Sermon, April 10, 2016
Are you seated or standing near someone who has had a mystical experience with the Holy?? With God?? The answer is, yes, you are.? I know many of your stories and I know that many of you know the Essence of Life, the Holy, God by whatever name you use, you know God and you know that mystical knowing, that experiential moment of being with God and it has changed us in significant ways.
We are now in the 3rd Sunday of Easter and the biblical focus is on two people who became primary in the early-forming thing that we today call the Church of Jesus Christ.? It wasn?t called that in the beginning, incidentally.? The Church with buildings and clergy and pews came much, much later.? In fact, the word Church is not even discovered being used until late in the 1st century?more than a half century after Jesus? death.
This morning we are given two great stories about Paul and Peter.? They both have post-resurrection or after the death of Jesus encounters with a living Jesus.? And, after they have these primary and pivotal life-challenging experiences, they don?t become Christian.? Christianity doesn?t exist yet. ?What happens is that they are both certain kinds of Jews who after encountering God in the resurrected Jesus, become a different kind of Jew, but Jewish nevertheless.
I was down east Third Street talking with the Rabbi at Beth Shalom the other day.? We were talking about forgiveness.? Rabbi Besser told me that in the Talmud if you sincerely ask for forgiveness three times, you are released from your sin, and that the sin is then is carried by the person who would not forgive.
I replied that we Christians have it tougher.? I said Jesus said that we had to forgive seventy times seven times, or put more simply, always.? Brian told me perhaps I should convert.? I told him, well, in some ways I like the 3 times and it is someone else?s problem.? But, I said, convert to what, from one Jewish belief to another?? Jesus lived and died and resurrected as a Jew.? In this morning?s readings Paul and Peter are Jewish followers of the way of Jesus even after mystical encounters that are life changing, transformative and mystical.
Both Paul and Peter would have been seen as forerunners in the ?I?m spiritual not religious? movement.? They spiritually encountered God and they changed outside of the normative religious boundaries of their day.? They did not come to believe in Jesus as their Christ as the result of saying the correct creed, faith or doctrinal confession.? They literally ran directly into God and they were changed people from those days forward.
I have perhaps mentioned a friend of mine before, John Watkins.? He lives on the Isle of Arran, an hour out in the Irish Sea off the coast from Glasgow.? It is a typical beautiful isle of mist and the so-called thin places, like Brigadoon, that Scotland is so famous for.? Here in Indiana we love to say with about 45 other states that if you don?t like today?s weather just wait till tomorrow and it could well be worse.? Aye, in bonnie Scotland, the weather will change with regularity five or six times a day as the clouds swirl down out of the North Sea.? The Scots laugh and say that we tourists find their weather romantic and they simply experience it as wet and foul, scattered with a wee bit of sunshine, and that such bad weather is the reason that God gave them the gift of holy water, Scotch.
Lynn and I were visiting one spring and John asked me in the late afternoon to go with him for a drive.? He said, ?I?ve met someone and I want you to see where.? We drove at breakneck speed around mountain turns with no guard rails and only the sea far below us.? He pulled over to the left to park off the one-path sheep trail.? The sun was sinking down into ocean and he told me, ?Jack, I?m not a church goin? man.? But, I heard God speak my name here at this spot.?? Stupidly I asked what did God say?? He said,? ?John.?
John told me that when he first heard his name called out he turned down the radio thinking it was from there.? But he heard his name again.? He stopped and got out and heard his name yet a third time and he said he fell down to the ground and cried.? John and I stood in that beautiful setting and he explained that all he felt was loving support for his life and that he felt called, not to preach it, but to live it.? He said, ?I come back here to this spot because it is holy for me because it happened here.? But,? he told me further, ?it is holy everywhere in this world because God is there asking all of us to do the same thing, to live the love.?? John is a heating and air conditioning contractor, except no one has air conditioning that far north.
Paul?s encounter is transformational as well as mystical. Paul encounters the Risen Jesus and becomes mainly a changed man in his focus. The one who sought to persecute the early Jesus movement now becomes its ardent proclaimer to God?s people of all races and ethnicities. He receives a revelation and also a calling. Mystical experiences, in the Christian tradition, are seldom about the individual self?s isolated spiritual journey, but invite us from personal growth to global transformation. Authentic Christian spirituality is about us and not me, about world-loyalty (Whitehead) and not personal gain.
Paul changed from being a fairly traditional Pharisee to being radicalized. ?His encounter on his road to Damascus, Syria was eye opening and widening.? Paul?s faith is, first of all, experiential and not doctrinal. Despite the attempt to make Paul the pillar of orthodox theology, his theology is always based on his experience of the living Jesus and the faith of the Gentiles. If the Spirit descends, then you are a follower of Jesus, first class, even if you have no words to describe your experience.
The other story we are given today is about Peter, who finds himself experiencing the love and forgiveness of the risen Jesus, the resurrected Jesus in the Gospel According to John?s 21st chapter.? No scholar of merit believes that the 21st chapter of John is part of the original Book of John.? It is an added-on.? It is an early add.? We do not have the original manuscripts of any of the Gospels.? None.? Zero.? Nada.? The earliest surviving texts come from the fourth and fifth centuries.? The very earliest document we have of the Gospel According to Mark is fourth century and is a mere small fragment.? It is tiny.
But, from those manuscripts that have survived from the 4th and 5th century onwards we have a good record of how texts transformed, were changed, edited and evaluated through the centuries.? John?s 21st chapter comes into the original text within one hundred years of our oldest John document.? Interestingly for you biblical trivial pursuit players, there is one other story found in John that every scholar knows was not original to the text.? It was a couple of hundred years before a scribe included it for the first time.? It is such a great story that seems to capture what we believe about Jesus that no one seems to question its validity.? I?m not.? But, it was a free-floating story that some scribe grabbed and inserted into a Gospel of John manuscript and it has been there ever since.
The story.? You know it.? A woman is caught in adultery and dragged by the self-righteous men to be stoned to death in the presence of Jesus.? The crowd is waiting for Jesus to pronounce his sentence of judgement according to the Torah.? Jesus bends over and writes some thing in the dirt.? It is the only occasion when we are told that Jesus writes.? He stands and says, ?Let the one who has committed no sin cast the first stone.?? And a stone flies by his head and strikes the woman dead.? He turns and sees the stone thrower and says, ?Mom what are you doing here??? You know how the real story ends!? The stones are dropped and everyone wanders away and he lifts the woman up, blesses her and tells her to go and sin no more.
It is a foundational story of how many of us understand the love of God for us.? We are lifted up from the midst of whatever it is that we have found ourselves in and we are blessed with the very forgiveness of God.? We don?t have an early record of the story but suddenly, as God so often does, suddenly the story appears one century in a text and it has been copied as such ever since.
So it is with Chapter 21 of John?s Gospel.? People argue back and forth about why it is there.? But, probably, as the early church came together, it tried to make peace among those who followed John, those who followed Paul, and those who followed Peter.? It is too bad that the same efforts were not made in regard to those who followed Jesus?s dear friend and disciple Mary or in Paul?s cohort, Theckla.? We can?t change the past but we can affirmatively move forward.
In the early days of the formation of what we would today call Christianity, what others of that day would have called a robust Judaism, there was one disciple who, while popular in his own way, carried the weight of having denied knowing Jesus at a key moment?,not once or twice, but three times?and that of course is Peter.? And this story in John?s Gospel, Chapter 21 is most probably evidence of Peter?s redemption.
What strikes me, however, is how Jesus in this scene offers Peter what many modern psychologists contend every one of us needs: a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.
First, a sense of belonging. We all need to feel accepted by a larger group in order to have a stable identity and sense of self. This goes against what may seem like common sense ? after all, our culture regularly posits that identity is an individual affair, something we carve out for ourselves and by ourselves. But it turns out that the gift of identity is given to us by those around us, as we see ourselves through the eyes of those closest to us. And, just so we?re not confused, belonging is different than fitting in. Indeed, it is the exact opposite (as many of us will remember from adolescence!). Fitting in is changing yourself to be acceptable to the group, whereas belonging is being found acceptable by your group just as you are. We all need to belong.
In this scene, Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him. Three times. Imagine if someone you care about asked whether you really love him/her not once, not twice, but three times. Painful. And Peter is, indeed, hurt by this repetition. I suspect that only later did it sink in that Jesus is not testing Peter but reinstating him to the community of believers by allowing him to confess faith the same number of times he denied faith earlier. Jesus is drawing Peter back into a community to which he belongs and is accepted for who he is.
Second, we all need a sense of purpose, the belief that what we do matters, that if we did not show up people would notice. Purpose, as it turns out, is one of the great motivators in the world. More powerful than money or fame or power, believing that you have something of value to contribute draws us again and again into challenging circumstances with joy.
And so in response to each of Peter?s confessions, Jesus responds by giving him good work to do: feed my sheep. Be a leader. Look out for these others. Devote yourself to this community. Peter is reinstated into the community of the faithful and given a sense of belonging, and then he is given good work to do and given a purpose.
David Lose points out that in fact, these two themes of belonging and purpose are so dominant in the biblical story that we?ve actually created theological language to capture them. For what else is justification ? the promise that you are accepted for whom you are by God?s grace alone ? except the promise of acceptance and belonging?
And what else is vocation ? the promise that God will use us wherever we are to take care of God?s people and world ? except the promise of purpose? We are called ? vocatio ? by God to make a difference in the world God loves so much.
When you walked into this door for the first time, I hope that most of you found a place where you belong and that you have purpose here.? I have it here and I thank you for the trust you have given me to help define what it means to belong in this eastside progressive faith community.? I was over at South High School earlier this week and in the midst of people discovering that this was the church that I worked for, many said out loud in similar ways,? ?Oh, you are the church that does so much for the homeless.?? The next person said,? ?Oh, you are putting on the largest solar panel array of any church in Indiana.?? Another said,? ?Oh, I know your volunteers that work at Community Kitchen.?? There were a couple more, ?Oh, I know?.? And I was embarrassed because that ?s my nature.? But, ?Oh, I know that so many of you have found that you belong here, know that God loves you just as you are here without one plea.? I know that if rocks were going to be thrown many of you would step up and block them from hitting someone else.? Oh, I know that many of you struggle well and with diligence to help us determine purpose here.
We all need ? belonging and purpose.? Peter, from the depths of John?s community, is given forgiveness.? He messed up and he messed up repeatedly.? And, he is granted forgiveness to begin again and to lead again and to serve.? What else can any of us ask?
Just for fun, I want to read you the last line of this gospel: ?But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.? Because, indeed, this story is not yet finished. There are so many other things that Jesus did that John couldn?t imagine writing them all. And there are so many things God is still doing through you that the telling of them would fill and are continuing to fill the pages that will name our faithfulness in our time here.
Are you a person who keeps a stone close by just in case you need to throw it and protect yourself or hurt somebody back?? Lay it gently down.? God loves us as we are, loves all those others as they are.? We are to be loving others, not building walls, not protecting our hard earned whatever.
Our purpose is to reflect the reality of God to our world of people and places.? Often I say, Be the change you want to see in the world.? Today, let?s kick it up a notch and let?s risk reflecting the God that is in us to the world.? God in us.? God with us.? Emmanuel.? It is the story of Christmas and Easter.? The lights of December have come down, the Easter eggs are all gathered into baskets and now is the time for the real stuff to be discovered.
Be gentle.? Offer Compassion.? Be loving.? Accept unmerited love.? Give.? Grow. Be more.? Need less.? Help others lay down their rocks.? The answer is still to learn the ways of peace where the lion and lamb do lie down together and even though the lamb is really anxious, the lion is transformed by the presence of God to fulfill just ?the it? it is.
Be ready to be transformed.? The brilliance of God is just waiting to be noticed by you.? You will be changed a little.? Will it hurt?? Just a little bit.? But the joy will be overwhelming huge.