23 August 2010

The Encounter

Acts 9: 1-20

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time/22nd August 2010

This was the turning point in Paul’s life.  One might say Paul’s conversion was the turning point in the history of Christianity too. Without his titanic shift in perspective, followers of Jesus might still be only a movement within Judaism.  Now, I know that not everyone loves Paul.  Generally, either you love him or you don’t. Granted, Paul’s writings can be difficult to read and he has a terrible habit of writing, long, run on sentences.  But I love Paul.   If not for Paul most of as Gentiles, assuming most of us here are Gentiles, would not be part of the church.  After Jesus, Paul is the most pivotal figure in the New Testament, primarily because he was compelled to proclaim God’s good news about Jesus, the gospel, to the Gentiles, to the nations, to the world.  I want to focus upon his experience and the change of perspective that occurred in his life.

            In our postmodern, post-Christian, secular age we assume that miracles, visions, religious experiences like Paul’s, like those portrayed in scripture are mythical.  What happened to Paul only happened back then, not now.  Claiming to be wise, we assume that God doesn’t work that way any more. Perhaps.  Maybe God hasn’t changed.  Maybe we have.

            In our age many have lost their capacity to see the world and their lives sacramentally or mystically, we have lost our openness to the God-reality who impinges upon us and surrounds us all the time.  Because many do not expect to meet God along the road, many fail to find God and are disappointed.  With expectations lowered, many carry on saying they believe in God, but not really expecting to experience or encounter God.  Many still use God-language, become religious (or spiritual), follow its rituals, but turn inward and rely more upon themselves than God.  Many stand for the creed, but still live as if everything (including salvation) were based upon their efforts and actions and decisions.  Many say they trust in God, but often ‘God’ is just a cipher, an empty symbol, a synonym for the self.  Because many do not expect to encounter God faith is reduced to empty, hollow moralisms whereby people think to be Christian means only following the rules, cultivating a certain ethical behavior,  learning right from wrong, being “nice,” learning to behave like good little boys and girls. This is one of the reasons, I believe, the church is in so much trouble these days and irrelevant for many. 

            I believe there is something wrong with the church today – and with Christianity, for that matter.  There is something missing.  What’s missing is the energy, the vitality, the passion associated with an experience of God’s power – God’s redemptive power – the kind of experience Paul had that gave him a radically new perspective of God, himself, and the world around him.

            Several years ago the American playwright, Arthur Miller (1915-2005) wrote in an essay that it is exceedingly difficult to write great tragedy these days where there are neither gods nor heroes and life has been domesticated.  We live, he suggested, in a Willy Loman America, as in Willy Loman, the character from his play, “Death of a Salesman.”[1] This was written before September 11, 2001, since then we have seen thousands carrying out heroic deeds, but our lives still seem domesticated, maybe even more so since 9-11.  Our lives still seem tame, controlled, and passionless.  The same is true for the church. David Buttrick, professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, asks, “When church is reduced to church management and the soul is scaled down to psychological promptings, who can speak of resurrection or spot surprising signs of redemptive power among us?  No burned martyrs light our skies; ministers burn out instead.  No Christians are persecuted; they merely perish from boredom.”[2]  We prefer Jesus-lite, that is, religion without the inconvenience (or the cross).  But “where there is no cross, how can resurrection have meaning?”[3]   We want decaffeinated Christianity without the kick; we don’t want anything to disturb our sleep.  But we need to wake up! 

            Sometimes I wonder if Paul would even recognize the church if he were around today.  For him the gospel was powerful and real, full of caffeine with extra shots of espresso.  And sometimes I wonder what Jesus must think about his church, which is so broken, so petty, shortsighted, cruel, and divisive, “stumbling along,” as Buttrick says, “at the brink of apostasy and selling out Jesus for a good deal less than thirty pieces of silver any day.”[4]  Writer Anne Lamott imagines that it’s enough to make Jesus drink gin from the cat dish![5]  (That’s quite an image; I love that!)

No, there aren’t many that can claim such a wild experience as Paul.  But it happens and is happening.  Why not be thrown from a horse in blinding light, but such experiences can occur.  Despite our resistance the Risen Christ still encounters people today in overt or subtle ways; the Risen Christ still meets people along the road and changes them. This can still happen.  In fact, the Risen Christ wants to meet us along the road, wants to open up our eyes, wants us to see, wants to awaken life within us and make something beautiful of our lives. 

However, w we cannot underestimate the immense resistance to this encounter.  Look at Paul – locked into the confining perspective of his worldview, determined to be a roadblock to the people of the Way (the name given to the early followers of Jesus), hell-bent on the destruction of God’s people, willfully bucking against the new thing God was doing in the world.  Surrounded by a blast of light, Paul is convicted by these words, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  But he doesn’t even recognize his victim. We might not experience the Risen Christ in exactly this same way, but the dynamics and the patterns of the resistance are very familiar to us.  Paul was locked into one perspective – his own.  He thought he knew all there was to know about his God, his world, and himself.  He thought he knew how God acted in the past and would definitely act in the future.  He thought he knew about this Jesus the criminal and his band of heretics.  He thought he knew the truth, had all the facts, understood what was going on. Until one day it was all shattered in the encounter with the Resurrected One and was given a new perspective, a new outlook, a new view of himself, of the world, and more importantly, a new understanding of the radical grace of Yahweh.  He discovered that truth is stranger and more wonderful than fiction, he realized that the facts are not enough, the facts are not what they seem, and that he completely misunderstood what was before his very eyes.  The text says, “Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; ….” He was blind to what was going on in front of him. He needed new eyes to see reality in a new way.

This might be a helpful illustration.  It was Albert Einstein (1879-1955) who once said, “There’s nothing more practical than a good theory.”[6]  In order to see reality you have to get your theory right, because your theory will shape the way you view the world.  We often assume that facts build reality, that if we have enough of the facts then we’ll be able to determine what is true or not true.  We live in a Joe Friday world, as in detective Joe Friday from the television series, “Dragnet,” Joe Friday would say, “Just give me the facts, Ma’am, just the facts.”  Facts are not enough.  We’ve actually inherited this view from the Enlightenment’s obsession with facts, raw data.  Actually, as contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre points out, “Straightforward facts” do not exist.  They were “like telescopes and wigs for gentlemen . . . a seventeenth century invention.”[7]  Facts tell us very little about reality; the facts need to be interpreted and this requires a theory, an interpretive framework, perspective.[8]  In fact, Einstein taught us that facts are malleable in their meaning; facts can mean one thing then another depending upon one’s perspective, one’s theory.  Good theories actually help us understand the facts better, provide insight.  When Einstein was a child he imagined what the world might look like sitting on the tip of a rocket travelling at the speed of light.  That experience later became the basis for his Theory of General Relativity (1915).  As a result, this new perspective offered a better understanding of reality, of the physical world, and thus we gave up the Newtonian worldview.  Your theory, perspective will shape the way you view the facts.  This is why there’s nothing more practical than a good theory.  Good theory will lead you to the truth and the facts will fit better.  Bad theory will lead you to untruth where the facts don’t easily fit.  We saw this play out several years ago when former vice president Dick Cheney kept asking the C.I.A., “Why doesn’t your intelligence support what we know is out there?”[9]   But it’s the theory, the perspective that determines what you see.

Sometimes we are so caught up in our tiny worlds, trapped in what Swiss theologian Emil Brunner (1889-1966) called “I-castles,” our inner fortresses built up to keep everyone out (including God), imprisoned in our self-security that we are unable to extricate ourselves, let down the drawbridge, cross the moat and live in freedom beyond the castle keep.[10]  In those moments we need someone else to come and break down the defenses and pull us out of ourselves – we cannot do this on our own, no one can.  We need someone who gives us courage to reach beyond sight, to step out with carefree abandon into life itself.

            That’s what Jesus offers us – a titanic shift in perspective, a new outlook, a new lens through which we look out upon the world with new energy to live unconstrained.  When we encounter Jesus – or he encounters us –  everything changes and we are never quite the same again.  The heart of the Christian experience is about transformation.  Our eyes are open and we begin to see things to which before we were blind.  That’s why it’s a shattering experience – graceful shattering.  It’s shattering, but it’s always full of grace because it is offered in love.  It removes falsehood and allows us to move deeper into the truth.  Old ways are cast aside; new life is given.  You can’t go back to the old way.  You can’t continue believing in the old way.   Your values change.  Your perspectives change.  You might even say you’re feeling “born again” (John 3:3).  Jesus wants to breaks open our walls of isolation, pierces the armor of the ego, and frees us to turn around, to change, to repent (metanoia, which means to change our minds, our thinking).   In Jesus Christ we are given a glimpse of God’s perspective and from that vantage point everything changes.

            All this is offered whenever we encounter the Risen Christ or Christ encounters us.  I’m being intentional in the use of this word “encounter.”  It’s a relational term.  The folks in the Thursday Morning Bible Study are probably tired of me saying this, but Christianity is relational; indeed, the universe is relational.  Everything hinges on the power of relationship. What Paul experienced in that moment was shattering and graceful, but it was shattering and graceful because he encountered the presence of the Risen Christ, a personal presence to whom he related, conversed.  This is important because Jesus is not just an idea and what the Lord requires from his followers is more than just belief and behavior.  Some feel it’s enough to simply believe in Jesus.  But Jesus wants more than your belief in him, he wants more than your ideas about him, and he wants people to realize his significance is greater than his teachings. His teachings have authority because of the person who stands behind them.  He wants more than your ethical behavior; he wants your life, that you come alive as a person in him, to discover what it means to be human.  God sent the Son, flesh and blood, divine and truly human, a person to meet us as person along the road of our lives.  Jesus is a person whom we encounter, a presence who is personal, God with a face, not a thing, who speaks to us, connects with us face-to-face, whose language convicts even as it redeems.  In the conversation an exchange takes place and in that exchange, that relationship, that interaction, we are transformed – person to person. 

            It’s our ongoing relationship with God that matters most to God, not just belief and behavior.  When we walk with him, our lives are changed and we take on his traits, his love, his grace, his mercy, and his joy.  In this divine-human encounter we become more human, which is the whole point of the gospel! As the early church father, Irenaeus (c.115-190) said, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”[11]  The more we come fully alive, the more we glorify God.

No, there aren’t many that can claim such a wild experience like Paul.  But it happens and is happening.  Despite our resistance, the Risen Christ still encounters people today in overt or subtle ways; the Risen Christ still meets us along the road and changes us and grants new perspectives. I believe that the Risen Christ wants to tear open our false reality, crack it wide open in grace so that God’s light might shine through.  God’s light “in whose light,” as the Psalmist says, “we see light” (Psalm 36:9) –  in whose light we see more light and can see the truth and be led into more truth.    The Risen Christ wants to meet us along the road, wants to open up our eyes, wants to awaken life within us and make something of our lives, lives that glorify God!

[1] A. Miller, “Tragedy and the Common man,” in Tragedy:  Vision and Form, ed. R. W. Corrigan (San Francisco:  Chandler, 1965), cited in David Buttrick, The Mystery and the Passion:  A Homiletic Reading of the Gospel Traditions (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1992), p. 25.
[2] Buttrick, p. 25.
[3] Buttrick, p. 25.
[4] Buttrick’s accurate critique, p. 26.
[6] This quote is attributed to Einstein, but also to the physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), who had profound impact upon Einstein’s work, as well as social psychologist, Kurt Lewin (1890-1947)
[8] Trevor Hart writes:  “Facts, then, are not the pre-theoretical, value-free, pure units of given ‘public’ experience that popular mythology would have us believe. . . .  Real facts are already theory-laden, quarried from the mass of our experience via a complex process of interpretation, in reliance upon tools to which we entrust ourselves and through the exercise of skills upon the performance of which the success of our quest for knowledge depends.”  Faith Thinking:  The Dynamics of Christian Theology (London:  SPCK, 1995), p. 56.
[9] Bryan Burrough, Evgenia Peretz, David Rose, and David Wise, “The Path to War,” Vanity Fair (May 2004), p. 232.
[10] Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin:  "Man stays concealed in his secure hiding place, secreted behind the walls of his I-castle; and nothing can really entice him out until one meets him who overcomes all the mistrust and anxiety about his very existence which drives him into self-security and there imprisons him.  Man remains imprisoned within himself until the one meets him who can free him, who can break down his system of defenses, so that he can surrender himself, and in this surrender of self receive what he needs to enable him to abandon his securities; that is to say, until that one comes who gives man the life for which he was created." Emil Brunner,  The Divine-Human Encounter (London:  SCM Press, 1944), p. 51.     
[11] Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses or Against Heresies (c. 180).

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