Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Last Epiphany: Transfiguration
“Peter said, ‘I will make three dwellings here:
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’” (Matthew 17)
When I was a young priest, the rector I was working for at the time caught me up short one day when he said, “Joe, it seems to me that you are more interested in the things of the church, than you are the ways of Jesus.” Ouch.
The thing was, he was right. As a recent seminary graduate, I knew all there was to know about religion. I knew the correct number of times to swing the thurible to cense the altar at high mass. I knew the proper vestment to wear for every possible kind of church service, from Solemn Choral Matins to a private home communion. I knew the difference between a reverend, and a very reverend, and a right reverend, and even a most reverend. I knew the name for every vessel in the sacristy, and the right sequence of collects to pray at Morning and Evening Prayer. I had it all down.
But the thing was, underneath all that religion, there wasn’t a lot of spirituality. I had lapsed into what Rabbi Heschel called “religious behavioralism,” by which he meant a faith that substitutes the symbols of religion for authentic relationship with God. Heschel devoted much of his life to combatting the ways in which he saw “rituals, customs and ceremonies” overtaking the experience of real praise and devotion in American synagogues — and the same could be said for much of mainline Christianity at the time as well.
And so, from the time that that rector made his remark to me about my religiosity, I think I’ve been on a gradual journey away from religion, and toward the spiritual — if by the spiritual is meant a deep and personal awareness of the underlying mystery of everything that is, as given by God in the act of creation. By comparison, what you might call the bric a brac of organized religion just isn’t that interesting or life giving, at least not to me. Not anymore. In fact, if what many people say nowadays is that they are “spiritual but not religious,” well then, count me in!
And isn’t that what Jesus himself was constantly trying to get the religious authorities of his day to understand — those Pharisees who were masters at observing the letter of the law, but overlooked its spirit entirely. And of course, as we heard today, when Jesus took his closest disciples with him up on the mountain top, and they caught a glimpse of just how intense the affinity was between him and God—the first thing they want to do is institutionalize it by building dwellings to contain it. Jesus simply ignores their all too human instincts toward religiosity, and tries instead to draw them into the moment: “Trust me,” he says, “you don’t have to hold onto this. Let it be. Don’t be afraid.”
And in the space that such a true spirituality opens up, not weighed down by the impassivity of observance, something new and more alive can begin to grow: we begin to become followers of Jesus, rather than mere participants in ceremonies. In his little book, Being Disciples, Rowan Williams says that to be a follower—a disciple—of Jesus means, at the very least, two rather simple things. First, it means being open to asking whether what we do, and what we speak and know, are open to the influence of Christ and his Spirit. And second, it means committing ourselves to being part of a learning community that together seeks to be drawn ever more deeply into his life.
Discipleship, in other words, is a state of being — a way of life. Or, another way of putting it, would be to say that it has to do with a certain stability, a patient staying, or abiding (as John’s gospel puts it). It has to do with remaining in the presence of Jesus long enough, that the things we routinely do become shaped by his own example into practices that infuse every part of our daily life.
The word “discipleship” comes from a Greek word meaning “to be a student,” and in the ancient world, disciples lived in the household of their master and learned through their constant exposure to his teachings. Discipleship therefore implies an commitment to be constantly changing and growing, refining the skills of living that constitute the way of life one is attempting to take in and internalize.
But of course, not every day results in large steps forward. It has been said that discipleship is a lot like bird watching: you have to sit very still, expectantly anticipating that something dramatic might happen, which means that some days nothing much does and they feel disappointing and unproductive. Yet on the occasions when some rare and beautiful bird does break into view — well then the time sitting quite still is all worth it.
Here at St. Michael’s, we are embarked on a yearlong examination of the practices of Christian faith that are the yardstick of what it means to make following Jesus a way of life — practices that you might say that tend toward the spiritual, rather than the religious. At its core, such a practice is something done by a group of people—us—that addresses some basic human need, but in response to and in light of a common awareness of Christ’s animating presence within. Some of these practices can seem quite ordinary, things like hospitality and gratitude—and some of them more difficult, like testimony and prayer—but when they are practiced in imitation of Jesus, they take on the role of reorienting our lives to seeing and relating to the world as he does. They move us along from being members of the church, to being followers of his way.
Let me give you one example. This week is Ash Wednesday, the traditional beginning of Lent as the season of preparation for Easter. If you were to just walk into church here on that day, knowing nothing about what was going on, you would probably get the strong impression that it was all about some ritualized expression of guilt that a group of people feels about something they have done. But if you were to reframe that day in terms of the practice of healing (as we intend to do), a rather different message would come through.
Perhaps the real issue is not so much that we are all guilty, as that we are wounded, in one way or another, by the consequences of what we have done. And our deepest need is to be healed (or set free, or liberated, or restored, or made whole, or whatever word you want to use for it). The practice of healing, then (of seeking forgiveness and reconciliation), would be the natural outgrowth of being a community where we also engage such practices as truth-telling and respect for human dignity, so that what has wounded us and what we have done to wound others can be named, recognized, and set right.
Following Jesus, means approaching life through a set of practices that form us with just such a disposition of awareness, expectancy, mystery, and anticipation—always open to the growth of our interior spirit, rather than held captive by the externalities of religion. And for me now, that’s the only Christian life worth living. Amen.
(Oh, and by the way — the correct number of swings of the thurible to cense the altar? It’s 24.)