While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
A Passion for God
Last Sunday I remarked that the Reformed branch of the Christian church strives to be very rational. We put an emphasis on education: clergy must at least have a Master’s degree and many congregations prefer someone with a doctorate. I can remember one professor at Knox College declaring: “God does not call illiterate people to ministry!” We all felt very bad for the classmate who was the target!
I’m not sure what that professor did with the suggestions that Jesus himself was illiterate, given that Jesus didn’t leave any of his own writings behind. He probably could avoid the issue since he was the professor of Old Testament studies.
That powerful emphasis on rationality has allowed our tradition to shake off many old ideas to challenge things we now consider superstitions. It has allowed us to call ourselves “the Reformed Church, always reforming,” to stay open to new understanding and to embrace critical thinking and careful study.
The problem with that should be familiar to fans of the original Star Trek series: the constant debate between logic and emotion. It also plays into another familiar dichotomy: body and spirit.
Since the earliest days of the church we have bought into the Greek philosophical understanding of a division between body and spirit. We tend to think of spirit and spirituality as being in the realm of the mind and emotions as being tied to those messy glands that come with our physical forms. Important, of course, and part of life but somehow impure; something to be disciplined, even suppressed.
That was quite explicitly stated in those early days of the church when hermits were popular as the ideal of what a Christian should strive to be: disciplining and denying all earthly appetites in pursuit of a purer spiritual existence,
That kind of split is at odds with the image of spirituality we inherit from the Hebrew scriptures.
Judaism doesn’t traditionally divide body and spirit the way we do. This was a distinction Jesus made in his own teachings, but he came from a religion and culture that understood people to be animated flesh: bodies that had been given the divine spark of life rather than spirits that had been wrapped in flesh.
Quite a lot of Hebrew scripture is quite “earthy” by our standards and many of the images we are given speak to the very physical human urges that are part of our lives, but do so in relation to God.
The Song of Solomon is, frankly, ancient erotic literature and it’s worth noting in our very modern world that if Solomon really wrote it he was able to express appreciation for both male and female beauty, male and female sexuality.
So why is this in scripture at all? Because we have always seen in it an expression of the passionate relationship between God and the people of God, of the desire of each for the other.
That’s not something we’re used to saying in the Reformed tradition but it has always been there: a burning fire pulling us towards our creator, just as compelling as any sexual longing we might know.
Leonard Cohen taps into that with a lot of his music, this combination of sensuality and spirituality, and look how many people have responded, whether they call themselves people of faith or not.
A good example can be found in the lyrics of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” where he calls on the image of King David, the harpist, that very imperfect king who was still called a man after God’s own heart.
David was impulsive and lustful, passionate and sometimes very unwise. He danced before the Lord so vigorously that his kilt spun up and he exposed himself before the crowds. His wife criticized him for this undignified display but the clear message was that God was pleased that David was unrestrained in his zeal for God: that he cared more for God than for his own dignity.
That visceral sense of our faith often makes us uncomfortable. Within this branch of the church we look at people who are passionate about their beliefs with suspicion, or disapproval or sometimes with amusement.
Too often we allow our rational and academic approach to keep us safely isolated from those disturbing feelings that faith can generate.
The problem is that those emotions are what make our faith practical. If we try to make it all about what we believe, getting the right understanding or faith statement, then we make our faith sterile.
That’s the point James was making in his letter.
James was clear: we can believe all kinds of things but if we don’t make it real, it’s worthless. Our faith can’t be all intellectual or all spiritual, for that matter. Our faith has to have skin on; it has to have a physical expression or it’s empty words. “Faith without works is dead” is the way James says it, and he’s right.
What did Jesus tell us was most important? To love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Love is at the core of our faith and love doesn’t spring from our minds; it is body-based, it’s very human and often messy.
Of course, we need our minds to develop our love, so it’s not just for a few, select people – I’m not saying we should stop thinking – but at its core our faith is not about thinking; it’s about a passionate relationship with our creator and the world around us. We are invited to take part in that love song that God sings to us and all people.
In the Song of Solomon we see the image of the lover calling the beloved to leave the safety of the house; to come beyond the walls into the springtime where growth and new life are happening, where anything can happen.
It is a call to step beyond safety into an exciting world, where possibilities are endless.
That time is coming for us. The winter of this pandemic will be over some day and we must let the feelings of our faith draw us out of our hiding holes and show us once again how to reach out in love; how to get past interesting but sterile theories into that place where faith is made real, where lives are touched and healed, where people are helped and hope grows again.
It may not be what we are used to, but we have it within us to be passionate about our faith. It is part of the way God has made us. It is the place where humanity meets spirituality at its most basic. We must never lose that.