On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought of themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost. Many lives were saved by this wonderful little station, so that it became famous. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding area, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew.
Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. So they replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely, because they used it as a sort of club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in this club's decoration, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club initiations were held. About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick, and some of them had black skin and some had yellow skin. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.
At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club's lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station down the coast. They did. As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that sea coast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown. [The Parable of the Lifesaving Station, cited in Howard Clinebell, BASIC TYPES OF PASTORAL CARE AND COUNSELING, pp. 13-14.]
In the beginning Christianity was not a religion, but a religious movement, a vital and surprisingly powerful movement among a rather small group of people who had known Jesus of Nazareth and who discovered, much to their amazement, that they continued to experience his presence among them even after his death on a cross. This movement had its origins in the teaching and ministry of Jesus, but it really seems to have caught fire some time after his death. For some time after his death, on a day we celebrate as Pentecost, the first Christians had an experience of empowerment that they understood to be the gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift of the Holy Spirit we now think of as the birthday of the Church.
The Holy Spirit brought an awareness of unity as well as power. It filled the disciples of Jesus with courage as well as conviction. It gave them the spiritual resources they needed to begin again, transforming their understanding as a people of God, renewing their energies and vision, in the name of Jesus the Christ. A similar challenge faces every generation of Christians.
The parable of the life-saving station is a poignant reminder of how easy it is to lose the original energy and vision of the Christian faith. It is a clear warning that every Christian church typically tends to degenerate into a memorial society or, even worse, a kind of club that exists only to serve the needs of its own members. There is not necessarily anything malevolent in this, it is just the "natural" way of things. Almost every new movement starts out with tremendous enthusiasm and high aspiration. But along with every movement comes organization, and along with organization comes procedure and regulation and routine and convention, and before you know it, the focus changes from whatever initial vision and mission to the survival and enhancement of the organization itself.
Christianity understands this problem, even while knowing that we never escape it. That is why, in the Gospel of John, Jesus says to Nicodemus, "You must be born anew"--or "again," or "from above." In other words, you must be born of the Spirit. You must be made alive by the Spirit. You must be transformed by the Spirit. The apostle Paul insisted that the law is death, but the Spirit gives life. He was not advocating a life without rules or laws or common practices. But he was pointing out the great contrast between life lived only on human terms, by the mere exercise of human powers, and a life that is transformed by the power and grace of the Spirit.
In his letter to the Galatians, in our New Testament text, Paul contrasts the "works of the flesh" with the "fruit of the Spirit." Paul is not lamenting our flesh and blood existence. He is not proposing that we divest ourselves of our bodies, nor is he condemning every action that emerges out of the needs of our bodies. Rather, he is pointing out the difference between human life lived in the flesh, subject only to human ambitions and demands and aided only by human powers, on the one hand, and human life lived in the flesh, subject to the guidance of the Spirit and empowered by that same Spirit, on the other. On the one hand, we have idolatry, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, as well as various forms of sexual license and self-indulgence. On the other hand, we have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The Spirit is essential for us if we are to live in unity, if we are to love one another, if we are to be the sorts of people whose qualities of personality and character serve the interests and needs of others as individuals and in community, and if we are to realize the joy of our existence.
We live in a time when lots of people are "into" spirituality but want nothing to do with "religion." The contrast between spirituality and religion may be shallow or unreasoned or unfair, but it should tell us something about the spiritual needs of our time. For many people, religion has lost its spiritual power. It has become a deadening routine, rather than an empowering reality. It has become law, or ritual, or organization, rather than life-giving resource and power. Part of the problem is the individualism of our age, the reluctance or unwillingness to put aside selfish individual ambition for the sake of larger interests and goods, the resistance to submitting individual judgment and experience to the scrutiny of community wisdom and tradition. But part of the problem is the loss of the religious experience itself. Today's emphasis upon spirituality is hardly a rejection of God or the realm of the spirit. It is a searching, if often stumbling, attempt to get back in touch with God. It is the desire for an experience that makes a personal difference. It is a quest for a quality of life that exhibits many of those features that Paul calls the "fruit of the Spirit." Christianity can hardly survive without the personal experience of God in the Spirit--a Spirit that we understand to be both God's Spirit and the Spirit of Jesus Christ. It is the Spirit that informs and guides our lives, that directs our vision and upholds us in courage and conviction. But, above all, it is the Spirit that transforms, that renews, that continues to empower us and save us from falling back into complacency and ritual and routine. It is the Spirit that fuels our faith.
The story is told about a young aspirant to holiness who went to visit the hermitage of an old holy man. The holy man was sitting in the doorway of his quarters at sunset. The old man's dog stretched out across the threshold as the young spiritual seeker presented his problem to the man of wisdom. "Why is it, Abba, that some who seek God come to the desert and are zealous in prayer, but leave after a year or so, while others, like you, remain faithful to the quest for a lifetime?"
The old man smiled and replied, "Let me tell you a story: One day I was sitting quietly in the sun with my dog. Suddenly a large white rabbit ran across in front of us. Well, my dog jumped up, barking loudly, and took off after that big rabbit. He chased the rabbit over the hills with a passion. Soon, other dogs joined him, attracted by his barking. What a sight it was, as the pack of dogs ran. . . Gradually, however, one by one, the other dogs dropped out of the pursuit, discouraged by the course and frustrated by the chase. Only my dog continued . . .
"In that story, young man, is the answer to your question. You fail to ask the obvious question: Why didn't the other dogs continue the chase? And the answer to that is that they had not seen the rabbit!" [adapted by Steve Souther from Peter Steinke, HEALTHY CONGREGATIONS (The Alban Institute)].
My prayer for those of you who are new disciples, who are professing your faith and joining the church this morning, is the same for all in this congregation: May you see the rabbit! May you experience the reality of God in the gift of the Holy Spirit. May you be transformed, sustained, and empowered by that same Spirit. May your life bear fruit through the exercise of the Spirit within you. And may you thus realize the full joy of your existence in community with others and before God. In the name of Jesus Christ. AMEN.