Tuesday, January 21, 2014

How do you know?

New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE

January 19, 2014


            During the last two years as I was searching for a church to call home, I had a list of questions that I would ask during interviews.  One of my favorite questions was, “When was the last time you saw Jesus?”  Sometimes folks would be caught up short in their answer, as if it was not the first thing anyone would want to know about them and their experience of church.  I’m not entirely sure what one person’s motives were when they responded, “Right now”, while appearing to look at me with both intensity and casual regard.  Still others would indeed call to mind a story about local mission in their church or when it was difficult to welcome someone into their community or when a person became an unexpected catalyst for change and growth.

            This is the season of Epiphany, that time in the Christian calendar when we celebrate God made manifest in Jesus, God made visible, revealed in the flesh.  When was the last time you saw Jesus?  How did you know?

            (congregation gave various responses)

            Revelation is a tricky thing.  Most of the time it’s a personal, intimate experience—something between us and God.  No one else can really validate our encounter with the holy, the ineffable, but when it happens, when we know it in our bones, that’s precisely what we wish we could do—explain what happened in such a way that another human being would believe it down to their bones.

There are some things I may not know;

There are some places I cannot go,

But I am sure of this one thing:

That God is real, for I can feel God deep in my soul.

Yes, God is real, real in my soul;

Yes, God is real for God has washed and made me whole;

God’s love for me is like pure gold;

Yes, God is real for I can feel God deep in my soul.

            From the time of the witnesses to the resurrection to Paul’s conversion and beyond, Christians have been wrangling over what consists of authentic spiritual experience, revelation, and the power, the authority that we ascribe to those who experience revelation.  So we created apostolic succession, authority conferred from Peter, James, and John—disciples who lived with Jesus and died for him—to others deemed worthy, men and women, who, like the apostle Paul, have experienced God, seen Jesus, been revived by the Spirit in their own flesh, who knew themselves called to preach the good news. 

            And so we drew a line between who could receive revelation and who couldn’t, who had power over human souls and who didn’t.  We created a hierarchy of spiritual experience, strata of ordained servants and lay people; that some human beings were set apart for service to God and therefore, special, unique, endowed with extraordinary qualities and abilities.

            But it seems that whenever there is an imbalance of power, there are those in power who will abuse it and the less powerful who will rebel against it.  Even more so, the Holy Spirit cannot be contained by human systems and constructs, much as we’ve tried.  One of the foundations of the Reformation was that no intermediary was necessary to receive forgiveness, to intercede between human beings and the divine.  Anyone could receive revelation.  Anyone could experience the Holy One in their midst.  Anyone could walk the road to Emmaus and meet Jesus on the way.

(click comic strip to read)


            Eventually, this radical idea paved the way for the three Great Awakenings of spiritual experience in the United States, over a period of 200 years.  Out of these awakenings came evangelicalism, a deeper understanding of free will, the social gospel movement, and both personal and community transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit—all of which helped give rise to the United Church of Christ and its many ways of being church.  And though we are one of the more progressive denominations in the U.S., there are times we have difficulty not only knowing when was the last time we saw Jesus, but also telling that really good news to others.

            But in the gospel of John, written some 70-80 years after Jesus’ ministry, we read not once but twice that John the Baptist himself did not know him; that John came baptizing with water for this reason, that Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, might be revealed.  This is a gospel written by and for people who never knew Jesus in the flesh, yet knew themselves to be witnesses of that Word made known in Jesus—God-with-us.

            All of this is to say, we are still figuring out how we know we have seen Jesus and how to live out of that encounter.  There are times we are cautious, wary of another’s spiritual experience, yet we can also be caught up in the ecstatic encounter of the holy with others.  Most of the time, it’s a simple as having a feeling.  How does God make God’s self real to us?

Some folks may doubt, some folks may scorn,

All can desert and leave me alone.

But as for me I’ll take God’s part,

For God is real and I can feel God deep in my heart.

Yes, God is real, real in my soul;

Yes, God is real for God has washed and made me whole;

God’s love for me is like pure gold;

Yes, God is real for I can feel God deep in my soul.

            We know we have seen Jesus, we have experienced the divine, we have felt the Holy Spirit moving through our lives when our lives change, when we take a different direction, when we see our lives and the lives of others through different eyes, through the eyes of love and not fear. 

We know we have seen Jesus when we have been forgiven by another and our sin is removed.  We know we have seen Jesus when a community is transformed from conflict to trusting one another and a renewed sense of mission.  We know we have seen Jesus when power is shared, risks are taken, when anyone steps out in faith that lives might be changed for the better.  We know we have seen Jesus when the power of love casts out our fear.

It’s really not as complicated as we’ve made it.  It’s not a special ability, and what really makes seeing Jesus extraordinary is how it changes our lives and the lives of others.  When we realize we have been healed and made whole, when we live that way, and we pass it on.

I cannot tell just how you felt

When Jesus took your sins away,

But since that day, yes, since that very hour

God has been real for I can feel God’s holy power.

Yes, God is real, real in my soul;

Yes, God is real for God has washed and made me whole;

God’s love for me is like pure gold;

Yes, God is real for I can feel God deep in my soul.

"Psalm 40" by U2

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