“Spirituality” June 3, 2018
Mark 2: 23-3: 6
So today we will be looking at a phenomenon called the spiritual but not religious. I’m actually going to look at this over the next 2 to 3 weeks; looking at what those categories mean, especially for these particular people, what benefit would get from each category, and lastly why I believe we need both, not one or the other. But today were going to really be looking at the spiritual, and what the people that fall into this category believe they are getting from it, and why perhaps they consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious.
The spiritual but not religious person usually sees the value in the spiritual aspects of life; the things that we might call a prayer, or meditation (that’s really big right now), perhaps doing good or helping other people or seeing the best in other people. Even worshipping, if I can call it that. It’s not going to be worshiping like coming in and doing a liturgy or anything like that. They’re not coming on Sunday morning. But for them it might be a nature hike and enjoying nature or something along those lines. To me that would be a worship of a sort, it’s just the worship of other spiritual aspect of worship, of the human spirit; or at least worship in recognition of the human spirit.
But they reject religion. As it is spiritual but not religious it is a rejectionof religion. By religion they usually mean the church, and usually is the Christian church, but it could be others. They reject things like the Bible, the orthodoxy, the pastoral leadership, etc. And I give them a pass on pastoral leadership. If you just were looking at the press coverage, a pastor only gets in the news when they’ve done something terrible or they’ve said they want a fourth private jet and they want you to pay for it. In other words when they’re done something stupid and indefensible. I can see not trusting people who you see in that light.
Trying to understand this I’ve looked at some experts over the years, and one of my favorites was a woman named Diana Butler Bass. Bass had something with this that she calls the belief gap: this is when we don’t actually believe all of the creed that is expressed by the church both officially and unofficially; or at least we don’t know if we believe all of it. There’s some aspect of it that they begin to question, and then we’ve gotten to a point where if we question that one thing we begin to question if were really Christian. They answer “no” and drop from the church and start saying “well, I believe that there something out there, and I believe it that the spiritual things can do good, but I just don’t agree with the church.” And we wind up in this spot.
The funny thing though it this isn’t actually new. It’s just that in the past it used to form denominations. So Luther disagreed with one tiny aspect of the creed of the Catholic Church, that the pope was the only one able to interpret scripture or at least the priests were the only ones who should interpret scripture. He agrees with almost everything else in the Catholic Church but doesn’t agree with that and he winds up saying “well, I am Christian but not Catholic.” Then in a few months after or a few years after that Calvin shows up and Calvin doesn’t agree with one aspect of Lutheranism and winds up saying “I’m Protestant, but not Lutheran.” And it goes on and on and on and on and on.
This phenomenon has been happening for a while. But we have to ask now: why are people now saying if I don’t agree with this one aspect of what the church, then I am not religious? Because before certain things were questioned, but it was never a question is there a God; is it was never question did Jesus die for our sins; it was never questioned whether there was an afterlife. Those things are now being questioned. And they’re not usually the starting point for someone, so we have to wonder why is someone not believing something smaller, such as believing that women shouldn’t be silent in church for instance; which by the way we Methodist don’t believe that women should be silent, but there are many that do. And in some of those congregations I have heard testimony that people think that, and then wind up saying “well I must not be Christian because I don’t agree with every single little part of the Bible. I don’t agree with that one verse in a letter (not even in the gospel, certainly not in the law). I don’t believe that one verse in a letter, therefore I must not be Christian. And once they are rejected by that church they begin to say God wouldn’t of let this happen, and so there is no God or at least not a God active in human history like many in the church say.
There are times when I wonder if Jesus didn’t completely understand where they were coming from. One of the things that Jesus criticized the Pharisees for the most was when they put the Law in front of the people. In fact when we see Jesus get angry in Scripture the only time I remember that really happening is when the Pharisees are putting the Law in front of the people; such as this one. The Law was never meant to be followed at the expense of people, it is meant to benefit them. Jesus put it “the Sabbath was made for humankind; not humankind for the Sabbath.” The Law was made to help humanity become what they’re supposed to be: closer to what we were when we were in Eden before the fall. It’s not meant to be used for hurt. It says that Jesus was grieved at the hardness of heart. I wonder how Jesus looks at us from time to time.
The trick that makes this difficult is that the Pharisees are not actually wrong. I mean it ultimately depends on what you think of as work, and whether healing is work, but if healing is work then they’re not wrong, Jesus is; at least by the letter of the Law. The point though was that to Jesus, and by extension to the Trinity, the Law is not meant to be used in this kind of way; this kind of legalistic, to the letter, infallibility kind of way. Rather what Jesus wants us to do is to follow the spirit of the law (pun intended). In other words if the Law has to be broken to stay with the theme of the loving neighbor, and loving God, and loving self; then you do. Because the Law is meant to help us love, is not meant to be in and of itself a path to God.
If you’ve ever wondered how people get to this point, let me ask you to place yourself in the shoes of this man. This man is has a weathered hand. He’s been kicked out of society. He is been made an outcast, he has been reduced to nothing but a beggar on the side of the road that no one truly sees. And the Pharisees are essentially saying “look, I know this man is in a bad spot, and I know this man could use healing, and I know you can heal him, but it’s the Sabbath so…I mean he’s had that hand for how long now? What is one day more? Follow the law.”
And what is one day more? What’s one more day of being a nobody, being an outcast, being a garden gnome to everyone around you? That’s what one day more is to him. And let me ask: if you’re that man at this point what do you think of the Pharisees? What do you think of the law? And what do you think of the God who they said gave the law to begin with? He might be thinking that God is holding him back from becoming a part of society again, from becoming human again; and then what do you think he thinks about Jesus, and his religion, and his God after this encounter?
Many who claim to be spiritual but not religious say they got to the point they got to; the point where they are at where they have rejected the church; because at some point in the past someone from the church played the part of the Pharisees in the story to them or to someone that they love. And they cannot believe in the church because of that. And they cannot believe in a God who would’ve allowed that to happen, and so they lose faith, and they claim that they still get something from the praying, and the meditating, and all that stuff; but they just don’t think the church is right. Theologian Matt Skinner said in a blog I saw this week about this story, “even as the passage emphasizes a commitment to life and vitality abiding at the heart of God’s reign, it also illustrates how religious commitment and values – any religious commitment and values – can ossify and turn oppressive in the hands of careless stewards. None are immune.” I recently heard of a study that asked people to pick out a picture that they most associate with Christianity; the winner was a hand pointing while sitting on a Bible. Have we allowed our religious values to turn oppressive? Because there are many in this world who believe that at least many Christians have done exactly that.
So is there any room for religion? Is there any room for the church, and the Bible, and pastors, and all of that great stuff? Of course there is. At least I believe that, obviously, or I wouldn’t be a pastor. And I want you to come back next week, and if you have someone you know who is spiritual but not religious, I want you to invite them to that message, because we’re going to be looking at the benefits we can get next week from the religious. But what I want to emphasize, because I think Jesus emphasized it, and I think the prophets before him had emphasized it as well: the religious aspect cannot drown out the spiritual aspects. They are there to help the spiritual aspects.
After all, the church is built upon the Spirit. It was not born until the Spirit arrived. It is the spiritual aspects, the Holy Spirit speaking to our spirits, that builds and sustains the church. There is something that is truly spiritual about Christianity that cannot be lost.
Bass suggests that actually the marker between spiritual and religious go together so well that we shouldn’t actually use those words, but rather were talking about two things within the concept of Christianity: the difference between “belief” (what we personally experience and believe) versus “behavior” (what we’re doing as a result of our belief and what we’re doing with other people). People are saying that they’re OK with the types of things that we think, but they’re not OK with the things were doing. And the reality is we need both of these things. They’re to be separate, but they’re to be equal in that our ideas and our behavior should be helping further and show to others what we believe.
But we’ve come to value behavior; such as worshiping, or Bible reading, or reciting the creeds; as more important then our belief; the relationship aspect, or our relationship with Jesus Christ, our relationship with ourselves, and making ourselves better. I think they are equal. The problem is we as a church has focused so heavily on behavior, and so little on making that relationship and having that good. Perhaps the difference could be better understood by showing it as this: it is the difference between belief inJesus and belief aboutJesus. The creeds and things like that are what we believe about Jesus. These are memorize-able facts. Belief in Jesus is more about trust. Trust is about relationship with Jesus. And John 3:16, that often quoted verse, talks about believe in Jesus: trusting in Jesus.
Maybe trust is the better word. After all believe in English can mean trust, as in “I believe in you” meaning “I trust in you.” It also can be knowledge, like “I believe the world is round.” But the question of “do you trust in the resurrection” is a different question then “do you have knowledge of the resurrection?” Do you trust in the resurrection is a question about faith; it is a question about whether you place your trust in it, whether your goal for life after death is based upon a faith and a trust or hope in this event that you think happened, and you think matters for you now. “Do you know about the resurrection?” is a question of historical facts that doesn’t necessarily have any bearing upon your life. You could say “yes I know the resurrection happened 2000 years ago, and it doesn’t matter,” and still truthfully say “I believe in the resurrection.” Trust is what we’re looking for. Trust is actually more in line with his historical Christianity than believe in the case of John 3:16, in the case of spiritual but not religious, in case of everything else. So this week trust in Jesus with all your heart, with all your spirit. The purpose of religion, in my mind, is to help you do that; nothing more. Come back next week, and we’ll see how religion can help us trust in Jesus. Amen.