August 21, 2005

Click here to read Romans 12:1-8.

There is a lot of commotion these days about spirituality. “Spirituality” has become a sort of alternative choice for people who lack interest in religion. The wider culture prefers spirituality over religion, that’s for sure. There are the sayings—“Religion is for people who are afraid of Hell, and Spirituality is for people who have already been through it.” And then there are all the countless folks who proclaim that they are “Spiritual, not religious.” What bothers me about this is not that people claim a Spirituality beyond the boundaries of religious faith. What bothers me is the implicit assumption that one is either spiritual or religious—that there is no such thing as a Christian spirituality!

A noted professor used to confound his seminarians with the question, “Now that you don’t have to do anything for salvation, what are you going to do?” This professor was trying to get his students to consider the ramifications of grace. Through grace, we accept the invitation to be in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Through grace, we recognize that our Creator God is loving, merciful, and forgiving. Through grace, we are saved from fear and liberated from sin.

Now what?

Grace was at the front and center of Paul’s understanding of the ministry of Jesus, and he stridently defended the notion that it is God’s grace, not our works, that save us. But Paul refused to allow that grace to be abused. He believed in the importance of human response to God’s grace. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome is an attempt to answer this question, “Now that you don’t have to do anything for salvation, what are you going to do?” And I believe that this answer is a Christian spirituality, something to be practiced faithfully as a response to God’s amazing grace.

The passage begins with an appeal for Christians to remember God’s mercy. God’s mercy is the foundation of our whole relationship with God. Despite our astounding capacity to do the wrong thing, God loves us and yearns to be loved by us. Despite our atrocious treatment of Christ Jesus, God breathed new life into him on Easter morning. God’s mercy is like the air we breathe: ever-present and essential.

It is shamefully easy to forget how radical God’s mercy really is. Imagine a world without light, a world in which our whole lives were cloaked in darkness and fear. Or picture a whole lifetime with no laughter. Our every hope and our every joy is a signature of God’s grace, the gifts of a loving and merciful Source of all Being.

How else can we respond to the mercy of our new life in Christ but with heartfelt thanksgivings?

Thanks-giving is not passive. It is the act of recognition and gratitude. It is the nucleus giving a pulse to our praise. But we are not called to contain our praise to just Sunday morning. We are called to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

God only wants this much from us: our whole beings, mind, body, and soul. God is not content with half-hearted discipleship. The only reasonable response to God’s amazing grace is to give our whole lives to God. The living sacrifice to which we are called is none other than the call to love Jesus and to love the way Jesus loves. To love God the way Jesus loves God. To love our neighbors the way Jesus loves them. To love our enemies the way Jesus loves them. This is Christian spirituality. When we love Jesus and love as Jesus loved, we open ourselves to the will of God. We relinquish any pretense that we can live our lives for our own purposes and surrender ourselves to that which is holy and acceptable. The Disciples pastor Jan Linn writes, “Anyone who takes Christian spirituality seriously is making a commitment to pick up the cross of unconditional love, which is the ultimate sacrifice a Christian can make” (The Jesus Connection, 52).

This is not a spirituality for the weak-hearted. This is a tough and gritty spirituality, one that refuses to allow us to ignore the world and all its pain. This is also an embodied spirituality, one that demands that we praise God with our voices and our muscles. Christian spirituality insists that we respond to God with fullness and commitment, integrating our whole beings into the work of emulating the love of Jesus.

The next verse in Paul’s letter to the Romans almost seems obvious. If we are truly called to present our very bodies as living sacrifices to God, if we are bound to do the work of loving like Jesus, however could we dare allow ourselves to be conformed to the world? The world has its moments of sweetness and light. As Madeleine L’Engle writes, “Nothing is too secular to be sacred.” But just as surely, there are a lot of cracks and fissures in this broken world. Our culture laughs at the notion of unconditional love. Our culture says that what makes us lovable is not that we are Created by a merciful God who extends boundless grace. Our culture says that what makes us lovable is health, wealth, beauty, and success.

Don’t doubt the power of the world’s ideas about love. There are whole industries built to help people conform to the world’s standards of lovability. Not young enough? Try this cream. Not handsome enough? Mask it with this slick car. No matter what your weakness, be certain that someone is out there ready to sell you the perfect antidote.

Health, wealth, beauty, and success are great. They just don’t matter in the divine economy. Regardless of what any television evangelist may tell you, they are not signs of God’s favor. They are incidentals: transitory, irrelevant. When we take up the cross of loving unconditionally the way Jesus loved, we necessarily give up our stock in narrow and superficial definitions of love.

Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, not by conforming to the world. When we respond to the grace bestowed on us by God through Jesus Christ, we risk everything. We risk everything because our whole world changes. No longer are we the center of our own private universe. We are transformed by mercy, regenerated by grace. Making the commitment to follow Jesus and adopt the greatest commandment as our living sacrifice means that we are no longer the same broken individuals, but we are part of the Body of Christ, freed to love and serve.

I want to return to the question at hand. “Now that you don’t have to do anything for salvation, what are you going to do?” I think all too many people view our response to God’s grace as something that takes place in a split second. For evangelical Christians, the moment in which one accepts Jesus as the Son of God and his or her personal savior is too often frozen in time and compartmentalized from any sort of ongoing life of faith. For mainline Christians, the somewhat awkward notion of “membership” in a community of faith is too often considered the extent of one’s religious commitment. Both are mistakes because they fail to evoke the embodied Christian spirituality to which we are called.

As witnesses of God’s grace, we must respond with more than nominal commitment or momentary passion. Once the mercy of God is made real to you, once the love of Christ gets under your skin, there is no other reasonable option but to praise the Holy One.

The soul of Christian spirituality is discipleship, the ongoing process of being transformed and formed by the life and ministry of Jesus. The backbone of Christian spirituality is grace. The heartbeat of Christian spirituality is love.

By the mercy of God, the grace of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, may we be a transformed and transforming people, growing always in commitment and passion to love as Jesus loved. Amen.

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