Saturday, February 11, 2012

the spirituality of Jesus (mark 1)

We discover the spirituality of Jesus by paying attention to his life, by listening to his words. As followers of Jesus, we look for clues about our next steps by focusing on the patterns of his daily life. And as disciples who not only listen to his teachings but have some responsibility for explaining the meaning of his life, death and resurrection in our own spheres of influence, we open our ears to hear (or, better yet, to obey) his instruction.

One can read a few verses at the beginning of the shortest gospel, Mark, and discover the shape of a spiritual life inspired by Jesus. I have chosen a central section within the first chapter, verses twenty-one through thirty-five, and as I have reflected on what is going on in the life of Jesus, I am given a way of life.

Urgency about Human Need

So, three facets of a spirituality of Jesus: there is first an urgency about human need. Jesus encounters, within the synagogue, a person with an evil spirit; as he leaves the synagogue, he visits Simon's mother-in-law, who is sick; and at the end of the day (at sunset), people continue to bring the sick and the demon-possessed to him.

We cannot turn our eyes upon Jesus, to borrow the language of the hymn, without seeing urgent human needs. Jesus was always seeking out the last, the least and the lost (a physician goes to those who are sick, he once remarked), or, they were seeking and finding him. He crossed boundaries of impurity and legality to bring healing and salvation to us. In the communion liturgy, we are reminded that he "healed the sick, fed the hungry and ate with sinners".

This was the mission of Jesus, and it is the mission of his followers. I love a phrase I recently found in Reggie McNeal's recent work on Missional Communities: "Life is a mission trip." Some of the most profound experiences in my Christian life have occurred on mission trips: in Bolivia, Haiti, Guatemala. But what if life is a mission trip? What if our purpose, if we are staying close to Jesus, is to stay close to the urgent human needs of those around us, wherever we are?

Intimacy with God

A second facet of the spirituality of Jesus is intimacy with God. "Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer." (Mark 1. 35, Common English Bible). If urgent human need is the outcome of this spirituality, intimacy with God is the source. In the early morning there are fewer distractions. In a deserted place there are fewer distractions. When we are alone we are more attuned to "the still small voice". God often speaks to men and women in the desert, or, from the perspective of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, in the "abandoned places of empire". These are the places of emptiness, disappointment, and sorrow, and therefore the occasions where we can be filled, renewed and consoled.

The set apart places ground us, muting the voices of the urgent and powerful, questioning the paths that are pleasing to us and perhaps to others; they are the unlikely sanctuaries where we know we are on holy ground, and they provide us a way to clarify our mission and purpose. It is significant and necessary that Jesus, in the midst of so much action, when so much is flowing out of him, finds time and space to be intimate with God. As his followers this is an essential spiritual practice for us as well.

Integrity of Word and Action

A third element in the spirituality of Jesus: he teaches with authority, and not like the scribes and pharisees (1.22). I would suggest that he teaches with integrity: his speech and behavior, language and life, word and action, doctrine and discipline are consistent. Later the disciples of John will ask, "are you the One who is to come, or should we look for someone else?" This is the ancient and also post-modern question: are you who you present yourself to be? Is this true, or real?

In the modern world, we could persuade our hearers to accept the faith through the brilliance of an intellectual argument (I remember a book entitled Evidence That Demands a Verdict, which many of my friends read in college). But the evidence in a postmodern world is the life of a follower of Jesus; it is the consistency of what we say and what we do that is compelling.

Urgency about human need is the practice of social holiness; it flows from a source, an intimacy with God that is the practice of personal holiness. Our understandings of holiness are embodied in a person, Jesus Christ, God with us. We are most receptive to the gift of grace when we seek the face of God and listen for the still, small voice. And because we have received the grace and love of God, we find ourselves being drawn to the hungry, broken and marginalized.

What was so compelling about the spirituality of Jesus? It was a response to human suffering, it flowed from a deep source, and it was neither shallow, superficial nor hypocritical. Because of the resonance of the internal and external life, it communicated a truth that spoke and speaks to our deepest human desirings. As John testifies, "the law was given through Moses... grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ" (John 1. 17; Common English Bible)

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