Pentecost 13B, 2009
Psalm 84, John 6: 60-69
A Liturgy is also available
THE SPIRIT GIVES LIFE, BUT LIFE IS NOT 'JUST SPIRITUAL’
During the week when watching a TV program, I was again reminded of my Celtic roots.
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 a prayer is often said.
Listen to this contemporary ‘circling’ prayer:
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 (Epperly 2005:80).
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 presentness in the world, and in our lives.
Although I reckon it is a little easier to hear this in the former rather than in the latter!
So let me offer a few comments which I hope
might resonate with some of your experiences.
Francis Macnab, theologian and psychologist, in his presentation of Psalm 84,
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).
Let’s listen again to some of how Macnab tells Psalm 84:
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).
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).
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 is the Psalmist suggesting?
Experience the divine centre in yourselves.
In our bodies.
In our actions.
In our every day 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.
And now, as a progressive Christian, I want to challenge John,
and reject his apparent denial
of the ‘flesh’ or ‘body’ as useless.
I reckon we can do better than that!
So I want to 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).
But I know John’s position has a long history.
Some of it, as we have heard, dating back to the 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).
And some of it 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).
Wesley’s world and John’s world is dualistic.
Our world is not. Or at least not as much.
So perhaps a richer understanding comes with the mystics from the past,
as well as from process theology in the present.
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 doesn’t come) to our aid in times of need.
As a progressive Christian I want to own 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’,
moving through life, our life.
“It is less like a hammer on the head than it is a gentle prod”, suggests Bruce Epperly again, “a tickle, sometimes as gentle as a feather, touching each moment into being” (Epperly/P&F Web site-2005).
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.
Such an understanding is 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 one of his books, The Sins of Scripture.
Let’s listen to them:
“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.
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.