For some reason or other societies tend to go through fads. We in Australia seem to follow the fads set by America. They say we are ten years behind, although it is probably only a few years these days. The church, of course, is another ten years down the line.
The theological fad touching the church in the 80's was mysticism. It quite possibly had its origins in the growth of Eastern mysticism in our society during the 70's. That's not to say that our present interest in mysticism is secular or pagan. It's simply that we have begun to address the issue of the "immediacy" of our faith. We have been prompted to ponder the depth of our faith and we have tended to find that our Christian experience is big on intellectualism but shallow on feelings. Our God is a God of theological propositions rather than experience. It's that realization that has prompted a renewed search for spiritual fulfillment within the Christian life. It has fired the Charismatic movement (American in origin) and it has prompted the present interest in Christian mysticism (English in origin).
The issue of spirituality, of the immediacy of our relationship with Jesus, is something we must not ignore.
The Biblical doctrine
The doctrine of the mystical union is probably one of the most profound of all doctrines. The term "spirituality" is the term most commonly used for the doctrine of "mystical union", although it has a diverse usage. I use the term to describe the intimate friendship/relationship we have with Jesus.
When the Bible deals with the intimate association we have with Jesus through the indwelling Spirit, it uses terms like "one with Christ", "united with Christ", "Christ in us", "abiding in Christ". Such terms immediately show us that, although friendship with Jesus is the simplest way of putting it, our relationship is something far beyond "mateship". Marriage consummated in sexual union would be a better image, but even then it doesn't do justice to the relationship. That's why the term, mystical union, well describes the mystery of our relationship with Jesus.
Our relationship with Jesus is both subjective and objective. On the subjective side, spirituality is experienced in "love", "joy", "peace", "hope", "forgiveness", "trust" and a sense of the indwelling presence of the Spirit, "filling" and "groaning" within. On the objective side, spirituality is experienced in guidance, perseverance, renewal, empowering for ministry, discipline, blessing. In short, like a good friend Jesus comes close to us and we feel his warmth, and like a good friend he keeps his promises. He holds our hands through the journey of life and at times he even carries us.
In Philippians Paul makes this statement. "All I want is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and to share his sufferings by reproducing the pattern of his death". Phill.3:10. For me, this verse is probably the most powerful in the New Testament. Paul is at this point right at the center of spirituality. He states clearly that all he wants is to realize in his person the: i] "presence" (subjective - to know Christ as one knows a wife/husband), ii] the "power" (objective - expressed in renewal, rising to a Christ-like life) and iii] to identify with Christ in his death (the atonement). The issue we face is how do we make this real in our daily experience? How do we move from doctrinal truth to living truth?
The process of doing that has been termed by Brother Andrew as "practicing the presence". That's a very good term and one I use quite a lot. So then, how do we practice the presence?
The Evangelical heritage
In an Evangelical environment we are taught the practice of Evangelical spirituality. It was never called spirituality, in fact it was usually called "piety" and piety it is. None-the-less, it was the means of experiencing our relationship with Jesus and therefore can be rightly viewed as Evangelical Spirituality.
i] Conversion. This is always described in the most powerful terms. The conversion experience of a new Christian is viewed as a mighty release from sin, an enlightening, a renewing, a wonderful inner experience of Christ's wonder-working power. Mind you, for many of us, believing in Jesus did not prompt a powerful subjective experience. It is then easy to feel that our conversion was not valid, or even worse, we may be tempted to fudge the experience.
ii] Faithfulness. Exhibiting of the "fruits of the Spirit" is a very powerful objective means of experiencing the touch of Jesus in our lives. We find ourselves, by grace through faith, being renewed by the indwelling Spirit of Christ who channels the compelling love of Christ into our beings. It is that "compelling" to love as Christ loved, which we then experience as the touch of Jesus. Yet we do need to be careful of any suggestion that being obedient serves to bring us close to Jesus. This is a particular problem with Evangelical Christians. Legalism only ever serves to promote disobedience and so undermine our relationship with Christ.
iii] Fellowship. The love of the brotherhood makes real the love of Christ. In touching the brother, "the least of these my brethren", we touch Christ.,Math.25:40. This is the commandment by which Christ "manifests" himself to us, Jn.14:21. The only danger here is that we may not have separated our love for Christ, from our love for the person. For instance, we need to identify the compatibility component, as well as the sensual component. There is nothing wrong with sexual attraction, but we do need to differentiate it from the oneness we have in Christ. Mind you, the physical will tend to serve as a channel for the spiritual, ie. will incarnate it. The two are therefore integrally linked.
iv] Discipleship (Radical Evangelicals). In cross-bearing discipleship "we are certain of his nearness and communion. It is he (Christ) whom the disciple finds as he lifts up his cross". Bonhoeffer. We do though, need to be careful not to fall into the trap of seeing the poor of the World as somehow the center of God's concern. Cross-bearing has to do with caring for the brotherhood and reaching out to the lost with the gospel. The poor whom God cares for are the "poor in spirit". They are the "least of these my brethren". The lost are those who seek mercy from a loving God.
v] Church attendance. (Community - Radical Evangelicals). Where two or three gather together Christ is in their midst. Meeting with a brother enhances union with Christ. This is particularly so in table fellowship - the "love feast". Christ is also made real to us in the business of making known the will of God through the Spirit-filled ministries of the Word. Our only problem here is that we do need to accept the limitations of human association.
vi] Bible study. One of the most important expressions of Evangelical spirituality is,meditation on, and study of, the Bible. For Evangelical Christians, the Bible is the prime source of contact with the Lord Jesus. By means of personal daily study, group Bible study, and the hearing of sermons, we are daily confronted with the person of Jesus. It is by means of this constant contact with the living Word of the scriptures that we touch the living Word himself. It is the Spirit inspired nature of the scriptures that makes them so personal. Our only danger here is to deify the Bible itself, to deify our personal system of doctrine, or to think that the hearing of sermons is more important than adoration.
vii] Quiet time. Personal meditation and prayer. In quietness and secret is found the Divine presence. As long as we view this as a technique, an aid to "practicing the presence", we will have no problems.
The Anglican church is a "catholic" church in that it preserves the form of the ancient Christian church. That is, it seeks to be an apostolic church, preserving the orders, form, liturgy, belief and government of the church of the apostles. As such, it provides another dimension in making Christ real to his people. It preserves ancient forms that accentuate the reality of Christ's presence with us.
i] Church year. The development of the church year was a very slow process in the ancient church. Initially the Jewish festivals were taken into the church and given a Christian meaning, eg. Pentecost. The church year traces the life of Christ through a yearly cycle. Special events and periods in the life of Christ are celebrated, scripture readings set for each day of the week, and illustrated with seasonal colours. The keeping of the church year can be a very powerful means of identifying ourselves with Jesus. It locates our passing life in the life of Jesus, rather than in the rush of secular life. It therefore becomes a physical sign of our identification with the life of Christ and as such signifies the spiritual reality of that identification.
ii] Liturgy. The liturgy of the Anglican Church is very ancient in form. It has a quality which is unknown in non liturgical churches. The ancient liturgies of the church focused on God. They were God centered rather than man centered. As such, liturgy serves to enlarge God to those who participate. The form of the words, song, chant, colour, incense, light, shape of the building; all are woven together into an artistic form which touches, not just the mind, but all the other senses as well. Liturgy is artistic and therefore touches the emotions as well as the mind. Liturgical worship focuses our attention on the "awful" presence of Christ, through adoration, praise, thanksgiving, prayer and hearing of his Word. In so doing it makes real the spiritual reality of Christ's presence.
iii] Holy Communion. The service of the Lord's Supper is a most powerful means of promoting an awareness of the reality of the mystical union we possess with Christ. The whole service is designed to focus our attention on the death and resurrection of Christ. The bread and the wine serve to remind us of his sacrifice on our behalf, and as we "feed" so we are prompted to feed in faith, to possess our Lord and be united with him. The bread and the wine taken into ourselves are then signs of Christ's infusing presence within our very persons. Following the communion, the service prompts thanksgiving, a new resolve for service, and a looking forward to the day when we will feast with Christ in heaven. The Communion service brings to us physical signs of Christ's mystical union with us, and these signs signify the spiritual reality of that union.
These three expressions of Anglican spirituality are "sacramental" in form and find their source in the doctrine of the Incarnation. Christ has taken to himself flesh and blood to break into our lives, to make himself known to us, to save us and to gather us unto himself. The sacramental approach uses identifiable symbols in the world through which the presence of Jesus can be seen.
Our material scientific world has prompted a burning desire for "spiritual" things. That "spirituality" has been identified by many with "the inner light" - spiritual ecstasy. Both the Evangelical and Anglican heritage enables us to touch the immediacy of our faith, thus confronting the living God.
Index of studies: Resource library
Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources
Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons