One of the great struggles we face in life is to live in accordance with our values. I believe I should forgive, but we never practiced forgiveness in my family so I don't know how. When someone attacks my beliefs, I want to defend them, but I don't. I want to change that annoying habit that bothers everyone, but I can't. This has become an epidemic in our country during the Presidential Primary season. One thing that has been revealed during the primary process is that changes in the law don’t always match up with the internal changes of the heart that undergird that law. For example, it has been fifty years since the civil rights act was passed. That act changed many other laws and practices in this country. But the current epidemic of racist talk and behavior by certain candidates and their followers reveals that the good and necessary changes that have happened on the outside have still not managed to transform the internal spirit of racism. That story could be repeated about issue after issue: women’s liberation, gay rights, war, etc. We can’t wait for hearts to change before policies get changed, but the people of God cannot ignore the need for internal transformation that matches the external one, because eventually the gap catches up with us. That is happening in our country right now.
This is nothing new. It has happened throughout human history, including in the early church. Paul addresses it in the letter to the Galatians. Right before the passage we read, Paul criticized Peter for pretending to agree with the Jewish hardliners about non Jewish Christians needing to be circumcised in order to be truly Christian. Peter didn’t believe that anymore, because of an experience he had with a Gentile named Cornelius. In fact, the first Church Council had already determined that Gentiles didn’t need to be circumcised in order to become Christians. But, as is usually the case, there were factions. The leader of the minority report faction was James. When some of his group came to town, Peter pretended to agree with them by not eating with Gentiles. Paul rebuked Peter for that, and wrote the section we read today in response.
How do we catch up in our hearts with the changes that happen outside in society when they happen faster than we can keep up with? Put another way, how do we change our being so that our doing catches up? That was the question for Paul as he reflected on Peter’s hypocrisy. It continues to be the questions for us. When life experiences confront beliefs that we hold in our heads, but not yet in our hearts, they create a crisis for us. We may have changed our minds; but the change dwells unevenly in us. We waver between the new and the old.
Paul goes around and around about the radical new truth he had discovered in Christ – that we are saved and healed by faith. But experience was teaching him that knowing a new truth in his mind didn’t change much; only when Christ’s faith lives in us are we truly transformed. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. In other words, when we allow the Spirit of Christ to live through us, we will live according to what is most authentically us. Peter was most authentically himself when he went to eat with Cornelius and when he ate with Gentiles in Antioch. Peter was denying his true self when he stopped that practice in deference to the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem.
What Paul saw happening with Peter in Antioch, and is now hearing about from Galatia, will undermine the compassion and inclusiveness of the gospel. A spirituality that emphasizes authority and correctness over loving relationships will destroy the Gospel. That was Paul’s concern and it should be ours in the church's life today.
We move from correctness to loving relationships by becoming aware that Christ “loved me and gave himself for me.” When we experience at our core that we are loved - that the most basic truth of the universe is not that we are barely acceptable, but that we are looked upon with loving eyes – then we are empowered to let the lover live through us, and to live into the truth that the Spirit of Christ lives in us, living Jesus’ faith in us, and convincing us of the depth and guarantee of God’s love for us. Then we can love one another.
But the awareness that Christ loves me and lives through me so I become my most authentic self doesn’t just happen. The desert fathers and mothers teach that it happens through prayer; but not just any prayer. When our prayer consists of just talking to God about things on our mind or things we’re trying to work out, it becomes a pseudo-form of prayer because we’re essentially talking to ourselves. Thinking about God doesn’t really engage us with God. That kind of prayer is more an intellectual exercise. Who we are at our core doesn’t have to show up. My spiritual teacher, Henri Nouwen, teaches that true prayer happens when the truth of who we are encounters the truth of who God is. He quotes the desert fathers: To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seeing, within you.
Many call that kind of prayer contemplative prayer. When our mind knows, we may have the answer. When our heart knows, we are the answer. Albert Einstein said: No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that caused it. That’s why so many revolutions fail: the same consciousness that is overthrown is the one that replaces it. Another spiritual teacher, Richard Rohr, writes, some form of contemplative practice is necessary to be able to detach from your own agenda, your own anger, your own ego, and your own fear. We need some practice that touches our unconscious conditioning where all our wounds and defense mechanisms lie. That's the only way we can be changed at any significant or lasting level.
I believe this is what Paul meant by it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. It is what could help Peter live more deeply and consistently into his brand new understanding that Gentiles were acceptable to God, after a lifetime of learning otherwise. It is what can help us get over all the racist and cultural stereotypes with which we view each other. When the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to contemplate, the first things that showed up were the wild beasts. We often resist contemplative prayer because we don’t want to face our own wild beasts. We’re speaking of a mystery for which words are inadequate: that the heart - the center of our being - is transformed into God’s own heart, which is large enough to embrace the entire universe. Through prayer we can carry in our heart all human pain and sorrow, all conflicts and agonies, all torture and war, all hunger, loneliness, and misery, not because of some great psychological or emotional capacity, but because God's heart has become one with ours.
Are you ready to embark on the longest journey of your life? The journey of the 18 inches between the mind and the heart is the toughest endeavor of our lives. But if we don’t make it, all the other journeys will fail to reach their destinations.