Thursday, September 21, 2006

“The Spiritual Life”[1]

Ephesians 5:15-21

What does it look like to be “spiritual”? It depends on the time and the place you live in. In the Medieval age, for example, the sign of spirituality was a halo-like “aura.” Just look at medieval paintings that depict “spiritual” people. For much of church history, the “spiritual look” has involved wearing a certain kind of clothing and perhaps even a certain hairdo. In the days when monasteries were the places where truly spiritual people lived, the look was made of a robe of rough cloth and a very short haircut. In some places today, the look means dressing like a Jewish rabbi from 17th century Poland. In other places, it means that women don’t cut their hair and men always wear white shirts and ties.

The Spiritual Look. But the reality is that true spirituality has very little to do with looks. In fact, there have been many charlatans and con-men and -women who fooled a lot of people into following them because they looked “spiritual”—whether that meant wearing fine robes or having a “prophet’s” hairdo (bouffant hair combed straight back with a white streak down the middle).

It’s funny how these con-men and con-women—the very ones who give so much attention to looks—are always devoted to power, prestige, or just plain cash! I’ve known a lot of people over the last 25 or so years of ministry, and it still amazes me how true that statement is today. They’ll use any means to get what they want; they don’t hesitate to destroy anyone or anything that they can’t control; their mode of operation is ruthless, heartless, cutthroat, vicious—and all with a “holier than thou” smile! If that’s what it means to be spiritual, you can count me out!

The Look of the Spirit. Like Jesus and the rest of the NT apostles, Paul does not define spirituality that way. Paul defines true spirituality in terms of how you live, not how you look. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul describes the spiritual life as “being filled with the Spirit.” Then he goes on to tell us what that looks like—not in terms of hairdos or clothes, but in terms of how you act. Paul says that true spirituality looks like heartfelt joy that is expressed in worship and genuine fellowship with others. It looks like thankfulness for the love that we have encountered, no matter what the circumstances. It looks like submission to others out of respect for and in obedience to Christ’s example!

Wait a minute, what’s “submission” doing there? What does submitting to others have to do with being spiritual? Isn’t that something people do when they’re too weak to stand up for themselves? These days I think there’s a lot of confusion about what it means to “submit” in the sense that Paul was talking about. Some have tried to define the Greek word he used as it was in classical Greek literature, in terms of accepting one’s place in a military chain of command. But Paul isn’t talking about the military here—when he illustrates what he’s trying to say, he points to Jesus on the cross!

I think “submission” also gets too wrapped up in the debate over how husbands and wives relate to each other. You know, that tired, worn-out debate about what role a man should fulfill, what role a woman should fulfill, etc., etc. Again, if you read what Paul has to say about how “submission” works itself out in the home, he’s clearly not creating any hierarchies.

When Paul says that “submission” is a mark of true spirituality, he’s talking about respect for the dignity of other human beings as God’s beautiful creation and beloved children.[2] He’s talking about yielding to others rather than insisting on one’s own agenda.[3] He’s talking about serving one another through love rather than seeking our own selfish ambition.[4]

Following Jesus. And we do all that not because we are too weak to do anything else but “out of reverence for Christ.” True spirituality looks like—the life of Jesus the Christ! At the end of the day, “The imitation of Christ in his life of service and suffering … is not an optional version of the Christian identity. It is the very essence of Christian identity. It is the pattern by which every other claim about the spiritual life must be measured if it is to be considered Christian.” [5]

The kind of spirituality that Paul is talking about looks a lot more like Mother Teresa giving her life away in service to the poor and downtrodden than like some high-powered TV preacher in a silk suit! It looks a lot more like Henri Nouwen leaving a prestigious academic career behind to accept a rather obscure position in a home for the mentally handicapped than like some slick activist clamoring for media attention to promote some divisive agenda or another! It looks like the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, and peace; it looks like the Kingdom of God, which is “justice, peace, and joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17 REB).

[1]A sermon preached 8/20/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 255, where he says Christian fellowship “combines respect for the other person’s freedom with deep affection for him or her as a person.” See also ibid., 258, where he says, “the basic law of the community of Christ is acceptance of others in their difference, for it is this experience of our neighbours, and only this, which is in line with Christian experience of God.”

[3] See Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 111, defines submission as freedom “to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way.”

[4] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 283-84. Cf. ibid., 289, where he calls the church “the messianic fellowship of service for the kingdom of God in the world.” See also Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, 190.

[5] Luke T. Johnson, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel, 201; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 278, calls this “a life in accordance with the gospel of Christ.” Cf. Foster, 117, “We are commanded to live a life of submission because Jesus lived a life of submission.”

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