Monday, February 11, 2008

Sermon 3 On Spiritual Formation: Clothing and Community

Lent 1, February 10, 2008
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11

Let me remind you what we’re doing in this series of sermons. The Consistory has put a priority on the development in our congregation of "holistic small groups." We are calling these Spiritual Formation Groups. And I am going to our scripture lessons each week and listening to what they might tell us about Spiritual Formation Groups. This week I can hear two messages in the lessons. First from Genesis, and second from the gospel.

In 1967 a book called The Naked Ape was published by Desmond Morris. The author tried to explain human beings in strictly zoological terms as animals among other animals, as apes among other apes, without any reference to such factors as ethics or aesthetics or spirituality. Many people were delighted and many were offended.
The title of the book was brilliant for marketing, but hokey as science. All apes are naked. A title more scientifically accurate would have been, "The Ape that Feels Naked," but that would give credence to the very ethical and spiritual factors that the author was ruling out.

The fact that we are the apes who feel our nakedness tells us that narrow zoological categories do not suffice for human behavior. We do things that other animals don’t do. When animals feel vulnerable, they hide or they run or they attack. They don’t put clothes on.

Adam and Eve felt naked. Their nakedness was shame to them. They felt shame because of their guilt. We are the animals that feel shame and guilt. We are the animals that have something to feel shameful and guilty about. We are the animals that feel naked when we are naked.

The Christian hope is not a return to primal nakedness. Our vision for the future is not that we will reach a pristine state of nudity. It’s rather that we will be clothed, clothed in our right minds, dressed in righteousness, decked out in gladness, robed in light, walking in beauty. Our Christian hope is not a return to nature, but an advance to a new nature. And that advancement means formation.

And so our Spiritual Formation Groups are not about exposure. You will keep your clothes on. Your nakedness is reserved for only one relationship, with your spouse who loves you intimately, quite literally warts and all. Well, your doctor, too, the specialist trained to heal you. And I won’t condemn you if this summer you go skinny-dipping with your friends, but I won’t join you.

Our Spiritual Formation Groups are not for confessing your sins. Neither are they for therapy or for treating our dysfunctions. You won’t be rehearsing all that stuff from your childhood about your siblings and your parents. (If you need to, I can refer you to a therapist.) Our business will be our present fellowship, engaging each other in the clothes that we are wearing now.

We’re going to do this because you need to do this, for spiritual formation. Your spirit needs to get close to other spirits, and stay close for a while. Not too close. Not so much intimacy as fellowship. Our spirits will dance square dances, not slow dances. There are some aspects of spiritual formation that you can only do on your own, or with a spiritual director, or in silence, but other kinds you have to do in fellowship with other spirits.

What your group will talk about is not yourselves so much as the Word of God in your lives. You will help each other hear the Word of God. You will support each other as you reflect on the Word of God, reflecting forward into your future, and reflecting backward into your past. Yes, there will be sharing, that’s so much of the pleasure and encouragement, but what you share is your response to the Word of God in the real life terms of your own life.

We believe that God talks to us. We believe that God is alive and active and interested in us and that God talks to us. We believe that God has specific and dependable ways of talking to us. We believe that God talks to us through scripture. By means of the Bible.

The Bible is the greatest treasure of the Christian faith and one of its chief frustrations. People tell me that they try to read the Bible and they just can’t make sense of it. Well, of course not, it’s a daunting combination of Paradise Lost and Beowulf and the Canterbury Tales and Hammurabi’s Code.

Protestants make a big deal about everybody being able to read the Bible. But then one group says it means this and another group says that, and anyone can make it say anything. When Jesus was tempted by Satan, his answer to the first temptation was this, "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." And so Satan says, "Hey, no problem, for my next temptation I will just quote scripture!"

It’s a Protestant problem. Roman Catholics don’t have the same problem. Catholicism says that the Roman Church’s official interpretation of the Bible has the same authority as the Bible itself. To be fair, it’s a Protestant myth that the Roman Catholic Church was against laypeople reading the Bible. What it was against was the private interpretation of the Bible. It wanted to avoid the Protestant problem of who knows what the Bible means.

The solution to this Protestant problem is not Roman Catholic but catholic in the larger sense, and in understanding the Holy Catholic Church not as a hierarchy but as a community. And that means that we read the Bible in community, in the communion of saints. We read the Bible within the community of people across the centuries and the continents, who lived in the time of St. Augustine and St. Jerome and Luther and Calvin and who live today in Guatemala and South Africa. We read the Bible within the community of our own fellowship. Among the other spirits who are in close contact to yours. We read the Bible in spiritual community. We listen for the Word of God in a spirit of love.

In Jesus’ ministry, he almost always talked to groups. He gave his word to people in groups. I can think of only two cases of Jesus conversing one-on-one: with the woman at the well and with Nicodemus, both of which we’ll read this month. We all have need for times like that. But most of our listening to the Word of God is best done in community.
That’s how I learned to hear God’s Word. In the small group of our family dinner table growing up. Every night, after dessert, we read the Bible at the table. Sometimes a special children’s bible, sometimes the real thing, and then we might talk about it. Over the years, that builds up.

Spiritual formation is a lot like physical formation. With the right conditions it happens quite naturally, almost automatically. The child has a genetic code inside, and if you offer the child a safe, secure, and happy home, and you feed the child the food it needs, the child grows up, she can’t help it, the child’s formation takes its course.
So too with your spiritual formation. It’s not so much that you have to work on it. God offers it to you. God feeds you with God’s word within the fellowship of your small group. No sudden revelations, but it does build up.

I guess the original holistic small group is the Christian vision of God. The Holy Trinity. I suppose that what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share in their timeless eternality is their fellowship and their Word. And that God also offers us.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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