March 11, 2018

Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

“Grace to Practice”

This year, I decided to begin a new activity. During my holidays after Christmas, I tried out a bunch of different yoga classes to see if yoga would be a good exercise program to add to my routine. I have to admit that I didn’t embark on doing yoga for spiritual reasons. I really just wanted a way to strengthen my core muscles and avoid some lower back pain issues that I was having some time ago.

But after trying out a few different classes, I settled on a Holy Yoga class that is offered at one of the churches here in Regina, and I began to think about what I was doing as more than just an exercise program.

Yoga is a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines which originated in ancient India. There is a broad variety of yoga schools, practices, and goals in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Yoga gurus from India introduced yoga to the West in the late 19th and early 20th century. In the 1980s, yoga became popular as a system of physical exercise across the Western world. Yoga in Indian traditions, however, is more than physical exercise; it has a meditative and spiritual core.

The class that I am attending is described as “Holy Yoga” or we might say, “Christian Yoga.” On the Holy Yoga website, it explains that, “We know that yoga is a spiritual discipline much like fasting, meditation, and prayer that cannot be owned by one specific religion. While yoga predates Hinduism, Hindus were the first to give yoga a written structure. Holy Yoga embraces the essential elements of yoga: breath work, meditation, and physical postures. In all of these elements, Christ is the focus of our intention and worship.”

The yoga sessions always begin with Scripture reading, reflection, and a prayer such as this one:

Blessed are You, bounteous God,
maker of heaven and earth.
You have chosen us to be your people
and to give you glory in everything we do.
Be with us during our yoga practice.
Help us meet you and each other and ourselves
in joy and peace and love.
Help us bend and stretch and bow and strengthen our bodies,
which are your holy, holy creation.
Help us open our whole selves to your divine presence.
Please send your Holy Spirit upon us.
Please protect us from any harm or injury.
Please bring healing to us all as we need it.
We praise your name forever and ever. Amen.

Not long after I started doing yoga, I noticed the language the instructors were using… making reference to “our yoga practice.” As a newbie at yoga, I definitely needed to practice to get the postures right, and to do them more deeply, and to improve my flexibility and balance.

But they weren’t talking about practice as in “practice makes perfect.” It wasn’t like a young person practising driving before taking the test to get her license, or one of our church musicians practising an organ prelude in preparation for sharing it on Sunday morning.

They weren’t talking about an activity or skill that you need to repeat over and over in order to perfect it. And they weren’t talking about something that you do for an intense but short period of time… until the performance or until the exam.

Instead, they were talking about a practice as in a thing you do regularly… every day, every week… something you keep on doing, not in order to master it, but just in order to do it, to do it well, to enjoy it, or just because you believe it is what you are meant to do.

And that’s the way that I started to think about yoga – as a practice that I wanted to be a part of my daily life. Indeed, as a spiritual practice that would not only strengthen my core muscles, but might lead me into closer relationship with God through prayer and meditation, and hopefully begin produce spiritual fruit like peace, and patience, and joy in my life.

I wonder what you would identify as your daily or weekly practices. Reading the paper in the morning? An exercise routine? Story time with your kids before bed? Coffee and conversation with a good friend? Volunteering in a church or community group?

Visiting someone who could use your help or your company? Coming to church on Sundays? Doing a daily devotion? Praying for your family, your co-workers, your friends?

There has been a noticeable shift in the last several years among Christian authors and speakers and their reflection on what it means to be the church. And that shift has been towards an emphasis on practices of faith. Whereas Christians may have been defined very clearly in the past as people who believe certain things – who accept a certain set of doctrines and beliefs – Christians are very often now being defined as people who choose a certain set of practices, a way of life.

In a way, it’s not really a new idea. When we were discussing Spiritual Disciplines in our study session a few weeks ago, we talked about the fact that religious orders (or religious communities) have been developing and committing themselves to certain sets of practices, and living together according to those practices for many centuries. What a religious order often calls a “Rule” is a pattern of prayer, study, work, and service that shapes the community’s life as followers of Jesus.

And when I think about it, I don’t remember Jesus going over a list of beliefs that his disciples had to sign on to. Instead, he invited them to leave what they were doing, and follow him. He asked them to change their daily lives, their priorities, and their practices. He taught them how to pray, he invited them to spend their lives teaching and healing, and he called them to become servants to one another and to the people they met.

That’s why I decided to offer Tuesday evening sessions on Spiritual Disciplines and How to Pray during Lent this year. We could have done something about doctrine – what we believe about Jesus’ death and resurrection, for example. But my sense was that it would be more helpful to work on practising our faith rather than just thinking and talking about it. So, we discussed practices of prayer, worship, hospitality, service, generosity, and simplicity, and considered commitments to ourselves and to God to practice some of these things more regularly in our daily lives.

But this shift towards an emphasis on practices of faith is not a shift towards viewing these activities or good works as the sources of our salvation.

Ephesians chapter 2 is very clear that we are not saved by the things we do, no matter how committed to them we may be: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ… For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

We can’t go to church enough, we can’t pray enough, we can’t help others enough, we can’t give generously enough, (we certainly can’t do enough Holy Yoga!) to earn God’s favour, God’s love, or God’s salvation. We just can’t do it, and so we really can’t boast. All we can do is give thanks to God for God’s great love for us. As John’s Gospel expressed it this morning, “God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

I like the way Jeff Paschal explains the fullness of this gift from God. He writes, “The good news is that we do not need to launch into a frenzy of good works in order to earn God’s love and forgiveness. Nor do we need to engage in the endless navel gazing of asking, ‘Do I believe? Do I really believe? Am I saved? Am I really saved?’” He points out that our salvation is neither dependant on our doing enough good, nor on believing strongly enough. Even faith itself is a gift from God.

But Paschal goes on to point out that just because we are not saved by our good works does not mean that we’re not meant to do them. He cautions that, “before we decide that the Christian life simply means relaxing by the swimming pool, sipping drinks with little umbrellas jutting out the top, Paul reminds us of the second part of the equation: ‘For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.’

“Yes, we are saved by grace through faith. No, we do not rely on good works to be saved. But we are what God has made us – people ‘created in Christ Jesus for good works.’ So good works are now transformed. Instead of being frantic means for trying to save ourselves, good works are the blessed opportunity for us to live out the lives we were destined to live. Good works are expressions of Christ alive in us ministering to the world.”

If you re-read the passage from Ephesians, you may notice that there is a kind of “before and after” theme… Once you were dead in your sins following the course of this world, but now you are alive – you are saved. Once we were ruled by the passions and desires of the flesh, but now we are what God made us to be.

The biblical commentaries get into a lot of discussion about what it means in verse two to be “following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.” Are there spiritual powers of evil that lead us away from what is good? Is Paul talking about the devil tempting us to sinful and selfish behaviour? Perhaps.

In order to explain what affect those powers can have on us, several commentators make the comparison to individuals who struggle with various kinds of addictions – to alcohol, drugs, gambling, eating, social media, or anything that becomes a ruler in our lives. People who have come to terms with the reality of an addiction and participated in a 12-step program know from their own experience and the witness of others that addictions can take over our lives and stop us from being the people we were intended to be.

And they also know that they cannot beat these addictions on their own. They need the help and the accountability of the community, of supportive sponsors, and most of all they need God’s help each and every day, one day at a time.

Of course, we know that we don’t need to have an addiction to be controlled by negative forces. None of us can claim not to be influenced by our desire for status, power, popularity, or pleasure. And when these things take over and lead us to cruelty, selfishness, greed, and gluttony we are very much being ruled by the evil spiritual powers.

The author of Ephesians expresses the gift of God’s grace to us in a really interesting way. Whereas the evil powers ruled our lives in the past, now we will become rulers of our own lives together with Christ Jesus. Here is the text from Ephesians: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ… and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”

Now, it doesn’t quite say that God puts us on a throne beside Jesus, but that’s the image of Christ in heaven that we have from other parts of scripture and in the creeds of the church. After Christ was raised, he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God where he rules with all power and authority.

According to Ephesians, because of God’s grace we are sitting with Christ in heaven, no longer ruled by evil powers, but free to live in grateful response to God’s goodness and grace to us.

We are no longer slaves to sin, but free people who can choose to become servants of the Saviour, practicing the way of life that God intended for us, being what God made us to be – people created in Christ Jesus for good works.

The bonus is that when we begin to fill our lives with practices of faith like worship, and prayer, and giving, and serving, and offering hospitality, we crowd out those other practices that could so easily rule our lives. When we begin to order our way of life around God first, those other distractions cannot take priority.

Last Tuesday evening was the second session on “How to Pray,” but because of the crazy snow storm, only a couple of people were able to make it out to church that evening. But that’s okay, because that session is easy to share. Those who were here on Tuesday evening were introduced to a variety of forms of prayer, and got a chance to try them out.

I’ve set up “prayer stations” all around the sanctuary where you can learn about and try out a Breath Prayer, Praying with Motion, Praying with Colour, Contemplative Prayer, and more. I invite you to try some of the prayers, and consider taking up one of these prayer forms as part of your daily practice of your faith.

I am glad that you are here today – that Sunday worship is part of your practice of faith. Won’t you use this Season of Lent to examine your regular practices of faith – to add, change, or re-focus your practices as you follow the way of Jesus.

With thankfulness for God’s amazing grace, that our practice does not need to be focussed on trying to be perfect, let us be what we are, people “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”