Epiphany 3, January 27, 2008
Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23
This is the second sermon in a series on Spiritual Formation Groups. Let me review the purpose of this series, for those of you who were not here last week.
As you know, the governing body of our church is called the “consistory”, and the consistory has been working a long-term program called NCD, for Natural Church Development. NCD offers tools to improve our collective spiritual health as a congregation. We took a diagnostic test last June, which revealed that we are weakest in “holistic small groups.” Not just groups, not just small groups, but holistic small groups.
So the consistory made this our priority, and we established a Church Health Team to work on it. One of the Church Health Team’s decisions is to sharpen the focus to “Spiritual Formation Groups.” Spiritual Formation Groups. So in this series of sermons, I am asking our weekly scripture lessons what they might have to say about Spiritual Formation Groups, and then I’m telling you what they tell me.
Maybe you’ve heard this story (and it may be apocryphal) about what happened once in the Special Olympics. They were running the 100-yard dash, and the runner out in front suddenly noticed that one of the other runners had fallen down, so he turned around and helped him get back up and they crossed the finished line together, sharing last place.
Can I say that Christianity is the Special Olympics among religions? When you compare the religion we practice to other religions it can seem like that. In other religions, there is a greater emphasis on the spiritual advancement of particular individuals. When do you hear Christians really talk about enlightenment? We tend not to get that close to God, we tend to be pedestrian in our spirituality.
Even compared to Psalm 27, which says, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” I know it’s a metaphor, even for Psalm 27, but for who among us is it driving metaphor? How many among us got up this Sunday morning with the driving thought, I want to go today and seek God’s face?
I don’t think in other religions they even have committees. I know Buddhism doesn’t have committees. Christianity is less about individual spiritual advancement and more about your neighbor. It’s about the group. It’s not that you don’t want the face of God, it’s not that you don’t want to advance in spirituality, but for most of us it’s more about belonging to a community.
But that is also the wonderful thing about Christianity. It’s the formation of new and even apparently unnatural communities. What I mean by “unnatural” communities is not that they’re unhealthy or artificial, but that but that they’re not the ordinary anthropological groups in which we find ourselves.
Contrast us to Judaism. The positive power of Judaism is in how it sanctifies those very basic anthropological groups we call the family, the tribe, and the nation. Judaism assumes ethnicity.
Islam, in principle, is the opposite, its vision is for humanity as a single whole, a universal unity. And so its strategy is to superimpose a single authority and discipline above the various ethnicities and tribes and nations which both submit and also maintain themselves.
Hinduism gives spiritual meaning to social class, it gives religious virtue to the separation of people into upper and lower castes and theological justification for prejudice and poverty. Now what this acceptance of organic human groupings seems to allow for is that within it, individuals can concentrate on their own private spiritual advancement. While we Christians are so busy on committees.
Christianity, according to its founder, is meant be the religion of love, love of God and love of neighbor. That you can’t love God unless you love your neighbor as yourself, and that means crossing the lines of caste and class and color and family and tribe and nation, to establish new communities hitherto unthinkable, side by side and face to face.
Oh yes, the post-Biblical systems of Christianity have well developed strategies for affirming such groups as family, tribe, and nation. And yes, Christianity has certainly found ways to keep intact the stratification of social class and the preservation of prejudice and poverty. You’ve heard that 11 AM on Sunday morning is called the most segregated hour of the week. But this is how Christianity also keeps on crucifying its founder.
What Jesus taught and modeled and what St. Paul practiced in the expansion of the church was calling people out of their natural groupings into new communities based on no affinity at all but their common commitment to Jesus the Messiah. Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, male and female, Roman soldiers and Jewish patriots, meeting each other face to face, eating from each other’s hands and drinking from a common cup. That’s tough. That feels unnatural. Birds of a feather flock together.
That’s why Jesus compared it to fishing, which for fish, is, well, if not unnatural, certainly not healthy. When Jesus saw Peter and Andrew fishing, they were removing the fish from their native environment (and I might add, without the consent of the fished). He told them he’d make them do the same for people (though generally with a different attitude towards their consent).
So even today, when we gather into the community of Jesus, we are consenting, that what counts here is not our normal native paradigms of family and color and class, but we are all of us just a mess of fish.
Of course the church tends to fall back into affinity groups, and we’ll invent new divisions if we have to. As in Corinth: “I’m in Paul’s group, I follow Apollos, I go with Peter.” The guy who says, “I follow Jesus,” pretends to be above it all but is really the most resistant to community of any sort.
It’s natural for us to associate with people with similar backgrounds and experience because we feel cozy and at home with them, they understand us. Singles with singles, parents with other parents, gay folks with gay folks, and me with those very few other people who like both opera and baseball.
We call these natural groups and interest groups affinity groups, and look, it’s okay to have affinity groups. But those kind of groups are not what are most challenging for Spiritual Formation. If you think about it, Spiritual Formation should feel as cozy and natural as walking on water.
Jesus says, “Follow me,” to James and John, and he doesn’t tell them where. Spiritual Formation means territory new and unfamiliar, and seeing our own experience in a whole new light. It’s not about your background and where you’ve come from but where you are going.
So now here’s my special message today for Spiritual Formation Groups: Let’s expect that they shall have no more affinity than who can meet on Tuesday and who can meet on Thursday, etc. In principle, at random, with no identity but a common approach to Jesus. Some of you might be flounders and some of you porgies and some of you bluefish, but now you’ll all be lying side by side on the ice. Let me challenge us to try it. What a challenge that will be for me. Do I have to be in a Spiritual Formation Group myself?
The Old First congregation is a coalition. Our backgrounds are diverse: Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, etc. We are black and white, rich and poor, straight and gay, young and old, conservative and liberal. So St. Paul challenges us like he challenged the Old First Church in Corinth, to be of the same mind and the same purpose.
Don’t get him wrong. He doesn’t mean the mind at rest but the mind in motion. It’s not about agreement but purpose. It’s about moving together and seeking the face of God. Side by side and face to face.
Will you seek the face of God with me? I will seek the face of God with you, and I will see God’s face reflected on your own, whatever color and share you face may be.
Can you and I step together into this same light? I was sitting in my own private darkness and you were sitting in your own, and when we step together into this it might shine on different things in you than what gets seen in me, but I’m willing to walk into this light with you. I’m willing to judge myself by the same criteria by which you judge yourself. We don’t know where this is going to take us, but isn’t that the point? Doesn’t that always happen when what you are doing is for love?
Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.