Born of the Spirit of Hope – A Sermon on What It Means to be “Spiritual”

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October 6, 2014 by jmw

{ TEXTS: Gen. 2:2-24 | Psalm 139:1-18 | Acts 17:1-28 | John 3:1-16 }

This is an apple. I know that it comes from an apple tree and within this piece of fruit are seeds that can be planted to grow a new apple tree. I also know that biotechnology has the ability to genetically modify apples to be bigger and never turn brown.

This is an avocado. I know that it comes from an avocado tree, which grow naturally in Mexico and Latin America. Within it is a seed than can be planted to grow a new tree. I also know that the avocados we find in the grocery store are genetically modified to be much bigger than they are naturally.

This is an Amos. As most of you know, our son Amos was born just two months ago. He is one of a kind and does not grow on trees. One of the most fascinating responses that I have noticed when people meet Amos is when they say something to the effect of, “You made that.” Now, in one sense they are correct. The only two people in the history of the universe that could create Amos are Michelle and myself. Yet what is so unbelievable to me is that Michelle and I did very little to make Amos. It wasn’t as if during Michelle’s pregnancy she had to stay up late at night working on Amos’ circulatory system. It’s not like Michelle decided to knit together little ball and socket joints because she wanted a boy who could run and throw a baseball.

The most incredible thing is that we did not, in fact, make this little human being! Our little Amos is a gift that points toward something – Someone – other than Michelle and me as the giver of life itself. The utter gratuity of human life becomes even clearer when we consider that the odds of you, me, or anyone coming into being are 1 in 400 trillion. In other words, imagine there was one life preserver thrown somewhere in some ocean and there is exactly one turtle in all of these oceans, swimming underwater somewhere.  The probability that you came about and exist today is the same as that turtle sticking its head out of the water right in the middle of that life preserver.  On one try.

The same goes for apples and avocados: we may know how they taste, how they grow, and how to genetically manipulate these fruits, but we did absolutely nothing to create them!

How is it, then, that we live in a culture where we are permitted to narrate our daily existence in this lush world without any reference to the Creator? How is it that in the extravagance of ‘Foodie’ culture we can sit down meal after meal under the impression that this was all our own doing? Indeed, our postmodern culture of the West tells us that the only story we can have is the story that we choose, that we write for ourselves. It is all about our ideas, our actions, our successes, our progress, etc. At what point did we start thinking that this abundant creation was somehow our own doing? I think Richard Dawkins was right when he said we have a “God Delusion,” only the delusion is not simply unhealthy forms of Theism but the delusion that we are sovereign over the created world, over life itself. To think that the miraculous gift of life is somehow our own doing is nothing short of blasphemous!

Now, the reason this lack of reference to a Creator God fascinates me is because we live in a culture in which religion is on the decline yet “spirituality” is very popular.

In a 2012 study Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby observed the fact that…

“…many Canadians do not give up on spirituality even when they do not embrace organized religion … almost one-half (42%) of those who never attend services say their religious or spiritual beliefs are important to how they live life…”

Another recent study, commissioned for the National Post, reported that two-thirds of Canadians consider themselves “spiritual” while just half say they are religious.

The popularity of spirituality can be seen almost everywhere, from magazines to consumer products, and centres for spirituality and well-being popping up all over the place. We often here the cliché that people would rather confess to be “spiritual” than “religious.” But what does it mean to be “spiritual”?

The popular psychology magazine Psychology Today offers the following preface to their website’s section on spirituality: “Spirituality means something different to everyone. For some, it’s about participating in organized religion: going to church, synagogue, a mosque, etc. For others, it’s more personal: Some people get in touch with their spiritual side through private prayer, yoga, meditation, quiet reflection, or even long walks.”

What does it mean to be “spiritual”?

If I were to answer that question with an eye to the readings we have heard today, I would say that to be “spiritual” means to live in right relationship with the Spirit of Creation. What we’ve heard in all of the readings today is God’s life-giving Spirit is behind, under and within all of creation. How, then, is it possible to be spiritual without any reference to the Spirit who gives life to all things?

The text of Genesis 2 suggests that the act of breathing itself is fundamentally spiritual. “Then the Lord formed the earthling of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the earthling became a living being,” (2:7). Without the breath of God there is no life. In the Hebrew tradition the same word (ruah) is used for breath and spirit because the connection between our life-breath and the Spirit of the Creator is so mysteriously intermingled. That word ruah even sounds like our inhaling and exhaling; interestingly, so does the name of God: Yahweh.

But perhaps more interesting is that the text nowhere suggests that God breathed into humankind like one would blow up a balloon, tie the knot and be done with it. Nowhere does the text suggest that God ever stopped breathing life into the earthling, as if it were a one-and-done event like turning the key to start your car.

The affirmation that God’s Spirit continues to give life to all things is heard in Paul’s sermon in Athens that we read from Acts 17. We can hear echoes of Genesis 2 as Paul declares that, “the God who made the world … gives life and breath to everything.” But then Paul pushes the imagery even further when he quotes another Greek philosopher and professes that we “live and move have our being” in God. It is not as if the Creator God is watching from a distance or simply providing the battery of energy for a distinct and disconnected creation; rather, to use Paul’s words, the Creator is “not far from each us.”   We who live and move in this creation somehow mysteriously live and move and have our being in God.

The intimacy between creation and the Creator suggested by Paul is almost scandalous. It certainly gives us pause when we ask the question, what does it mean to be spiritual? If indeed we live and move and have our being in God then our created existence is the locus of genuine spirituality. Spirituality is not escape from the woes of a fallen creation; nor is it an existential crutch in the midst of our fast-paced culture of techno-consumerism. According to Paul, spirituality is the discovery that the Spirit of God-the-Creator is under, behind, and within this created world in which we live.

The intimacy between creation and the Creator is really the heart of the story of Jesus. It is the heart of that famous line from John’s gospel that we heard today: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…” The Creator loves the created world. Not just humankind – if that were the case John would have used a different word; but he doesn’t. He uses the word cosmos, that word that means literally the entire universe. God loves the created world.

This is precisely what Jesus’ teaching to Nicodemus is all about. To be “born again” means to see the created world as God sees it; to love the created world as God loves it.

Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Unless one is born again, one cannot see the kingdom of God.” And again: “Unless one is born of water and Spirit, one cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

If we take seriously the claims that God loves the created world and that God’s Spirit is the breath that gives life to all creation, then Jesus’ invitation to be “born again” and “born of the Spirit” is not simply a matter of private salvation or securing a place in heaven when you die. Instead, Jesus is inviting Nicodemus to recognize his birth – his existence – from the Spirit of God and to see the creation as God’s kingdom and to live into that kingdom through right relationship with the Spirit of the Creator and the creation itself. This is what it means to be “spiritual.”

I don’t know about you, but I find these texts very beautiful and inspiring. To rediscover the created world as our true spiritual home and the place where God’s kingdom can flourish (“on earth as it is in heaven”) is nothing short of amazing. But as soon as I begin to admire our lush garden planet I am reminded that she is suffering immensely. As soon as I begin to consider that spirituality means living in right relationship with the Creator and the creation, I am reminded that I am prone to living in ways that destroy God’s beloved creation and thereby inhibit my relationship to the Spirit of God.

As climate experts forecast futures of doom, I am reminded that this culture of anxiety, greed, and violence that is destroying creation is ultimately rooted in a lack of authentic spirituality. A culture of anxiety depends on you forgetting your breathing and the Spirit who gives you breath. A culture of greed depends on you forgetting the abundance of creation and the sheer gratuity of the Creator who gives life to all things. A culture of violence depends on your forgetting that every living being and all of creation is loved by God.

How, then, do we remember? How can we be born again, born of the Spirit? How can we become truly spiritual and rediscover our relationship to creation?

The Jeremiah Community has a set of 9 postures that describe the kind of people we aspire to become. I think these postures are a good place to start when considering what it means to be spiritual and living right relationship with creation.

We aspire to be a people of…

Gratitude: Let us give thanks to the Creator, the Spirit who is behind, within and underneath all life. Let us remember that our creation is a gift not to be squandered.

Contemplation: As Paul suggests, we “feel” after God like those who reach out in pitch darkness, because the Spirit of God is very near, in our very breath. Through the practice of prayer and contemplation we discover that we live and move and have our being in the Spirit of God.

Wonder: Let us inhabit a childlike awe before the created world; never daring to suppose that we are sovereign or that we will eventually figure it out and objectify it for our own selfish purposes.

Imagination: Some say air; we say ruah, breath, Spirit. Some say coincidence; we say the Spirit is scheming. Some say the invisible hand of the market; we say the invisible Spirit of creation. Some may say that the status quo is the best we can do, we say another world is possible.

Generosity: Because the creation is so abundant, so lavish, so generous to us, let us in be generous in return and learn to share with one another as the Creator has shared with us.

Simplicity: Because the planet cannot support eating burgers and pulled pork whenever you feel like it. Because the creation cannot sustain mining for lithium and indium just so we can have the next version of the iphone. Perhaps that infamous tree in the Garden of Eden from which the first humans were prohibited eating symbolizes the creation’s need to be protected from humankind’s insatiable impulse for more. But in a culture that consumes natural resources like a cancer and values synthetic goods more than the creation itself; let us live simply, knowing that consumerism only leads to spiritual bankruptcy.

Peaceableness: Because the creation is fundamentally interconnected and interdependent, we aspire to live in peace with the Creator and creation.

Resistance: “Peace with God the Creator inevitably and inescapably means not making peace with the systematic destruction of creation by this society of ours. For the person who experiences the peace of God … begins to hope for peace on earth, and therefore begins to resist peacelessness, armaments of war… and the exploitation and devestation in the world of nature.” (Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 154)

Hope: Brothers and sisters, if there’s one thing that you hear me say, please let it be this. To be spiritual, to live in the Spirit, is to be a person of hope, specifically, hope for this created world. We remember that when Jesus invites Nicodemus to be “born of the Spirit” he is talking about the same Spirit who raises Christ from the dead. The Spirit of creation is also the Spirit of new creation; the Spirit for whom death is not the final word. This is the Spirit who wants nothing less than the redemption of the created order, the Spirit who groans with all creation for the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. To be “born of the Spirit” is to live with hope for this created world.

If there was ever an opposition to this hope – an anti-spirit, anti-christ, a spirit of death – it is the zeitgeist of despair that plagues so much of the Western world. Why is it that the only movie plot anyone can imagine is that of a dystopian future where the destruction of the created world is our inevitable fate? (Hunger Games, Divergent, Snowpiercer, After Earth, District B13, Day After Tomorrow, and, of course, the comedies: This Is The End, Rapture-Palooza, It’s a Disaster … the list goes on!)

The fact that we have an entertainment industry built around the idea that we are destroying the world only reveals the sad truth that our recreational despair is the result of our living in such excessive luxury! Only those who live in the comfort of the West can afford to despair about the created world.

But despair is the enemy of the Spirit.  

In a recent interview about her new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Toronto-based author Naomi Klein observed the rampant despair among North Americans. She said:

“People aren’t arguing with me about change. People feel like its impossible. Like we are already doomed. I feel that the ultimate triumph of the free market era is convincing us that we are not worthy of being saved, that we are too selfish and too greedy. So not only can’t we do it, but it’s almost like, do we even think we’re worth it?”

Klein goes on:

“When people say they don’t care about climate change, if you push a little further what you find is raw terror. Not just the terror in the face of these reports… it’s the combination of that fear – that existential terror – and living in a culture that acts as if it’s not happening.”

Brothers and sisters, the Spirit of new creation who raised Christ from the dead gives us hope in the face of fear. To be born of the Spirit is to live with hope that the Spirit who gives life to all things can restore and renew and recreate, if only we would do our part. As the text of Genesis implies, God created humankind to be partners and caretakers, and this means that we have work to do. Nowhere does being spiritual mean that life is going to be easy. Addressing our climate crisis is going to be hard work. But for those who are born of the Spirit, we have hope that the Spirit who gives life to all things will work with us! Just as the Spirit mysteriously gives life to apples, avocados and human beings, so too may the Spirit who raises the dead bring forth new creation and bring into being the things that are not. We work, therefore, not out of guilt, but in hope.

And our hope does not disappoint because we know that it is God’s good pleasure to give the kingdom. For God so loved the created world…

Let us be born of the Spirit, for we have work to do. Amen.


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