the gifts of God in order to go out and do His will in the world.

So what would have upset his listeners was not Jesus' talk about eating and drinking flesh and blood, as his listeners would have been familiar with the language of eating flesh and blood of the sacrifice.  What would have upset them was Jesus equating himself with the sacrifice.

This might have troubled some people because perhaps Jesus was foreshadowing his death, but more likely they were perturbed because Jesus was asking them to do what he was doing.

I mentioned in a sermon a few weeks ago that the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes was one of the most significant moments in Jesus' life and ministry, not because he fed 5000 people, but because he was sending a message he was hoping people would get: "I feed people, now you go out and feed people".

It has been said that Jesus had no intention of starting a religion, and he would be appalled at some of the things that have been done in his name, but he was trying to change the world by changing individual human hearts.

What Jesus was asking his disciples in the passage today was to incorporate into themselves all the things that he was and did.  He was asking them not to bask in his presence, but to follow his example and do as he was doing.

Some people want to be led, and not lead.  They want to receive and not give.  Those are the people that turned away from Jesus: the people who were prepared to be fed, but not feed.  They were prepared to take what Jesus had to give but not to pass it on.

They were ready to be made to feel good, but not to bring that out into the world and make others feel good.  And that's the tragic mistake of those who want their spiritual journey to feel good all the time.  They haven't the courage to stare the injustices of the world and try to make them better.

Have that courage today.

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