Not Just Spiritual…

Posted: August 20, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 14B, 2018
Psalm 84, John 6: 60-69

Not Just Spiritual…

In the Celtic spiritual tradition, pilgrims often draw a circle around themselves before embarking on a journey. Initially standing still, the pilgrim points her finger outward, and then rotates in a clockwise direction until she completes the circle. During this circling today a contemporary ‘circling’ prayer is said. According to the Process theologian Bruce Epperly it goes like this…….

God protect me on this journey.
Surround me, whether I walk, drive, or fly.
Fill my heart and mind with surprising possibilities.
Remind me that I am always in the circle of your love.
Remind me this day, O Holy Adventure,
that your inspiration guides me in every situation.
Open my eyes to your presence in each meal,
as I turn on my computer,
as I start my car.
Awaken me to possibility and wonder.
Energise me to love and embrace all I meet.  

This practice of faith, the ‘caim’ or ‘encircling’, reminds the traveller that God surrounds him wherever he goes. “While [we] recognize that life is filled with risks and that faith cannot protect us from every threat, [we] also recognize that God is present as a force for wholeness and reconciliation in every situation” (Epperly 2005:80).

Today’s biblical stories, from the Psalms as reconstructed by Francis Macnab, and
from the gospel sermon-story by a bloke we call John, continue to reflect on God’s present-ness in the world, and in our lives.

When we read Francis Macnab, theologian and psychologist, in his presentation of Psalm 84, we see attempts to get into the mind and the experience of the writer
to see if he can discover or reasonable assume “what was bothering this philosopher of life, and what let him to say what he said” (Macnab 2006:ix).And this is what Macnab says he discovered: “I found [the writer] was emphatically and repetitively proclaiming a fairly revolutionary view of the world, creation, his beliefs about God, humanity, the human spirit and human potential. Again and again I found his psychology had long pre-empted our current psychological explorations and research on happiness, optimism, the positive human emotions, and the sense of awe and wonder” (Macnab 2006:ix).

He then says;

O God, from my place in the working world, and in the wide wilderness of life, I long for that sure sense of knowing what it is all about. I yearn for that experience of joy to come to my whole body and soul. I look for your presence as a pathway to life’s fullness (Macnab 2006). 

And then;

“Though we are often wounded and hurt in this fractured world, we discover that this world also has its source of healing. We are all enriched and our hearts are made stronger as we tap into that power that flows into us. The very sight of a spring of water arouses our anticipation of being refreshed and renewed. From all our external involvements, we hear the call of our inner spirits (Macnab 2006).

And finally Macnab says:

God – you stand in front of us when we fear the future. In our dark times you bring the sun to shine again. Out of our troubles you point us to the pathway of our best bliss. And as we receive: we are rich indeed! (Macnab 2006).

What do you think the Psalmist suggesting? Is it?

Experience the divine center in yourselves. In your bodies. In your actions. In your everyday lives? As a progressive Christian I want to agree with that.

But it’s a bit of a different situation when we come to John’s sermon-story. We’ve been wrestling with his concepts on and off for several weeks now. We’ve struggled with the language and the images. In and out of context, metaphorically and literally, communion and everyday meal, hospitality, compassion etc. And now, as a progressive Christian, I think we should challenge John, and reject his apparent denial of the ‘flesh’ or ‘body’ as useless. That has led us to horrific treatment of ourselves and each other as we separate spirit from body and reject the body as just a vessel for the real human. The spiritual and holy part as opposed to the mundane limited vessell.

With our understanding of biology, of language, of the mind and of science we can do better than John was able to. So, maybe we can support process theologian Bruce Epperly’s comments when he says:

“we need to redeem such passages for our time and place.  We can affirm that the spirit gives life, but the life of the spirit is not just ‘spiritual’, it is also ‘embodied’ and ‘incarnational’ (Epperly/P&F web site-06).

This is not to say that John’s position on this hasn’t got a long history. But it is to say that just because it has such a long-standing case for understanding it doesn’t make it free from learnings and changes in understanding. We know that what we usually hear as history is often the winner’s reflection of debates and events but not necessarily the most accurate or even the most widely understood position. It is the popular or the view that enables control of the masses. It is usually the basis for an institutionalized view.

We now believe that the earliest views of people who followed Jesus did not have a single exportable view, in fact there were perhaps as many different Christianity’s as there were communities of Jesus followers. Paul’s letters allude to this as he seeks to export the Jesus Way to the gentile and to be understood is the Roman world. He is about the task of marketing the faith and it is easier to have a single product.

Some of John’s view dates back as a challenge to these early Christian communities, whose theology seemed to prevent them “from seeing Jesus as a God-infused human being (forcing) them rather to perceive him as a divine visitor who came from heaven” (Spong 2005:61). John wants to tell the real story from his point of view.

And some of John’s view has stuck around where as recent as the early 18th century when one, Charles Wesley, “penned his popular ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ which portrayed Jesus as not human at all, but one ‘veiled in flesh’…” (Spong 2005:61). The key thing here is to see that Wesley’s world and John’s world is dualistic. Our world is not. Or at least not as much because we question dualism as a limited approach to the complexities and ambiguities of life as we know it. It is a useful tool but not the only one and it is limited.

So, what do we do next? Well, perhaps a richer understanding comes with the mystics from the past, as well as from process theology in the present. We can pick up a panentheistic approach and say; God is in all things and all things are in God. Rather than God as supernatural miracle worker in the sky who can come (or choose not to come) to our aid in times of need.

As a progressive Christian I want to start with the former rather than the latter: God in all things and all things in God. But equally important for me is, we experience this Creativity we name ‘God’, routinely, quietly, mysteriously, and intimately, evolutionarily and creatively moving through life, our life. Epperly puts it as: “It is less like a hammer on the head than it is a gentle prod”, “a tickle, sometimes as gentle as a feather, touching each moment into being” (Epperly/P&F Web site-2005). While it may be easier to handle God as above, beyond and all powerful benefactor and judge it is not the view that Jesus had of God as his view was more akin to father, mother, lover, friend, partner, breath, bread, etc. much more of an incarnated spirit body dynamic.

Yes, we can affirm with John and Paul that the ‘spirit gives life’. It inspires personal creativity and transformation. It lures us to support the well-being of others. It challenges us to look beyond our own interests to an integration of our well-being and the well-being of the planet (Epperly, P&F web site 2006). But the life of the spirit is not just ‘spiritual’.
It is also ‘embodied’, even in the rough and tumble of our everyday world. This is clearly in the biblical stories but it is usually found in the less read pages of sacred text!

Another John, Bishop John Shelby Spong, has some wonderful words in his book, The Sins of Scripture. Where he says:

“I experience God as the source of life calling me to live fully and thus to respect life in every form as embodying the holy. I experience God as the source of love calling me to love wastefully all that God has made, including the earth with its plants and animals. I experience God… as… calling me to be all that I can be and to affirm the sacred being of all that is” (Spong 2005:66).

Then the chapter concludes with these words:

“We have looked upward for a God above the sky for centuries, but we now know that this infinite universe is empty of supernatural invasive deities.  We need to shift our vision to look within – at life, at love, at being” (Spong 2005: 66).

May it be so with us in all our living. Amen.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Bruce G. Epperly, & Paul S. Nancarrow. 2005.  Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in a Relational World. Claremont. P&F Press.
Macnab, F. 2006.  A Fine Wind is Blowing. Psalms of the Bible in Words That Blow You Away. Richmond. Spectrum Publications.
Spong, J. S. 2005. The Sins of Scripture. Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love. New York HarperSanFrancisco.

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