Sermon Preached by John McLuckie on 26 August

Sometimes our Christian faith is caricatured as a denial of worldly pleasure and a preference for a more constrained life of sombre seriousness. If this is so, then these last few weeks of festival in Edinburgh will have been little more than a good excuse for an annual spree of head shaking, tut-tutting and deep despondency. If this is a caricature, then I’m afraid we have sometimes done little to contradict it. When I was younger, my parents belonged to a strict brand of Christianity associated with the Brethren movement. When we moved to a new town, the elders of our local meeting made a pastoral visit to my father to upbraid him for his wanton indulgence in the fleshly pleasures of this world. I’m sure he won’t mind me revealing the shameful cause of this visitation – he was rumoured to be indulging in the sinful pursuit of keeping a small tank of tropical fish. This resulted in a move to a different church. The religious allegiances of the fish are not recorded.
This is, of course, an extreme example, but the supposition remains in place that religious people espouse a narrower view of life in comparison with the infinite pleasures of this sensual world. And this is the supposition that many would assume to lie behind the saying of Jesus in today’s gospel that it is the Spirit that gives life and that the flesh is useless. The flesh represents the untold delights of worldly existence, the Spirit points to a more restrained and proper religious milieu. We may not have so much fun, but we have the grim satisfaction of knowing that we’re doing the right thing. But let’s go back to the claim of Jesus in John’s account of the Gospel that it is, in fact, the Spirit that gives life. This does not sound like a denial of goodness but a claim that the actual state of things might be the opposite of what we assumed. Far from offering a restricted, if morally upright pattern of life, life in the Spirit is held to be the expression of life in its fullness, life abundant. By contrast, the flesh refers to something less than this, something constrained and reduced.
It is, I think, important that we understand these terms – flesh and Spirit – properly because we urgently need to set aside any kind of dualism that sees the sensual delights of the created world as a problem for those who seek a path of spiritual fulfilment. Let’s remember that it is John’s Gospel that has Jesus speak of his flesh as true food, John that speaks of the Word made flesh. God inhabits the good world he created in the person of his son, the same son whose first miracle is to provide abundant wine for the wedding feast. So what is the true distinction to be made between flesh and spirit? Christian tradition has a clear response to this question. The problem does not lie with pleasure or with the stuff of creation but with our inability to see beyond it and with our tendency to cling to it. I don’t think that most of us are so simplistic as to imagine that our fulfilment lies in possessions or unbridled hedonism, but we might imagine that it lies in getting everything under our control or in attaining a position or an ambition. We might also find that we are strongly driven by our appetites or desires, possibly for things that are good in themselves. The problem with this is that we might calibrate our view of the world in terms of what use it can be to us. People and things then become means to our ends, not having value in themselves. We sometimes do this in very small ways simply by only judging things from our own perspective or by having an idea of how things should be. This gets particularly problematic when we have a clear notion of who or what I should be, always failing to measure up to an idealised image of perfection. The American poet David Hinton says, ‘Ideas confuse me – they leave everything out’.
By contrast, the life of the Spirit is a boundless, generous and ungrasping thing, free from compulsion and not concerned with our ideas of how things should be. It is a life of pure beholding, of delighting in people and in things for who and what they are, of setting aside our perspective in order to simply receive what is in front of us. This is true of how we see God. Do we seek God as a way of confirming our own judgements about life? Or are we willing to open ourselves to a God who will constantly surprise us with the truth of who we are and with the boundless possibilities of a life lived without a why or a wherefore?
The life of the Spirit is not, however, always an easy one. The writer of the letter to the Ephesians recognised that well and suggested that it is a struggle of sufficient proportions to merit a full panoply of defensive measures. The boundless life is a struggle because we are so prone to distraction and to insistent thoughts that insinuate notions of either our worthlessness or our rightness. Our great challenge in the spiritual life is not usually a dramatic and heinous temptation but a simple carelessness. We make assumptions or casual judgements; we fixate on our own issues; we get weighed down by concern; we don’t want to lose face. How do we deal with this? By guarding the heart. Our reading from Ephesians sneaked in a very important but weakly translated word. The writer calls us to keep alert or, to be more accurate, to be sleeplessly vigilant, to be wide awake! That is the secret of the spiritual life and it is nurtured in wordless prayer, in watchfulness over our thoughts and in open-eyed attentiveness.
Keeping watch over our thoughts means simply observing the way in which out compulsions or habitual distractions arise in our minds and learning how to let go of them before they crowd out that quieter, more receptive mind. I know of no other way of nurturing this than a disciplined practice of regular prayer and the writer to the Ephesians suggests as much – pray at all times in the Spirit. One of the most tried and tested ways of doing this is to pray the name of Jesus and I’ll speak more about this next Sunday at our Sunday Introduction. To pray repeatedly the words, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me’ is to have the Word of Life on our lips and in our hearts, not as a set of instructions, but as the life-giving presence of the Spirit of Christ, not as an idea but as a constant reorientation of our lives towards Life itself. Jesus said, ‘The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life’. Peter said, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ Let us then go to him so that our minds are formed as the mind of Christ, and we live a life that is boundless, receptive, free and full.