Apostolic spirituality

This is the text of a sermon for St. Matthew’s day, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scripture it references is Psalm 119:65-72.

I wonder how many of you have heard someone describe him or herself as “spiritual but not religious”? It’s a growing phenomenon, this way of thinking about life, so much so that that source of all profound knowledge – I refer of course to Wikipedia – tells me that perhaps one third of Americans today fall into this category. Wikipedia didn’t have similar statistics for Australia, but I suspect that as a similar society, it’s likely to be a serious phenomenon here as well.

But what does it mean? What does it mean to be spiritual? And if we are religious, what does that imply about spirituality for us? Perhaps spirituality is a smorgasbord of ideas and behaviours and practices from which we can pick and choose to fashionably accessorise our faith? Or indeed is it a matter of fuzzy thinking best ignored by the wise?

Well, I think it is possible to be religious without being spiritual. But I also think it is dangerous; that way lie dogmatism, fundamentalism, legalism, and institutionalism. We’ve all seen the damage that these approaches to a life of faith can do, and I’m sure I don’t need to encourage you to avoid them.

At the same time, though, it is definitely possible to have a spirituality which isn’t firmly anchored in a relationship with God, and that’s just as dangerous in its own way. That way lie the occult practices which the Bible explicitly forbids, as well as pursuit of whatever makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside, perhaps at the expense of our emotional maturity and indeed our common sense. That way, too, lies the risk of projecting our own psyche onto the universe and then wondering why the universe seems so muddled!

The reason that I’ve started by raising questions about spirituality is that this morning I want to consider the Psalm we just sang, but I want to talk particularly about its spirituality and what that might have to offer us. And I want to think with you – on this feast day of St. Matthew – about what that might add to our understanding of what it is to be an apostolic church. More on that later.

The psalmist wrote, “I have trusted in your commandments…I keep your word…teach me your statutes…I will keep your commandments…my delight is in your law…I may learn your statutes…the law of your mouth is dearer.” On the face of it, this psalm can look like an obsessive-compulsive’s hymn to legalism. Over and over the psalmist focuses on God’s law.

And yet we do well, to notice amongst the mentions of the “law,” words about grace and life and delight. And we might also do well to ask, how it is that the psalmist found these things in the law?

Well, the first thing we should note is that the word we translate as “law” – Torah – is not about a legal system. It has at its root the Jewish verb for “to teach” or “to instruct.” For the psalmist, then, delight comes from accepting God’s teaching, rather than living within a set of “rules.” That teaching is not just a set of moral or behavioural precepts; it refers above all to God’s revelation of Godself to Israel. But notice that the psalmist does not treat God’s teaching as fixed or finished; he asks that God continues to teach him. This is a faith which expresses itself in a relationship which is open, trusting and dynamic.

The psalmist’s spirituality has what has been described as a “warm doctrine of God.” The God of this psalm is not withdrawn or neutral; he is present and available to the person who reaches out to Him.

The psalmist had a faith very firmly grounded in what he knew of God. His spirituality wasn’t something he made up as he went along, but at every point he turned back to let his life be formed and re-formed according to the word of the Lord. For us, coming after the time of Christ, our knowledge of God has expanded to include the apostolic witness to Christ; the gospels, the creeds of the early church, and the foundation of the tradition in which we have been nurtured. In order to be truly apostolic, we need to take that as seriously as the psalmist took the teaching he had received.

A further thing to note about this psalm is that it is not an expression of purely individual faith. Whatever the circumstances in which it was written, it was incorporated into the sung worship of the Jerusalem temple, and has continued to be part of the corporate prayer life of both Jews and Christians to this day. Even our use of it this morning is intended to be as much an exercise of prayer and worship as of intellectual processing. It points us to the fact that we connect with God at times in each other’s company and even through each other, through mutual service and the sharing of our gifts and wisdom. And it points us to the fact that God’s self-revelation impacts the decisions and priorities not just of individuals but of communities.

But let me come back to the questions I started with this morning. Is spirituality a bit of a smorgasbord, something from which we can pick and choose as we wish to enhance our faith? I suggest that the psalm we’ve read this morning offers us a qualified answer which says, “yes and no.” Yes, spirituality, even for Christians, offers us a huge variety of ways to connect with God and discern His will. Even the diversity of Scripture shows us that; we can pray and praise our way through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and encounter a huge variety of genres of writing, of moods, of characters and stories.

At the same time, the psalm also says, no, Christian spirituality – apostolic spirituality – isn’t entirely undetermined. It is a response to God’s love and self-revelation in Christ. Christian spirituality includes the imperative to obedience, to trust and faith, to coming back again and again to the touchstones we have in Scripture and in tradition, to ensure that we are firmly anchored in the life of faith. It highlights the necessity of facing up to the things in life of which we are afraid, and points us to the resources we have to do so.

The question of what it means to be faithfully apostolic is real and urgent.  It has consequences for our identity and ethos. It is in being faithful to the teaching about God in Christ, which we have received from the apostles, that we can be faithful heirs to the legacy of St. Matthew.

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