REMEMBER WHAT THE DISCIPLINES ARE FOR
Faith in Real Life Blog
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
April 7. 2022
15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
We have spent the last several weeks identifying different spiritual practices that we might use to enhance our devotional life. We have discussed fasting, praying, listening, simplicity and unplugging. There are many more disciplines we have not discussed but all of them have the common desire to connect with and experience God. We forget that focus sometimes when we worry about whether we are praying correctly, listening well or making good (or bad) use of technology. Those are important concerns but it is easy to focus on the discipline and forget why we are doing it in the first place.
Spiritual disciplines are a means to the end—not the end goal. A spiritual writer (whose name is completely lost to my short term memory issues) wrote that the practice of spiritual disciplines was like jumping up and down to get closer to heaven. In order to make good use of spiritual disciplines we must remember what the disciplines are for in the first place. The only thing that ultimately matters is the experience of God’s grace.
Though I did not see the connections when we started, today’s scripture can be seen as applying both to our spiritual discipline series and to the fact that this Sunday is Palm Sunday. In Hebrews, verse 15 is the Gospel in a sentence. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” We have a Christ who knows us, forgives us and loves us. We have a Jesus who knows what it is like to be tempted to turn from God to reliance upon self—yet did not.
I would argue that Palm Sunday was Jesus’ last temptation. In modern day language, Jesus got more likes on the FaceBook test of popularity than he had ever received. It would have been seductively easy to offer the people more of what they wanted and expected. He could have allowed worldly values to define him. He would probably still have been killed. He was still a dangerous influencer—but he would have gone down heroically instead of rejected and shamed. Jesus was not about becoming popular, he was about showing us a counterintuitive way of life that gives life. Jesus became Christ because he placed his identity in God’s hands. He did not place himself above others, he did not use secular measures—popularity, position or power to define him. He demonstrated that joining people in all of our limitations is the way to love people. He was killed for it because of (not in place of) our sin.
Our sin is the hundreds of ways we turn away from God’s promise to love us. As much as we hunger for such love, we fear the terrifying vulnerability it entails. The preceding verses describe the Gospel as a double edged sword. It confronts and exposes at the same time it offers comfort and gives us confidence.
The words are frightening: “12 Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”
But choosing to stand before God, vulnerable and exposed is the way to live our faith and the way to discover God’s grace. It can’t be done on our own. It is asking too much. We need an advocate. In the language of Hebrews, we need a high priest who has ‘been there’ and who is forgiving. It would be foolish to be vulnerable if we expected judgment and rejection. Each of us needs someone who has walked in our shoes and has our back—that is the high priest who is sympathetic and who has been tested.
In real life, such faith is hard to hold on to. When we compare ourselves to others, when we secretly say ‘yes but…’ to compliments and when we fear we do not measure up, we reveal our difficulty trusting the God who promises to love us. Each time we depend upon secular values for our worth, we sin. We turn away from God and rely upon secular measuring sticks to evaluate our worth and to earn acceptance. These are all ordinary human behaviors but they separate us from receiving God’s grace. No matter what the promises of God are, we would almost do anything to avoid standing before the one who sees our secret heart. All too often our fears are validated by the people around us. The promise in Hebrews is that we will be received and the promise of the resurrection is that human rejection is survivable.
Jesus stuck with the program in ways we cannot not but we are not called to be Jesus. We are called to follow him. He showed us a direction for our lives and most importantly promised an experience of care that we can only briefly know in our ordinary living. But if you’ve had even a little taste of it, you’ll come back for more. That is the experience we seek when we practice spiritual disciplines.
One way to bring this down to the nitty gritty of living is to remember a particular time you have felt deeply loved. However that has happened in your personal life or in your spiritual life, do it again. We can not summon such love but we can place ourselves in places where it is more likely to occur. Whether it is unplugging long enough to listen to your spouse, creating quiet time to choose to say aloud our deepest heart or listening to music carry us beyond words, there are many practices that help create space for the experience of love. And, as Roberta Bondi wrote, if it is not for love, what is the point?
This love is not a sentimental feeling. It is the proactive choice to love as we have been loved. This week, a variety of people, in and out of the church spoke to some of the ways something holy occurred when they created space.
Ron commented the hymn ‘Abide With Me’ served as an affirmation and reminder more than an entreaty.
Nesie said that trusting God’s love allowed her to be much bolder in her prayer life.
Linda spoke of asking for help and asking others to pray for her when she could not pray herself.
Neal spoke of hearing a sermon that touched him so deeply he could not find words to say thank you to the preacher.
A couple spoke of powerful undiscovered tears when they found a safe place together.
Many spoke of particular pieces of music that transported them.
Others noticed the way laughter could live with the deepest grief.
All these and many more are ways to create space for the experience of the Holy. When we talk of connection with God, we are talking about the experience—not the knowledge of God’s love for us. All of the spiritual disciplines are a means to that end.
Love will transform you. Seek such a God. By whatever means, create space for such a God. Humility, gratitude and service will follow.
Let it be so.