2/29/2012 sermon: John Cassian on “Spiritual, or religious?”

Location: St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Burke, VA
Text: 1 John 3:1-3
John Cassian

Today we remember a man named John Cassian, a Romanian who lived in the late third and fourth century. Cassian’s claim to fame is that he helped found the Western monastic movement and, in the process, laid the foundations for what would be the spirituality of the Western Church.

As a young man Cassian was the student of the founders of the ascetic movement—the ones who lived apart by themselves in the desert. In the early monastic concept, each monastic went to a place apart from the world to rid themselves of the anxieties and distractions that kept them from fully loving God. The only problem with desert monasticism, as it was called, is that people heard of what they were doing and admired them for it, then flocked to the desert, wanting to be a monastic too. Soon the desert fathers were not alone any more…

Cassian’s genius was in recognizing and insisting that no one should embark on a monastic vocation alone. Living and learning to love God in community, Cassian said, was an important aspect of living a Godly life.

As Christians we seem to swing between the two extremes: individual spirituality and its pietistic practices—such as meditation, bible-reading, and prayer—and spirituality formed within community, with its corporate worship and fellowship.

In our culture today, the emphasis seems to be on the individual. In fact, the buzzword among people in their twenties is to be “I’m spiritual but not religious.” On January 10, a young man published his rap poem “Why I hate religion but love Jesus” on YouTube. As of last week well over nineteen million people had seen this video and over a third of a million people “liked” it. Clearly individual piety is “in.”

There is nothing WRONG with individual piety. As Christians we are all supposed to “walk the walk” of our faith in Christ Jesus. And our epistle lesson today reminds us, “And all who have this hope in [Jesus] purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Of course, as Episcopalians we subscribe to the idea that our individual spirituality is formed in community, in worship such as this. It is in community that we are formed as Christians, teaching us and shaping us and molding us so that we leave this place and put our spirituality into practice.

John Cassian was one of the ones who helped our Church to form this notion, a notion that has been passed down to us and that we use today, but he insisted that BOTH the practices of Christianity AND the community of Christians were important in our walk with Christ.

I wonder: What can we do to show the twenty-somethings all around us that there is value-added by bringing their spirituality into community? And, failing that, What can we do to bring a spiritual community to them?

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