When folks I meet discover I am a Pastor, often, I can guess their reply, “Oh, that’s nice! I find I’m more spiritual than religious.” It is either that or my favorite, “Did you become a Pastor, Online?” Conversations are developing throughout our society about the difference between being religious and being spiritual. Many staking no claim to a particular sacred tradition. Instead, identifying as spiritual.
What is the difference? “On first glance, it may seem like the terms are similar, but in the view of religious traditionalists and spiritual seekers the words describe opposing points of view. The term “religious” typically refers to a loyalty to a particular faith, its doctrine, and system of beliefs, like the United Church of Christ. Following the rules or rituals, participating joyfully in the leadership and body of the church. Worship is a corporate celebration. While “spiritual” allows for more freedom and can include ideas and practices from various faith traditions, finding God alone or in small groups connecting to the spirit through
meditation or prayer. Worship may be silent and solitary.
One common characteristic of someone who identifies as “spiritual”, at some point in their lives they have likely experienced negativity or even oppression from a religious body that claimed to be their community of faith. Just like the views of a particular religious tradition, the views we adopt as our own become very important to us. They shape who we are, they give us stability and a foundation. But even the strongest of us needs a community in which to share our strength. The church is where the religious and the spiritual come together to worship, each bringing their gifts, passions, and love to the table. The church is where the spirit touches everyone.
Although, millions of people claim to be a part of the community of Christ, within the Gospel lesson we hear about only handful who surrounded Jesus and called each other friend. Theirs’ was a community of sojourners. Their intimacy, a result of routine and constant contact with one another. After all, these companions had left life and family and blindly followed a man they hardly knew, but trusted tremendously. Therefore, you can imagine when Jesus told them in the upper room on the eve of his crucifixion, that he would be leaving them, they were horrified.
Philip Sheldrake, in his book, Spirituality, claims: “Our ultimate guide to goodness is not abstract codes of behavior or moral rule books but the presence within us of God’s Spirit.” Jesus shared with his friends that he was not going to leave them orphaned and alone, but explained he would be sending an Advocate to be within and around them. The Spirit of God would now be their companion along the way. But this did not dull the sting of Christ’s departure. How would they live? Who would lead them? Where would they go?
Through their fear of being left behind by the man who was their teacher and friend, the disciples struggled, once again, to understand what Jesus was saying. “Look, I am going to die, but you are not going to be without me. Someone else will be sent to be with you.” Hearing this from Jesus was as foreign to them as the multiple other times their Teacher tried to explain his impending death. In hindsight, we understand that Jesus is referring to the Holy Spirit. That the same spirit that is within Him, that is Him, will now dwell within them. Jesus, who is with them now in the flesh, will always be with them, will always be within us. In other words, Christ’s disciples, which includes us, need not fear loneliness because this Advocate is the key to community.
Theologically candid, Henri Nouwen has said:
Community springs forth from solitude, and without a community, communion with God is impossible. We are called to God’s table together, not by ourselves. Spiritual formation, therefore, always includes formation to life in community. We all have to find our way home to God in solitude and in community with others.
The word advocate means to come alongside another. So, the word community is an action word, meaning to take the time to walk with another on their journey.
Jesus equipped his early followers with everything they needed to walk alongside each other, while he walked another way.
Just yesterday in Quarryville, Lancaster County, the KKK, driven by fear and hatred, held a demonstration. In response, coming alongside their neighbors, the local chapter of the NAACP and folks from all across Lancaster County gathered at the Lancaster Court House in a prayerful vigil of peace and neighborly love.
Lancaster Rabbi, Jack Paskoff wrote this letter to his congregation and members of the Lancaster community. Here are a few of his words:
Yes, this weekly message is very early and very urgent. Aside from timing, I cannot see ending this week, as I always do, wishing you only a Shabbat of peace and blessing, because it is truly a request that we make this a Shabbat of activism and solidarity, a Shabbat to raise our voices and to stand together, as we defy racism and hatred.
As they periodically do, the KKK will be gathering in Quarryville for a cross burning on Saturday. Working with experts in the field of developing appropriate responses, our local chapter of the NAACP has decided against an approach that confronts directly—the Klan thrives on the media attention that such confrontations create. Instead, we will be gathering with people of good will, of all faiths, races, and beliefs, at a Day of Unity titled "Rise! Embrace, Envision, Empower." This event is a call to the Lancaster community to stand for a whole and just multiracial community.”
Our voices must be included in a resounding statement that there is no place for hatred here—in our county, in our country, or in the world. (pause…)
Blessed are those who know their need,
For theirs is the grace of heaven.
Blessed are the humble,
For they are close to the sacred earth.
Blessed are those who weep,
For their tears will be wiped away.
Blessed are the forgiving, for they are free.
Blessed are those who hunger for the earth’s oneness,
For they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the clear in heart,
For they see the Living Presence.
Blessed are those who suffer for what is right,
For theirs is the strength of heaven.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they are born of God!
For me, accessing the Spirit does not come easily. Because from a young age, I had been taught that you need to work for anything and everything. Nothing comes to you in life, free. This makes it extremely difficult to accept things like free grace, and the unconditional love of God. Yet, this is the message we hear from scripture. This is the message that I have often shared with you. Being in this place, this safe space with all of you helps ground me enough to let go and let God be God! To let the Spirit take my hand and lead me for a change. Being alive in the Spirit to me means accepting my part in God’s story. No matter how hard it may be, showing up to receive God’s love in order to share that love with another. For my faith
should be based on such love and grace. Jesus claims, “If you love me, follow my commandments!” Rabbi Jack invited an entire community to show forth the love of God! To be a community of love and grace.
At this time in my own life, hearing the term, orphaned, has taken on a new meaning. Having lost three of the four of our parents over the past two years has left both Kara and I feeling a little abandoned. I can relate with the disciples and their feeling of abandonment. How about you? What in life or death has made you question God’s presence? What challenges have kept you from following Christ’s commandments? Do you open yourself up to allow the Spirit to touch you?
I recently read a blog by the Rev. Dr. Anna Hosemann-Butler, simply titled, Orphaned?
Interesting that Jesus uses the word "orphaned" in this week's text, as it is such a potent metaphor for what he was about to do, which was to leave his beloved disciples.
He surely knew that his death would—and rightly so—strike fear and terror in those who loved him, those he loved so closely and so well, so sacrificially.
He surely knew they would be left vulnerable.
He surely knew they would panic.
He surely suspected they would turn and run for their own lives, abandoning him the very moment things got rough.
He surely knew all of these things but loved them anyway.
Yet his words in this passage reveal none of his own sense of loss and panic, his own sense of being orphaned. He speaks only of love of God, the coming of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will never leave.
Whether they heard him or not, he only speaks words of hope.
Jesus made a promise then that is still alive today. We get from him—straight from the horse's mouth as it were—what it means to live faithfully in the midst of life, and that is to live as though we know with full assurance that we are loved, no matter what.
My friends, what is your voice? How will you let the Spirit stir you to action? Whether you are religious or spiritual, or a little bit of both now is the time to put what you believe into action. Now is the time for all of us to love Jesus, by keeping his commandments. Now is the time to allow God’s Holy Spirit to touch us, change us, and love us. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are born of God! We are not alone… thanks be to God! Amen.
Sheldrake, Philip. Spirituality: A Brief History. Wiley-Blackwell. 2013.
Nouwen, Henri. Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith. HarperOne. 2006.
Newell, J. Phillip. Casa de Sol Blessing of Jesus.
Paskoff, Jack. Letter to his Congregation. Lancaster, PA. 2017.