Year C, Easter 3
May 5, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…suddenly a light from Heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice…” And from our gospel lection, “That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’”
Easter is a beginning. The beginning of a wholly new world, one saved, one being saved by the power of self-giving love revealed on the Cross of Jesus Christ. The Resurrection is the first fruit of that kind of self-giving, self-given love. Alleluia Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!
The kids are here this morning, howdy! It’s the last youth Sunday of the program year, so I’m going to mention Harry Potter in hopes I’ll have your attention for a bit. I loved reading those books to the girls. What an imagination Rowling has. She created a universe with depth approaching Narnia or Middle-Earth (approaching). Muggle is a helpful part of our lexicon now. Her work has engaged a generation of children. The amount of reading she has caused to happen is staggering, but there are not a lot of deep spiritual lessons found in the halls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The stories are very violent: killings and torture (in places even worse than the Bible). The children are hyper-competitive (nearly as cutthroat as Jacob or the disciples), and throughout, there are stories of friendship and loyalty and bravery and teen-age love, but they are tempered by the characters, on all sides, being just rotten to each other, bullying, ganging up, being hateful. Kind of rough.
There is one towering spiritual message in the Potter-verse though, a Christian message even: the ontological power of self-giving love. That means that means that love, self-giving love, has the power to change the world, like completely. Harry Potter is Harry Potter, the child nemesis to the Dark Lord bent on world domination, because his mother loved him so much that she gave up her own life to save him. In that act, in her sacrificial outpouring of self-giving love, to borrow from Aslan’s own self-sacrificial death in the Chronicles of Narnia, the deep magic came into effect. Through that magic, Harry not only survived, he lived and lived with a purpose; to defeat evil. That is one of the ways we can think about how Jesus saves the world. When He sacrificed Himself for us on the Cross, that was a terrible thing, but what happened is that so much love poured out of Him that the world, that we changed, forever. His Body was broken. His Blood was shed. We eat and drink these things and we can get a taste of the love He gave. That is not a very easy thing to understand. Truly, right up to this very moment, we are trying to figure out what to do with that, how to understand love like that. Does that make sense?
But that is not what this sermon is about, well not exactly. What this sermon is about knowing that our God that loves us that much. It is about recognizing God, recognizing when you are in fact having an encounter with God in Christ with the Holy Spirit. That is what our readings from the Acts of the Apostles and St. Johns Gospels are about. They are about encounters with the Risen Lord, encounters, direct human encounters with God. Our Collect of the Day covers it. We prayed, “O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work…” This sermon is about opening the eyes of our faith to know Jesus Christ in all His redeeming work… in the breaking of the bread and in the sunrise over the Cascades, in the gaze of someone you love and in the suffering of someone you serve, in the face of everyone you meet. And I am not so sure how helpful today’s stories in Acts and John are to that end.
Now on occasion we encounter God directly, dramatically. I know some of the stories of people here and in the broader church. Those stories are real. There isa possibility of directly encountering God. It happens, dramatically sometimes. I had a peculiar experience once, 19 years ago this Easter, but that is not the standard, that is not what we should expect: dramatic, voice-of-God encounters like Paul being struck down on the way to Damascus are not the standard; they is the exception.
Or the disciples in St John’s Gospel. They were trying to get back to a normal life, getting back to their fishing, and bam! there is Jesus on the beach. “It is the Lord!” Resurrected, alive, talking, eating, cooking for them, teaching them, telling them very directly, very personally what to expect – hard work serving people, doing things you don’t want to do, suffering – and then very directly, very personally what to do – follow Him. Man alive! Even pretty unpleasant news… even the hard diagnosis of the human condition that Jesus gives His friends… what most of us wouldn’t give for that sort of clarity, that sort of certainty! But again, experiences like this are not the standard, they are the exception.
And even for the fortunate few who do get a glimpse, it is just that, a glimpse, followed by a life time of trying to figure it out, of seeking it again. St. Thomas demanded undeniable personal confirmation. How did Jesus reply? “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Most of us have not seen, not like that. And yet we believe. And I don’t know about you, but I certainly need help with my unbelief. At least were blessed!
I’m reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, well, listening to it at the gym. If you ever wonder where Christianity gets its sexual hang-ups, you need go no further than Augustine’s Confessions. Paul had his issues but Augustine… that man was hung up! But there is so much more in there. Basically the Confessionsis a book-length prayer. Much of it is Augustine asking, praying for clarity. He is not asking for certainty. He has no expectation of Damascus Road or breakfast on the beach with Jesus or a Thomasine finger in the hole certainty. But he does desire God, encounter with God and in a way that is very helpful. He wrote, “My desire was not to be more certain of you, but to be more stable in you.”
We‘ve got to know God. Faith is based not just on hope, but on trust. It is hard to believe in something you have no experience of; not proof, but experience. We can’t expect Damascus Road, we can’t require hands on proof, but most of us aren’t going to take up our crosses and follow Him to the ends of the earth based on someone else’s word, based on my explanations, or what your mom tells you. Most of can’t think ourselves into faith, or read it into ourselves through stories of our ancestors, or the thoughts of theologians. “Taste and see that the Lord is Good” says the psalmist. We need a taste. How do we get it?
Always and everywhere: God is with us, we are in God. But it can be really hard to see and chances are in is not in the paper, or on TV or on your phone (audiobook recordings of the Confessionsaside). But if we learn to listen, learn to watch, we can hear “Every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them singing ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’” God’s voice is heard, can be heard in the waves crashing on the rocks, the wind coursing through the firs, in the crows cawing right here in our oak grove. God’s voice can be heard in the affirmation of a friend or the one you love, in the appreciation (spoken or internalized) of a child, in the fellowship of Christian community, the encouragement, calling forth and sending of would be disciples of Jesus Christ.
Sometimes we can see it right here, in church, in Christian community. In the hard work, the self-giving of some of our brothers and sisters, God is present. In laughter and joy, often in children, but joy does not have an upper age limit. God is right there in the grief of one who has lost, is losing a loved one, in the love of friends and fellow Christians gathered around them, in the quiet, loving work of the Stephen Ministers…
We can encounter God through religious practice. God is in our prayer; in our Common Prayer together here and in your own time on the cushion, on your knees, in the shower, in the garden, on a trail in the high Cascades, waiting at a red light, where ever it is that you pray. My first prayer experience was at mile 16 when I was training for a marathon years ago. We can also experience God in Scripture. That is not reading per se, studying scripture, for God is carried in a particular way in those pages. The centuries that Christians have prayed and contemplated those words make it more possible to encounter it as The Word. And there are the Sacraments. God is always there.
We can find God in the work we do in the world. What I know of Windy’s experience of the Egan Warming Center, my own experiences there and on the street, God is there. I know the folks Christine and Skip work with at 1stand 2ndSunday Breakfasts have similar experiences. You can see God in the face of the suffering. In their pain, their addiction, their destructive behavior and in their resilience; in their loyalty to each other, their gratitude for the work being done on their behalf, in their humility. God is undeniably present in the humility of someone with nothing, with a negative balance in the world. That somedays they can put one foot in front of another is an act of God happening right there, right then, for those with eyes to see it.
God, the maker of Heaven and Earth, of all that is, seen and unseen, is always and everywhere. God is waiting, wanting to be encountered, to be seen, and when it comes to encountering or seeing God, that means loving God. It is not the created thing that that contains God, it is the Creator behind the thing that calls to us. The created thing can point us to the Creator, to God. St. Augustine wrote,
“But what do I love when I love my God? . . .
Not material beauty or beauty of a temporal order.
not the brilliance of earthly light;
not the sweet melody of harmony and song;
not the fragrance of flowers, perfumes, and spices;
not manna or honey;
not limbs such as the body delights to embrace.
It is not these that I love when I love my God.
And yet, when I love him, it is true that I love a light of a certain kind, a voice, a perfume, a food, an embrace;
but they are of the kind that I love in my inner self,
when my soul is bathed in light that is not bound by space;
when it listens to sound that never dies away;
when it breathes fragrance that is not borne away on the wind;
when it tastes food that is never consumed by the eating;
when it clings to an embrace from which it is not severed by fulfillment of desire.
This is what I love when I love my God.”
(Augustine, Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin, X.6).
Isn’t that beautiful? “…when it clings to an embrace from which it is not severed by fulfillment of desire.” In carefully, prayerfully making meaning of the world and our experience of it, we can encounter God, encounter Christ, and in encountering we can Follow Him.
Albert Schweitzer says pretty much the same thing, but from the perspective of his own life and ministry. In The Quest for the Historical Jesus, he wrote, “He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for his time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise of simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they will pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.”
One of our tasks for this festive Easter Season is to consider the implications of our encounter with the Risen Christ. And those encounters abound for those with the eyes to see them and the ears to hear them. Keep your eyes and ears wide open. Your hearts, too. The self-giving love of Jesus Christ was given for your sake and for the sake of the world. In and with and by and through that love, may we be stable in Him, and follow Him where ever He leads. Alleluia Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia! AMEN.