“What the soul is to the body, hat are Christians in the world” Diogentus

In a world that has rejected notions of transcendence and has reduced relations to one dimensional tweets I believe the church has a great deal to offer. It is an offer to love. 

When, the other evening, I caught a few minutes of Mountain Men, a made for T.V. series that portrayed the earliest European hunters and trappers in the northern Rocky Mountains, I was struck by how changing styles on the east coast directly impacted their lives It reinforced in my mind how people who want to see themselves as self determined individuals are dependent on community.

Plato said that to be is to be in relation. For us to be human we will be in community. And within that community our identity does not stop with our skin but extends into the whole corporate reality.

 

Our most elemental spirituality begins with the fact that human beings are by nature a creature requiring relationship. To be a person we have to be open to the other. There is within us an innate longing for union with the other. The rendezvous around which the mountain me lives centered were more than markets, it met this essential need to be in community, to know there were others with whom you could work and more importantly trust. Spirituality is the fundamental need we have for one another and ultimately for God.

 

Actually it gets messier than that. It’s not enough just to touch, we need to interpenetrate – enter into the reality of the other. The other half of that is that we must share our inner self. This is the essence of intimacy: to come to know one another as we truly are—or as close as we can. There’s a pejorative phrase that carries the message: to get under your skin. Do you know people like that? Well, try and think of it in a positive way. And yet we never really achieve that, even within our most intimate relationships. We never fully know the answer to the question ‘Who are you?” And for that matter, we never fully know ourselves.

 

We have been seduced into thinking that all truth is susceptible to scientific analysis so we think that all human experience can be reduced to a string of numbers. But objectivity, prediction and control can’t come close to describing the mystery of human relationships. As much as we try, as much as our culture tries to, we can’t avoid the whole matter of transcendence.

 

Spirituality’s experience of transcendence is one of being addressed from beyond the material world by that which is greater than anything we on our own can conceive. The more we know, the more there is to know. Every answer generates another question. There is an infinite presence of the not-yet-known that engages the extent of our knowing and which recedes in the face of our inquiry. Transcendence is the hope for meaning we cannot otherwise have, and spirituality is our capacity for a relationship to that meaning: the mind of God.

 

It is in that context that we are called to shape our ministry within our Meeting.

 

In the anonymously written two thousand year old Epistle to Diognetus there is a magnificent description of the early church community. It ends this way: “To sum it all up in one word — what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.”

About seventy years later Tertullian penned a priceless picture of the practices of early the early Christian community.

“We are a body knit together as such by a common religious profession, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope.

We meet together as an assembly and congregation, that, offering up prayer to God as with united force, we may wrestle with Him in our supplications. This strong exertion God delights in.

We pray, too, for the emperors, for their ministers and for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace, for the delay of the final consummation.

We assemble to read our sacred writings . . . and with the sacred words we nourish our faith, we animate our hope, we make our confidence more steadfast; and no less by inculcations of God’s precepts we confirm good habits.

In the same place also exhortations are made, rebukes and sacred censures are administered. For with a great gravity is the work of judging carried on among us, as befits those who feel assured that they are in the sight of God; and you have the most notable example of judgment to come when anyone has sinned so grievously as to require his severance from us in prayer, in the congregation and in all sacred intercourse.

The (proven persons) of our elders preside over us, obtaining that honour not by purchase but by established character. There is no buying and selling of any sort in the things of God.

Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money, as of a religion that has its price. On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are . . . not spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines or banished to the islands or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession.

But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred. See, they say about us, how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves would sooner kill.

 

History tells us that when a devastating plague swept across the ancient world in the third century, Christians were the only ones who cared for the sick, which they did at the risk of contracting the plague themselves. Meanwhile, pagans were throwing infected members of their own families into the streets even before they died, in order to protect themselves from the disease.

“I give you a new commandment,” Jesus said, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35

 

The highest commendation in both the anonymously written Letter to Diognetus and Tertullian’s description come from persons outside the faith community, the everyone to whom Jesus referred. “…everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” There is our highest calling. It is not what we say we believe, the world couldn’t care less, it’s not who we feed or cloth, that just keeps taxes down, it is how we love one another.

 

For persons to be able to observe love between us, such love much become demonstrable and self revealing.  When in his Spiritual Exercises Ignatius writes of his three part vision of love he draws on 1st John 3: 16-19: We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.  How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?  Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.  And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him.  So Ignatius writes: “The first is that “love ought to show itself in deeds over and above words.”

The second is that love consists in sharing: “In love, one always wants to give to the other what one has.” The Spanish word that Ignatius uses here is  ‘comunica’ to share or to communicate.” Lovers love each other by sharing what they have, and this sharing is a form of communication. God is not just a giver of gifts, but a lover who speaks to us through his giving. God holds nothing back. The ultimate expression of this self-giving is Jesus.   He shares his very life with us.

Thirdly God shares with us the work God is doing in the world. Thus, the work we do is a way of loving God. It is not just work. By inviting us to share in these works, God demonstrates love for us. In our response of trying to work with God, we show our love.

 

In a world that has rejected notions of transcendence and has reduced relations to one dimensional tweets I believe the church has a great deal to offer. It is an offer to love.

 

John Woolman’s Journal relates that on :“12th day, 6th month, and first of week. (1763) It being a rainy day we continued in our tent, and here I was led to think of the nature of the exercise which hath attended me. Love was the first motion, and then a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of Truth among them.”  Love is the first motion. If I am guided by love, how will my actions be different. How will I respond: to my child, the tired friend, the lonely person on the street? The person who takes more than they are allowed from the bread wall? How is this different than when my first motion is frustration, annoyance or fear. What does it take to pause, take a step back and first love. How does it open things up, break up dams?

 

St. Vincent De Paul wrote: “You will find that charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the bowl of soup and the basket of bread. But you must keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give bread and soup, this the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor. They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting as you will see, but the uglier and dirtier they are, the more unjust and bitter, the more you must give them of your love. It is because of your love, only your love, that the poor will forgive you the bread you give them.”      

 

 

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