Monday, March 26, 2012

Fifth Sunday of Lent

It is common nowadays for people to describe themselves as "spiritual and not religious." We all have friends who say that about themselves or have seen the phrase written on bumper stickers. Some of us here today might even describe ourselves that way.

But what do people mean when they claim to be "spiritual but not religious"?

Generally, they mean that they have a relationship with God or with a "higher power" without belonging to a church or adhering to any dogmas or creeds. In fact, they claim to have respect for all religions, picking and choosing from each the teachings that suit their lifestyle and the "god of their understanding". For such people, religion is not a shared, communal reality, but a personal, interior experience.

As with all fallacies, there is a kernel of truth in what these self-described spiritual people believe. Religion is primarily a matter of the heart and of the spirit. Because each of us is created in God's image and likeness, we all carry within ourselves the ability to hear his voice speaking to us through our conscience. Our hearts were made to love God above all things. When we look within, we already find a basic understanding of God and his plan for our lives. God created us to be spiritual.

We hear this reality described in today's first reading. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God promises the people of Israel that he is about to establish a new covenant with them. That is, he is about to invite them into a new relationship of faithful love with him. Unlike the old covenant which was written on the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, the new covenant will be written on their hearts. As Jeremiah describes it, no one will need to be taught the ways of the Lord because God will reveal himself to the heart of each believer. This is what we commonly mean by the word "spiritual" - to have an interior, heart-felt love of God.

However, God is talking about something more than a natural desire or ability to know him. Rather, this personal relationship with him is a gift. It is not something that is ours through birth, but through baptism. God's Spirit who writes this new covenant in our heart, who speaks to our spirit about the ways of truth and love, is given to us through baptism and faith. The Holy Spirit is not something we can receive just through personal reflection or meditation. We receive the Holy Spirit when we become members of a community of faith. We receive the Holy Spirit by practising religion.

Jesus gives us more insight into what it means to be genuinely spiritual in today's gospel. Andrew and Philip approach Jesus to tell him about some Greeks who want to meet him. It is the week of Passover, close to the time when he would suffer and die. His upcoming death is weighing heavily on his heart. His "hour" is approaching, and he takes the opportunity to instruct the disciples and us about what it means to be a true follower. It means having our hearts set on eternal life. And the only way to enter into that heavenly life is to hate our earthly life. The only way to reach the glory of heaven is through death. Jesus say, "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit." And so the person who loves Jesus is willing to follow him when it is inconvenient, when it is painful and when it is costly. The truly spiritual person who has his or her heart set on the things of heaven will follow Jesus even to the cross. The person with genuine insight into spiritual matters realizes that Jesus cannot be separated from his cross nor can eternal life be separated from death to self.

The words of Jesus are very different from the language we hear from the "spiritual but not religious" crowd. For them, being spiritual is not a way of dying to self but of enriching oneself. It is not a way of glorifying God but of growing in self-esteem and self-fulfillment. It is not a way of seeking the things of heaven but of having a better life on earth. It is not about knowing God as he has revealed himself in Scripture and in Church teaching so that we can humbly serve others but about having secret knowledge that gives one a sense of superiority over others. This so-called "New Age" spirituality is really something very old - trying to achieve the glory of heaven without the shame of the cross.

We shouldn't judge such people. Very often, they are well-meaning and generous. At the same time, we don't want to fall into their error and miss out on the abundance of life that Jesus is offering us. His words are clear to all those who seek him: "If anyone would follow me, he must take up his cross." The deepest desire of our heart is union with God through Jesus. It is natural that we fear being ridiculed by others for practising our religion in a whole-hearted way. It is also natural that we fear what we would have to give up to follow Jesus. But as the Holy Spirit reveals to our hearts more and more the love of God and the truth of the gospel, those fears diminish because we are beginning to taste what our spirits long for and everything else seems less important by comparison. When we have the real thing, we will not settle for cheap imitations!

We are here today because we are both spiritual and religious. We do not want to deny ourselves the experience of worship with other believers. We want to learn from the words of Scripture and the teaching of the Church. We want to benefit from the wisdom of the believers who have gone before us. We want to encounter Jesus in the Eucharist. This abundance of spiritual riches is ours through baptism and faith. It is a taste of heaven given to us who have decided to pick up our cross and follow Jesus.

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