Direct Experience of God: Part 1

Sunday, April 3, 2016 ~ Easter 2

TEXTS: John 20:19-31 and Acts 5:27-32

A young man went to his rabbi and said, “I have lost faith.”

“So,” said the rabbi, “how did you lose faith?”

“I studied Logic at the university,” said the young man, “and I found out that—if you’re clever enough—you can prove either side of any case.”

“I see,” said the rabbi. “Can you prove that you have no nose?”

“Certainly,” said the student. “To begin with …”

But at this point the rabbi punched him—right in the nose!

And then the rabbi asked him, “What hurts?”

My friends, there is an objective reality! There is also a subjective reality—which I’ll talk about next week.

But this week and next week, I will be talking about “direct experience of God.” That’s right. Direct experience. Concrete, tangible, in-your-face evidence that this God whom we worship is real. Not a metaphor. Not a figment of our imagination. But real, and personal, and desiring a relationship with each one of us.

John’s gospel tells the story. It is still Easter Day.

Last Sunday, we heard about Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Christ—and that she hurried to tell the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

John doesn’t say whether the men believed her. My guess is that some did, some didn’t, and some were left uncertain. Because that’s the way it is when we hear a fantastic story, isn’t it? Even if we want to believe it, hearing it—even from an eyewitness—is not the same thing as experiencing it yourself.

Fast-forward to this morning’s gospel. Actually, it isn’t much of a fast-forward. As today’s gospel passage opens, it is the evening of that same day. Whatever the disciples thought about Mary’s testimony—whether they were mostly believing or mostly doubting—they were a terrified group of men, cowering behind locked doors.

Well, we know what happens next, don’t we? Somehow, Jesus makes his way into this locked room. He “came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’” (JOHN 20:19). Then he showed them his pierced hands and his wounded side, as if to say, “Look! It’s really me!” And John tells us that the disciples rejoiced.

However, one of them was not present that evening. For whatever reason—perhaps because he was braver than the others—Thomas was elsewhere. When he does show up—some time later—the others excitedly tell him, “We have seen the Lord!” But Thomas …

Well, I guess you could say that Thomas is a realist—and something of a skeptic. He does not doubt that his friends think they saw something—but he does question the nature of their experience. Only the evidence of his own senses could persuade Thomas that the other disciples had not seen merely a phantom or apparition—or some kind of mass hallucination.

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” he says, “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (JOHN 20:25).

So, a week later, Jesus obliges. The disciples are once again in the house—but this time Thomas is with them. Even though the doors remain bolted shut, Jesus again comes and stands amongst them. And he says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe—it’s really me!

Did Thomas actually touch Jesus’ wounds? The scripture doesn’t tell us. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he didn’t need to. In any case, Thomas is now convinced, and he exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”

Finally, he has the concrete evidence he needed. His rabbi has punched him in the nose!

And Jesus remarks, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (JOHN 20:29).

Which is kind of the situation we find ourselves in … isn’t it?

We have not had the kind of experience those first disciples had behind closed doors—or which Mary Magdalene had in the graveyard. Some of us may have had something akin to it—but that is a topic for next Sunday.

Many commentators have pointed out that Christianity and Judaism are unique amongst world religions because they are based upon history. In both cases, faith is rooted not so much in philosophy—or even in theology—as it is in human experience.

Judaism has the account of the exodus from Egypt, and much of the Old Testament relates how God acted—in history—to save his people. As well, Hebrew Scripture tells the stories of great faith-heroes who were also historical figures—great leaders like Moses and Joshua and Saul and David. It also accounts for the numerous kings of Israel who followed David (some of whom were, admittedly, neither heroic nor faithful).

Christian faith is grounded in the event of Jesus’ resurrection. As the apostle Paul says in First Corinthians, chapter 15: “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain … But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (1 COR. 15:14, 20).

We are among those “who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We have come to believe—most of us, anyway—not because we have touched the living body of the risen Christ, but because we have trusted in the testimony of those who claim to have done precisely that: to have embraced him outside his empty tomb (JOHN 20:16-17); or encountered him inside a barricaded house; or shared breakfast with him on a Galilean beach (JOHN 21:1-14).

Most of us believe because we trust in the testimony given by those first eyewitnesses; a few of us believe because of direct experiences of our own—but again, that is a topic for next week’s sermon.

Most of us believe because of the testimony of those original twelve. That’s right—twelve. Even though the unfortunate Judas Iscariot did not live to see Easter morning, there were still twelve eyewitnesses to the truth of Christ’s resurrection; there were the eleven male disciples—plus Mary Magdalene, who first carried the glad news to them.

But why should we believe them? Why should we—2,000 years after the fact—trust in the testimony of a dozen first-century witnesses who, for all we know, were part of a clever deception? How can we be sure these twelve people weren’t simply telling a tale? How do we know they weren’t just making it up?

Here’s where history and tradition come into play. According to the best history available to us—and mostly, from sources outside the Bible—almost all of these original eyewitnesses died violent deaths on account of their testimony about the resurrection. Our reading from the Book of Acts gives us some inkling of the kind of opposition they faced: “The high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in [Jesus’] name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching …’” (ACTS 5:27-28).

Of those original twelve, only Mary Magdalene and John the son of Zebedee died natural deaths. All the rest of them were killed because they would not recant their testimony.

According to the Book of Acts (12:2), John’s brother James was executed by order of King Herod. According to various extra-Biblical sources:

  • Peter, Andrew, and Simon the Zealot were crucified;
  • Thomas was pierced through with the spears of four soldiers;
  • Matthew was stabbed to death;
  • James the son of Alphaeus was sawed into pieces, while his brother Jude was killed by arrows; and
  • Philip and Bartholomew were likewise put cruelly to death.

It seems to me that their martyrdoms lend credibility to their witness. Who would surrender themselves to be killed—especially by such horrible means—for something that they knew was a barefaced lie? Keep in mind, these were not gullible patsies who had been taken in by clever deceivers; they were eyewitnesses who had personally encountered the risen Christ. No power on earth—and no earthly threat—could force them to deny that truth.

Now, here we are—all these centuries later—assembled in Jesus’ name, gathered before his table, about to share in this sacred meal that draws our attention to his death, and invites us to participate in his dying and his rising. It calls us into communion with Jesus—and it calls us into community as members of his body. In fact, this feast of the Eucharist is one of the most important here-and-now ways that you and I can experience the presence of the risen Christ. Because he is here—right now—in this room, with us.

For those with eyes to see, he is quite visible. Visible not so much, perhaps, in the food and drink upon the table—but quite obviously visible in the people who gather around it. As I look at all of you, I see Jesus!

As the apostle Paul said, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 COR. 12:27).

Do you want to behold the real presence of Christ? Look to your left. Look to your right. Look behind and in front of yourselves. Jesus was not only raised for us—he is raised in us!

Christ is risen; he is risen indeed!

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