Tag Archives: Spirituality

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:15

James 3:15
This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic (NASB).

Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil (NIV).

In this verse James continues his contrast of the behaviour that stands opposed to his understanding of wisdom presented in verse thirteen. The way of jealousy, envy, and selfish ambition may have an appearance of wisdom, but it is not that wisdom which is ‘from above.’ Indeed, for James, it is not even ‘wisdom’ at all (note the scare-quotes used in the NIV). Literally James says, ‘This is not the wisdom from above…’ (ouk estin hautē hē sophia anōthen; οὐκ ἔστιν αὕτη ἡ σοφία ἄνωθεν), where the this is a demonstrative pronoun referring back to the behaviour of those he is chastising in verse fourteen. James refuses to use the term wisdom to describe this manner of life.

James describes this manner of life using three graphic adjectives, which are listed in an order of increasing alienation from God (Davids, 152; Vlachos, 123). First, it is earthly (epigeios, ἐπίγειος) as opposed to that which is ‘from above,’ heavenly, of the earth or belonging to the earth, or arising solely from human existence. Second, it is natural, the Greek word psychikē (ψυχική) referring to the life in which human feeling and human reason reign supreme (Moo, 134). It has to do with that which is governed by the senses or sensual appetites and as such, refers to life apart from the divine Spirit—‘unspiritual.’ Finally, demonic (daimoniōdēs, δαιμονιώδης) simply means that which comes from or pertains to demons.

Where jealousy, envy and selfish ambition are the order of the day, the manner of life is not that which is from above, divine in origin and nature, meek and full of good works (v. 13). Rather, it is human or even demonic in origin and character, although it seems better to assign this wisdom a human rather than demonic origin. This person might be better described as selfish, as ‘worldly-wise,’ rather than demonically inspired, although the latter is possibly the case in some circumstances. Moo’s comment, however, is insightful:

The wisdom that does not produce a good lifestyle (v. 13) is, in sum, characterized by ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil.’ In each of these ways it is the direct antithesis of ‘the wisdom that comes from above’—heavenly in nature, spiritual in essence, divine in origin (134).

James is evidently contrasting two types of teachers (3:1) or two types of leadership, and aligning them with two types of wisdom. The fulcrum between the two seems to lie in the fundamental impulse at work in each model. Is the leader’s activity, work and motive directed toward the self (self-promotion, improvement, or aggrandisement), or the kindliness of God toward others, and the promotion and benefit of their welfare? Most leaders are not under the thrall of demons, but their leadership may have characteristics that are opposed to the purposes, way and wisdom of God, and detrimental to the welfare and common good of those people for whom they are responsible. Further, while many religious teachers and leaders claim to be spiritual, if their manner of life is that described here by James, they are in fact unspiritual and devoid of the Holy Spirit. ‘“You claim,” says James, “to have the Holy Spirit. Impossible! You are inspired, all right—you are inspired by the devil!” (Davids, 153).

In the contemporary world of organisations (including churches and other Christian agencies), we have much leadership technology—technical knowledge and skill; depth of understanding with respect to the pragmatic dynamics of leadership in diverse communities, contexts, and human affairs; skill in diagnosis, management, and application; a vast range of tools, resources, and equipment to enhance our capacities. Is such technology ‘wrong,’ or something to be avoided? Perhaps not. But James focusses on the character of leadership in verse thirteen (and also verses seventeen and eighteen) contrasting it with the alternate mode in verses fourteen to sixteen. To the extent that leadership technology subverts kingdom priorities such as those enumerated in 2:5 or 1:27—personal engagement with the lowly and apparently ‘insignificant’—it is ‘earthly, natural, and demonic.’

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:13

James 3:13
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.

James 3:13 begins a new little section in this epistle, following a long teaching on the power of the tongue which seems to have been directed at those in James’ congregations who sought to be teachers (3:1). The verse starts with a rhetorical question, literally, “is anyone among you wise and understanding?” Vlachos (120), however, suggests that the question functions as a conditional clause along the lines of, “If any of you are wise and understanding…” James intends to teach his readers what true wisdom actually looks like, and in so doing, adds to his statements in 1:26-27 about the nature of ‘true religion’ or what we might call ‘authentic spirituality.’

That sophos (‘wise’) has a moral sense in James is clearly seen in the description of wisdom that follows in these verses. Wisdom is not merely intelligence or knowledge. Richard Bauckham has suggested that wisdom is “the God-given ability of the transformed heart to discern and to practice God’s will. It is the way in which Torah is internalized, so that outward obedience to Torah flows from an inner understanding and embracing of God’s will expressed in Torah” (Bauckham, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage, 152). God’s will as expressed in Torah is not merely known, but understood and embraced, and so brought to expression in one’s life, and in ways which go beyond a mere adherence to the letter of the law.

‘Understanding’ translates epistēmōn, which denotes the possession of expertise: “being knowledgeable in a way that makes one effectual in the exercise of such knowledge” (BDAG, 381). Together the terms portray the truly wise or spiritual person who understands both what the will of God is, and how it might be applied in the contingencies and circumstances of everyday life, and who actually applies it in this discerning way.

James’ question seems to assume that there are some among them who are actually ‘wise and understanding.’ Certainly there seem to be some in the congregation who claim to be wise, just as there are those who claim to be spiritual, to have faith, and perhaps, who boast in their riches. To those who would make a show of their wisdom, James counsels: display (deixatō, ‘show, demonstrate’ [cf. 2:18]) your wisdom by your good conduct. Make a show of your wisdom by and in your works. This verse, like James 2, contrasts words and works. True wisdom, like true faith, is revealed in works. Wisdom is displayed and recognised rather than claimed. Wisdom is revealed in the ‘beauty’ and ‘attractiveness’ of one’s life—the adjective kalos (‘good’) likely retaining here something of its classical meaning (Vlachos, 121). Just as true wisdom has its source in the good and generous God, so it shows itself in a good and generous life.

Such wisdom is also meek (en prautēti sophias). Wisdom does not parade itself with ostentatious boasting, or merely with words. It does not boast great things for itself, but quietly and consistently works. Many English translations speak of the gentleness of wisdom. Since it is likely that the phrase is qualifying the works which express wisdom, it indicates that these works are gentle, kindly intended and executed, and good.

There is a possibility that this verse is referring back to the first verse of the chapter, and thus to James’ warning about teachers. The role of teaching in the early Christian community provided an opportunity to display one’s wisdom in the performance of the rhetorical art. If we accept this interpretation (see Davids; cf. Moo), it has the advantage of holding the whole chapter together, and of elevating the significance of the teaching role either for good or for ill.

But the teacher’s wisdom is demonstrated and displayed, not in their rhetorical performance, nor in their mastery of the content, but in their character and relationships – do they bless or curse those made in the image of God (v. 9)? Is their tongue a fountain of goodness, justice and righteousness, or does it set the world aflame with the fires of Gehenna (v. 6)? Is their wisdom that which is revealed in humble and gentle service and the generous use of riches? James’ words provide a means of assessing whether or not those spiritual leaders and teachers in our midst are truly wise.

We can ask similar questions of our own lives and our own practice of Christian spirituality. Are we genuinely wise and understanding, in the sense set forth by James? Is our spirituality characterised by an active life of good works undertaken in gentleness and humility?

 

Scripture on Sunday – Luke 10:38-42

The story of Martha and Mary is well known. Jesus visits their village and Martha welcomes him into her home. With Jesus, of course, comes his whole entourage: disciples and other followers. Martha gets busy making preparations for meals and other hospitality. Mary, on the other hand, sits down at Jesus’ feet to listen to his teaching. Martha is more than a little put out:

But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (v. 40).

She was probably not merely distracted, but pressured and stressed. She could have approached Mary directly and asked her help, but instead approaches Jesus, asking him to address Mary on her behalf. I wonder if things might have gone differently if Martha had quietly addressed Mary directly. Instead she questions Jesus—with a question that has a hint of accusation; “don’t you care?” Martha’s annoyance was not without cause: there was much to be done, and it is likely that Mary would usually participate in all the work of preparation. Showing hospitality to guests was a crucial cultural requirement in ancient Israel, and Martha was doing what she and Mary could be expected to do. We need also remember that Martha was doing good, working hard to serve others, to serve the Lord.

Jesus answers Martha, but not as she might have hoped. He ignores her request, refusing to act as a go-between between Martha and her sister. It suggests that perhaps she should have been more direct. (Note to self! How often do I pray that God might do something because I am hesitant to address a situation that I am, in fact, responsible for?) But nor does he take her implicit criticism personally. He does gently correct her, however, his “Martha, Martha” naming, acknowledging, and recognising her.

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (vv. 41-42).

Somehow Jesus perceives that Martha’s upset in this instance is characteristic of her life in many things. Nevertheless, only one thing is needed—“man does not live on bread alone” (Luke 4:4)—and this, Mary has chosen. Jesus’ words here are revolutionary in at least two ways. First is his insistence that only one thing is needed; the one necessary thing, the one crucial element without which we cannot go on, the one essential of all discipleship and ministry—to sit in Jesus’ presence and hear his teaching, his word of instruction, command, and promise. Second, Mary has chosen this. A woman might normally be expected to be working behind the scenes, involved in the preparations, doing that traditionally assigned as women’s roles. But Mary has chosen something different “and it will not be taken away from her.” “No,” Jesus is saying, “I will not tell your sister to help you. What you are doing is good and important, valued and required. What Mary has chosen is better.” A woman might choose a different path to traditional expectation, and Jesus will commend rather than rebuke her, if that path is to sit at his feet as a disciple, and to hear his word.

A prominent feature of Luke’s gospel is his frequent—and surely deliberate—use of women as models of discipleship. The contrast between Martha and Mary is that between good and better, and Mary serves as an example of the ‘better’ that every disciple might emulate. At the beginning of another year which will likely be just as busy, just as difficult and pressured and demanding and work-filled and distraction-filled and stressed as the last year was, it is imperative that we pause to remember the one thing needed: to sit in Jesus’ presence and listen to his teaching, allowing him to address us, hearing his word, and of course, doing it (Luke 11:28).

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 3

In this chapter Samuel grows up. The most significant aspect of his growing years was his hearing the call and word of Yahweh. The story presents him as just a boy when Yahweh calls him—an encouragement to children and children’s ministers! At first Samuel does not recognise Yahweh’s voice, mistaking it for Eli. Indeed, like Eli’s sons, Samuel “does not know the Lord”—yet (v. 7; cf. 2:12). Eventually Eli discerns the truth and gives the best advice, telling Samuel to respond, “Speak Yahweh: your servant is listening.”

But God’s speech is a word of judgement against Eli! (cf. Isaiah 6), and so not at all what one wants to hear. Like the prophecy given in the second chapter, the judgement is against Eli and his house, on account of the activities of Eli’s sons and his failure to restrain them. While it is possible to reflect on this passage with respect to parenting responsibilities, it is more likely that Eli is presented in terms of his role as high priest responsible for the work and worship of the tabernacle. Many years will pass before these words of prophecy come to pass by which time Samuel is an adult. There will, however, be no forgiveness for Eli, neither by sacrifice nor offering. This is a harsh, or at least a stern, word of unremitting judgement.

I find the portrayal of Eli in these chapters to be somewhat ambiguous. He confronts his sons but does not restrain them, nor remove them from their position. It seems likely that he too was benefiting from their misappropriation. Nevertheless, it seems he does much better with Samuel than he has with his own sons. His blessing of Hannah is twice fruitful, and here, he is alive to the possibility that God may be or is at work. He bows before the word of judgement and acknowledges Yahweh’s sovereign right to judge. Yet even this acknowledgement will not save him from this judgement. It seems that his acknowledgement is not equivalent to repentance. “Eli stands as a warning against drifting through life with a well-meaning attitude but without taking up the responsibilities that are really ours” (Evans, 40).

1 Samuel 3:1, 19, 21 
And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision. … And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord. And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.

Under the ministry of Eli and his sons, the word of the Lord has been rare. Whether the spiritual condition of Eli’s house and of the people was due to the lack of divine revelation, or whether the lack of divine revelation was due to the failure of the people may be speculated. What is plain in this passage, however, is that the Lord takes the initiative, addressing Samuel by name, calling him in the night, speaking his word and then confirming it publicly, establishing Samuel as the Lord’s prophet.

Samuel hears but does not recognise Yahweh’s voice: “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (v.7). Learning to hear and recognise God’s voice takes a certain sensitivity, quietness, openness, and readiness. It is unsurprising that Samuel hears in the period before dawn when he and all around him is quiet. It is difficult to hear “the still small voice” in the cacophony of daily busyness. It seems the voice was “audible” for Samuel but was not actually audible, for Eli was not awakened and did not hear. Initially Samuel mistook the divine voice for a natural occurrence, and needed the instruction and encouragement of Eli to recognise the subtlety of Yahweh’s speech. With Eli’s instruction Samuel returned to his bed and waited, and when addressed, was ready and responded as he had been instructed, “Speak Yahweh: your servant is listening.”

The gracious divine initiative here is unmistakable: God comes to Samuel, addressing and calling him. The response of readiness, openness and humility is required if one is to hear the voice of the Lord. The posture is one of a servant, serving the Lord, serving the word. Samuel obeys. Samuel declares what he has heard, though he is afraid to do so. His response is full. He hears, he obeys, he declares. “And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh.”

It appears in this context that God’s primary way of revelation and communication with his people is via the prophets—despite the word addressed to Joshua after the death of Moses (see Joshua 1).  Later in Israel’s history, Amos warns that in a time of judgement God will send a famine upon the land:

Amos 8:11-12
Not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea and from north to east; they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord but they shall not find it.

God has raised up a willing, responsive and faithful hearer of the word of God, who also becomes a speaker of the divine word that others might hear with the result that “the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord” (v. 21). “Recovery for Israel began with a new hearing and a new speaking out of the word of God” (Evans, 41).

The Virtues of Prayer

In his discussion of the usefulness of Scripture in moral formation, Allen Verhey, drawing on Alasdair MacIntyre, considers the virtues of prayer:

Prayer is learned in Christian community, and it is learned not only as an idea but also as a human activity that engages one’s body as well as one’s mind, one’s affections and passions and loyalties as well as one’s rationality. Prayer is an activity that focuses one’s whole self on God. In learning to pray, one learns the good that is “internal to that form of activity”; one learns, that is, to attend to God, to look to God. … In learning to pray, we learn to look to God; and after the blinding vision, we begin to look at all else in a new light.

In learning to pray, we learn as well certain standards of excellence that belong to prayer and its attention to God, standards of excellence that are “appropriate to” prayer and “partially definitive” of prayer. 

We learn reverence, humility, gratitude, hope, and care. Prayer-formed persons and the prayer-formed communities — in the whole of their being and in the whole of their living — will be reverent, humble, grateful, hopeful, and caring. One does not pray in order to achieve these virtues. They are not formed when we use prayer as a technique. They are formed in simple attentiveness to God, and they spill over into new virtues for daily life and discernment. (Verhey, Remembering Jesus, 63-64.)

“That Pretentious Business”

Luther by Lucas CranachScott Hendrix notes Martin Luther’s comments on holiness from a sermon by Luther given on June 24, 1525.

The greatest holiness one could imagine drew us into the cloister. . . . We fasted and prayed repeatedly, wore hair shirts under woolen cowls, led a strict and austere life. In short, we took on a monkish holiness. We were so deeply involved in that pretentious business that we considered ourselves holy from head to toe.

Luther had lived as a monk for 16 years by the time he was excommunicated in 1521. Nevertheless, he came to see that monastic holiness was an unattainable goal. Luther ultimately sought a less demanding and more merciful Christianity, says Hendrix, which would liberate people from anxiety about reaching heaven and redirect their concern toward others in place of themselves (in Scott Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer,  27, 13).

In an earlier letter, written to George Spenlein, another monk, Luther said, “Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner, or to be one. For Christ dwells only in sinners” (April 8, 1516, cited in Hendrix, 47).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:10-11

JamesJames 2:10-11
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.

Here James defends his earlier assertion that those who practise partiality are “transgressors” (parabatai), which as we have seen, was a loaded and possibly offensive accusation for a Jewish audience. Whereas in verses 8-9 he uses direct address (“If you…” – second person plural), here he shifts to third person singular with the subjunctive to indicate a hypothetical situation: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point…” (Hostis gar holon ton nomon tērēsē ptaisē de en heni).

James assumes that his listeners in the messianic congregation are, like himself, Torah observant, aiming to “keep” the law as an expression of the divine will, to practise it, and to guard it from violation. His emphasis on the whole law was typical in Judaism and in at least some sectors of the early church. Jesus taught that “not an iota, not a dot” in the law can be overlooked, and even the “least of these commandments” must be kept (Matthew 5:18-19). So, too, Paul noted that the obligation of one who accepted the law was to the whole law (Galatians 5:3). Behind this sense of the unity of the law is the unity of the one lawgiver (James 4:12). The will of the one God is expressed in the one law, of which each command and instruction is a constituent part. Therefore to fail in one point—in this case, the command against partiality (Leviticus 19:15), itself a part of the love command which is the centre and sum of the law’s requirement—is to “become accountable for all of it” (gegonen pantōv enochos). Simply put, because the law is the singular expression of the will of God, to stumble or falter in one aspect of it, no matter how small or insignificant, is to become answerable or liable (enochos) to the whole law.

James extends his explanation with a specific illustration in verse eleven. “For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder’” (Ho gar eipōn, Mē moicheusēs, eipen kai, Mē phoneusēs). The first point to note here is James’ conviction that God has spoken his commandments, specifically these commandments found in the so-called second table of the Decalogue. As such, the commandments are the expressed will of God. Second, although the commandments are in themselves distinct, they express the one will of the one God. Third, we note that James has here reversed the order of the sixth and seventh commandments, though this reversal is probably insignificant (cf. Paul in Romans 13:9; and Luke’s report in 18:20). More interesting is why James chose to illustrate his point with these particular commands. The on-going relevance of the Decalogue for the New Testament church, and especially the “second table” is undoubted, and as we have already noted, the commands against murder and adultery are specifically mentioned multiple times by different authors. In Jesus’ list of antitheses, these two commands occupy pride of place, although in their usual order (see Matthew 5:21-30). James will also allude to both commands again in chapter four, verses two and four:

You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. … Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?

In this text, at least with respect to adultery, James uses it as an analogy for his hearers’ relation to God. Spiritually speaking, they are adulterers. Is James similarly accusing them metaphorically, of murder? Certainly there are disputes, quarrels and disunity among them, which Jesus insisted was a violation of the seventh commandment (Matthew 5:21-26). It may be that James is extending the analogy that Jesus has already drawn: just as anger and insults constitute a violation of righteousness indicated in the murder command, so any failure to love one’s neighbour is a similar violation.

“Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (Ei de ou moicheueis phoneueis de, gegonas parabatēs nomou). Thus, the violation of the law at a single point—here the love command—makes one a transgressor. For James, obedience to the law is an all-or-nothing proposition, and his hearers’ partiality against the poor has rendered them guilty before God.

Two final points are needed here lest I leave a wrong impression. First, James is making a rhetorical point here in order to accuse his hearers and hopefully stimulate a change of their behaviour with respect to the poor. Thus, his reference to keeping the “whole law” must be understood in terms of the illustration he is giving, rather than as a theological point in which he insists that Christians must keep the whole Mosaic law, including the ceremonial detail and so on (see my comment on 1:25 and 2:8 where I explore James’ understanding of the ongoing relevance of the law in the life of the messianic congregation). Second, James is not commending a heroic spirituality of moral perfectionism. He knows as well as any that such perfection is impossible. While he insists on ethical rigor with respect to our relation to God’s will, he is also aware that it is only by grace that we stand in the presence of God (4:6-10), and that we remain ever in need of God’s forgiveness which thankfully, is also freely offered (5:16-20).

More Hugh Mackay

Hugh MackayOn Tuesday I gave a brief review of Hugh Mackay’s Infidelity. Here are a few more insights from the book, asides from Mackay the psychologist, which sparked an interest as I read. The first comes as Tom is discussing Sarah’s past with her mother, Elizabeth, and has relevance for the kinds of spirituality we nurture in the church, and especially in our youth and young adults groups. Elizabeth says of Sarah:

She went wild over religion, too. There was more than a bit of overlap, in fact. I think a lot of adolescents confuse spirituality and sexuality – don’t you, Tom? Or is it just that churchgoing covers all that steaminess in a cloak of respectability? (276)

The second finds Tom reflecting on the nature of intimate relationships, salient as a warning for all couples, and more broadly, for any kind of relationship:

I had heard plenty of clients describe the frightening lunge from ‘I love you’ to ‘I hate you.’ It had always struck me as being a bit like a passion hangover – when the stimulants were withdrawn, their toxic effects took over. The swing from devotion to indifference was more common, though, and more familiar to me. When the love switch is turned to ‘off,’ for any one of a thousand reasons, or none, the current simply stops flowing. You don’t have to hate someone to destroy a relationship – you just have to lose interest. (298)

The final thought comes from the final chapter of the book, and here Mackay’s agnosticism comes to the fore:

The hardest thing, finally, is to accept our insignificance in the scheme of things – or perhaps to accept that there is no ‘scheme of things.’ There are no inevitabilities. No embedded meanings, either – only those we choose to attach to what happens. And often, when we most ardently desire them, no answers.  Life surges on, mostly out of control, rarely giving us respite… (310)

There is both wisdom and pathos in this statement. In the end, though, it seems that life, for Mackay, has only the meaning we ascribe to it. That we do ascribe meaning to life is part of what it means to be human. That we ascribe meaning to life, though natural, is also somewhat arbitrary and threatens to undermine the kind of ethics that Mackay wants to commend. This approach inevitably leads us back to ourselves as the moral centre in a manner reminiscent of the biblical book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25) – and the results were less than ideal. Stanley Grenz recognises this problem and argues that “justification of moral claims requires a foundational principle that in the end is religious” (The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics, 58).

The message of the gospel is not that there are no inevitabilities, or that every question will be answered, or that life can be fully controlled. In these respects, Mackay is quite correct. Yet the gospel assures each person that their lives, choices and deeds can and do have enduring significance. Further, it testifies to a transcendent meaning embedded in the orders of creation and redemption that tells the truth of our existence and so provides an orientation to the good life. The moral life is not simply the assertion of power in this direction or that, but response to a transcendent reality which in the Christian tradition is understood in terms of the triune God of infinite goodness, holiness and love.

Scripture on Sunday – Philippians 1:21

To Die is GainFor to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

I could never have written such words; I hardly dare to write them now. Their claim is too bald, too bold. From the pen of the apostle, however, they have the ring of truth. Paul was not just saying these words; he lived them. That, perhaps, is the reason he could say them and I cannot. Paul is imprisoned awaiting trial and very possibly death. Yet his letter to the Philippians is known as an epistle of joy. He rejoices despite his circumstances and he calls the Philippians likewise to rejoice despite theirs.

For to me, to live is Christ. This is an outrageous claim, that one could be so consumed with the vision of Jesus Christ, with such devotion to his mission, such conformity to his life, and such delight in his will. It was also Paul who could say elsewhere: It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20). In chapter three he will go on to say:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him… (Philippians 3:7-9).

Paul’s entire life was devoted to the presence, mission and message of Christ. Christ was his centre, Christ his motive and goal, Christ his source and power.

Nor was this merely an idealistic, romantic or other-worldly spirituality. For to me, to live is Christ: Not as mysticism but as concrete witness and proclamation that Jesus Christ might be magnified: this is what it meant for Paul to say these words. It is not uncommon to hear Christians speak of seeking an “intimate” relationship with God, to seek mystical union or experiences of grace. Such desires are not illegitimate, for truly we need a touch of the mystic, a touch of the Spirit’s presence and power, experiences of grace. Yes, indeed, but not as a goal.

A great danger with some forms of contemporary spirituality is the temptation to separate the grace of Christ from the mission of Christ. Paul did not seek some kind of personalised, individualised and interior experience that had no living connection with the mission of Christ, the work of the gospel or the need of the world. He sought concrete union with Christ “in the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings” (3:10). Even though confronted with trial and possible death, even in the midst of imprisonment and suffering, he still cried:

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain (1:20-21). 

“That Christ will be magnified in my body…” that is, in the public sphere of his existence, in the concrete witness of his very life and death, in his proclamation and ministry, his service and suffering. For it is only as Christ is preached (1:18) that Christ is magnified.

And so we pray with Paul:

That our love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that we may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ–to the glory and praise of God. Lord, you have begun a good work in us; carry it onto completion until the day of Christ Jesus (1:9-11, 6).

And also with St Patrick:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Progress in Perfection

The Desert FathersI read a few excerpts last night before bed from The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks. The first chapter is entitled “Progress in Perfection” and perhaps summarises some of the main concerns of the early desert fathers, though I guess the rest of the collection will either confirm or disconfirm that.

The sayings reflect the asceticism of the early fathers but it is not an extreme asceticism, although a couple of the sayings are certainly idealistic. The main concerns are with humility and detachment from material possessions, or more generally, with self-control. Here are a few sayings that struck me, and which require me to put a big F against my name in measuring up to their spiritual concerns:

2. Pambo said to Antony, “What shall I do?’ Antony said, ‘Do not trust in your own righteousness. Do not go on sorrowing over a deed that is past. Keep your tongue and your belly under control.’

3. Gregory said, ‘God asks three things of anyone who is baptized: to keep the true faith with all his soul and all his might; to control his tongue; to be chaste in his body.’

But a couple of other sayings also proved encouraging:

10. Cassian told this story about John, who was the father of a community because he was great in his way of life. When he was dying, he was cheerful, and his mind was set upon the Lord; his brothers stood around him and asked for a sentence that would sum up the way to salvation, which he could give them as a legacy by which they might rise to the perfection that is in Christ. With a sigh he said, ‘I have never obeyed my own will, and I never taught anyone to do anything which I did not do myself first.’

11. A brother asked a hermit, ‘Tell me something good that I may do it and live by it.’ The hermit said, ‘God alone knows what is good. But I have heard that one of the hermits asked the great Nesteros, who was a friend of Antony, ‘What good work shall I do?’ and he replied, ‘Surely all works please God equally? Scripture says, Abraham was hospitable and God was with him; Elijah loved quiet and God was with him; David was humble and God was with him.’ So whatever you find you are drawn to in following God’s will, do it and let your heart be at peace.’

And so one more to finish with a challenge:

15. Poemen said, ‘If a monk hates two things, he can be free of this world.’ A brother inquired, ‘What are they?’ He said, ‘Bodily comfort and conceit.’

Now let me sit back with a drink and a chocolate biscuit and see how many hits and comments this post receives…