Experiencing Jesus

If someone were to come up to you and questioned the validity of an action or commitment you had made in good faith, would you listen to them? I think their perspective would have to be pretty convincing to persuade me that I should repeat something I thought I’d done right.

In the reading from Acts, we learn about Paul’s encounter with people in Ephesus who consider they are believers in Christ. A significant marker on their faith journey was their baptism, a baptism of repentance; like those carried out by John the Baptist. What these disciples had experienced and been taught was not wrong, but was lacking in something Paul considered essential to be a follower of Christ. Paul asks them a question that reveals a deficit in their knowledge and experience, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ Their baptism had involved immersion in water but did not include the laying on of hands with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Paul adds to their knowledge by explaining how John was the forerunner of Jesus, sent to point the way towards him. This passage does not tell us that Paul shared his own testimony but we are told in other situations that Paul shared some of his own experience of his personal encounter with Jesus, not an experience of Jesus during his time on earth but an experience of Jesus after his death as a presence that continues beyond death, an experience that led to Paul’s conversion.

Paul saw Jesus. Paul’s conversion experience had witnesses. It was also a very personal event. His companions stood speechless, hearing a voice or the sound of a voice but not understanding the words. They do not see Jesus, though they see the light. The witnesses did not see Jesus the way Paul did but their part in the story is none the less important. Lots of questions are raised about the validity of visions and revelations of the Lord, but whatever happened, the outcome is not in doubt, Paul changed and proclaimed the “good news” and this is what he was doing in Ephesus as he tells the disciples to believe in Jesus. Paul baptizes them in the name of Jesus, lays hands on them and we are told that as a result of this experience, they spoke in tongues and prophesied.

Now I don’t know about you, but when I hear of terms such as “speaking in tongues” being referred to as a gift of the Spirit, I feel rather uncomfortable and somewhat confused. Speaking in tomgues is the “language” of Pentecostal and more evangelical churches. Are they speaking in an existing language or are they praying and uttering a heavenly tongue?

Until I began to explore my vocation, I had very limited exposure to different Anglican traditions, let alone other denominations.

One of the things I was encouraged to do was to visit Anglican churches outside my comfort zone to experience some of the diverse styles of worship.

I took this suggestion seriously and went to an Evangelical church and as part of their prayer, some people spoke in tongues. To me, it was noisy, confusing and sounded like a foreign language and I personally felt uncomfortable and even disturbed by some of it. A few months later my perception was challenged.  I was in my own parish church on a Saturday morning when a lady walked in asking for someone to pray with her. What I’d describe as a very ordinary time of spoken prayer followed, after which she asked if she too might pray. She began to sing, words we could not understand, but had the effect of making the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. Others in the church fell silent and listened. Afterwards she told us she had been singing in tongues. I can’t say how others related to the experience, I expect if I had asked there would have been a variety of explanations for what we experienced. Compared to my first experience of people talking in tongues, this one was profound and intense and a much more positive experience. I don’t pretend to understand what was happening but I do know words cannot adequately describe a very moving experience, possibly enhanced because it was so unexpected in the context. I haven’t seen the lady or had a similar experience again, but it is ingrained in my memory as a “heavenly” and very spiritual moment whether it was God speaking through her or not.

In some ways it’s frustrating to witness an event without knowing or understanding what is going on and what it actually means.

I’m sure all of you can probably think of occasions where you have had an experience, but not understood the significance of it.

Jesus made a distinction between those who “see and hear” and those who “perceive and understand.” If we take a step back and consider what took place just before today’s appearance account, we learn that the disciples who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus have returned to Jerusalem to be reunited with the others. They recounted their story of what happened on the road and how they recognised Jesus in the breaking of the bread. None of the disciples can make sense of Jesus’ recent death. It becomes clear they also can’t make sense of what is going on when Jesus appears to them. Instead of rejoicing at his presence, they are alarmed and frightened, thinking they are seeing a ghost. Not only do they fail to comprehend the experience of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, they are unable to make sense of something they are now experiencing in the light of that.

Luke Timothy Johnson illustrates how the gospel writer Luke draws our attention to the fact that the appearance of the risen lord is not by itself a compelling demonstration of his reality. By itself, the appearance of Jesus does not open the disciple’s eyes. It didn’t do it on the road to Emmaus and it didn’t do it back in Jerusalem. Jesus appeals to the disciple’s sense of touch, so they “see” who it is they are touching. In addition, he appeals to their reason, “ghosts have no flesh.” It is only when Jesus tells the disciples what he meant when he was with them and opens their minds to understanding the scriptures that they come to believe in him.

Here at St Mark’s, my sense is that interpreting scripture is the primary way many of the congregation engage with the questions raised by issues they encounter on their faith journey. Night service offers a different emphasis, encouraging and enabling us to encounter God through our senses as well as through words and thought. I’m not suggesting one is better than the other and it’s not a case of either / or, but that both offer a different opportunity for encounter with God. Brennan Manning who wrote the Ragamuffin Gospel describes what I’m trying to put into words like this.

“The Word we study has to be the Word we pray. My personal experience of the relentless tenderness of God came not from exegetes, theologians, and spiritual writers, but from sitting still in the presence of the living Word and beseeching Him to help me understand with my head and heart His written Word. Sheer scholarship alone cannot reveal to us the gospel of grace. We must never allow the authority of books, institutions, or leaders to replace the authority of “knowing” Jesus Christ personally and directly. When the religious views of others interpose between us and the primary experience of Jesus as the Christ, we become unconvicted and unpersuasive travel agents handing out brochures to places we have never visited.

Today, Christianity is a religion of personal choice as well as personal encounter. You only have to look at the range of Anglican churches within our deanery to appreciate the choice available. Despite our diversity, we also have many things in common.

Baptism is one of those things. Baptism is seen as the source from which the entire Christian life springs forth. Whether it is carried out as an infant or an adult, most Christians regard baptism as being in some way an ongoing event, as marking the beginning of a journey with God that continues for the rest of our lives.

I’m reminded of a film I considered showing you during Lent.

In it, Tom travels to France following the death of his adult son, killed in the Pyrenees during a storm while walking The Camino de Santiago. Tom’s purpose is initially to retrieve his son’s body. However, in a combination of grief and homage to his son, Tom decides to journey on this path of pilgrims. Before he really even starts the pilgrimage trail, he starts walking in the wrong direction – literally. He turns the wrong way as soon as he steps out of his hotel and only turns the right way after seeing a group of pilgrims walking in the other direction. The second time, only a few moments into his journey, he is told by a French officer, “This is the way.”

While walking The Camino, Tom meets others from around the world, all broken and looking for greater meaning in their lives. They share their stories through down to earth and awe inspiring moments of their lives and through mutual support and encouragement, each person finds inner peace and reconciliation of their own issues.

Today Katherine will embark on a journey that is less predictable than the outcome of the film and is full of potential.

She will feel the water and oil on her skin, will see the light from the candle but she will need help and encouragement to experience and come to know Jesus for herself. In order to turn today’s experience into something she can understand, we need to be witnesses to what happens to her and to share with her our experiences of God’s love in the world, God’s love in Christ calling us to recognize and follow him, God’s love in the Spirit, giving strength for our journey. She also needs to know that there will be people around to support her when she feels wounded by the rigors of life, people who have themselves been wounded. If she is to have the opportunity to grow and mature in her faith, we need to show her ways to celebrate love in word and song; to feed and be nurtured by Jesus in bread and wine and make him known through our lives together. As the people of God in this place, we share the responsibility of encouraging one another in our worship and supporting one another in our discipleship, by our example and our prayers both within and beyond this building.

Our understanding of the Church today is based on the unique experience of the first disciples. Their insight and courage in sharing and documenting what they saw and heard became a message of Good News for all people. Every generation has the responsibility to make the message of Jesus its own and to pass it on to others. It is a message enlivened by the witnesses of generations of Christians who have continued to have life in the name of Jesus.

We keep the message alive, not by grasping onto our experience of Jesus but by giving it away, by sharing something of the mystery of the moments by inviting exploration of questions that arise. Through doing this, something deep within us we do not completely understand is brought to life and we experience Jesus in a new way. We are empowered to carry out the mission of Jesus in the world by gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus reputedly told his disciples,  “You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I send the promise of my father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.”

May we, as disciples of Jesus today, experience the continuing presence of a personal and transforming Jesus so that we too may carry out the mission to which we are called beyond this building.

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