Sunday, June 12, 2005

Proper 6A: The two movements of the Christian life

Have you ever seen a labyrinth or walked one? Whether or not you’ve seen or walked a labyrinth, you probably know what I’m talking about.

A few years ago, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco reintroduced the labyrinth as a spiritual discipline. A labyrinth is simple a large circular pattern which one walks as a means of mediation of prayer. The labyrinth at Grace Cathedral is a copy of a very ancient labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France.

In an article The Birmingham News did about labyrinths a few years ago, they noted that "Walkers sometimes find themselves near each other; sometimes not. They find themselves sometimes near the center/destination, then suddenly distant, then unexpectedly at the end of the journey."

I want to suggest that there are two fundamental movements in our spiritual lives that such a maze or labyrinth reveals to us: the movements are coming in and going out.

The gospels suggest much the same thing.

In last week's gospel Jesus summoned Matthew to follow him, "Follow me". It was, as I pointed out, a phrase Jesus used at critical points in his ministry. He summoned Peter and Andrew, the first disciples with the same words: "Follow me". And he invited his followers to "take up their cross" and follow him.

In today's gospel reading having already called the Twelve to follow him, having already invited them in, Jesus sends them out. "...he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and eveyr infirmity.... These twelve Jesus sent out..."

As it is in the great maze of Chartres Cathedral, so it is in our lives. We are both invited to move in toward the center and also sent out to the edge. Jesus invites us into his fellowship, saying, "Follow me", and he also sends us out in mission and ministry.

These are the two fundamental movements of the Christian life. We are invited to follow Jesus and learn from him. He pours his life into us. But then we are sent out.

The Christian life is much like the growth of a child into an adult. As infants we can do nothing for ourselves. We are carried about, our parents change our diapers, feed us, and in time educate us. But the time comes when we reach a certain age and can be given responsibility. At first, the responsibilities are simple; we are told to clean our rooms, to feed the dog, to take out the garbage. But eventually we are given more responsibility. We go to college, get a job, get married, and eventually have children of our own. But we never cease to need the loving care and concern of others.

And so it is with the Christian life. Imagine the Christian life as a spiral. It begins with baptism when we are baptized into Christ, put on Christ, are filled for the first time with the Spirit Christ pours out on all those who are baptized. This following Christ and being filled by him continue as we learn about the Christian life.

But as we grow and learn as Christians, we, too, are given responsibility. There comes the time when Christ says to us, as he said to the Twelve, "... heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons..." Sound scary? Good! It is. But it is not impossible.

Coming back home for rest and nourishment and going out in service -- these are the two parts of the Christian life. If either part of the Christian life is missing, then something is gravely wrong. We constantly need to be renewed in worship and the sacraments. And we also constantly need to take that life offered to us and give it away.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die." Bonhoeffer phrased that a little too dramatically. I think it would be more accurate to say, "When Christ calls us, he bids us come and give our lives." We can give our lives dramatically, as when a martyr dies for the faith, but we can also give our lives day by day, offering to the world the life that God is constantly pouring into us.

The gospel is founded on the concept that the death of Christ brings life to those who put their faith in the God who was in Christ. The classic statement of this is in today's epistle: "While we were yet sinners Christ died for us."

In other words, the death of Christ was sacrificial. The idea that Christ's death was sacrificial is troubling to many. Sacrifice seems such a primitive and unpleasant concept. But the idea behind sacrifice is simple and true. A sacrifice is simply the giving of life in order that life may be received.

In some mysterious way, the death of Christ upon the Cross opened a channel through which God was able to pour life and grace into the world. We are the recipients of that life and grace. In response, we are asked to make our lives sacrificial. We are asked to be channels through which that life and grace can flow to others. "Freely have ye received, freely give."

Coming in and going out... the two movements of the spiritual life. Of the two parts, I suppose the one more likely to be overemphasized is coming in. We are content to go to church, sing hymns, and listen to sermons (provided they are not too long), but when we are dismissed, "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord", do we hear those as anything more than the last words of the liturgy? Do we in fact go out "to love and serve the Lord?"

Worship mirrors life. The liturgy starts with the same words with which we are baptized: "Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" and then they end with the words, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” I want to suggest that the words of dismissal are not the last words of the Sunday liturgy. They are the first words of the liturgy in which we are all engaged every day of our lives.