This Sunday we are encouraged by St Paul in our 2nd Reading (Romans 8:9-13) to be “spiritual”; but sadly in our modern world “spiritual” does not mean what it meant back then. In order to explain this, let me tell you a story.
I took an Assembly this week and got two children out the front to help me illustrate how God speaks to us. The girl acted the part of an old lady who trips and falls in the street. Down she crashed. The boy acted himself dashing down the street on the way to play football with his friends. He’s faced with a choice. Should he hope someone else will help the old lady so he can carry on to play football; or should he stop and cross the street to help her. “Now”, I said to the children, “He has these two thoughts in his mind. Which one is from God? Which one is God speaking to him?”
Actually it was a trick question. The children all put up their hands with one answer. God was telling him to help the old lady. “Yes” I said “You are right…. but not quite right.” The point is that playing football is a good thing too, so God was actually saying “Look after the old lady first, and then enjoy your game of football”.
The point is that for us Christians being spiritual does not mean simply doing good, or being religious. The religious people in the time of Jesus were shocked that he mixed with all sorts of people who were not very good or holy. He even went to their homes and ate and drank with them! Sometimes he even argued that they were nearer to God than the so-called religious people. Being spiritual does not mean shutting oneself off from the world in some kind of mystical haze, because being closer to God does not mean being distant from the world. Jesus did not stop being God when he went to a party.
Religious people, in the time of Jesus, and still today, also tend to think that being “spiritual” means setting oneself up as better or more holy than others. We heard Jesus criticise this in our Gospel (Matt 11:25-30) when he says that God is far away from “the learned and the clever”. Some people even think that because priests are meant to be more holy than others they must not get involved in ordinary things. I remember once shocking a very holy lady because she found me cleaning the church toilets! Despite all the teaching on Jesus washing the disciple’s feet (John 13:3-5) she had not realised that being holy means serving others. Jesus said? “The Son of Man (that’s Jesus talking of himself) came not to be served but to serve” (Matt 20:28) And it was in our 1st Reading too from the prophet Zechariah (9:9-10) “See now, your king comes to you; he is victorious, he is triumphant” . But then comes the crunch. How is he shown to be triumphant? Because he is “humble and riding on a donkey”
Being spiritual like this in humble service of others is really quite hard, and this is one of the main reasons why we need to meet and pray together with our fellow Christians, to give them support and get support from them. Trying to be close to God by ourselves is what some modern people think being spiritual is all about, but it isn’t, because this so-called spirituality easily ends up being a rather selfish introspection that is a long long way from what we were taught by Jesus.
The problem is that many of us actually tend to feel closer to God, when there are no people around to distract us. Now we certainly need times like this, just as Jesus did when he went out alone in the hills to pray; but it does not follow that we are closer to God when we FEEL closer. It may be the case sometimes; but God will still be close to us even WE feel far away from him – times when life is getting too much for us, when we have too many worries, too many things to do or to think about. Then we need to hear the words of Jesus from today’s Gospel (Matt 11:25-30) “Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
So, being spiritual does not mean retreating into some cut-off holiness. Yes, it does mean avoiding things that are evil; but much more it means finding God speaking to us in the ordinary things of life. That may be helping someone in need; but it can also mean cleaning dirty toilets. It means knowing God’s presence in all things, both when we are having a good time, and when things are tough. As St Paul says, Jesus is “before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col 1:17)