Posts Tagged ‘practical spirituality’

JAMES 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Faith and works (or deeds) are the soul and body of the spiritual life. Just as the soul animates the body and the body incarnates the soul, so faith energizes our good works and good works actualize our faith. This dynamic relationship between faith and works was kept in focus so long as faith itself retained its critical position in Christian belief, as that which believes (in Latin, fides qua creditor: faith as basic trust and surrender to God) rather than that which is believed (fides quae creditor: faith as a point of church doctrine).

When the confusion set in, as it did already by the time James is writing, the avalanche towards a more dogmatic orthodoxy had begun – a deviant momentum from the original spirit of Jesus and his gospel that we have not yet been successful in correcting.

Typical characteristics of dogmatic religion are that it is excessively weighted on the side of doctrinal purity, is largely disengaged from the practical-ethical complexities of real life (evidence by general and absolute judgments on contemporary moral issues), and is aggressively exclusive in its ideology. Early Christianity was showing signs of degeneration in this direction, and despite the writer’s good efforts, the trend continued in the post-biblical period.

Of course, we are not suggesting that doctrinal clarity and a more or less systematic understanding of spiritual matters are unimportant. Faith as a simple and fundamental total trust in God needs the mind as much as the will for its full development. James’ point is not that faith  must become less intellectual, but that it needs to be more ethically relevant. In short, it needs to be morally productive. Faith that lacks a strong efferent nerve to the limbs and muscles of practical choices and actions is (as good as) dead.

ACTS 10:34-43

34 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Who was Jesus? Definitions abound and creeds have been written, to be confessed by the faithful and defended against heresy and corruption. Again, the Church has spilled much blood and divided its own community over this matter of defining Jesus. Certainly there is something worthy in this pursuit of clarity; even our definitions of God – as long as we acknowledge them as only provisional and finally inadequate – should be as clear and concise as we can possibly make them. But sadly there are often darker forces at work as well, seeking to reduce the mysteries of faith to simplistic and literal formulas. One thing is for certain: if murderous defense is being made on behalf of some religious doctrine or definition of God, you can be sure it is about as far from the truth as it can be!

Peter’s “definition” of Jesus, delivered in a sermon to the Jews in the second chapter of Acts and here to the Gentiles in the tenth, is given in the simple report of what Jesus did and where he got his power. In both instances, the emphasis falls on the fact that Jesus “went about doing good” and that it was the indwelling Spirit of God that gave him authority over demons and disease. Notice the absence of reference to the virgin birth or to his being “of one substance with the Father” (as a later creed would state). The clearest and most accurate – as well as the most convincing – definition of Jesus that Peter or any church theologian could offer consists in the observation that he was a good person who did right by God and others. Underneath all the dogma, here is a portrait worthy of our admiration and loyalty. To believe in Jesus is to unite your own heart and life to his visionary example and living presence.

1 CORINTHIANS 1:18-31

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards,not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

The complex systems of philosophy that religion constructs in its pursuit of a comprehensive worldview have often wandered into the fabulous and bazaar. Mythical beings, metaphysical dimensions, and elaborate theories of immortality of the transmigration of the soul can strain the limits of logic and common sense.

But then again, that shouldn’t surprise us. The primary language of religion is more imaginative than intellectual. There is nothing inherently wrong with such musings, and the exquisite world pictures described in the religions are successful for many in getting them connected to a universe of higher meaning.

What Paul observed, however, is the way that all this “wisdom” can so fascinate and occupy us that we float off the earth and away from the real situations of life. So what if there are seven realms of angels surrounding the throne of God, or infinite Buddha-fields in the dimensionless expanse of nirvana – how does that help me “work out my salvation” (a phrase of Paul’s) in the face of today’s challenges.

Yes, it is helpful to know that I’m not alone in this sometimes crazy world, and that a greater wisdom is available to me if only I can transfer the focus of my awareness to a point beyond the urgencies of this moment. But how do I find my way back? And how can all of this help me become more authentic, more present to my life?

The “way back” for Paul was represented in the cross of Christ, the image of Jesus dying for the sake of his gospel.

                                                                                  

Now, lest we think that Paul had a morbid obsession with torture and death, we must proceed into his theory of the cross with patience and care. To start with, it is imperative to know that, for Paul, the cross of Christ did not stand in utter isolation as the vertical axis around which world salvation turned.

He understood it, as it must be understood, in the light of Jesus’ message and life. Without that context the cross can easily take on an almost magical power, or else get appropriated into a theory that completely contradicts the spirit and teaching of Jesus’ gospel.

The cross as a talisman for warding off evil is a popular superstition still today, and atonement theories that interpret the crucifixion as serving to placate God’s anger and pay sin’s penalty are also prevalent among the mainline traditions of Christian orthodoxy. In each case, the way to understanding the cross of Christ as “the power and wisdom of God” is abandoned for something far less demanding.

The great revelation that came through Jesus had to do with the superiority of love in its aspect of compassion. Compassion is not love from a distance, or love in the abstract, or love on principle. It is love that “suffers with” another under the conditions of pain, brokenness, or bereavement. Jesus revealed the heart of God to be compassion, which to him meant that God is fully present with us in our struggle.

The “power and wisdom” of God’s compassion hang on the cross in the midst of our world.