The risen life: in the Spirit
A few years ago, I was visiting Harrogate, the Yorkshire town in which I was born. I had a feeling I’d like to go to a nearby place called Ripon, just to see it again. So I went to the railway station, and asked for a ticket to Ripon.
The lad behind the counter looked stupefied. He said, ‘Trains ’aven’t run t’Ri’om since t’mid-60s.’ (Long, may I add, before he was born. For him, this was a factoid he’d managed to imbibe.) My accent gets quite Yorkshire-ish when I’m over there, so there was no point saying, ‘I didn’t know, I’m from Australia.’ There are times over there when I must appear to be quite stupid.
Sometimes, people ask me about what things are like in England. I have no idea. My personal ‘England’ is something that was last seen in the 1960s through the eyes of an eleven-year old child.
Anything I know about the England of today I know through the news, and through talking to people who’ve been there recently; my knowledge of England is second-hand at best. That’s surely true of much of my knowledge about God. I believe what I believe because it’s what is taught by people I trust. When I was a boy, I had a sense of God. I don’t believe that sense of God was second-hand; but the specifics, the details, the bits I coloured my sense of God in with—they were all second-hand. Of course they were.
But as I’ve grown older, I’ve been less inclined to stick with second-hand knowledge. I’ve needed to test what I’ve been told about God by my own experience.
But how do I get experience of God? There’s only one way I know—through the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit. We’ve just sung
Lord, unveil my eyes,
let me see you face to face,
the knowledge of your love
as you live in me.
Isn’t that what we want?
We’ve already heard about some ways of connecting with the Spirit. We talked a lot about spiritual practices last year. Practices like prayer, study, confession, worship. We’ve spoken this year about living as people of the Beatitudes, as the poor in spirit, the meek who hunger and thirst for justice, as the pure in heart who wait upon God. It’s putting these things into practice, not just talking about them, that gives us experience of God’s Spirit.
Today, I’d like to introduce you to someone who knew something of God our Father through the working of the Holy Spirit. Her name was Catherine of Siena, a town in Tuscany, Italy. Catherine lived from 1347–1380 (do the maths: she died at 33 years of age). Catherine was a woman of great initiative and courage who often told popes and cardinals how they should behave.
She pictured the spiritual life as a tree. (I owe a great deal—as so often—to Richard Rohr for the following thoughts. See Radical Grace for Day 154.)
We all know what a tree looks like. It has a trunk, branches and leaves. It has parts that are hidden, too: every tree has a root system, and has sap running through the middle of it.
A tree seems to just stand there to us, but there’s a lot going on. Nourishment is being drawn up from the ground; carbon dioxide is being taken in from the atmosphere as the tree produces oxygen for us to breathe.
Catherine says the trunk of the tree is love. There are those of us who could easily feel that the spiritual life is about knowing things, about growing in knowledge. But growing in the Spirit, maturing in faith, is all about love. St Paul says (1 Corinthians 8.1),
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
Knowledge without love is a cause of pride. It’s good to have a knowledge that’s informed and formed by love.
St John goes further still (1 John 4.18):
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.
Spiritual growth is about reaching perfection in love. ‘Perfect’ here doesn’t mean that you never do the wrong thing; it means being mature, whole. It means discovering what it means to live sharing in the love of God. It means opening our hearts to the God who is love.
So too, Catherine of Siena says the whole point of our spiritual life in Christ is love.
How do we become loving people?
Catherine says the inner part of the trunk, the part where the sap flows, is patience. We’ve all heard the prayer, ‘Lord, give me patience… Now!’ But patience comes in its own sweet time to those who wait. ‘Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength’ (Isaiah 40.31). The only way to have patience is to practise patience. Ironic, isn’t it?
With patience, we can be kind to ourselves. We can know that no virtue is just switched on. We have to grow in love; it’s quite normal not to be as loving as we wish to be. It can take time.
Sometimes we’re patient with ourselves but not with others. Patience also gives us some perspective on other people. They too need to learn to love.
Patience is at the core of the spiritual life. (So—be patient…!)
It won’t surprise you to hear that Catherine has thoughts about what the branches and leaves do. As they wave in the air, they discern.
We live in a noisy age. There are lots of voices coming at us, all the time. There are billboards and adverts and competing philosophies of life. How do we discern what is good?
We have the Bible, and we stand on the Bible. I love the Bible, so what more do I need? Problem is, I have the same Bible as people like Harold Camping, who prophesied the so-called ‘rapture’ a few weekends ago (on my weekend off too, how inconvenient of the man!). Now he says it’ll happen in October. Should I worry about Camping’s ‘prophecy’? (Just in case?)
And I have the same Bible as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Should I follow their teachings?
Everyone reads the Bible as part of a community of interpretation. The Uniting Church reads the Bible as part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. As I minister of the Uniting Church, I’ve undertaken to ‘live and work within the faith and unity of the holy, catholic and apostolic Church’. I’m happy to be part of that community of interpretation. So I see the Trinity in the Bible, and I see Jesus, the eternal Son of God, the Word-made-flesh, the risen and crucified Lord. I read the Bible as part of the Church.
When we gathered today, we sang some of the most profound words I’ve sung in any hymn:
All-knowing Spirit, prove
the poverty of pride,
by knowledge of the Father’s love
in Jesus crucified.
How did we ask the all-knowing Spirit to prove the knowledge of God’s love to us?—it was in Jesus the crucified one. This is not the world’s wisdom, but it is wisdom taught by the Spirit of Christ. These words remind me of those equally-profound and simple-yet-demanding words of Isaac Watts:
When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the prince of glory died:
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.
If we want to discern God’s voice, God’s ‘still, small voice’, we need to know Christ crucified and risen. It’s easy to neglect the ‘crucified’ bit. We don’t like the crown of thorns, and nails hurt. Yet the Spirit aims to conform our lives to Jesus.
And finally, there are the roots of the tree. What do they mean? It may surprise you to hear that Catherine of Siena says that the roots represent self-knowledge.
Not the knowledge of God, and not the knowledge of Christ crucified and risen. The tree of spiritual growth is rooted in self-knowledge.
We don’t always welcome learning the truth about ourselves. A few weeks ago, I told you about a young man who didn’t know himself. He felt guilty because he enjoyed swimming after work. This was time spent alone, and time alone was time he just could not use to witness to others about Jesus. He’d learned well that every single moment needed to be used for Jesus. How could he enjoy his time alone so much?
He could enjoy it because he was an introvert, and his soul was being restored in this time. It was good for him! But self-knowledge didn’t help this young man. He’d been taught to deny himself, even the bits of himself that God had made and that God cherished.
This is one reason why self-knowledge is so very important. Jesus says (Matthew 16.24),
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
How do we know what to deny and what to affirm in ourselves, unless we know the selves that God made us to be?
This young man was denying his God-given introvert nature, and deeply wounding himself in the process. What he needed to deny was the voice that was accusing him, driving him like a ‘slave for Jesus’.
We have a program in our congregation called SHAPE. Self-knowledge is essential to the SHAPE program, which aims to help us to find which ministries suit the selves that God has made us to be. Two people with similar spiritual gifts, say of hospitality, may be in different ministries because of their differing life experiences and personalities. One may host a home group; the other may welcome new families. Catherine was right: the tree of the spiritual life is rooted in self-knowledge.
Growing in the Spirit means growing in love. But we don’t grow in love without growing in self-knowledge and being patient. We don’t grow in love without discerning the voice of God as it speaks to us, usually softly.
I want again to commend the life of spiritual practice to you. I want to remind you to be people of the Beatitudes. But remember St Catherine’s tree as you do. The Spirit wants to increase God’s love within us, and we need to practise patience, discernment and self-knowledge if we are to grow. Amen.