Religion, or spirituality, can take many different forms. It can be a matter of exalted feelings, of mystical communion with God or a sense of unity with the whole of being. It can be a journey of discovery, of ‘finding oneself’. For some people it can mean basking in the love of whatever God they worship – some spiritual writing sounds very much like love poetry. For some, on the other hand, religion is hardly emotional at all. It is a set of firmly held doctrines, logically argued, or of strictly observed rules. Sometimes spirituality is centred on ‘signs and wonders’, or spectacular acts of sacrifice, while for many ordinary people it is just a matter of conforming to the religion one has been taught and trusting in God’s care and providence.
The Judaeo-Christian tradition as we find it in the Bible contains something of all these elements, but its major theme is down-to-earth and uncompromisingly ethical. The prophet Micah puts it very simply:
‘With what shall I come before the Lord …? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’
Our stories of encounter with God, or the ways we describe the place of God in our lives, often concentrate on blessing. We talk of God strengthening and supporting us, saving us, uplifting us, and so on. But in the Bible stories the purpose for which God comes into people’s lives is almost always to call them to do something. God told Abraham to leave his father’s house and country and go to another land. Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush was a call to go to Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrew slaves. For Jonah it was a command to go and preach in the city of Nineveh. Jesus called disciples to follow him because there was a job to do: ‘Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’. The ‘conversion’ of Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road was actually a call to him to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ before he even believed in it.
There were two sides to the ministry of Jesus. When he was befriending the outcasts, healing the sick. and teaching the multitudes, he was expressing a love that was unconditional and completely inclusive. But to those he called to be his disciples, and even more so to those who volunteered to be his disciples, he was demanding – and how demanding!
‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord! Lord!” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’
The Gospels tell a story of a young man who came to Jesus and asked him, ‘Good Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ This was a very earnest and spiritual young man. Mark’s Gospel makes a point of saying that Jesus ‘looking at him, loved him’. He was already living a good life, but he had a longing for something more, a higher quality of life. Jesus taught him two lessons. First, he said, ‘Why do you call me good?’ In other words, don’t think you can get eternal life by worshipping me! That’s a lesson that many people today still need to learn. But then came a harder lesson. A deeper, higher life is not just an add-on. There’s a cost to it: ‘Go, sell what you have, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ And the man walked away sad – it was too much for him.
At this year’s Baptist Assembly, the main guest speaker was Shane Claiborne, who has a very down-to-earth and inclusive ministry in a deprived area of Philadelphia. He said something that would be shocking to many people. Converts giving their testimony, he said, often say something like: ‘My life was in a terrible mess, but then I met Jesus and he put it all together for me’. Then he said his own testimony was: ‘My life was all tied neatly together – then I met Jesus and he messed it up!’
Jesus said his gospel was ‘good news to the poor’. But to those who are not poor – which means most of us – it is uncomfortable news.
And yet …
The good news is that God’s love is unconditional, even for the rich! The Sermon on the Mount begins with ‘Blessed …’. It is not a strict, judgmental law. It is an invitation to a fuller, more blessed life. Jesus often talked of the kingdom of heaven as a feast. But perhaps we need to learn that it is the poor who can teach us how to enjoy it.