Sermon for September 2, 2018
One of the most consistent complaints, or requests, depending on how you look at it, from spiritual seekers concerns the contrast between being told, in a sermon or lecture or whatever the format might be, about what the reality of our existence is versus how to actually ‘get there’. I’ve heard this apparent dilemma described as the difference between someone giving a “description” of reality versus a “prescription” to get to liberation. I think it is safe to say that anyone who has delved into spiritual issues for any length of time will eventually reach a point where they no longer want to hear about what is, they want to ‘be’ what is. They want to get to the destination and stop hearing about how beautiful it is.
On a purely surface, scriptural level, it appears that Jesus does offer us a ‘way’, a ‘prescription’ rather than just a ‘description’. However, as St. Paul alluded to in his struggles with the ‘thorn’ in his side, and his admission that although he constantly tries to take the path he intellectually, even spiritually, knows is right, he often errs again and again, this ‘way’ is not as simple as some would have us believe.
If it were a simple matter of our own will, of our own intelligence, then we could simply apply ourselves and reach a causal solution where A + B = C. Where A might be accepting Christ as your personal saviour, B might be having Faith, and C might be liberation, being ‘saved’. Herein lies the paradox.
People, such as St. Paul and many others, much more disciplined, spiritually advanced, or whatever other label you want to use, than us would most certainly have been successful if such an equation were actually effective. Or what about Einstein or Tesla, men with extremely capable minds, who seem to have missed the boat on any real spiritual formula for suffering, or even figuring out ourselves. If you asked either of these men how they became so intelligent, I doubt they could offer any answer at all. They know they are, but how they became that is a total mystery.
The paradox of the way of Christ is that it isn’t really a ‘way’ at all. We might think of the Zen idea of the pathless path, or literally saying the way is ‘no way’. Christ is almost shocking us into the Truth by offering a way that totally dismantles our own idea of what we can do with our own will. It’s like a Zen Koan- what’s the sound of one hand clapping? If you try to will your way into God’s Grace, come up with some formula for salvation, use effort to force spiritual progress, you will quickly find out that you really have no power whatsoever.
At first glance, this might be depressing. And, in fact, many of our experiences that bring us to this realization are very painful. We like to feel like we’re in control, that the world makes logical, intellectual sense, and that we can safely navigate through our lives. The deeper you walk down that path, however, the more anxiety you will feel because you start to realize there is no end to the mystery, no conclusion to the maze. Controlling one thing only leads to the need to control another ad infinitum.
What Christ is calling us to is a way of ‘no way’. It is a surrendering of our individuality, but not a destruction of it. Sure, you can fight and try as hard as you want to in life. That is where the idea of ‘free will’ comes in. Christ has given us the ability to fight within our delusion for as long as we like. Once we tire of the game, however, he has shown us a way that requires nothing more from us but allowing the game to end. From there, He takes over.
So, back to the original issue I always see- people want a way. They want A + B = C. More than a few pastors, gurus, teachers etc have even warped the truth to let people have something like this. In some cases, these more formulaic type teaching are done with ill intent, possibly to serve some desire of the teacher,however, in other cases it is the only thing those seeking will accept. As an example, you don’t start off teaching incredibly difficult theological ideas to 5 years olds in Sunday school. You give them a starting point with which they can explore their own spirituality a they mature. When a ‘seeker’ begins mature, to get frustrated with a lack of success with whatever formula or way they’ve chosen, or with a perception that literally no way is even given, they are crossing into territory they may not even recognize for its importance.
The reason many spiritual teachers give us no formula, the reason Christ has had to shock us into a way that really isn’t anything you can do yourself, is because we are already free, already saved! Christ, nor God, has done anything to us. We don’t have to do anything and that is nearly impossible for us to accept in a world where we seem to be required to act, to be an individual, to exist no matter what. We are already saved, already full of His Grace, and the hardest thing for us is to just accept that and be.
Christ’s saving Grace isn’t something we can get, achieve, find, understand- it can only be allowed when we stop, are silent, and we allow. I know it seems like an unending paradox of don’t do anything, yet not doing something is a kind of doing something- how does one actually not do anything and allow? Then isn’t ‘allowing’ an act of our personal will?
There are no words that can solve this puzzle and intellect cannot help. It must be an experience, based on faith. A good example of this is Jesus on the cross. When Christ is questioning if he is forsaken, it is the intellect of the man, the human side of Jesus, trying to grasp some understanding of his incredible suffering and apparent end. It is when Jesus surrenders to the Spirit that all questions ceased, an allowing prevailed, and the end of suffering is at hand.
The greatest proof we will ever have that we are already saved is the fact that there is absolutely nothing we can do, of our own will, to achieve the freedom we believe we don’t have. It is only our own belief that there is something to get, something we are not, that precludes us from seeing that it is already there. There is no logical, intellectual proof I can provide that will force anyone to have this realization.
Many of us are confused by the idea of God’s strength being perfected in our weakness. Although there are many subtle truths here, one of them is a kind of antidote for the frustration that can occur when we realize that the truth is right there for us but we just seem to keep pushing it away and missing it. Our weakness, our struggles, are what open us up to seeing that we can do nothing to achieve what we already have. Pain breaks down our defenses, forces us to live in the moment, and makes us give up the illusions we use to make our lives seem secure. Alan Watts has described one of the roles of a guru as being someone who ‘speeds up’ your sense of frustration, and even suffering, so that you give up the game of seeking faster. In Jesus’ own experience on the cross, God’s strength is perfected as the individual known as Jesus steps aside.
Christ’s ultimate Grace to us is that we don’t have to die on a cross to be saved. Christ shows us that Grace, liberation, our ultimate salvation, is as easy as an allowing. There is nothing to do. There is no one to be. Christ’s Grace is what we seek our entire lives, that has been there since before you were even born.