I am humbled to be asked to speak on this topic because I know that there are nearly as many answers to that question as there are Christians. The different responses from the Christian community to the recent terrorist attacks is an example. Some have called for compassion, understanding, and non-violence; some have called for patriotic support of a military invasion; some have said that it is God's judgement on America; some have suggested it is the beginning of the apocalypse. All of these have claimed to represent the Christian perspective. So, when we ask of what it means to lead a spiritual life from a Christian perspective, there is no univocal opinion. If you have ever sat in an adult men's Bible class in a Baptist church, you know that is true. But I am willing to give my opinion as one who wrestles with this question on a regular basis.
Let me begin with a definition. I believe that this definition is true regardless of the faith tradition. The spiritual life of any person is the path that a person chooses to follow in response to the God within.
The spiritual life is a "path." It is more than doctrine or belief. It is the conscious choosing of a direction. Our English word, "belief" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word which means, "by-life." It is an understanding that "belief" is a way of life.
The spiritual life is also a "response." In the Christian tradition, this is called a conversion. It means that we set off on the spiritual path in response to something greater than ourselves.
It may be a sudden and dramatic experience. It may be a long, slow process. But something happens to set us on the path.
The "something" that happens to us is "God."
The only way that we can experience God is within. All religious experience is an inner experience.
Then we have to ask, "What is an authentic religious experience?" The Islamic extremists are saying that the terrorist attacks are an authentic response to the God within.
I'm sure that the men who blew themselves up in the hijacked air-planes thought they were doing the "godly" thing.
How do we know what is an authentic religious experience? Here is where the different religious traditions take separate ways.
The Christian response is that authentic religious experience is defined by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
"In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. . . . And the Word became flesh, and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (John 1:1-2, 14).
That is a pretty bold statement and the basis for Christian ethics. How can Christians make such a bold statement for the uniqueness of Christianity?
How can Christians claim that their understanding of God is more authoritative than the Moslem? It is this Christian claim for uniqueness that becomes a stumbling block for inter-faith cooperation.
On what do we base this truth claim? It is not the moral life of Jesus. It is not the teaching of Jesus. It is not even the death of Jesus.
The answer is the Resurrection. In his book, Ethics, Jim McClendon, a Baptist theologian, says, "The resurrection event is in fact the turning point of all Christian thought, the cardinal matter of the New Testament. . ." (Jim McClendon, Ethics, p. 246).
The apostle Paul made the claim this way, "If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. . . . for if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:13-14, 16-19).
If you accept the resurrection, then the life and teaching of Jesus becomes authoritative. What Would Jesus Do really does become the critical question for Christian spirituality.
It is a difficult thing for Christians to do. Tony Campolo, the Baptist preacher and sociologist once asked if Jesus would drive a BMW.
I read an article by John Grisham, after the had written the book, The Chamber, in which he posed the question whether Jesus would pull the lever on the gas chamber.
Fred Craddock, a retired professor of preaching, tells this story. ". . . I heard about a young man in his early twenties dying of that horrible, horrible, frightening, terrible AIDS in a hospital in Atlanta.
He had no church connection, but someone said he had relatives who had been in the church, so they called a minister of that church, and the minister went to the hospital.
The young man was almost dead, just gasping there, and the minister came to the hospital, stood out in the hall, and asked them to open the door. When they opened the door, he yelled a prayer.
Another minister there in south Atlanta, down around Forest Park, heard about it and rushed to the hospital, hoping that he was still alive. She got to the hospital, went into the room, went over by the bed, and pulled a chair by the bed. This minister lifted his head and cradled it in her arm. She sang. She quoted scripture. She prayed. And he died.
Some seminarians said, 'Weren't you scared? He had AIDS!' She said, 'Of course I was scared. I bet you I bathed sixty times.' 'Well then, whey did you do it?' And she said, 'I just imagined if Jesus had gotten the call, what he would do. I had to go.'" (Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, p. 86).
That is the essence of the Christian spiritual life.
Jesus announced that the kingdom of God was in our midst. It is a new way of being in the world. It is a "topsy-turvy" world where, the last are first, and the first are last; the weak are strong, and the strong are weak; the foolish things are used to confound the wise, and the weak things confound the powerful; the outcasts are the honoured guests, and those who are honoured take the lowest place.
Jesus said, "What is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God" (Luke 16:15). What our world values, what is important to us, the ways that we measure success, the things after which we strive are worthless in the kingdom of God. William. Willimon says, "You have the world going in one direction, Jesus going in another" (Wm. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, July-Sept., '01, p. 40).
Many of you are aware of the Jesus Seminar. It is an effort by scholars to recreate as best we can the historical life of Jesus. John Dominic Crossan is one of the most influential members of this group.
Crossan concludes that historically we can't reconstruct with certainty much of what the New Testament teaches about Jesus. But what we can trust for sure is that Jesus came eating and healing.
More than just social occasions, the eating and healing events of Jesus were part of a larger strategy to challenge the values and structures of the world. He was offering a new community with a different set of values and structures.
Every time we share the Eucharist, we re-enact in symbol this teaching of our Lord.
Those who are welcome at the Lord's Table are not defined by economic discrimination, social hierarchy, and political differentiation. It means that we give up social distinctions that divide.
At this table, there is no male or female, no black or white, no rich or poor, no pure or impure. There are only sinners who, by grace, have been adopted into the family of God. In his eating and healing, Jesus was giving a vision of the world in which God's kingdom is now and is a kingdom of inclusion.
The spiritual life is one that will follow a path that brings us into contact with the powerless, and brings us into conflict with the powerful.