I got only a few comments on this one, and a meeting after church precluded holding the Sermon Response Table. The Church Council meeting was really great, and I’ll have a posting on that in the future.
John 3:11-21; Ephesians 2:1-10, 12-13
Last week I asked if we need to give up our religion to follow Jesus. And of course the answer was not simply, yes. But I suggested we should be ready and willing for God to purge all the stuff that goes into our religious views and practices, just like Jesus purged the temple of commercialism.
This week’s question is related, but may sound even more counterintuitive. Must we give up our spiritual experiences? Many people today assume that faith is all about spiritual experiences, although religion can do fine without spiritual experiences. Some of you have shared with me your spiritual experiences, and I encourage you to do so. Religion should be deeply felt and experienced. We New Englanders with our very private faith sometimes don’t like the idea of sharing a spiritual experience or lack thereof, but sharing is the point. Good spiritual experience drives you toward others; it doesn’t leave you in some private realm with God.
When Paul deals with spiritual experiences in First Corinthians, especially speaking in tongues, he ends up saying that what really matters is what we can share as a community, not your own personal spiritual highs. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” I can offer my own experiences here. I had a very dramatic conversion experience when I was 16. It was ushered in by a great flood of tears, and followed the next day by such a powerful sense of love. But it didn’t take me to some place where I was alone with God, like two private lovers. Instead, the Spirit that took me over gave me a keen love for others; it was far more than just a feeling or emotion—I could sharply perceive what it really meant to love others in each particular situation, and how very far from doing that I had been.
I can share this experience with you, and you can share yours with me (please do), and many think talking about your own personal experience makes for moving and effective rhetoric. But even if you’ve had dramatic spiritual experiences, they almost inevitably fade. Then what do you do? You might be tempted to blame God for abandoning you. I recommend we do not. What if the reason our dramatic experience of God’s Spirit fades is because most of us live pretty safe, secure, protected lives. Maybe if we lived on the edge, like many lively Christians in the developing world do, we would be more open to the power of God’s Spirit. Maybe if I hadn’t been living in my secure, suburban 16 year old life, surrounded by devices and concerns that kept me focused on the here and now, my spiritual experience would have persisted. But what are you going to fall back on when you no longer are feeling it?
Well, you need to have a community that practices a faith together to plug into so that you can grow and be sustained in other ways when the feeling fades. So there I was, enraptured in this beautiful state, feeling this loving power of God for people all around me for two days; and then it faded. I couldn’t sustain it. But I did pursue it. I joined a church that seemed more real to me than the one I was raised in, and I began to learn anew. Looking back 32 years later (!), I have such an odd sense of that day. I was so ignorant about God and how to think about God, ignorant of the Bible and the great traditions of Christianity, and yet there was real wisdom within that personal experience of God’s Spirit. But I needed a community larger than myself to supplement that powerful but brief experience with a wisdom practiced and grounded. Sadly, it took me awhile to find that. Wisdom and good faith practices don’t come easy in our complicated and quickly changing world, and our churches are often poorly equipped to provide them. I guess that’s why it took me years—we’re talking decades!—to interpret that experience into a way of life that I can share with others. I don’t have spiritual experiences that powerful anymore, but I’m ok without them. I have a faith in common with others that sustains me.
Do some of you know what I’m talking about? Have you had powerful spiritual experiences, perhaps a long time ago, and maybe you chose to listen to them and follow those experiences, or maybe you didn’t. Maybe you didn’t find the wisdom you needed, and now those experiences just seem disconnected from you. And maybe our teenagers are having such experiences now, in this dramatic time of life. Are you young folk ready to plug into the wisdom of our common faith? Do our adults have the wisdom and faith practices to share with you that you’ll need?
Well, I can talk about my experiences, and you can talk about yours. But what about others who have no dramatic experiences of their own to share? I knew a wonderful woman at our church in Illinois named Linda. An elderly woman, she was faithful, and wise; she offered such great questions and insights in church study sessions. But one day she exclaimed, full of sadness, “People talk about feeling the Spirit. I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything like that. What’s wrong with me?” My answer is, nothing’s wrong with you. Not everyone is given to spiritual experiences. They can be a rich source of blessing and assurance; and if someone is having dramatic spiritual experiences, at least you can be pretty sure that they aren’t just going through the motions. But you can be perfectly faithful without dramatic spiritual experiences. Indeed, dramatic spiritual experiences can make you all wrapped up in yourself, so that today many declare that they are spiritual but not religious, which might mean that they have become focused on an individual spiritual life that leaves no room for any one else or for a community. And of course, many cult leaders have wowed people by their lively spiritual experiences and, without well-tested wisdom, led them to doom.
Like any power, spiritual experiences can be good or bad. They can be vehicles of God, or they can be folly. Maybe it would be helpful to “de-mystify” mysticism, if I may. Mystical, spiritual experiences are found in just about every human culture, taking all kinds of forms, although many forms of religion have done fine without them. Since ancient times, people have used extreme physical states—sleep deprivation, self-laceration, ecstatic frenzies and exhausting dances (check out 1 Samuel 10:9-13)—to induce religious experience of a mystical kind. In some traditional cultures, hallucinogens (drugs) were used for this purpose, but within the bounds of a carefully structured tradition. More recently, some have used drugs in search of spiritual experiences without that guiding tradition. Indeed, a very good friend of mine had an unexpected experience of God’s powerful presence while tripping at a Grateful Dead concert. I’m happy to report that he went on to become a serious student of Jewish theology, and a member of Narcotics Anonymous. Even more bewildering, there are people who under surgery had certain parts of their brain stimulated, and then reported having out of body experiences and other spiritual seeming phenomenon.
Spiritual experiences are bound up with the complicated and sometimes very odd workings of the brain. Why do I no longer have the same powerful experiences as I had at 16? I used to think that my heart had grown cold, but more likely it’s just something peculiar about the teenage brain and the odd social situation of teens. Now, the fact that hormones or drugs or even brain surgery can artificially stimulate spiritual experiences does not undermine their importance. I think there is a reality underlying them—even the drug trips, I suppose—but nothing we get from spiritual experiences can stand without the testing and direction that comes from a tradition, or without a community in which to share them and supplement them and join them into a common way of life.//
Well, whether we have had experiences and they have faded, or we’ve never had dramatic experiences, we all end up in the same place. We mostly spend our lives going through the daily grind of life, in which God seems more like a remote idea than a powerful, personal presence. How to deal with this?
I think the reading we heard from Ephesians can be helpful here. Once again, Paul will take a love effective in community over a spiritual experience every time. So ultimately he wants to say that you by yourself, no matter what your achievements and spiritual experiences, are nothing. In our passage he makes this point by saying that, before Christ, you had nothing. That makes perfect sense for the people he was talking to: they were adult converts from paganism. His rhetoric doesn’t work as well when applied to people raised as Christians from birth. But the point is the same: what your life is most truly about has nothing to do with you in particular. Aside from what God did in Jesus, there’s nothing special about us. We’d be just “like everyone else,” “following along with the course of the world,” as Paul puts it; or “going with the flow” as we might say. But to the church, Paul says: “By grace you are saved by faith.” Not because we are special and different. Not because of our grand spiritual experiences are we saved. “Ah,” you will say, “but we are saved by faith, and isn’t that something we do, and even a kind of spiritual experience that sets us apart, for which God rewards me?”
I’m convinced that this, sadly, is an understandable but very common mistake people make when interpreting Paul. He makes it as clear as he can that we are not supposed to receive God’s salvation by looking inward and finding what I did—even what I believed or what I experienced—that makes me different and worthy. Paul says we were saved by grace, adding: “and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. Not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” There is a great mystery in God’s grace, and no one, even Paul, can put it just perfectly. It’s something like this: God set us aside, saved us, to be different from those who don’t believe. But we absolutely do not get to say that therefore, I am special. I am better. If anything, we only get to appreciate just how unworthy we are of this gift. And for all we know, others have their own gifts from God.
But we haven’t mentioned Jesus yet. More to the point, it is because we receive all things through Christ Jesus that we never have to look deep inside us to find who we really are and what makes us special. We are under so many pressures in our culture to find out what makes us special. So many of our children’s stories are about discovering what makes you unique and special. Maybe like Disney’s Moana you have a unique destiny for which the ocean chose you; or you are like a superhero who looks ordinary on the outside but inside carries secret powers that set you apart. It’s like our biggest fear is being lost in the crowd. But standing out and being special puts a lot of pressure on us. Our society holds up these celebrities, no matter how vain or pointless their achievements, and tells us, it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you stand out and get famous! So you can have a brief moment of fame, only to become a has-been next week. The system chews up and spits out our celebrities; no wonder so many turn to drugs or even suicide. But we get the message: achieve! Achieve Achieve! We even think that way about our spirituality, looking for something uniquely our own. But at the bottom of this pursuit lies greed.
Our Christian faith frees us from this desire to stand out, to be unique, to be the me that “I’ve gotta be.” Jesus Christ is no celebrity. Because what he did, he did for all. And so we don’t have to find a way to be saviors in our own unique way. We find in him our truest and most shareable self. Everyone can be a member of Christ, can share in his achievement. Without him we are just like everyone else, including those has-been celebrities. As Paul puts it: “You were dead through trespasses and sin…” “but God…raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” We have this not to ourselves but in him. What I experience that sets me apart doesn’t matter. It’s the one story and one name of Christ that matters, and that unites us all equally, rather than trying to set us apart.
That’s why Paul finds in Christ the peace that unites divided people. Christ’s peace is not only an inner peace; it is a peace among and between us, a peace that brings us together across lines of division. “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
We have two more Sundays in Lent. Lent is a time of turning inward to both reflect and then act on ways to repent of our current life and become better followers of Jesus. This is important, but it is not the final goal. Our Christian journey does not end in our turning inward in guilt and shame, nor does it end in personal peace and a spiritual high. I suppose, looking at it one way, our Christian journey never ends, it just becomes eternal. But in another way, it really ends at Easter. It ends by seeing in this one, Christ Jesus, a completion of everything God is and God does. Let us fast well and repent sincerely, and by doing so, we will be well ready to give up on our sin and our spiritual experiences and to receive in all its completeness the joy that is ours in Jesus our Lord.