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The spirituality of Jesus and why it matters

The spirituality of Jesus and why it matters.

I have been wondering about the spirituality of Jesus, and how I might describe it. Nowhere in the Gospels is it described directly as such, so I need to try and infer it from what we know. There seem to me to be at least several recognisable elements.

[1] Jesus clearly stands within a tradition [see my piece on ‘Did Jesus have a spiritual director’]. He was brought up as a Jew, knew His Scriptures and the traditions which flowed from them. He was versed in rabbinic teaching. So He had a language and a symbolism which He could use with ease when talking about the things of God. Yet He also appears to have felt comfortable in criticising that tradition. For example you might expect Him to have done most of His teaching in synagogues, that would seem the obvious place, but He’s rejected at the synagogue in Nazareth, is described as preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum once, and doesn’t appear in a synagogue after that. And the experience is the same in Jerusalem: He preaches in the Temple there and the authorities want to arrest Him and eventually arrange His death. His relationship with the institutional guardians of His tradition was not an easy one.

[2] He had a number of formative religious experiences in which He felt that God was speaking to Him. The first that we know of was His Baptism which the Gospel writers present as inaugurating His public ministry. It is interesting to notice that scholars seem clear that the words that Jesus heard spoken to Him by God are quotations from two Old Testament passages, one from the Psalms and the other from Isaiah: so God spoke to Him out of the tradition with which He was familiar.

Jesus appears not to know immediately what these words actually meant for Him, and so He withdrew into the Wilderness to reflect on them. The Wilderness is a place with a great deal of symbolic significance for a Jew and Jesus choice of it as a place to go is certainly significant. When Jesus is tempted in the Wilderness by the Devil He answers with quotations from the book of Deuteronomy and in particular from the speech that Moses gave to the Israelites as they were preparing to enter the Promised Land. That too I’m sure is significant. So Jesus sought to interpret the meaning of His religious experiences out of the tradition within which He stood. He recognised the possibility of mis-using and mis-understanding them; and this was a struggle that seemed to stay with Him throughout His life.

Jesus had other religious experiences too. The story of the Transfiguration, which we hear from the viewpoint of the disciples who were there with Him, must have been, first and foremost an experience that Jesus had. Likewise the story of His Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Crucifixion. The Gospels give us some insight into what these experiences might have meant to Jesus. But there are other experiences into which they offer us no insight: the Resurrection and the Ascension. It is fascinating to wonder what those events meant to Jesus and how He understood their meaning.

There may well have been others too, of which we are completely ignorant. Perhaps some before His Baptism, as a young man? Maybe others during his times of solitude and prayer during His ministry? We simply don’t know. But the ones we do know about seem to have been formative for Him.

[3] We know that prayer was something that Jesus took very seriously. He taught His disciples the Lord’s Prayer, which reads like a summary of His teaching and presumably reflects His own experience.
He addressed God as His ‘Heavenly Father’ having been addressed by God at His baptism as ‘my beloved son’, and taught His disciples to do likewise.
The use of the Aramaic word ‘Abba’ as the name of God suggests that He taught them to pray to God in their own everyday language rather than in the holy language of Hebrew.
He taught them that their prayer should be brief.
He Himself went off alone to pray, sometimes all night when He must have been mainly silent.

[4] God spoke to Jesus through the everyday events of life. Given that Jesus was well versed in the Jewish Scriptures and its traditions it is surprising that so much of His teaching does not seem to start from them, but rather is drawn from everyday events that everybody must have experienced but few saw the significance of.

The parables that He used are all drawn from ordinary life: a man sowing seed; somebody throwing a party; people working in a vineyard; a shepherd losing one of his sheep; a woman losing a coin; a farmer wondering when to harvest his crops; a decision about where to build a house.

I wonder if these were first of all images that spoke to Jesus about the questions He was asking Himself, before being shared with others? So, for example, I imagine Jesus questioning Himself about the very mixed success of His teaching: there was much initial enthusiasm but much less long lasting commitment. And then He found Himself watching a man sowing seed, and realised that much seed had to be sown in order for a small percentage of it to produce a sufficient harvest: sowing inevitably meant that much would seemingly be wasted. This appeared to be God’s way of doing things. So He shouldn’t worry about measuring the success of His preaching: much would appear to be fruitless; but in God’s good time there would be a sufficient harvest; and He had to learn to trust in that just as the man sowing seed did.

I recall reading the suggestion that the story of the Good Samaritan might well have been born out of Jesus own experience. Maybe He knew from personal experience what it was like to be beaten up and robbed on the Jericho road and to have religious people pass by on the other side, before a man whom He had assumed to be an enemy actually stopped and rescued Him at considerable personal risk. Perhaps this changed Jesus views on who was His neighbour and then was used by Him as a story to illustrate the point to others?

I wonder if the story of His encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman taught His something similar and changed His views on foreigners and on women. I must admit to delighting in the notion that Jesus was taught a lot by God through other people.

[5] God seems to have provided Him with more human support than we might think. It would be easy to imagine Jesus as a lonely figure, and I’m sure that there is some truth in that. His religious experiences singled Him out as different as did His capacity to find God speaking to Him in all sorts of ways and places that nobody else seemed to notice. His willingness to trust in, and to speak from, His own experience of God was not always appreciated and often provoked considerable opposition. He must have been in some ways a solitary man; one who ‘had nowhere to lay His head.’

But this is not the whole picture. He did have followers and supporters. There seems to have been an inner group of three [see my piece on ‘Did Jesus have a spiritual director’]; but there was also a group of Twelve; there were women who supported them; there were individuals like Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Simon the Pharisee, the man who let Him use his upper room in Jerusalem for the Last Supper; Mary, Martha and Lazarus with whom He stayed. He was regularly sharing meals with others, whether in His own home or theirs. God never seems to have left Him without human support, until the very end, when He found Himself facing a cruel death totally alone.

I sense that all of the above is important because these elements of Jesus spirituality are potentially ours too. We don’t need a complicated system of teaching in order to grow as people and in relationship to God. All we need to do is the follow Jesus’ example.

[1] We all stand in a tradition which shapes our thinking. It may be the Christian tradition and its language and symbolism to which we can go when we try to talk about our life under God. But it may be that we feel ourselves to stand in a tradition which lacks any religious belief or language. There are obvious disadvantages but there is also the plus that we come to these matters with new eyes and a certain freshness. Like Jesus, we can be nourished by the tradition in which we stand, but we will also feel called to challenge it.

[2] Research suggests that nigh on 70% of the adult population of the UK claims to have had an experience of ‘something greater’ than themselves, which many of them would call God, and which is overwhelmingly found to be personally affirmative and encouraging. The problem appears to be not that people lack religious experience, but that they rarely talk about it, perhaps don’t recognise their religious experience for what it is, and often don’t appear to give it the significance it merits. Like Jesus we can recognise it, take it seriously and give it reflective space. Like Jesus we will also be tempted to mis-understand and mis–use it, and can expect to meet opposition when we seek to honour it.

[3] Sister Wendy Beckett wrote that if prayer is important and God is love, then prayer cant in principle be difficult. Jesus makes prayer sound very simple. The majority of people admit to praying from time to time. Again the problem appears to be not that we don’t pray, but that we often don’t attach to it the importance that it merits. Like Jesus we can make time for prayer, time of withdrawal to pray, and a willingness to place our prayer at the centre of our life not its periphery.

[4] Once we have taken on board the Biblical notion that God can speak to us through any and everything, and have begun to watch out for instances of it in our own lives, and then to trust the wisdom we find in them, it is surprising how often they can occur. Like Jesus we can ‘stay awake’ to the God who encounters us in unexpected ways in the midst of ordinary life, and learn to trust the insights that come to us.

[5] Despite the fact that for many the spiritual journey often feels like a lonely one, if we look for a guide it is surprising how often we will find one. As the saying goes ‘When the pupil is ready the teacher will come.’ And in my experience there are always ‘angels’ [messengers from God] along the way who provide support and encouragement from unlikely sources. We are rarely left alone, and when we are we can trust that it is for a purpose. Like Jesus we can learn to accept the support of others, and to stay open to the possibility that our ‘enemies’ may be our greatest teachers.

1 Comment

  1. There is much here that rings true for me personally, but I’m also a little surprised to find so many strands that link my spiritual journey & experience with that of Jesus. There are connections that I have never seriously contemplated. Ordained ministry can be a lonely path because no matter how much you may be part of the community or communities you serve, there is always that sense of being ‘set apart’.
    This article encourages me to give greater attention to the presence of God (that which is greater than I am) in the people & events of daily life. One of the traps I fall into is that of being ‘professionally’ religious. By that I mean conforming to an expected role and understanding of what it means to be an ordained member of the Church. Repeatedly I need to remind myself that God accepts me as I am whilst the Church can often leave me feeling that I am only accepted in relation to my achievements on behalf of that Church.
    I am slowly learning – with the help of my spiritual director & others – that the essence of spirituality is far more ‘earthy’ and less refined than is often implied. The everyday, down-to-earth, experiences of life are all interconnected and a treasure trove of insights into the spiritual journey that is part of everyone’s humanity. Such experiences – as Jesus knew all to well – are a mixture of light and dark, joy and sadness, hope and despair, and life and death.
    Of course, I hope that because I can share these experiences & insights as an ordained member of the Church others will naturally nod their heads in agreement and declare me to be ‘a wise one’ among them. The humble reality is that only a little seed actually germinates in the heart’s soil of others who hear what I have to say. Yet I am beginning to learn, little by little, that it’s okay for this to be the case, and that my relationship with God is far more significant than what I can say about it!

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