Saturday, September 8, 2018
“Pilgrimage” is not a familiar concept for most Protestant Christians. However, it seems to me that the concept of “pilgrimage” is central to fully grasping what it means to seek God. Usually, pilgrimage refers to a geographical journey of great spiritual significance. For instance, many Christians have taken a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, while many Muslims go on Hajj, a spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca. A pilgrimage does not always have to be a physical journey, however. One can take an interior pilgrimage within one’s mind, without leaving home.
At the very least, the concept of spiritual pilgrimage serves as an excellent metaphor for what it means to Seek God. Over the past two weeks, we have been exploring the four “Essentials of Discipleship.” They are: (1) Seek God; (2) Act Inclusively; (3) Serve others—both human and nonhuman; and (4) Work for Justice. We began by examining what it means to “act inclusively” and then to “serve others.” This Sunday, September 9th, I will focus on seeking God, and next Sunday we will conclude by exploring what it means to work for justice. Together, these four principles form the essentials of Christian discipleship.
To fully appreciate the significance of Christian discipleship, it is important to recognize that Christianity is not a “spectator sport.” Some people misunderstand this fundamental point about Christianity. They mistakenly believe that all they need to do is become a member of a church and they are automatically and permanently a Christian disciple. But, this is a colossal misunderstanding and indicates an infantile faith. Instead, the scriptures assert that Christian discipleship is a lifelong process in which we grow and mature in our faith. Through this process, our relationship with the Divine is enriched and deepened.
This misunderstanding of what it means to be a Christian was widely shared by the Corinthians addressed by the Apostle Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians:
"And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?"
(1 Corinthians 3: 1-3)
In this passage, Paul adopts the metaphor of human growth from infancy to adulthood to describe the process of growing in our relationship with the divine. In what must have been a stunning and brutal statement for the Corinthians to hear, Paul calls them spiritual infants; that is, spiritually immature Christians. Their spiritual immaturity is indicated by the incessant jealousy and quarreling among them. Given their spiritual immaturity, Paul can only feed them milk and not solid food. In other words, Paul can only give them basic, introductory teaching in the faith because of their spiritual immaturity. They are not yet ready for more advanced teaching.
In his analysis of this text, the Biblical scholar J. Paul Sampley observes, “Other letters allow us to see that Paul does, indeed, think of believers as moving from their starting point as babies in Christ toward greater and greater maturity. The life of faith is a life of growth, of maturing, of growing up.”[i] Even Paul himself does not claim to be a fully mature Christian. Instead, he continues to grow and mature in his faith, as well. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12)
Christian disciples are always “works in progress.” We never reach that final destination, where we can say that we are completely mature in our faith and can grow no deeper in our relationship with the Divine. No. Instead, as with the Apostle Paul, we can always mature further in our faith—and our loving relationship with God can always grow deeper.
Another perspective is the metaphor of spiritual pilgrimage, which I suggested at the beginning of this blog post. When we become disciples of Christ we embark upon a spiritual pilgrimage. Step by step, we grow in our faith and our relationship with Christ. With each step, we mature, moving from the milk of infancy to the solid food of a fully grown adult in Christ. Yet, this pilgrimage never reaches a final destination. We can always grow deeper and deeper in love with God. We can always deepen our vision of what it means to be a true follower of Christ.
This spiritual growth is always intentional. And, the growth occurs through both “learning” and “doing.”
1. Learning. Spiritual learning includes prayer, study of scripture and other spiritual writings, and worship. We have Christ himself as a model of this process of intentional learning. For instance, the Gospel of Mark records that early in his ministry, Jesus got up “in the morning, while it was still very dark, … and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35; see also Mark 6:46). Jesus was intentional about setting aside time for prayer and meditation with God.
2. Doing. Complementing learning is doing. We grow and mature in our faith through serving God. This action-oriented spiritual growth certainly includes serving others and working for justice –two of the four core principles of Christian discipleship. But, it also includes working and serving our community of faith. Through our service to our church, we open up and experience new avenues to grow. We mature in our faith and grow deeper in our relationship with God.
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, September 9th, as we continue our exploration of the four essential principles of Christian discipleship. Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.
Come, join us. Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.
[i] J. Paul Sampley, Commentary on the First Letter to the Corinthians in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 10, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.