“Close Encounters of the Holy Kind”
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On April 14th, 2013
Click here to listen to an MP3 of this sermon.
Acts 9:1-7, John 21:1-19
Our two scripture passages for today feature, in turn, the two most significant figures—aside from Jesus—in the New Testament, Paul and Peter. The first story, from the 9th chapter of Acts, recounts the Apostle Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, but as Chris pointed out in the Moment for Young Disciples, he was not the Apostle Paul when he met Jesus on the road. He was simply Saul, a Pharisee from Tarsus who was invested in persecuting Christians. Try to imagine what this encounter might have been like for him.
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and 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 do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, because they heard the voice but saw no one.
Our second passage, from the 21st chapter of John’s Gospel, details a post-resurrection encounter that the Apostle Peter has with Jesus. Bear in mind as you hear it that not long before this, Simon Peter has denied knowing Jesus three times. In the intervening time, Peter and the disciples- if you take John’s chronology seriously-have already had a couple of visits from Jesus as they gathered in the upper room. Now, apparently, they were ready to go back to the way things were before, back to when they were just fishermen, not fishers of people. Listen now for how God might be speaking to you and me through these words.
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’
If I asked you to talk about a time in the past six months when you felt you had encountered God, experienced the holy, how might you respond? Just think about that for a few moments.
Some of you might have a fairly ready answer. A feeling of assurance that washed over you in the midst of a crisis… A sense that you were being empowered to take on some new challenge… called to address a need… or led through a difficult decision.
You might speak of an awareness of the power of community in sorrow or laughter or service. You might talk about an intuition of God’s presence in prayer, a hard won insight, reconciliation. You might talk about a time of communal worship or study that really seemed to almost crackle. You might talk about a healing that was nothing short of miraculous. You might even talk about last night’s Auction.
Others might have to think a little, or a lot, longer.
And still others might be reticent to speak, afraid to name the doubt or the sense of distance that nags at you in the night—or that you’ve perhaps grown so accustomed to that it no longer really bothers you all that much. The issue is settled. The hypocrisy of others, the inhumanity in the world, the illogical nature of believing that there’s something more out there than we can pin down, the unanswered prayers, the personal disappointments… they just add up to too much. And yet, you’re here. God or no God, experience or no experience.
Which brings us to the two stories I just read; I daresay they are two of the most well-known and oft-rehearsed encounters with the holy in the New Testament. Saul being knocked off of his…donkey on the road to Damascus and Peter having a real-live “come to Jesus” moment on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Both of them pretty direct and dramatic…
If those stories represent the standard by which we assess whether or not we or someone else have had an experience of the God Jesus came to embody, then, at first glance, membership in that club might be fairly exclusive. Those who haven’t been knocked flat by a bright light and heard an audible voice from on high, or had a sit-down conversation with a first century Jew named Jesus need not apply. Anything short of that sort of absolute certainty—a certainty which Paul and Peter would presumably claim—would leave a lot of people out, and most of us much of the time.
The late Mother Teresa had an experience of absolute certainty.
On Sept. 10, 1946, after 17 years as a teacher in Calcutta with the Loreto Sisters (an uncloistered, education-oriented community based in Ireland), Mother Mary Teresa, who was then 36, took a 400-mile train trip to Darjeeling. She had been working herself sick, and her superiors ordered her to relax during her annual retreat in the Himalayan foothills.
On the ride out, Teresa reported, Christ spoke to her in a vision. He called her to abandon teaching and work instead in “the slums” of the city, dealing directly with “the poorest of the poor” — the sick, the dying, beggars and street children. ”Come, come, carry Me into the holes of the poor,” Christ told her. “Come be My light.”
The goal was “to help them live their lives with dignity [and so] encounter God’s infinite love, and having come to know Him, to love and serve Him in return.” [i]
So when she came back to Calcutta, having been filled with a dramatic sense of God’s light and presence and call, that’s what she set her mind and heart to do—she set her mind and heart to serve the poor.
But she apparently never again had that same sort of dramatic experience of God. According to Come Be My Light[ii], the book fashioned from her letters and diary entries, within a few months her diaries record frustration and longing and a sense not of God’s presence, but of God’s distance.
Meanwhile she tended to the basic needs of the poor and sick and lame of India’s worst slums, all in the name of the one who said, “When you do it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do it unto me.”
She had a dramatic experience, but much of her life she felt distance, even an uncertainty—even while she was ministering to Christ himself.
In 1979, in a letter to a confessor of hers, Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, Teresa wrote, “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”[iii]
So much for dramatic experiences being our benchmark.
If the lesson in the stories we read of Paul and Peter is that the way to assess our experiences of God is by how dramatic they are, then I don’t think their stories are as helpful to us as they might be. Because in a congregation like this, sure, some of our stories might be dramatic: a miraculous healing, a crisis averted, a vision of sorts, a provision arriving in some unexplained way. But more often than not, God’s presence is mediated in a nudge, a leading. The experience of community and the joy of service, a prayer shawl, a visit made, a helping hand extended, the whelms of love and compassion, the well chosen word, the inspiration of a song or a worship service, forgiveness human and divine.
If the way to judge whether something qualifies as an experience of God is how dramatic it is, then we may not have many experiences to talk about.
If, however, the stories of Paul and Peter point us in the direction of what encounter and relationship with God might do to us or lead us to do, dramatic or not, then there’s more than a little utility in them.
On the day before Palm Sunday, twenty Immanuel members and friends went down to the National Gallery of Art for a tour of artwork related to Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection led by our own Carol Cochran, who is a docent there. One of the paintings she showed us was by the Renaissance artist Tintoretto—his Christ by the Sea of Galilee. You see a reproduction of it on the cover of your bulletin. It is a dramatic painting.
One of the noteworthy things about the painting is that it depicts the water between Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and the disciples out in the boat being choppy, and not at all still. Beyond the boat, deeper into what is also known as Lake Tiberias, the waters are calm. But between Jesus and the boat, the waters are choppy. And you see Peter, with the halo, having gotten clothed and getting ready to jump into the sea to swim to Jesus.
If you ask the experts, the water between the boat and Jesus is turbulent to represent the magnetic force, the draw, bringing Peter to Jesus, the claim Jesus has on Peter. It crackles. That makes sense of me. But it also strikes me that the choppiness of the water can be a metaphor for more than simply divine attraction. It’s a metaphor for the truth, and it is the truth, that living a life in response to God is not always smooth sailing or smooth swimming.
As Peter will find out when he gets to shore, loving God means loving God’s people, particularly the needy ones. The mark of loving Jesus is tending to and caring for the ones whom Jesus calls his sheep—the ones in need. It’s not always dramatic or glorious. It is simply something that you are called to do.
One of the best things we’ve started here in the past few years, and I thank Dan Thomas and Janet Tysse for making this happen, is our Real World, Real Faith program. Once a month after our morning service, we hear from a member of the congregation who tells us about his or her faith walk and how it is played out in his or her vocation. So last week we heard from John Nields who talked about his work as a lawyer and how his faith has impacted that—and how his lawyering has led him to serve people in need—the homeless and those who have made mistakes. We’ve heard from Irena Lum, Greg Stanton, Bev Merson, Beth Simms; we’ve heard from a lot of people in this congregation. And what all of their stories bear out—every single one of them—is something that the stories of Peter and Paul also share: that the experience of God, however you name it, is something that leads you out of yourself into service to others. And that is not always an easy road. It’s not always smooth sailing. It can involve heartache. It means that from time to time you have to get out of the boat, leave some things behind, and take on some new challenges.
Later today we will be saying goodbye—which is a contraction, by the way, for “God be with you”—to Mike Orend. Mike is not someone who brings attention to himself, he is not someone who will stand up and share his faith. He is someone who simply lives it. Simply lives it. Not in a dramatic way, just in a day in and day out way.
If you want to ask about Mike’s faith talk to the Dreamers for whom he showed up in the middle of night. If you want to ask about Mike’s faith, talk to Jermaine Hailes, who is now in prison, and wrote about how much Mike’s care for him meant. If you want to ask about Mike’s faith, look to the fact that we have a Dreamer Program at all.
Time and again, what Mike said to us, in not so many words, was, “If you love God, what are you doing to love God’s people?”
I love how the story of Peter’s encounter with Jesus ends. It comes after the “If you love me, feed my sheep,” part—that threefold repetition calling Peter to care for the needy. (Peter always needs to hear things three times). After that threefold repetition, Jesus says to Peter, “You know, when you are old, they are going to bind you up and they are going to take you where you do not want to go.”
That’s the thing about life. That’s the thing about serving the God whose love is embodied in Jesus and us. Sometimes it takes us places we would not on our own choose to go.
But there’s one more thing. We may get led where we do not choose to go, but we don’t go there alone. We don’t go there alone.
At staff meeting this week I read a piece from Frederick Buechner’s book Telling Secrets. As I was reading I got just a little choked up. I didn’t expect it to happen. I got choked up on the word anorexia.
Here’s how this section of his book ends:
I REMEMBER SITTING parked by the roadside once, terribly depressed and afraid about my daughter’s illness and what was going on in our family, when out of nowhere a car came along down the highway with a license plate that bore on it the one word out of all the words in the dictionary that I needed most to see exactly then. The word was TRUST. What do you call a moment like that? Something to laugh off as the kind of joke life plays on us every once in a while? The word of God? I am willing to believe that maybe it was something of both, but for me it was an epiphany. The owner of the car turned out to be, as I’d suspected, a trust officer in a bank, and not long ago, having read an account I wrote of the incident somewhere, he found out where I lived and one afternoon brought me the license plate itself, which sits propped up on a bookshelf in my house to this day. It is rusty around the edges and a little battered, and it is also as holy a relic as I have ever seen. [iv]
Thank you, Mike, for the way God has used you. Amen.
[ii]Mother Teresa, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light—The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, ed. by Brian Kolodiejchuk (New York: Doubleday, 2007).
[iii] David Van Biema, “Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith.”
[iv] Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets: A Memoir (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), pp.49-50…