Sunday, October 29, 2017

Tripolar Spirituality (a sermon on Matthew 22:24-30)

Today I want to talk to you about ‘Tripolar Spirituality’. If you don’t have a clue what that means, don’t worry about it – you will when I’m done!

The words ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’ are very slippery; they seem to change their meaning depending on the company they keep. I hang out with a lot of people who would probably describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. When they say they’re ‘not religious’, they mean they don’t identify with any specific religious tradition like Christianity or Islam, or any organized religious institution. But what do they mean by ‘spiritual’? That depends on the person. Some mean they believe in a spiritual world that exists in parallel with our material universe. Some mean they believe in some sort of God, although they would resist any attempt to define that God. Others simply mean they believe there’s more to life than material success – there’s feelings and relationships, art and music and all these other things that make life worthwhile.

The word ‘spirituality’ doesn’t appear in the Bible, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t use it. We need to be careful, though, because it’s such a slippery word. The Bible resists any notion of a spiritual life that’s just about spiritual thrills, or that sees this material world as less important to God than some other, non-material place. In the Bible true spirituality is always earthed in present reality. It’s not just about feelings but loving actions.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus puts these loving actions right at the centre of God’s will for us. He’s standing in the Temple in Jerusalem; in two or three days he will be hanging on the Cross. The members of the religious establishment have been challenging him and asking him all kinds of trick questions to try to trap him into saying things that will get him into trouble. In today’s reading an expert in religious law is the one asking the question: “Teacher, which commandment of the law is the greatest?” Jesus is quick with his reply – in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had answered this question several times over the course of his ministry:
Jesus replied, “ ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind’. This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments’ (Matthew 22:37-40, New Living Translation).
So the essential centre of the spiritual life, in the teaching of Jesus, is loving relationships.

The word ‘love’ in the original language is ‘agapé’. For those of you who don’t know, I should explain that the Greek language the New Testament was written in has several different words for love. There’s ‘storge’, which means the affection that members of a family have for each other – parents and children, brothers and sisters and so on. ‘Phileo’, from which we get our word ‘philanthropy’, is usually about friendship. And of course there’s also ‘eros’, which doesn’t just refer to what we would call today ‘erotic’ love – it means the love that responds to some beauty or goodness in the beloved.

Agapé is different - it’s about practical, self-sacrificial care for another, whether we like them or not, whether we feel like it or not. It’s Jesus washing the feet of his disciples at the last supper. It’s the greater love that causes someone to give their life for their friends.

Now I want you to notice that in Jesus’ teaching this love-centred spirituality is tri-polar. In other words, it’s a relationship between three entities – the self, the neighbour, and God. These three relationships can’t possibly be separated in the teaching of Jesus. If one of them is missing, what we’re talking about is not true biblical spirituality; it’s some aberration of it.

Let’s explore this for a minute; in fact, let’s build it from the ground up.

Let’s start by thinking about monopolar spirituality. Monopolar spirituality has only one focal point: the Self. It’s all about me!

In monopolar spirituality there isn’t necessarily a god out there anywhere. There might be, and there might not be, but even if there is, he’s secondary to the main character on the stage: me! To the person who takes this approach, spirituality is primarily self-exploration.

This seems strange to us, but there’s a logic to it. What would motivate a person to want to explore this kind of spirituality? Often it’s the failure of the materialistic approach to life. They’ve trodden the well worn path – get a good education, get a good job, work long hours, earn good money, buy the nice things everyone says you deserve – but they’ve found something’s still missing inside. Maybe at first they didn’t want to believe it; maybe they resisted it. But eventually they admitted to themselves “I’m not happy. The conventional way of living isn’t satisfying me. There’s a great big hole inside, and I need to learn how to fill it”.

So they think about it, and they come to the entirely accurate conclusion that in the end who you are is far more important than what you own. But they’ve spent so long defining themselves in terms of work and success and possessions that they aren’t really sure who they are, so they go on this journey of self-exploration. “I need to get to know myself; I need to find out what’s really important to me. I need to learn to like myself and love myself”.

I don’t want to be dismissive of this; I think it can be very valuable. And I also want to point out that people who take this approach aren’t necessarily ignoring the other people in their lives. In fact, their motivation can be very good. They might say, “There’s no one in the world I can change except myself, so I want to work on myself so that I can be the best possible ‘me’ for the sake of the people I love”. Which of course is true and admirable.

But it does fall short of the spirituality Jesus commends to us in today’s gospel. And if it’s left to itself, monopolar spirituality can be a prison in which the whole focus of my life is me, and everyone else is just a supporting actor in my play. And in the end it will disappoint us, because we weren’t meant to live unto ourselves alone.

Alright, so let’s go on to bipolar spirituality. Bipolar spirituality has nothing to do with bipolar disorder, which we used to call ‘manic-depression’. Bipolar disorder is a mental illness, a personality disorder in which the person alternates back and forth between two poles - euphoria and depression. Bipolar spirituality is spirituality that takes place between two entities – God and the self, God and me. In bipolar spirituality the focus is on my private relationship with God. God loves me, and I learn to love God and live my life in relationship with God. Other people may be present but they’re not essential; in fact, they might even be a distraction.

So a person who’s into bipolar spirituality will be very interested in disciplines and habits that help them grow their private relationship with God. They’re happy to read the Bible by themselves and they might get very good at it. They learn how to pray alone, and maybe they learn how to use silence and meditation to develop a close sense of God’s presence with them. Maybe they discover that silent retreats can be helpful, and off they go for two or three days to a retreat house where they don’t talk to anyone else – they just explore the silence and listen for the voice of God. Maybe, if they’re not careful, they even start to see their neighbours and their family as a bit of a distraction from God – something they have to get away from if they’re really going to feel God close to them.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: some of the classic books of the Christian tradition were written by people who were masters of bipolar spirituality. But when it comes to teaching us how to live in families with small children who take up all our possible time for silence – or how to live as a Christian when we’re trying to hold down a demanding job – they don’t have much help to offer. Nor are they really all that interested in making this world a better place for others. They’ll do it – they’ll even do it gladly – but they see it as an optional extra, not an essential part of their spirituality.

I’ve learned a lot from bipolar spirituality through the years; you could say it’s my native country. I was a classic introvert when I was a child – so shy that when we had visitors I was the one who would slip off to my room, close the door and read a book. I’m quite happy in my own company and it’s natural for me to pray alone and read the Bible alone. And I’m sorry to say I’ve sometimes fallen into the trap my friend Harold Percy once described in these words: “I can have a great relationship with God all by myself, as long as people don’t keep getting in my face!”

The skills we can learn from bipolar spirituality are good ones – how to pray and read the Bible for ourselves, and how to listen for God in silence. But they aren’t enough. Why not? Because the New Testament writers clearly indicate that we’re designed for something more. Do you want to love Jesus? Well, in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats Jesus says we do that by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoners and caring for those in need. This is part of our spirituality; it’s one of the ways we love God. ‘If we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?’, says John (1 John 4:20, NLT), and he goes on to say, ‘And he has given us this command: those who love God must also love their Christian brothers and sisters’ (1 John 4:21 NLT).

And not just Christians, of course. In Luke’s version of this gospel passage the two great commandments are followed immediately by the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that parable a foreigner – one outside the Jewish faith – reaches across the religious boundary and helps a Jewish traveller who’s been beaten up and left for dead on the roadside. This man, Jesus said, was a neighbour to the man who was attacked by bandits. So the call to love your neighbour crosses boundaries of race or nationality or religious tradition; anyone who needs our help is a neighbour to us.

So Christian spirituality isn’t monopolar or bipolar: it’s tripolar spirituality. It’s about the relationship between God, my neighbour and myself. It starts with God. John says, ‘This is real love – not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other’ (1 John 4:10-11, NLT).

God is the source of all love. He pours out his love on us, sending us all we need for daily life on this planet, and then he comes among us in Jesus as one of us and offers himself on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins. We’re all in debt to that love. We’re alive because of it. We have eternal life because of it. That’s the solid ground everything else is built on.

So we respond to God’s love by loving him back, and we do this in actions, not just feelings. We ask his guidance for our daily lives. We learn to live by his commandments. We learn to pray and spend time with him, and listen to his voice as it comes to us in the pages of the Bible and in the silence. We love him, says Jesus, with all our heart and soul and mind – thinking and feeling and choosing, all in the service of God.

And that service leads us to others. Just as God loves us, he also loves every single person on this planet. Everyone is made in his image; everyone is special to him. And he has a special care for the poor and needy: that comes loud and clear through Old and New Testaments, through the voices of Moses and the Prophets and Jesus and his Apostles. We can’t be in right relationship with God if we refuse to be in right relationship with others. So we learn to spend time with others and listen to them; we learn to be kind to them and serve them in practical ways. We learn to forgive them and receive forgiveness from them. And as Christians we come together with them to pray and hear God’s word and share the sacraments.

This is Jesus’ vision of what life is all about. The expert in religious law asked him which commandments were the greatest; today we might ask “What are the most important things in life?” Jesus responds by telling us what he thinks life is really all about.

So let’s learn to live this tripolar spirituality of love – God, my neighbour, myself in right relationship with each other. This morning perhaps we need to ask ourselves ‘Which pole is the weakest for me?” Am I absorbed in God and my neighbour but so neglectful of myself that I sacrifice my health and ultimately my ability to help others because I don’t pay attention to my own physical and mental and emotional well-being? Am I what’s sometimes called a ‘second-commandment Christian’ - really into caring for others, but nervous and unsure of myself when it comes to relating to God? Or am I a ‘me and God’ sort of person who sometimes unconsciously sees others as a distraction from my true spiritual life?

Where are you in this picture? Where am I? What help do I need to grow in the area I’m weakest in? Who should I ask about that help? Let’s think about these things in silence for a moment, and then take it to God in prayer.

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