1 Corinthians 3:1-9
6th Sunday After Epiphany
February 12th/13th, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
Are you a spiritual person? Most people in our world today would answer yes to that question. Most people consider themselves spiritual, but many would quickly add that they are not religious. The desire to be spiritual but not religious is widespread today. It is the standard answer of almost every celebrity when he or she is asked about their personal faith. “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” But what does that even mean? What does it mean to be spiritual? What does it mean to be religious? Can you be one without the other?
For much of our world, spirituality has to do with things of the soul. Religion is seen as the invention of men – as an imperfect system of rules and beliefs that do more harm than good. Religion is seen as an imposing force that comes from outside people to oppress them and stifle their true identity. Spirituality, on the other hand, is seen as authentic. It comes from inside a person. It is not defined by any outside power, it is whatever a person decides it is.
Going through life as spiritual but not religious reflects humanity’s desire not to be bound by any rules or specific beliefs. It is the perfect fit for people who don’t like the demands of religion but aren’t quite ready to say they have no soul. It is a return to the age-old temptation to declare myself God, to be the master of my own destiny, to make the rules for myself. It’s wildly popular, but that’s because it’s easy. It requires nothing of you. It demands nothing of you. It’s basically saying “I’m health nut, but I don’t eat right or exercise.” It’s just empty words, words with no substance, words that almost have no meaning at all.
And it’s dangerous. From a Christian perspective, it’s dangerous because, “To be ‘spiritual, not religious’ is to have a god that doesn’t talk. [For] as soon as God opens his mouth, there is religion, doctrine, and assertions. As soon as God talks, there is truth, and the truth is always distinguished from error. [. . .] Conveniently for the spiritual-but-not-religious, if god is mute, then god doesn’t say anything about what is right or wrong. The mute god of the spiritual-but-not-religious is very supportive, but it never tells me anything I don’t know. It never tells me that something I am doing is wrong. It never tells me anything at all.”
Contrast this with the reading from 1 Corinthians we heard today. Paul tells the Christians in Corinth that he could not address them as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh. What is Paul saying here? What kind of spirituality is he talking about? Remember last week’s reading when Paul explained to the Corinthians that the secret and hidden things of God had been revealed by the Holy Spirit – for who knows what’s in the heart of a person except that person’s spirit. That spiritual wisdom is not given to the spiritually immature – to people who insist that they should be given their own way. No, it is for the mature, for the Spirit of God reveals the heart of God. Paul says this wisdom is imparted in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit.
Being spiritual-but-not-religious is dangerous because it worships a silent god. “Christians have a God who speaks. This is a fundamental Christian truth: God talks. In doing so, He not only gives us truth, but He also gives us life. God speaks, and there is light. God speaks, and there is life. God speaks, and the world is full of living things, and the world is good. God speaks, and sinners are forgiven. God speaks, and the dead are raised. God’s speaking is our hope and our life, our confidence and our comfort.”
That’s Paul’s message to the Corinthians. It’s the same message we see in today’s Old Testament reading. God tells the Israelites through Moses that he is placing before them the choice between that which is life and good and that which is death and evil. If the Israelites obeyed the voice of the Lord and walked in his ways, they would experience life and good. If they ignored his voice and went their own way, the result would be death and evil. The voice of the Lord is heard in his Word. In the verses leading into today Old Testament reading God tells his people that his word is in their mouth and in their heart to renew their minds. It is not hidden in the heavens or across the sea so that it is out of reach or impossible to access. It is near you. It is his Scriptures. The way of life Moses talks about is simply walking in the Word of our Lord.
The Psalmist picks up on the same thing in the Psalm we chanted today. Psalm 119 is a beautiful meditation on the gift of God’s Word. Blessed are those who walk in the Word of the Lord. Oh that we may be steadfast in keeping his statutes – his promises of forgiveness! Following our own way is the way of death. The Word of God is the way of life. As Psalm 119 famously goes on to say, the Word of God is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.
Yet we are so easily tempted to follow our own ways and to blaze our own paths. We are gods in our own minds. We act as if we understand this life and this world better than our Lord. This, finally, is where the notion of spiritual but not religious comes from – the desire to be in control. “No one will tell me what to do!” we cry. But buying into the world’s notion of spiritual-not-religious is nothing more than deceiving ourselves and playing word games. Even if we reject all established forms of religious practice, that doesn’t mean we’re free from religion. It simply means that we’ve invented religions for ourselves. We invent manmade ways to try to clean our consciences. We feel the shame of sin, there’s no denying that. And we want to be rid of that shame, to make it go away. Much of what goes on in our world is simply people trying to justify themselves, to find a way to cleanse their conscience from the guilt and shame of sin. But rather than seeking forgiveness through our Lord’s Word, we try to eliminate the shame by pretending as if the things that make us feel guilty aren’t actually sinful. We’re just born that way, no need to feel guilty. You aren’t hurting anyone. It’s a victimless crime, no need to feel bad. Your action was legal, no need to feel bad.
We try to conquer sin by not calling it sin any longer. If nothing is sinful, then there is no need for a savior. If there’s no need for a savior, then there’s no need for Jesus. If there’s no need for Jesus, then there’s no need for the religion that comes with him. We can be spiritual but not religious. We can invent a personal religion that tries to cleanse a guilty conscience in ways that already appeal to us. No need for sacrifice. No need for growth or maturity. We just spend our time doing what we feel like doing and calling it spiritual because it stirs something in our emotions. Cleansing the environment, or donating time or money to charity, or campaigning for social causes and marching to change the world all become attempts at self-atonement. They become ways that we try to justify our existence. Ways that we try to balance the cosmic scales that we instinctively know are tilted against us.
But the Word of God will allow none of that. Refusing to call something by it’s name doesn’t stop that thing from existing. That’s like a child who doesn’t want to tell their parents they failed their math test so they hide the test paper in their backpack or try to throw it away before anyone sees it. But hiding the paper doesn’t change the grade. It’s just an exercise in self-deception. So also our sin. We can play word games with our culture and in our own minds, but ignoring sin won’t make it go away. Such an approach is childish. It is the way of death and evil, not the way of life and good.
As Jesus says in the Gospel reading, our righteousness must exceed that kind of phony righteousness. We can’t appease a guilty conscience with the word game that because we didn’t physically act on a sinful impulse that we’re therefore innocent. Jesus says whoever holds hatred or lust in his heart has sinned with the mind and is accountable to God. We can’t console ourselves with the notion that because we didn’t break the law we’re not guilty in the eyes of God. Just because someone can get a certificate of divorce doesn’t make divorce right in God’s eyes. The same can be said for any number of sins that are generally accepted and even legalized in our world. Legal and godly are two very different things. We can’t get rid of our sin by hiding from it or trying to redefine it. That is a false and worldly righteousness. Actually, it’s no righteousness at all.
Our Lord has given us a better way. He has given us the way of life and good. He has given us his Son. Jesus was perfect where we are not. Jesus fulfilled the demands of the law in our place. And Jesus gives that righteousness to us as a gift – to make us right with God and to renew our minds in this life. He gives us his Spirit through his Word so that we can boldly and confidently confess the truth of our sin, for we also know the truth of our Savior. He gives us his Spirit through his Word so that we become his spiritual people. Not spiritual in the sense of ‘spiritual but not religious,’ but Holy Spiritual people – people of the Holy Spirit. People in whom the Holy Spirit lives and moves and has his being. People who are being shaped back into the image of God.
God doesn’t redefine our sin, he forgives it. He pays for it. And he gives us comfort and hope through his Word. He works through his spoken Word as you sit in this place and hear of your sin and salvation. He works through his sung word as we join our voices in praise and confession. He works through his written Word as you study the Scriptures and pray them in your daily devotions. He works through his visible Word as he brings people into his family through baptism and as he feeds and nurtures our souls with his body and blood so that we can bear the trials of this life with patience and hope until he grants us deliverance. It’s God at work in us. And yes, it’s religion. But it’s is not a manmade religion. It’s not the invention of a human mind. It is the true religion given to us through the Word of God. It is the way of life and good. We don’t need to be ‘spiritual-but-not-religious.’ For we have the Spirit of God and the religion of forgiveness that he brings.
So we cling to the Word. While the world struts about masquerading the idolatrous worship of the self as if it’s somehow more spiritual than the Word of God, we stay rooted and growing in the Word. For that is where the Spirit of God comes to us. That is what makes us truly Spiritual people – people of the Holy Spirit.
 Mollie Hemmingway “Faith Unbound” Christianity Today, September 20, 2010
 Bryan Wolfmueller Has American Christianity Failed?
 1 Corinthians 2:6-16
 Wolfmueller, ibid.