In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Spirituality is a word which is much on vogue these days. And like many vogue words, it has many meanings, for it is a very vague concept. We hear about Celtic spirituality, and Buddhist spirituality. You hear of people whose spirituality doesn’t seem to have much connection with religion- for example, there are those who say they find the sacred when they climb high mountains. In fact, I think that for many people, spirituality is a word they use to talk about what are really religious things. The trouble is that ‘religion’ has become a bogey word. It has become associated with fundamentalism, with violence, with everything that’s not progressive. And so, rather than speaking about religion or faith, people use that nice vague foggy term, ‘spirituality’.
Many people think of spirituality as ‘religion-lite’- slimmed down religion, without doctrines or a commitment to a religious organisation, like the Church. In fact, of course, the spirituality industry has its doctrines and beliefs. It has commercial organisations behind if, for it has become a money-spinning business. So we should be a bit suspicious of anything or anyone who uses the word ‘spirituality’ in that loose way.
Yet spirituality is at the heart of all the great religions of the world. I would go as far as to say that if Christianity is to recover some of its lost vitality, we need to rediscover the importance of Christian spirituality. What do I mean by that? Let me explain.
Sometimes people think that the Bible is just a list of doctrines or dos and don’ts. But the Bible is at the heart of Christian spirituality.
For the Bible is full of spiritual resources. There are many prayers in the Bible (not just the ‘Our Father’ which the Bible tells us Jesus taught to his disciples). The Bible has its own prayer book, the Psalms. And the greatest hymn writers and spiritual writers were soaked in the imagery and stories of the Bible. But in order to release the power of the Bible to assist our spirituality, we need to use our imagination. For the Bible is a book of stories and images and ideas, full of things to spark our imagination as we think about our spirituality. ‘The Lord is my shepherd’… bringing me through the valley of the shadow of death to cool waters and green pastures- what a beautiful image!
Today’s Bible readings give us some clues about the ingredients of a truly Christian spirituality. The passage from Second Timothy is about the Bible. The Gospel passage is about the Bible, and prayer. Those should be good places to start to think about our own, Christian, spirituality. So let’s think for a moment about them each in turn.
But today’s Epistle reading doesn’t seem to encourage much imagination. This is a letter which was written to someone who was concerned with getting the doctrine right. He writes:
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living.
And so it is. But we have to watch that we don’t think that ‘teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living’ causes us to boil the Bible down, so that all it consists of is a list of doctrines and dogmas, of dos and don’ts- which is, sadly, what many people have done to the Bible. Yet the Bible is above all a book of stories, telling the grand story of how God has interacted with human beings. You wouldn’t read a story book as if it were a car maintenance manual. So why don’t we let the stories of the Bible speak to our imagination, as well as our intellect? Treat the Bible, not as an instruction manual, but as a work of art. Let it speak to you- not just to your mind, but to all your being. You are allowed to use your imagination when you read the Bible. That way, you will find that the Holy Spirit will speak to you from the pages of the Bible in a much deeper way.
But Second Timothy reminds that, for Christians, the Bible is going to be central to our spirituality. You know, sometimes other Christian denominations somehow find it easier than we Presbyterians to use the language of spirituality. And as a result, sometimes we get a bit suspicious about what they are getting up to.
When I was a teenager, I got a job as a Church organist (I sometimes think that I should keep quiet about being a Church organist, in case some day I arrive to discover that the organist isn’t well and I end up getting two jobs on a Sunday!). Anyway, this organist job was in the local Episcopal church. It was quite a challenge to me, because they had this (as I thought) elaborate sung liturgy. I wondered, for a while, where all these words had come from. But slowly it dawned on me that most of what they sung- the Gloria in Excelsis or the Kyrie Eleison, all these prayers with strange names which I really didn’t know much about- it all came straight from the Bible. All those fixed prayers of which I had a Presbyterian suspicion were full of quotes from and allusions to the Bible. It was a thoroughly Biblical service.
In the Church of Scotland, instead of prayers books we make much of our hymn books. But the best hymns are just the same- full of Biblical imagery and quotations. Consider our first hymn this morning: ‘Immortal, invisible God only wise’. That first line is almost a direct quote from the first letter to Timothy in the Authorised Version, chapter 1, verse 17:
Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory forever’.
The best, classic, hymns can be taken apart, line by line, and you can trace their origins back to something in the Bible. Truly the poets and the hymn writers have been much better at bringing the Bible alive than the theologians and the scholars. We need to be creative, use our imaginations, let God speak to us from the Bible to all our personalities- not just our minds, but our spirits as well.
The Gospel reading today is a story- a parable of Jesus. As usual, he has taken a familiar situation from everyday life, and used it to say something very deep and important about God. For Jesus understood the importance of imagination. His stories are works of art. He can take a rather unpromising idea and use it to great effect.
There was once a lawyer in the High Court in Edinburgh, who, in pleading in mitigation for his client, told the court how much a week his client had to live on. ‘How much?’ said the judge, ‘I spend that amount on my lunch’. So why are judges are paid so much? Well, part of the reasoning is that that way they should be incorruptible. It’s no use trying to bribe them, because they are well off enough, thank you very much. Well-paid judges, it’s claimed, help to ensure that the law is administered fairly.
But it is not always thus. Certainly not in Palestine in Jesus’ day. Jesus tells us a story about a corrupt judge,
In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people.
And he’s saying to his listeners- you know the sort of judge I mean- a judge susceptible to a bit of bribery. So even if you have a good case, unless you’re willing to pay, you might never get a hearing.
But here’s another character in the story:
And there was a widow in that same town who kept coming to him and pleading for her rights, saying, “Help me against my opponent!” For a long time the judge refused to act…
…for this was just a poor widow woman- she had no clout. But she was persistent: she kept on and on at him, and
at last he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or respect people, yet because of all the trouble this widow is giving me, I will see to it that she gets her rights. If I don’t, she will keep on coming and finally wear me out!”
And Jesus says to his listeners, ‘Do you hear what this corrupt judge is saying? Even someone like this can be persuaded to listen to the plea of someone in need’. If even a bad man can be persuaded, imagine what God is like:
Now, will God not judge in favour of his own people who cry to him day and night for help? Will he be slow to help them? I tell you, he will judge in their favour and do it quickly.
This little story about from a corrupt legal system becomes, in the hands of Jesus, a masterful illustration to remind us of what God is like. God will not be slow. God is reliable. God will listen to us. These are all factors which should inform our spirituality.
The letter to Timothy warns that that at times people will ‘give their attention to legends’. And strangely, today is one of those times. For much of what gets called ‘spirituality’ is little more than superstition. There are people who think crystals can heal you. We can put a man on the moon, send probes to Mars and look with space telescopes at the most distant galaxies, but still people read the horoscopes (although there is not an ounce of scientific evidence for it). I think it is very sad that people put their future in the hands of astrologers, when at any time they could turn to God. Put away your tarot cards, throw away your crystal balls. There is a much simpler way of dealing with your worries about the future. Jesus taught that God will listen to us: ‘Take it to the Lord in prayer’, as the old hymn has it.
And so one mark of a genuine Christian spirituality is that it will be a confident spirituality. Jesus tells us that we can rely on God. We are not in the hands of fate. The stars do not determine our destiny. We don’t need to learn what the Tarot Cards mean so we can get a glimpse of the future. No- we have a God who will listen, who loves us, who will be there whatever lies ahead of us. As Paul put it in his letter to the Romans:
For I am certain that nothing can separate us from [God’s] love: neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future, neither the world above nor the world below- there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord.
It’s so simple. Perhaps it’s too simple for many people. But a truly Christian spirituality will be a straightforward and confident sort of spirituality. For our God is one doesn’t need bribed or nagged. You don’t need to be through a great spiritual rigmarole in order to get in touch with our God. For the Bible assures us that the immortal, invisible, inaccessible God has come to us in Jesus Christ. God has come to us in a teller of tales, an artist of parables, a carpenter who healed the sick, made time for the outcast and who despised those who made religion complicated, or superstitious, or who tried to sell God’s grace. The God of Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t require an exotic or complicated faith. We just need to be confident that God is there for us, and hears our prayers. That, my friends, is a truly Christian spirituality.
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2019 Peter W Nimmo
 Romans 8.38-39