A New Vision: Divine Encounter Through Christ

 

Acts 9:1-20; 1 Kgs. 19:7-18

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Because we know them so well, we take these stories for granted. The Book of Acts was written by a Christian for other Christians. They already knew the role that Saul would play as the story unfolded. And many of us have been hearing his story since childhood, ourselves. Imagine, however, that you have never heard anything about Saul before. The story of his conversion — the story of his complete and utter 180-degree turn from being the Church’s arch-persecutor to being its greatest evangelist and theologian — is mind-boggling.

Part of the reason for this is the complete reversal we see. Here’s a guy who stood and looked on with approval as Stephen, a beloved Deacon of the early Jesus movement, was stoned to death (Acts 7). He became the Pharisee’s bulldog, chasing down Jesus followers wherever they could be found and was bringing them to Jerusalem, bound in chains and apparently facing trial for blasphemy. This guy would become history’s most influential theologian and apologist!

And that’s another reason it blows our minds. It’s not just about the conversion of one person from non-believer to believer, but about God’s specific life-long call in that person’s life: Saul would become not just a follower of Jesus’ “Way,” but an evangelist and Apostle — one of the most respected people in the entire Jesus movement!

Many likewise know our other story. The prophet Elijah, one of the more famous, prominent, and powerful prophets depicted in Old Testament literature, was a besieged man. Because it is most often the job of any prophet to speak truth to power (which, in the ancient Israelite context meant speaking truth to the king), Elijah was a man who spent considerable time on the run, because the king and queen to whom he spoke truth — Ahab and Jezebel, the king and queen of the Northern Kingdom, respectively — wanted him dead. You see, Jezebel was not an Israelite. She was a Phoenician who had convinced Ahab to abandon the worship of the one true God and to worship instead Ba’al and Asherah, the god and goddess of her people. Elijah had humiliated and then destroyed the prophets of her gods, as you may recall from a sermon I preached back in the spring, and then he fled into the wilderness to escape her wrath.

It’s actually a rather sad and heart-wrenching account. Perhaps you, like me, have dealt with the mental illness of clinical depression, requiring medication and counseling. There is no story in all of scripture that paints a better picture of both the inner turmoil and the outward signs of depression. The book of First Kings says, “Elijah was terrified. He got up and ran for his life. He arrived at Beer-sheba in Judah and left his assistant there. He himself went farther on into the desert a day’s journey. He finally sat down under a solitary broom tree. He longed for his own death: ‘It’s more than enough, Lord! Take my life because I’m no better than my ancestors.’ He lay down and slept under the solitary broom tree.” An angel came, urging him to eat and drink, which he did… and then he lay down and went right back to sleep. When even the surprising ministrations of an angel of God aren’t enough to rouse a meaningful response from you, you are depressed, indeed. (Incidentally, this story from scripture is from whence comes the title of this blog. Like I said, I can relate all too well to this particular scene, and draw hope a) from the fact that I am in good company, and b) from having faith that God will attend to me similarly.)

Elijah is guided into the wilderness, where he wends his way to Mount Horeb, also known as Sinai. There, he experiences a life-altering divine encounter. It’s striking, though, how dissimilar his encounter is to Saul’s. Saul, who is gallivanting about the middle east, manically hunting own disciples of Jesus, is struck blind by a flash of light in the middle of a road and encounters Jesus. Elijah hides on God’s holy mountain, unmoved to seek God in the storm, in the earthquake, or in the wildfire; his curiosity only to be roused by the “sound of sheer silence” that followed.

My congregation’s new vision statement includes the phrase “The New Wilmington Presbyterian Church seeks… divine encounter through Christ.” Our vision is based on the report of the earliest community of Jesus followers who, according to the Book of Acts, “devoted themselves to… the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

“The breaking of bread” is a phrase with special meaning. It really describes two things happening simultaneously. The community shared meals together regularly, and the fellowship of the community was increased and deepened by these shared meals, sometimes called Agape meals or “love meals.” During this agape meal, the breaking of bread would take on special significance, as the community remembered Jesus breaking bread, pouring wine, and commanding the apostles to do the same “in remembrance of me.” These agape meals, then, served both as pot-luck fellowship events and worshipful celebrations of Holy Communion.

This makes all the sense in the world. Believing that it is Jesus who has set the table, who has prepared the feast and bid us come, his followers broke bread, poured wine, and celebrated not only the One who had called them to the table, but also the oneness they experienced together as a result. This is precisely what Jesus prescribed in his final discourse in the Gospel of John (John 13-17). Because of the “oneness” that we experience at the Lord’s table, Holy Communion serves as the Church’s most powerful act of reconciliation — between us and God, and between us as members of a community.

But it is also, by its very nature, the Church’s most powerful act of divine encounter. We come to the table because the Lord has beckoned us to it, serving as our gracious host, and there we meet him. Presbyterians have, for centuries, held that “the maintenance of divine worship” is one of the Church’s “great ends,” the most fundamental reasons for its existence.

But you’ll notice that my congregation’s vision statement doesn’t say “divine worship,” it says “divine encounter.” The word choice was very deliberate. It was the fear of the Elders that if we chose the word “worship,” people would think first (and perhaps only) of the hour we spend together during our Sunday morning services for the Lord’s Day. But as we have likely experienced in our own lives, and as scripture shows us in stories like those we’ve read this morning, encountering the divine does not happen only in the context of worship, but can also take place in surprising circumstances. Saul encountered the divine in the person of Jesus, whose followers he was overtly and violently persecuting while traveling down the road. Elijah encountered the divine through a renewed call to ministry in the throes of crushing personal anguish.

Yet, as revealing as these Biblical illustrations are of some of the many ways people encounter God in scripture, perhaps we should recall the reading from my last post from the book of Genesis, where Jacob, upon being reconciled to his estranged brother Esau, exclaimed, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God” (Gen. 33:10). This declaration was striking for providing a theological reason for reconciliation. But it also resonates this week; for just as the breaking of bread is both fellowship and Holy Communion, so seeing the face of God in our neighbors is both reconciliation and divine encounter.

When seeing others is like seeing the face of God, we are open to encountering the divine in all circumstances. Diana Butler Bass, a sociologist and theologian, writes in her book Grounded, about the sociological trend toward improving neighborhoods. Churches are hosting farmers’ markets, for instance, not just because buying locally is good economics and good ecology, but because it fosters neighborhood — fellowship. This is particularly true for younger workers (that is, for the Millenials that everyone seems to love to hate).

[T]he authors of [a] study [she cites] argue that a “new economics of place” has emerged in American life that emphasizes the tie between a “stronger economy and stronger communities” with “quality neighborhoods” driving toward a more optimistic future. Sharing goods, living together, feeding one another, creating an alternate economy — it brings to mind a story in the New Testament where a group of strangers, having experienced a dramatic manifestation of God’s Spirit, formed a new community of generosity, hospitality, and mutual care (Acts 2:43-47; 4:32-35).[1]

That “story” from the New Testament? It’s the very story, from Acts, chapter two, upon which my church’s new vision statement is based. Bass goes on to note that some historians claim that the car killed American neighborhoods. Faster means of travel meant two things: we were able to spend more time farther from our homes, and we were able to speed past our neighbors without meaningfully communicating with them. It’s when “we practice neighborly relations as the locus of divine love” — when we encounter God in one another — then we begin to realize that “love of God and love of neighbor are of a piece.”[2] It’s no wonder Jesus cites them as the two greatest commandments, and the basis for all that scripture teaches.

It may be that we don’t know how to articulate this truth, because we don’t have the theological vocabulary for it, but many of us feel it as an experience it nonetheless. There are a number of people in my congregation — most of them Millennials in their twenties, who are personally invested in helping to plan and implement community events that take place through the spring and summer months; and a great many more of us who participate with gratitude. From dinners that stretch down the center line of the main street to the “Fresh Market” that takes place each Thursday afternoon, these events offer opportunities to encounter one another, care for one another, serve one another, and love one another. That is why I remain convinced that those same young women and men have a great deal to teach our congregation about how fellowship and divine encounter are inextricably linked.

Encounters with God, whether in the sanctuary or the recital hall, the farmers’ market or the football stands, occur through Christ and because of Christ. Jesus prayed for his disciples, saying, “I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me” (John 17:21). We encounter God through Jesus, because it was through Jesus that God made God’s will most fully known to us, and because it was through Jesus that God reconciled us to himself.

To quote Diana Bass one last time,

“Spirituality is about personal experience — the deep realization that dirt is good, water is holy, the sky holds wonder; that we are part of a great web of life, our home is in God, and our moral life is entwined with that of our neighbor. But none of this is for the sake of feeling good, individual prosperity, or guaranteeing a blessed afterlife. It is about tracing the threads of the interconnected universe, about finding God in nature and in community — and, in finding God, discovering that we really are one.”[3]

 

 

[1] Diana Butler Bass, Grounded: Finding God in the World: A Spiritual Revolution (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015), 227, in which she cites American Planning Association, Investing in Place: Two Generations’ View on the Future of Communities, May 2014, https://www.planning.org/policy/polls/investing/.

[2] Bass, Grounded, 229.

[3] Bass, 238.

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