"Clearly Christian: Spiritual"#88-42
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on June 20, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2022 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Genesis 1:31
There is a saying that's captured in an acronym, KISS—K-I-S-S. I asked my mom once, and she told me it means "Keep it simple, stupid." Great advice, a wise man once said. Hurts my feelings every time I hear it. The KISS principle comes from the field of engineering. In that context, it means that systems work best when they're kept simple, rather than complicated. But some things in life aren't simple, no matter how hard we try to make them. It's like how Arnold Palmer said of the game of golf. He said that it is deceptively simple, yet endlessly complicated. Or if you ask your single friend, "How is your love life?" She might say, "It's complicated." Keeping it simple is an ideal for engineers, but it's not the reality that we live in most of the time. It doesn't help to pretend that it is.
There's another saying that goes, "Complex problems always have simple, easy-to-understand wrong answers." This is the case with the Christian faith. The keep-it-simple principle doesn't apply to the Christian faith, or at least not in the same way. Because the Christian faith isn't a system. It's a relationship with the Creator of an endlessly complicated universe. Consider those other two examples I just mentioned: golf and romantic relationships. These also confound the keep-it-simple principle. They are endlessly complicated because they involve people. The thing that makes golf complicated isn't the game. It's the human being who plays the game. In romantic relationships, although some people consider themselves "players," you're not playing a game. You are interacting with the greatest, most mysterious part of God's endlessly complicated creation: a fellow human being.
You know how complex a problem being human is. You live it every day. This complexity is only magnified as you live in relationship with other humans. And in the midst of that tangled web of relationships, you also continually, whether you know it or not, are always living in relation to your Creator. It's this relationship that the Christian faith aims to bring into focus. So when we talk about the Christian faith, the keep-it-simple principle is an admirable goal, but sometimes when you're dealing with something complicated, a simple answer is only a half-truth.
For instance, here's a simple account of the Christian faith. Christianity is about spirituality. Maybe you've heard someone explain the faith in that way, right? Christianity is spiritual.
If you're searching for Christian content in a bookstore or on a podcast platform, you'll probably find it in the "Spirituality" section. There's some truth to this. Jesus Himself said that "God is spirit and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24). Christianity is about spiritual matters, but that's only half the truth. Now, half-truths are all around us, and often, half-truths are practical. Take a two by four, for example. If you go to your local hardware store and say, "I'd like to buy a two by four." (Two by four referring to the dimensions of a wood board. It's a common piece of lumber of varying lengths, but all are two inches wide and four inches tall.) But that's only half true. In the past, these boards were truly two inches by four inches, but now for a variety of reasons, they're actually only one and a half by three and a half inches. But "I'd like to buy a one and a half by a three and a half" is a mouthful to say, so we just keep it simple and call it a two by four.
Here's another example of a half-truth. One that is more closely related to this half-truth that Christianity is spiritual. It has to do with social media if you're into social media. It has to do with what you call those people that you're connected with virtually. Virtual, there's another half-truth. What do you call those people that you're connected with on social media? You call them "friends," right? But how many of those people would drop what they're doing today and come and help you if you're in a pinch? How many of those people do you regularly talk with on the phone or see in person? How many of those people really know you? We call them friends for shorthand, just like we call it a two by four for shorthand. But we ought not forget the actual dimensions of a true friend. It's the same for the half-truth that Christianity is about spirituality. Because in the Christian faith, spiritual is shorthand for our relationship with God the Father, in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, who is seeking worshipers in spirit and in truth.
What happens when you mistake a half-truth for a whole truth? Well, let's say you have an old house, one that was built in the 1930s, and you're repairing a wall in the house. You have to replace one of the two by fours in the wall. So you go to the hardware store and buy a new two by four and put it with the originals from 1930. The problem is it won't match. So also with this word "spiritual." In the Christian faith, it doesn't match with other uses of that word. For example, there's a view of the world that says that reality comes in basically two categories. So imagine we had a whiteboard, and we were going to put all of reality into two categories. On the left side, we would make the heading material, that is, "Material Realities." On the right side, we would make the heading spiritual, that is "Spiritual Realities." What would we list under the spiritual heading? We might list things like angels, demons, heaven, souls and, of course, God. What would we list on the other side, under the material heading? We might list things like earth, rocks, trees, bodies, birds.
Notice in our lists how human beings are a special case. We're somewhere in the middle, like baby birds temporarily nested in a material world, but destined to come fly in the spiritual skies. That view of the world might sound like Christianity, but it's not. It has more to do with an ancient belief system called "Platonism" named after the Greek philosopher Plato. Now, historically speaking, Christianity and Platonism have closely interacted with each other for about 2,000 years, so it would be understandable if we confuse the two. But here, let's keep it simple: the dimensions don't match. Because in the Christian faith, we put the dividing line in a different place. You see, we got God the Creator on the one side of the board and everything else on the other side. There's the creation, which includes material and spiritual beings, and then there's the Creator who's totally in a separate class.
This means that in the Christian view angels have more in common with rocks than they do with God, and human beings—bodies and souls—have more in common with trees than they do with God, because we're all creatures. There was a time when we creatures didn't even exist until God cared enough to create us, but God was and is and ever shall be. So we can say that the Christian faith is spiritual, but it doesn't mean that it's mainly or only concerned with the spiritual category. No, it just means that God through His Son and His Spirit decided to relate to you as a friend, a real friend, not a Facebook friend. So how do you get to be someone's friend? You have to get to know them. You have to spend time them and hang out with them and find out about them and you learn what makes them laugh and what makes them cry and what moves them. You get to know them personally.
The Christian faith simply says that God already knows you completely. The Christian faith says that God created you so that you could start to get to know Him in return. So what is God into? Some people think that God being spirit is mainly into spiritual things. But Christians, when we read the Bible, one of the first things we get to know about God is that He's really into material things. Genesis chapter 1, seven times, we hear God say, "It is good. The material world is good, very good," He says. Then one of the last things that we hear about God in the Bible is that He's still committed to His material creation for good. In the book of Revelation 21:5, we hear that when Jesus is going to return visibly to earth to raise the dead, He's going to look at everything the Father made through Him and He's going to say, "Look, I am making all things new." Notice that He doesn't say, "Hey guys, look, I'm going to make all new things. This material things plan didn't work out so well the first time. So now we're just going to go exclusively spiritual."
No, He doesn't say that. He says, "Look, friends. I'm going to make all things new." What we learn about God in the Bible is that He's really into spiritual and material things all mixed together, so much so that God the Father sent His Son, His Son who's on the God side of reality, the Creator side of the reality, and Jesus stepped into our side and became a human being, a spiritual material being. He took our issues and our complications and our problems and our sin onto His human body. He carried them to the cross and He died with them and on the third day He rose again from death with that same body, and He's got the scars on His hands to prove it. Today, He is alive in His body in heaven and through His body on earth, the church, and He deals with us in material things, in water, in Baptism, in bread and wine, in Communion. So what can we say? He's a spiritual-relational God who's really into material things.
A few years ago, a famous biologist wrote an open letter to a Christian pastor. The biologist was Edward Wilson who's been called the "Darwin of the 21st century." Edward was raised in the Christian faith. But as a young man, he rejected his faith in favor of what he calls secular humanism. Now, he's a secular humanist. He believes that the material world is all there is. It's all we have, and he's afraid we're ruining it and that there'll be no fixing it. So this is why he wrote this letter to the pastor. He wrote it to persuade the pastor and other spiritual people to take better care of this earth. When I read it, I can't help but think that Edward didn't really know what he was rejecting when he rejected the Christian faith. It seems he rejected half-truths. Now, I'm not saying that he would repent on the spot and turn back to Jesus if he heard this. I'm only saying that it's better to know what you're rejecting before you reject it.
It sounds like Edward rejected the faith because he thought it taught us to care less about people and less about this earth that is our home. For him, the most uncaring part of Christianity is the teaching about hell. He says it's a message of cruelty and despair. It's cruel to condemn people to suffer eternity in hell all for a mistake they made in a choice of spirituality. Edward makes it sound like the Christian faith is an afterlife insurance policy. For those shrewd enough to buy, to get baptized, to say the sinner's prayer, they go to spiritual paradise when they die. But those who missed the deal will have hell to pay.
Now, look, I can't solve the mystery of evil and suffering in hell. It's a complicated part of the faith and many Christians have struggled with it. But let's just try keeping it simple. The Christian faith is a relationship. It's a one of a kind relationship. It's the one truly life-giving relationship God offers you by His Spirit, through His Son, Jesus. If you or I say no to Jesus, we're not just rejecting a spiritual life. If we say no to Jesus, we're rejecting all of life, spiritual and material, body and soul, heaven and earth, and then all that's left is hell. But Jesus came to save you from that by becoming your Friend. This Friend is the genius behind creation's spiritual-material complexity. He is the talent in the performance of the universe. He is the love in every person who's ever loved you. He is the love who makes it possible for you to love in return. Jesus is the love of God for you. So talk to Him with me.
Dear Jesus, would You help me get to know You as a Friend, a real Friend? Amen.
Reflections for June 20, 2021
Title: Clearly Christian: Spiritual
Mark Eischer: For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. Once again, here's our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: I'm visiting today with Deaconess Dorothy Glenn. Welcome, Dorothy.
Dorothy Glenn: It's great to be here again.
Mike Zeigler: Tell us where you serve.
Dorothy Glenn: I serve at Immanuel Lutheran Church and School in Olivette, which is in St. Louis, Missouri.
Mike Zeigler: And also joining us is Pastor Trevor Sutton. Welcome, Trevor.
Trevor Sutton: Thanks for having me.
Mike Zeigler: And tell us where you serve, Trevor.
Trevor Sutton: I serve at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Lansing, Michigan.
Mike Zeigler: Pastor Sutton is also the author of a book that we're discussing. It's titled Clearly Christian: Following Jesus in This Age of Confusion. And today we're talking about this half-truth that you've probably heard. This half-truth that Christianity is spiritual. Dorothy, I talked about this in the message today, and Trevor addresses this confusion about spirituality in the book. What was something important—an important insight that you found gathered in this section of the book?
Dorothy Glenn: In my undergrad, I took a class called the psychology of religion, and what I found to be really interesting and I promise it connects to what we're talking about.
Michael Zeigler: Oh, we're both geeks, so you already got us interested. We're like, "Oh."
Dorothy Glenn: It's this understanding of spirituality versus religiosity, and how in our society, people would much rather identify as spiritual rather than religious because of the implications of what people see as Christianity and as religion, because religiosity has some sort of ideas of being overpowering, oppressive—people who just want to shove things down your throat, and how spirituality has an openness. And actually what people are seeing as spirituality is what we as Christians understand as our religion.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah, that there's structure to it; there are practices; there is a tradition that we join. We're not making it up as we go along. Trevor, how have you seen this half-truth that Christianity is spiritual. How have you seen it cause confusion?
Trevor Sutton: I've seen it, oddly enough, the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, he helped me understand this in a really strange way. Nietzsche, in his book, Twilight of the Idols, where he just blasts Christianity kind of through and through. He's no fan of it by any means, but throughout this book, he talks as if Christians hate this world and hate life in this world because they're only concerned with spiritual things. He talks about the Christian faith like it's about leaving this world, and that's the goal of it. And he uses that to say, "Why do you hate life in this world so much?" He's wrong in many ways, but it made it really clear to me that if the Christian life is only about being spiritual, and if the Christian life is this rejection of God's creation of life in this world, of caring for the neighbor, of flesh and blood things, if that's what the Christian life, if it's a rejection of that, then I can see his point. We have to articulate to the world what it means to be spiritual and what it means to embrace life in creation, and how to keep those two clear, but also separate, and how to articulate it
Mike Zeigler: Trevor, what would you want to say to somebody? What deep Christian teachings could help clarify this confusion that Christianity is only concerned about spiritual things?
Trevor Sutton: Somewhere, I had heard that Christmas and Easter, the two days of the church calendar where you get probably the most people that are maybe new to the Christian faith or know little about it, and the most visitors at the church are Christmas and Easter. Those are the two days when the church makes its most audacious claims. God came into human flesh, and Jesus lived and died and rose again. Those are two of the biggest, boldest—you could say—audacious claims that the church makes, that the Scripture makes. But both of those claims are deeply physical claims, right? So, God came into this world, how? Flesh and blood. Divinity and DNA coming together, and that's just powerful. And then, the resurrection is not a spiritual resurrection, not a sighting, or a vision. It is flesh and blood. I just love the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, where He's like, "Put your finger here
Michael Zeigler: Come have breakfast, guys!
Trevor Sutton: That's my favorite, "Let me eat this, and let's break bread." It's just powerful to realize the most foundational claims of the Christian faith are deeply physical claims. Not only physical, they're spiritual, but they're physical.
Mike Zeigler: So, it is true that Christianity is about spirituality because God the Father who is by nature not flesh, is spirit, in this kind of capital "S" Spirit way, Creator. And yet He likes material things and wants to dwell in material things. So much so, that He sends His Word, His Son, to become a human being, and now sends His Spirit to fill us who belong to Jesus. To dwell in material things. So, it is. It's a half-truth, but it's not the whole truth.
Dorothy Glenn: We're not sitting here twiddling our thumbs waiting to die. We're here interacting in community, as was given to us. When we talk about creation, Adam, it was not good that Adam was alone. And so, he was given Eve, and we have that sense of community. And what you talk about in the book of "polis," and this idea that is good for us. And so, it would also make sense that God meets us in that community.
Trevor Sutton: Jesus says in John 17, "They are not of the world just as I am not of the world," but then He says as, "You sent Me into the world, so I've sent them into the world," and Jesus is talking about His disciples that we are sent into the world. We're not of it, but as you said, Dorothy, we are deployed to flesh and blood ministry with our neighbors.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you both for joining us. If you wanted to read more about this, how to embrace creation, Pastor Sutton's got some good practical things that you can do. Check out the book it's called Clearly Christian.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Evening and Morning" arranged by Henry Gerike. Used by permission.
"Evening and Morning" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)