Thursday, February 5, 2009

omega talk: being spiritual


What happened to the nun who didn’t have enough money to pay her exorcist?
She got repossessed.

For a piece of candy, who can tell me from last week why Paul wrote 1 Corinthians?
Because he heard a rumor from Chloe’s people that there was serious drama at Corinth.

And so about three years ago I was on a flight from Houston to Charleston and I had the misfortune of being placed next to a yapper – I mean, this woman, God bless her, just went on, and on, and on. And of course I tried all my standard moves to communicate my desire to be left alone. I stared out the window; I responded to her questions with one word platitudes, I even asked the flight attendant to bring me headphones while she was talking. But it became clear, early on, that I didn’t stand a chance. Yap, yap, yap – on and on she went. I was no match for this woman and so I surrendered. I gave in and decided to talk to Mary – that was her name. “And so what do you do?” She wanted to know. “I’ll be starting seminary in the fall.” I said. “God’s calling me to be a priest.” “Ah, and so you’re religious?” Mary asked with a smirk. “Good guess,” I replied. “What about you? Are you religious?”

And then she said the magical words – the words you’ve heard a million times before, the words you may have said a million times before. Anyone care to guess what those words are?

“I’m spiritual, but not religious.”

And then Mary went on to explain what that meant to her. She boasted that she was studying under a man by the name of John Edward to receive “the gift.” If you don’t know who John Edward is, he’s a self-proclaimed psychic that claims to communicate with the dead. And Mary had lost her son a few years back, and John Edward had acted as a medium to reunite the two. Mary bought, literally, what John Edward was selling – access to the spirit world. And now she was traveling to Charleston to meet with him and study under him hoping to become a spiritual guru herself.

You see, Mary wanted access to the mind of John Edward. She wanted direct access to the spirit world. Mary wanted to talk directly to her son. This had become her sole purpose in life. And this desire, she thought, made her spiritual.

And I remember being sad for Mary because in my opinion, she was being duped, and she was duping herself. Mary was chasing after something that wasn’t even real. And because it wasn’t real, I knew she’d never catch it. Now, you may or may not agree with me. But in my opinion, Mary’s life revolved around chasing after something that wasn’t even real.

That’s the best image I have to explain what Paul’s dealing with at Corinth. Like Mary, the Corinthians are boasting – literally bragging to Paul and to each other – how “spiritual” they are. I mean, the Christians at Corinth think that they’re spiritual gurus – wiser than the wisest spiritual master. And so with that in mind, listen to what Paul tells them.

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I … decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. For we speak God's wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. 14 Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God's Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else's scrutiny. 16 "For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ. And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people. For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?

Austin has been described as the “live music capital of the world.” As a city, Austin prides itself on its live music scene. Well Corinth, in its day, prided itself on its “intellectual scene.” And so in the same way that different bands pass through Austin on a regular basis, different philosophers and teachers would pass through Corinth on a regular basis. And the whole town, and even people outside the town, would show up to listen to these teachers. And of course, everyone would discuss what they had to say. Because Corinth was the intellectual capital of the world.

And these traveling teachers were often referred to as sophists, which comes from a Greek word meaning wisdom. And so here’s the situation Paul is addressing in today’s reading. In the same way that Mary was chasing after John Edward, the Corinthians were chasing after these different sophists. The Corinthians thought that by doing so they could obtain a wisdom that would elevate them above the ordinary. You see, the Corinthians wanted access to the minds of these sophists. It’s not that they didn’t believe in Jesus. It’s that they didn’t understand Jesus. Because the Corinthians were eager for the kind of teaching these sophists were giving. They imagined that by mixing a small dose of their Christian faith with a strong dose of sophistry they could become super-Christians. In fact, that’s how the Corinthians viewed themselves – as super-spiritual, super-Christians. And what Paul is telling them today, in a nutshell, is this:

“If you think you’re becoming more spiritual by chasing after these sophists, you’re duping yourselves. In fact, you’re less spiritual than ever because you’re chasing after something that isn’t even real. Because the harder you try to access the minds of these sophists, the harder you seem to be fighting with one another. And fighting with one another and being spiritual don’t go together.”

And so, to me, this raises a question. What does it mean to be spiritual? And if being unspiritual, by definition, is chasing after something that isn’t even real – then what is real? In other words, if faith is about anchoring our lives in what matters, in what’s real, in what’s spiritual – what does that look like?

And for Paul, there are three realities – all of which are interconnected – that are real and worth chasing after. And like all things that are real and meaningful, they can be reduced to three simple bullet points, all of which begin with the same letter. And so without further ado, I give you the three C’s of Corinthian Christianity –or the three C’s of Christian spirituality.


First, Christian spirituality is rooted in community. Although rare individuals have managed to be Christians in isolation, the Christian life is most fully expressed in a harmonious relationship with others. You see for Paul, God is transforming and saving a people – not just a few random individual believers. And so when Paul writes in Romans, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice,” he’s talking to the entire church. For Paul, the church’s vocation is to love – to become “a living sacrifice” – for one another and for the world. Listen again to the last line of today’s passage:

For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?

In essence what Paul is saying is this: “as long as you’re fighting, you’re proving how unspiritual you are, because Christian spirituality is rooted in community, and you Corinthians, are ripping the community apart.”


Second, Christian spirituality is rooted in the cross. “When I came to you, brothers and sisters,” Paul writes, “I … decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” For Paul, this is what it means to be spiritual – to know nothing else except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. You see, what the Corinthians haven’t yet grasped is that God’s nature is most clearly revealed in Jesus’ cross. For Paul, the cross isn’t an “oops” or an accident. But instead, the cross was God’s intentional plan from the foundation of the world to reveal the fullness of His nature and to express the depth of His power. And what the cross tells us is that to be God – by nature – is to pour out one’s own life in love for someone else. Historically speaking, it’s hard to know for sure what the sophists were teaching the Corinthians that made them feel so “spiritual.” But we do know it had nothing to do with the cross. Because we live in a world, and we’ve always lived in a world, that teaches us that happiness and fulfillment are found in “looking out for number one;” in a world that tells us that happiness and fulfillment are found in making sure that we never have to go to the cross. And what Paul is saying to the Corinthians is – what the world has taught you is wrong. What the sophists are teaching you is wrong. Because for Paul, Christian spirituality is rooted in the cross.


Finally, Christian spirituality is rooted in God’s new creation – in the belief that Jesus is “making all things new.” C1 and C2 don’t make sense without C3. Because it doesn’t make sense to become a living sacrifice for others unless God is at work remaking a world where all people become like God – a world where all people would gladly go to the cross for the people they love. And so for Paul, this new world – this new creation – is a future reality, BUT it’s a future reality that’s already started to break into our present experience. And if our heart is open and our eyes are peeled, we’ll catch a glimpse of God’s new world from time to time – perhaps when we take Communion or when we experience, just for a second, the joy of pouring out our life for someone else. You see, this, above all else, is why Paul is so frustrated with the Corinthians. They don’t get that Jesus’ death and resurrection has changed everything. The Corinthians are still living in the “old creation” where division and selfishness and pride are the norm. And what Paul is trying to tell them is that the “old creation” is on its way out and that a new creation is on its way in – and in God’s new creation, unity and selflessness and love are the norm. And so to be spiritual, Paul is saying, is to live a life rooted in God’s new creation.

Let’s go back to our question. What does it mean to be spiritual? And if being unspiritual, by definition, is chasing after something that isn’t even real – then what is real? For Paul, what’s real is authentic Christian community, Jesus’ cross, and God’s new creation.

C1, C2, and C3. And when you add it all up, you get …

C4 – an explosive Christian spirituality.

I think it’s funny when people tell me that they’re spiritual but not religious. Because the word religion derives from the Latin ligare, a verb meaning to bind or to connect. In other words, our religion is whatever we bind or connect our hearts to. And we can bind or connect our hearts to anything. Mary’s heart was bound to a hope she had in the teachings of John Edward. The Corinthians hearts were bound to the teachings of the sophists. Paul’s heart was bound to the Christian community, to Jesus’ cross, and to the reality of God’s new creation. We can bind or connect our hearts to anything. But we have to connect them to something. And because we have to connect them to something, we’re all “religious” in the strictest sense of the word. But what is our religion? What does it mean for us to be spiritual?

Mary, for example, wanted access to the mind of John Edward. Paul wanted to access the mind of Jesus. Mary wanted direct access to the spirit world. Paul enjoyed direct access to the Holy Spirit. Mary wanted to talk directly to her son. Paul spoke directly to God’s Son. Two very different views of what it means to be spiritual – is one of them real?

I’d like to end today’s talk with a story (Craddock). This story is about greyhounds, the kind that race around the track after that mechanical rabbit. The following is a conversation between a reporter and a successful greyhound that quits racing at the height of his career. Anyway, the conversation goes something like this:

The reporter says to the dog, Uh, you still racing any?
No, no, no, I don’t race anymore.
I bet you miss the glitter and the excitement of the track?
He said, no, not really.
So you got too old?
No, no, I still had some race in me.
So you must have not won enough races?
He said no, I won over a million dollars for my owner.
So, they treated you badly?
God no! They treated us like kings, as long as we were racing.
Then what, did you get injured?
He said, no, no.
I said, then what?
I quit.
You quit? Why on earth would you quit at the height of your career?

The greyhound said, I quit the day that I found out that what I was chasing was not really a rabbit. That’s when I quit. All that running, running, running, running, running, and that thing I was chasing, it wasn’t even real.

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