May 5, 2019
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|Acts 9:1-6||Psalm 30||Revelation 5:11-14||John 21:1-19|
by Bruce Epperly
Today, we reflect on the relationship of spiritual experiences and personal and communal transformation. Mystics are often categorized as otherworldly. Yet, mystics can also be world changers. Encountering the Living God can inject possibilities into our lives and awaken us to the paths we need to follow to be faithful to God and our fellow creatures. Time shares in eternity and the passing world flows into everlasting life as we find ourselves in synch with God’s vision for the world. You can be both heavenly minded and earthly good. Our visions of God can be intensely practical, challenging us to change our ways and claim our vocation as God’s companions in healing the world.
Virtually everyone in the evangelical community of my childhood saw Paul’s (Saul of Tarsus) Damascus Road experience, recorded in Acts, as paradigmatic for our own “datable” conversion experiences. In the faith of my childhood, in a moment of decision, God confronts us with the message of the cross and we say “yes” to Jesus as our Savior. While such moments reflect authentic spiritual experiences – it did in my case some 55 years ago! – they also point us beyond the personal to the communal. On the road to Damascus, Paul sees the light, experiences the call of God, and discovers his vocation as evangelist to the Gentile world. His mystical experience takes him beyond navel-gazing to world transformation. The same dynamic applies to Ananias’ synchronous visionary experience. Taken out of his normal day to day life, Ananias receives divine guidance to reach out to the disoriented Saul. His encounter with the Holy is not nebulous but focused and takes him from fear to agency for the good of the world.
Paul’s Damascus Road encounter testifies to the universality of God’s aim at wholeness. No one is left out of divine inspiration. God seeks the “best for that impasse,” this current situation and our life history, in every moment of life. Some moments may become “thin places,” through which we discover our vocations and see our whole lives and their spiritual meaning in perspective. Yet, within each moment is a lure toward wholeness and commitment to the world beyond self-interest. No one is left out, nor can anyone disqualify themselves from divine guidance or comfort. And so we must ask: if God is at work in our lives and churches, how can we become more attentive to God’s presence?
The Psalmist experiences a dialogical relationship with God, reflecting his moment by moment sense of God’s nearness or distance. Even when God seems absent, God can be called upon. God has “skin in the game” insofar as our praises – and very existence – make a difference to God. We are part of God’s unfolding in history, just as God is the foundation for every moment of our lives. There is, the Psalmist believes, a divine-human synergy of call and response and call again. Attentiveness is everything to the Psalmist. His prayer is a precursor to the monastic Examen, a practice of self-awareness in which we note our nearness or distance from God throughout the day. Perhaps, the preacher might invite congregants to take a few moments twice a day to note their spiritual temperatures and readjust their spiritual GPS if need be. Whether we call it self-awareness or mindfulness, these moments of personal reflection reveal the essential godwardness of our lives. With Augustine, we discover that we are made for communion with God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest – and I would suggest holy restlessness – in God.
In the passage from Revelation, the Patmos mystic envisions a world of praise. God is ubiquitous and there is a godwardness in all creation. Deep down, every creature experiences the Spirit’s “sighs too deep for words.” Deep down, God is moving in the every creature, orienting it toward its place in God’s world. For those whose senses have opened, the whole world cries out to God, and that is our calling too. Mysticism leads to ethics and ecological reflection. Whoever can praise deserves our reverence and ethical consideration. Taken beyond disenchantment, we are invited into a reenchanted world where we, despite our fallibility and survival needs, recognize our loyalty to the earth and its creatures.
The post-resurrection experiences reflect a season of communal mysticism in which the followers of Jesus are constantly taken beyond the five senses. The Risen One appears and disappears, apparently without regard to the limitations of physical existence. While we cannot fathom the mechanics of revelation, we can awaken to Christ’s surprising appearances and guidance for the emerging Jesus movement. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is now a chef, appearing first incognito and then recognized after an amazing catch. “Come and have breakfast,” Jesus urges. God is found in commonplace activities of table fellowship as well as dramatic moments of revelation. The eucharistic feast can be fish and bread as well as the congregational sacrament.
From the dinner table emerges a vocational quest in which Peter is urged to put love into action. He, like Paul, receives his personal vocation to feed Jesus’ sheep. Surely this involves the food of the spirit, but it also involves responding to the physical needs of those who are famished for the necessities of life. Our eucharistic meals need to be holistic in nature, inspiring us to move from dinner with Jesus to care for creation.
The resurrection message is whole-person and puts us to work as God’s companions on a holy adventure. Our sense of God’s presence takes us beyond self-interest to world loyalty and responsiveness to the many varieties of human need.
Rev. Bruce Epperly, Ph.D., serves as Senior Pastor at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, Massachusetts. Prior to moving to Cape Cod, he served on the faculties and of Georgetown University, Claremont School of Theology, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He also served for nearly twenty years as Protestant University Chaplain at Georgetown University and for seven years as Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. Bruce is currently a professor of spirituality, ministry, and theology in the doctoral program at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington D.C. He is the author of fifty books in the areas of process theology, spirituality, ministerial excellence and spiritual formation, scripture, and healing and wholeness, including The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World; Tending to the Holy: Practicing the Presence of God in Ministry; Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; and Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims.