The life in Christ, in common with other spiritual paths, tends to extremes of zeal on the one hand and worldliness on the other. In the formative period the spirit of dedication so grips the disciple that life is made meaningful only by a knowledge of the Lord, while death is unimportant except that it brings closer the day of universal consummation of all things in God. The letters to the seven churches in Asia that prefix the Book of Revelation underline the principal snares in the path of discipleship. Some, like the congregations of Pergamum and Thyatira, are liable to seduction by esoteric cults and gnostic philosophies, while others, like the church of Ephesus, succeed in holding on to the faith but with a growing hardness of heart that shuts out love. Yet others, like the churches of Sardis and Laodicea, lapse into a torpor that precludes spiritual development, even if, in the instance of Laodicea, there is a complacent pride in its self-sufficiency which is mistakenly equated with spiritual distinction. To balance those aberrations, however, there flickers the light of a true undefiled faith burning painfully through the darkness of persecution, as in the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia.
On one level the call of Christ in the soul is to a more perfect way of life. Malice, lust, jealousy and sloth are to be replaced by compassion, chastity, charity and unremitting service to others. And yet the teaching of Jesus and his way of life among his fellows moved positively in the direction of acceptance, tolerance of human weakness, and a charter of personal freedom far in advance of the religious orthodoxy of his own time, and indeed of the rules and regulations of all societies at any time. When Christ makes his presence felt in the soul of the earnest seeker after truth, that disciple may be so uplifted as to feel he is "born again" in the faith, as opposed to the rather perfunctory religion he learned at home and later as part of his academic equipment. He may be tempted to recoil in horror from his past attitudes and general style of life Now at last he has found the true faith, in the process of which he unceremoniously kicks away the ladder of his life on which he ascended so painfully to his present situation of faith. In his limited but enthusiastic view the past was a complete aberration, while the present situation represents the final destination to which he has been guided so miraculously. In this way the supercilious worldliness of the Laodicean situation is replaced by the loveless eartnestness of the church of the Ephesians. In more modern times there have been episodes of religious revival, and nearly all of these have followed hard on a particularly arid period of intellectual enlightenment or a phase of moral permissiveness. This sequence itself testifies to the spiritually barren world of intellectual speculation, scientific research, social experimentation and sensual stimulation in the absence of a living faith. These other modes of human actualization, important as they may be on a purely practical level, are all impaled on the spikes of transience, decay and dissolution. They do not inflame the soul with that joy of recognition which may suddenly dawn after the unexpected meeting with a stranger that opens the previously sluggish eyes of the soul to a vision of eternity.
Indeed, man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. This word is the bread of life, and to taste and eat it is to be raised up from the imprisonment of earthly life to a vision of eternity. The misfortune lies in the human tendency to secrete the bread of life so that it may assume the function of an infallible source of reassurance instead of performing its vital work of guiding the spirit into new realms of understanding and healing. Christ did not come into the world to provide a bastion against suffering, disappointment and death. In his earthly life he experienced the full gamut of the world's pain and suffering, and was not miraculously delivered from any of them. But he had the inner strength to persist so that finally he not only prevailed but was found fully worthy of a complete resurrection to eternal life. No element of his personality was found wanting. The true life of the spirit is not one that leads to a limitation, still less a denial, of the faculties of the personality. There has to be an uninhibited encounter with the world's many snares and illusions that bear down upon the human psyche. The spiritual life is one of active participation in all aspects of earthly existence, vibrant yet terrifying in its glory and agony minute by minute. In this sharing we learn from each experience and encounter. In turn we contribute our essence to the world's atmosphere, so that both the world and the individual are thereby enriched. In other words, it is our privilege to enjoy each moment of life and our responsibility to bear the Holy Spirit to all who receive us and to share the grace of God that flows from us.
It is sad and an eloquent indication of our imperfect scale of values that the concept of orthodoxy in religion carries with it undertones of dreariness, intolerance and general curtailment of human potential. To many people orthodox religion is joyless, obsessed with the fact of evil and the need to protect oneself against its inroads at any price, and generally divisive in terms of human relationships. Between the saved and the unsaved, the elect and those beyond the pale, there is a wide gulf without any obvious bridge joining the two sides. The object of life is to keep strenuously on the right side of the barrier, so that in the end human relationships are restricted to a small body of believers. Yet to be fair, it must be conceded that free, uninhibited social intercourse does bring with it the hazard of contamination with undesirable forces that may damage the intellect and poison the soul. All this is painfully shown in the sacred history of the Jews; it is only in Christ that a way is shown to bridge this gulf without in any way denying the difficulties involved.
From the time of its definitive election as a chosen people under Moses, the children of Israel were entrusted with an elaborate code of moral and ritual behaviour which they were forbidden to contravene. Especially important was religious observance and the social obligations that flow out from it. The Ten Commandments were the distillation of that vast body of doctrine: even today their authority has not been undermined in the lives of civilized people even if they are being constantly betrayed by most people, even sincere believers: the spirit is willing but the flesh weak. The children of Israel were indeed God's chosen people, chosen to reveal his sacred law to the world, to witness to that Law by becoming holy, a nation of priests set apart to intercede between man and God. Nevertheless, when they reached the promised land, they almost immediately apostasized. Forgetting their debt to God, they allowed themselves to be seduced by the world around them and especially the cults of their pagan neighbours. Each period of backsliding brought in its wake military disaster, enslavement by their ignorant, depraved neighbours, a spirit of sincere, though selfish, repentance, and the emergence, through God's grace, of a national, religious leader. He brought the broken, penitent Israelites to victory, but their gratitude to God was short-lived. Peace and freedom brought complacency to the fore again, and the ensuing period of moral decline culminated once more in open apostasy. This dismal pattern of events recurred until the disappearance of the northern kingdom of Israel into Assyrian captivity in the eighth century before Christ, and the deportation into Babylonian exile of the southern kingdom of Judah. This culminated in the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 587 sc. Perhaps the most significant example of the cause of this trend is evidenced in the fall from spiritual dedication of Solomon. His reign marked the culmination of national splendour, while his wisdom was to be proverbial in its reach and profundity. His downfall was women; promiscuous relationships with those around him, Israelite and pagan according to his lust, served to dilute his religious fervour and corrupt his moral discernment. He offered worship to local deities to please his pagan wives and concubines, thereby placing these idols on the same level as God himself. Solomon's reign marked both the zenith of Israelite power and also its insidious decline towards schism, defeat, deportation and death.
When, through the magnanimity of Cyrus, king of Persia, the exiles were allowed to return to Palestine once more, a chastened people emerged who were to form the nucleus of Judaism. Under Ezra and Nehemiah the temple was rebuilt and the walls of Jerusalem were repaired. Then came the final edict: all mixed marriages were to be dissolved. From that time onwards a racially pure people were alone to be tolerated. The snares of religious syncretism and the debased psychic and physical practices of the pagan groups were to be excluded from the orbit of God's chosen people. At last the prophetic injunction could be fulfilled: you shall be my people, and I shall be your God. But no one can immure himself permanently from the world's insistent call to full participation in its workings. In fact Judaism gained much from the insights of Persian religion as it was subsequently to do from its encounter with Hellenism after Alexander the Great won control of the hinterland of Palestine among his greater conquests. While complete segregation was enjoined by the highly orthodox strand, a more universalist approach in Judaism was also apparent in the books of Ruth and especially Jonah that were written at about the same time as the edicts of Ezra and Nehemiah. On the whole the Jewish people remained pure through the period of the Maccabean revolt up to the time of Christ. It seems appropriate that the incarnation should have taken place among an essentially pure, committed group of people, though the genealogy of Jesus according to Matthew's account traces the line of descent from four non-Israelite women in addition to the remainder who were Jewish; the non-Israelites were Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba.
In Christ a new relationship is present with the world; there is neither fear of contamination nor the danger of capitulation to its debased values. Instead, there is an active, fully willed participation in all its activities and among the most degraded people, with whom the Lord of life has no difficulty in identifying himself. He can achieve this wholehearted identification because he has established his own incontrovertible identity. Indeed, he comes to call the sinner to repentance and the sick to be healed. Those who pride themselves on their health, whether bodily or spiritual, are the ones most in need of a doctor of souls, but they cannot receive Christ because they are closed to a deep knowledge of themselves and consequently cannot respond to the call of God beyond them. Where there is no contact with the soul within, there does evil dwell. It is not so much the superficially sinful person who is the greatest repository of evil forces, because he is at least open to love which alone can deal constructively with the darkness of evil. He is more often the outwardly virtuous person who is devoid of charity that has a closed heart - a heart of stone as Ezekiel would describe it - and a personality emanating forces of hatred and darkness. This was apparently the situation of the church at Ephesus, and is very common in revivalist groups. These are strong in their own special brand of faith, but closed to the impulse of love and forgiveness. Their state of spiritual imprisonment is usually due to an amalgam of resentment and fear. The resentment follows the apparent worldly success of sinners, and their fear is due to the menace of evil which they rightly sense but whose origin within themselves they cannot trace. In fact evil is cosmic in scope, but it finds an especially welcome home in all those who are susceptible to its thrust. These include the power-seekers, the emotionally unbalanced who look for relief in sex, drugs and the pursuit of occult practices, and the tight-lipped fanatics who will not yield their limited vision of truth to any possibility of extension.
That person is free who can be fully himself in all situations, needing neither to impress the important members of society nor ingratiate the poor. We can be free only when we can operate from a fixed centre of indentity within ourselves. Even if we are only on the first rungs of the spiritual ladder and our centre responds most positively to sensual pleasure, money or worldly power, our identity is becoming established, though its aims are not praiseworthy. The tax-gatherers, prostitutes and other despised members of the society which Jesus frequented were centred on this lower rung of identity and could be authentically themselves albeit offensive to their fellows because of their squalid livelihood. They were free to respond to his holiness by ascending the spiritual ladder. And so their subservience to the attractions of this world was overcome until they could find their true place only at the heavenly banquet presided over by Christ himself. At that juncture they were free of all worldly encumbrances, and could give of themselves without stint to all who called on their help.
The more fully Christ is incarnated in the soul, the closer becomes the bond between the personality of the believer and his compatriots, between himself and God.
This God no longer needs to be bribed, placated or obsequiously praised. He becomes less separate from us as he is incarnated more perfectly within us. The statement of John 10:30 that the Father and Christ are one becomes more true of the individual soul as the Word grows more perfectly into the tree of life within it. Freedom brings trust with it so that we can rest with assurance in God's love. He is recognized at last as not fickle, vengeful or punitive. He is all-loving, and as we know him more perfectly, so love infuses our very being, changing us into new people. This love seeks nothing outside itself since it embraces everything. Its possession is each moment in time as life passes in the endless stream of eternity. It has no reward except its constant effect in bringing everything it encounters to the peak of its own perfection. Whenever there is a motive behind our benevolence we may be sure that our love is imperfect, that we are barely started on our spiritual career. There is in fact only one proper motive in loving someone, and that is to bring him to that freedom to be himself that is a measure of God's presence within him.
In this spiritual freedom we need no longer fear psychic contamination, nor, on the other hand, do we seek after esoteric knowledge to substantiate our frail self-regard. We are no longer subject to the claims of opposing systems of thought, for they cannot blur our inner vision of the one God who transcends all intellectual barriers and racial divisions. Nor are we attached to the riches of this world, any more than having to turn our backs conspicuously upon them lest they ensnare us. Neither wealth nor its absence will bring us to the vision of God but only a proper use of the world's resources, for all who live among us. It is for this reason that spiritual truth can be enunciated most convincingly in paradox; that which is logically absurd on the level of the rational mind becomes a deep abiding truth when viewed spiritually. What the discursive intellect grasps, analyses and destroys is taken up by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and brought into a context far beyond the limitations of time and space, in a realm in which all opposites are reconciled, all contradictions coincide. This is the exceptional work of love. He who loves one person in this way loves all life. Love is above the corrupting influence of the power-inflated demagogue and intellectually fluent theorist who would seek to destroy anything that contradicted them, thereby threatening their supremacy.
"Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty" (2 Corinthians 3:17). This Spirit is also one that issues forth in charismatic phenomena, but until these are illumined in a supernatural love, they are as liable to be self-inflating as healing, disruptive of relationships as reconciling all things to God. True liberty, the freedom of the Spirit that issues from the Word in the soul, is one in which we speak and act from the soul, which is the true focus of our identity. In that state of release, the ego consciousness by which we effect communication with the world around us and do the work we are to perform with efficiency, is in full alignment with the soul, which in turn is fully open to God in Christ. It is then that our presence brings the light of God on to all whom we meet, setting them free from the limitations of their own background and bringing them into universal relationship with all the elements of life. When Adam and Eve lived in unconscious harmony with God's universe, they were free to be themselves and they knew no shame in their nakedness. As soon as they followed their own selfish devices and fell from the unitive knowledge of God, their freedom waned so that even their previously innocent bodies were a stumbling-block that had to be covered in confusion. When Christ is restored to the soul as a living presence and not merely a remote principle, we return to that primal innocence in which we can show ourselves in our nakedness to all the world. We have nothing shameful to conceal; all we have is available to anyone who needs it. "Come to me, all whose work is hard, whose load is heavy; and I will give you relief (Matthew 11:28). The welcoming words of Christ come with greatest conviction from the souls of all who are freed from attachment to possessions, and can give of themselves in their simplicity to others.
It is thus that the statement of Christ is best understood, that the person who cannot receive the Kingdom of God as a little child, will be unable to enter it. That simplicity of a young child, the prerequisite for the heavenly life, comes to those who are released from all worldly attachments and can give their whole attention freely to the moment in hand. They give because it is the nature of love to be freely available; renunciation is the way to God in Christ. They give of themselves to all who will receive them; they demand no personal allegiance, for the life they live is no longer a private, self-centred domain but one in which Christ is the directive power so that all the person's gifts are dedicated in turn to him. The first fruit of the living Christ, both personal and communal, is a radical loosening from past attachments, whether material possessions, national pride or stifling personal relationships they lead neither party to freedom, and are terminated tragically by death.
In the story of the rich young man who sought eternal life Jesus could see that in this instance there was a strong attachment to wealth. This interfered with his participation in life and kept him back from the ultimate commitment to God. This is an invariable effect of possessing large amounts of this world's goods: too much valuable attention is squandered on their maintenance and investment, so that too little time is left for the kingdom of God and his creation. Indeed, it is impossible to serve God and money with equal devotion. One way of resolving the conflict is to dispense completely with all worldly goods, but an even more satisfactory solution is to act as a faithful steward of the world's resources while at the same time dedicating oneself to the service of God and one's fellow creatures in prayer, social action and love. In this way our service is to God, and its fruit is the raising up to spiritual radiance of everything we encounter in a day's work. When we are free in Christ, we can handle the world's produce with reverence and joy without yielding to the temptation of possessing it.
The joy of the freedom to which detachment witnesses is particularly well seen in relation to a priceless work of art. When we are attached to the things of this world we covet such a masterpiece not only because of its financial value, but also for the distinction its possession affords us. But as we gloat over the work of art in private, so does its beauty begin to pall until both we and it are subtly imprisoned in a web of illusion, the illusion of personal possession. We possess it materially as it possesses us spiritually. As we secrete it from the world so does it separate us insidiously from other people until much of our concern is centred on its preservation. But once it is donated to the world, its beauty becomes universally available and we are free to enjoy it in the company of other people. We make the important discovery that beauty shared in public has a higher aesthetic appeal than that which is enjoyed privately. The reason for this is that the intrinsic beauty of a work of art is spiritually enhanced by the joy of recognition evinced in those who appreciate it. In the same way a memorable concert has an inspiring effect that even a very fine musical recording lacks. Likewise, when we are free we can enjoy life to the full without clinging on to it. In this way it is no longer darkened by the threat of finitude, ageing or death.
Human relationships likewise attain their peak when all involved are free in themselves. In that freedom they do not need another person's company, with the result that their relations are spontaneous, sincere and fulfilling. They can end a conversation at will without either feeling embarrassed or evincing disapproval of the other person. When Christ is alive in the soul we forfeit our sense of competence and mastery that separates us from our fellows, but instead we donate our gifts to them, at the same time effecting a deep identification with them. He who would live in imitation of Christ must aspire not to world-transcending spiritual authority, but to the deepest humility: the resurrection commenced on the cross when Jesus held out his arms wide in forgiveness and reconciliation to the whole world. Even today after twenty centuries the world has scarcely understood the offer he made to it, but the invitation to enter the heavenly Kingdom still stands open.
Freedom brings with it patience, for even in the waiting there is communion with the heavenly Kingdom. To sit waiting for an appointment that is unexpectedly delayed provides an excellent opportunity to open oneself to the moment in hand, and so enter a dimension of reality where there is peace and acceptance. All our impatience cannot alter the course of an immutable event, but if we can offer the time up to God, he brings us up to himself and we discover that fruition can take place even in the silence of standing still and waiting. In this stillness we learn the importance and practice of awareness, an essential requirement as we await Christ's full coming in glory, his parousia, at the end of time.