Sunday, April 10, 2016 ~ Easter 3
TEXTS: John 21:1-19 and Acts 9:1-20
Let’s continue our reflections about “objective reality” and “subjective reality”—and how each of these can bear witness to the truth about God. Last time, I focused on objective reality—on concrete, undeniable proof—in relation to the resurrection of Jesus. The kind of evidence that presented itself to Mary Magdalene when the risen Christ greeted her outside the empty tomb. Or which confronted the disciples inside that locked room, when Jesus “came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’” and displayed the still-fresh wounds of his crucifixion.
In Luke’s account of this event, Jesus says, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (LUKE 24:39). Anyone who witnessed those events would be left with no doubt whatsoever about the literal reality of Jesus’ resurrection. No one present could thereafter deny the truth of the statement, “Christ is risen.”
In chapter 21 of John’s gospel, we hear about another event just like that. Seven disciples behold a miraculous catch of fish—and then they have breakfast on the beach with their risen Lord. Bread and fish—served to them by a very real, very physical Jesus. This was no ghost or apparition. Neither was it a figment of their imagination. Everyone present saw him. And they were so convinced of the truth of what they had seen and heard that—in the years to come—they were willing to die for the sake of their testimony. That is objective reality. It is something that can be witnessed by everyone present. It does not depend upon faith. It simply is.
In the Book of Acts, however, we hear about another kind of experience—one that is similar, and yet very different. I am referring to Luke’s description of the conversion experience of Saul of Tarsus. On the road to Damascus, Saul—who is on his way to arrest Christians there—has a dramatic encounter with the risen Christ:
As he was going along, approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” So he said, “Who are you, Lord?” He replied, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting!” (ACTS 9:3-5)
Now, you might think that’s a rather concrete experience. For Saul, it certainly was! It transformed him from a persecutor of the church into a promoter of the church. Saul the enemy of Christ became Paul the apostle of Christ, whose letters to churches and individuals make up a significant portion of the Christian Scriptures. Like so many of the original disciples, Paul would also be martyred—all because he refused to deny the truth of what he had experienced.
But here’s the thing: Paul’s experience on Damascus Road was … Well, it was Paul’s experience. It was, at its core, a subjective, rather than an objective experience. Those who were with him at the time were simply bewildered. They couldn’t figure out what was going on. In the account we heard from the Book of Acts, Luke tells us that “the men who were traveling with him stood there speechless, because they heard the voice but saw no one” (ACTS 9:7).
Later on—in chapter 22 of Acts—Paul himself is quoted as saying: “Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me” (ACTS 22:9).
An apparent contradiction? Maybe it is. Although—according to people who know way more about this than I do—the original Greek text implies that Paul’s companions did hear the sound of the heavenly voice, but could not make out what the voice was saying. Whatever. Unless you’re a hardcore Biblical literalist, the difference hardly matters.
The point is this: only Paul had the complete experience. He saw Jesus. The men with him did not. Even if they saw a bright light and heard some kind of sound, they did not witness the same thing that Paul did. Paul’s experience—his reality—was by its very nature subjective. Plus, it was a visionary experience. He wasn’t able to touch Jesus’ physical body, like Mary Magdalene and the others did on that first Easter day. And yet, for Paul, it was an absolutely convincing experience. Convincing for Paul—but not necessarily convincing for anyone else.
That’s the problem with subjective experiences—especially those which could be described as “mystical”—and it creates a dilemma for those who have them. Because, while you can tell others about your experience … you cannot give them your experience.
American lawyer Charles G. Finney was a central figure in the religious revival movement of the early 19th century; he is sometimes called the first of the professional evangelists. In 1821, at the age of 29, he had a mystical encounter, which he described in this way:
There was no fire, and no light, in the room; nevertheless it appeared to me as if it were perfectly light. As I went in and shut the door after me, it seemed as if I met the Lord Jesus Christ face to face. It did not occur to me then, nor did it for some time afterward, that it was a wholly mental state. On the contrary it seemed to me that I saw him as I would see any other man. He said nothing, but looked at me in such a manner as to break me right down at his feet. I have always since regarded this as a most remarkable state of mind; for it seemed to me a reality, that he stood before me, and I fell down at his feet and poured out my soul to him.
That same evening, Finney received what he referred to as “a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost”:
The Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul. I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to have come in waves and waves of liquid love; for I could not express it in any other way. It seemed like the very breath of God. I can recollect distinctly that it seemed to fan me, like immense wings.1
“Waves and waves of liquid love.” An electrical current. The breath of God, fanning him “like immense wings.”
For Charles Finney, it was a life-changing occurrence. Bear in mind, he was a lawyer—a man who depended for his living upon his facility with language; yet he struggled to communicate what had happened to him, and many of those who heard his story were left scratching their heads.
I sympathize with Charles Finney. Although I don’t often speak about them publicly, I myself have had experiences which I suppose would have to be classified as “mystical.” And—as those of you who know me well might guess—they all took place during my first weeks of parenthood. For those who may not know this part of my personal story, I will briefly explain.
My son Samuel—for Iris and myself, our only child—who is now a grown man and a father himself … Sam was born with a severe heart defect, and he underwent surgery for that when he was 26 days old. He very nearly did not survive. I have to say, I did not expect him to survive. I even went to the length of offering to donate his organs.
Anyway, we spent the better part of two weeks beside him in the pediatric intensive care unit at the University of Alberta Hospital. And for pretty much the entire first week, his life hung in the balance literally from one minute to the next.
I know it must sound very odd when I say this, but—for me, at least—that ICU was holy ground. It was a terrifying place to be. And yet, it became the theatre of what I have to call a sacred drama—and a protracted one, at that. It was a drama played out in several acts. One of those—by far the most vivid, in my memory—involved … a phenomenon, for lack of a better word … a phenomenon which was, at one and the same time, very strange—and also strangely comforting.
I can only describe it in this way: all at once, the entire room was filled with a living light. That’s as close as I can come to explaining it. The unit was filled with a glowing, pulsating light that seemed to surround and permeate everything—beds, equipment, medical staff, nurses, Iris, me, Sam, the other tiny patients … everything. And this light was … alive.
Yes. This light was a living thing. If that isn’t weird enough, consider this: no one else saw this light, as far as I know. Certainly Iris—who was in the room with me—did not see it. I was the only one who perceived it.
To be sure, you could explain this episode away as an hallucination brought on by overwhelming emotional stress. Certainly, I understand that. This would be a perfectly rational explanation for what I experienced. I cannot blame anyone for thinking that my perceptions were, in those moments, deranged.
Even so, I trust my perceptions. From inside the experience, I know—I was certain of it then, and I am certain of it now—I know that light was real. And it was alive. And it was divine. It was the very presence of God—revealed, for whatever reason, to me alone. And this strange light filled me with perfect peace. Not because it promised me that my boy would live. It didn’t do that. It did not say anything. Yet it convinced me that we were in God’s hands.
Like I said, I don’t often speak about this. And mostly, that’s because it is frustratingly difficult—actually, it is quite impossible—to describe the experience in words. Because there simply are not words to describe it adequately. I tell you that I saw a “light”—and that’s the truth … but it wasn’t the kind of light that shines from an electric lamp, or from a candle, or from the sun. Yet, describing it as “light” is the closest I can come to painting a picture of what I saw, and what I felt. When I tell you that this light was “alive” … I cannot explain how I know that. But that light was alive!
How much easier it would have been if the risen Christ had shown up in person. If only Jesus had stopped at the nursing desk to ask which bed my kid was in … because he had a basket of fish and bread to deliver! Although, I suppose he wouldn’t have needed to ask. It would have been nice to have some witnesses, though.
So why am I telling you this story? Well, one reason is that—given our reading from the Book of Acts—I think it fits as an illustration. But another reason—one which compels me to stick my neck out by giving this account—has to do with some stuff that has, of late, been boiling and bubbling in popular culture.
Probably all of you have heard of Gretta Vosper. She is a United Church minister (an ordained one), a graduate of Queen’s Theological College, and the pastor of West Hill United Church in Scarborough, Ontario. By now, she is probably also Canada’s best-known atheist.
Now, you might wonder how a person can be a United Church minister and an atheist. Frankly, I wonder about that, too. In any case, Gretta has become something of a media celebrity. She has her own radio program, and she sells a lot of books. Not long ago, during an interview on CBC Television,2 Gretta Vosper expressed the opinion that “upwards of fifty percent” of United Church clergy do not believe in “a theistic, supernatural God.” I have no idea whether she’s right about that. Can it be true that only about half of our denomination’s leadership actually believes in God?
I do not know the answer to that question. But I know it is a question that’s been on the minds of many. And I feel compelled to offer a personal response. As someone engaged in active pastoral ministry, I think people need to understand exactly what I do believe.
I don’t really mind if you think I’m crazy. Maybe I am. If so, I’m in good company. The apostle Paul was proud to be a “fool” for the sake of Christ (1 COR. 4:10). And in Paul’s time, there were many—including many in the church—who considered him to be precisely that.
No, I don’t care if you think I’m crazy. But I do care that you know this about me: crazy or not, I believe in God. I believe God exists—not as a metaphor or a symbol or a nice idea, but as a Person—a living, divine being. Even if others of my colleagues can find no evidence of that, I have all the evidence I need. I believe God is real. More than that, I know God is real. God help me, I cannot think otherwise!
1 Finney, Charles G. Memoirs of Rev. Charles G. Finney, (New York: 1876) [quoted at: http://www.bodysoulandspirit.net/mystical_experiences/read/notables/finney.shtml]
2 On March 25, 2016, on The National, Vosper was interviewed by Wendy Mesley.