Following a mystical path

Text: Galatians 2:15-21 (“Christ lives in me”)

Imagine a hike in Jasper Park. It is a late morning in springtime and you have been walking through forest glades and up mountain trails for an hour. As you pause to bask in sunshine and warmth, you notice a side-path going steeply up. When you get to the top, you find yourself in a wildflower-speckled meadow on a high ledge that offers a 360-degree view of surrounding mountains, the Athabaska River, and the town-site far below.

As you breathe the spring air and are dazzled by the panorama, you may notice that your spirit has merged with that of your hiking companions, with the hawks soaring overhead, and with the flowers dancing at your feet.

All thoughts cease, worries recede, and joy and peace become the keynotes. One’s sense of being a separate self disappears in the presence of beauty.

I believe that such moments reveal a gracious truth, that our egos are an illusion – a necessary one, but an illusion nevertheless. Each of us is not just interdependent on greater unities, we are part of the unity we call God.

I connect this intuition about the ego to what we heard this morning from Paul’s letter to the Galatians — “I have been crucified with Christ, and it’s no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

If you have heard this sentence before, it might be because I quote it in sermons more often than any other sentence from the Bible!

Unfortunately, knowing what Paul is trying to say here might not be immediately clear. So today, I talk about aspects of the spiritual path revealed to us by Way of the Cross and by the writings of Paul.

Paul’s short sentence reveals a lot. In its context, crucifixion becomes more than just the one-time horror of the execution of Jesus almost 2,000 years ago. It is also a metaphor for the death of illusions held by people like Paul — or like you and me. In the context of his statement, the Risen Christ becomes not just a set of hard-to-believe stories told by three of the four Gospel writers almost 2,000 years ago. It is also a spark of divine sovereignty that lives within followers of the Way of the Cross like Paul — or like you and me. Finally, in the context of Paul’s statement, the illusions that die when we are born-again become not just false idols like alcohol or wealth. They include that seemingly inescapable and most powerful idol of all: ourselves!

“I have been crucified with Christ, and it’s no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Surely this is the statement of a mystic. While yet alive, Paul says that he has died and his ego has been replaced by the Risen Christ.

Is he crazy, or is Paul on to something here?

To help think about this question, I bought a book last week that I have wanted to read for a while. It is called “Waking Up,” and it might seem like an unusual pick for a sermon because its author, Sam Harris, is not only a well-known philosopher and neuroscientist, but also a leading spokesperson for atheism in the United States.

If people know anything about Harris, it might be from his 2004 bestseller “The End of Faith,” which he wrote in response to the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States, or from a heated argument he had with Hollywood actor Ben Affleck on a late-night talk show in 2014 over Harris’ negative comments on Islam.

I was drawn to read his book “Waking Up: a guide to spirituality without religion,” because I had heard that it focussed on the illusory nature of our sense of self and because some of Harris’ secular friends had expressed dismay that he uses terms like transcendence, mystery, and spirit in it.

I enjoyed “Waking Up” even though it sometimes betrays the kind of intolerance of religion for which Affleck criticized Harris. As an example of the latter, Harris states that no Christian or Muslim can deny that people who do not believe the right things about God will burn forever in hell (p. 201). But as you and I demonstrate, there is more to following the path of Jesus (or Muhammad) than professing religious beliefs. Many of us do not believe in a vengeful god who tortures people in hell. Despite not having such beliefs, we try to follow Jesus and live out the Good News as Christians.

When I read “Waking Up,” I was interested to learn that Harris not only has a PhD in neuroscience but is also a spiritual seeker. He spent his young adulthood in Nepal pursuing enlightenment under Hindu and Buddhist gurus; and today, he continues to be a dedicated meditator. He makes a case that “spirituality is not just important for living a good life; it is essential for understanding the human mind” (p. 51).

Harris writes that when we learn to non-judgementally witness the contents of our consciousness – usually through meditation – we achieve moments of self-transcendence in which we feel at one with all life and in which our ego dissolves.

Having an ego is an unavoidable part of being human. Everyone needs a stable sense of self to achieve goals in family, career, and the community. But if we get stuck at the level of ego, we will be caught in the suffering connected to everyday anxieties and desires.

There are many paths to transcending ego. Harris recommends meditation. Other paths might be creative pursuits like music or painting; the self-giving love of parenting; and collective struggles for justice. You may have come up with other ways in our Focus Moment a few minutes ago.

Perhaps you have experienced moments beyond ego while looking into the eyes of your beloved; or at a music concert; or while praying in the face of pain or grief. Perhaps you experienced transcendence while working with others to serve the community.

Moments in which we are swept up in the flow of consciousness and forget our normal concerns might be brief. But we can stumble into such empty spaces of Grace and Love at any time. Remembering moments like this gives me confidence that healing is always available and that we need not fear death.

When Paul writes about Christ living in him, he is referring to such moments, I believe. Paul puts his faith in Christ and finds his old self dissolving and the Love of God flowing through him.

The process is hardly without pain. It involves the death of one’s old hopes and dreams, which is why Paul compares the process to crucifixion.

The resurrection of Jesus did not give his first followers what they had hoped. They had hoped he would be a new King of Israel and a tribal God like YHWH who would lead them to victory over their enemies.

But despite not getting these things, Paul finds all he needs in the Risen Christ — a Holy One who is beyond tribe and nation and who leads as a servant rather than as a conqueror. With the Risen Christ, Paul finds freedom and Love, which are infinitely better than the national glory desired by his old ego.

Most of the time, we are caught up in everyday anxieties and desires. Most of the time, we have to deal with the needs of our bodies, the needs of our families and neighbours, and the demands of jobs and citizenship.

But sometimes, without any effort on our part, our anxieties and desires drift away and we are born again into God’s Love.

May we treasure such moments beyond ego and trust that they show us the eternal healing that is God’s sure gift.

Amen.

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