Being Changed by Encountering the Divine - Lucy Reid | Feb 12, 2019 |
We’ve heard over the last four weeks the gospel readings about Jesus’ baptism, where he was revealed as God’s beloved son; Jesus changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana; Jesus announcing his mission as bringing good news to the poor; and Jesus encountering opposition and resistance to his mission.
What does this tell us about God? That God’s work is a work of justice and healing and liberation and transformation and celebration – but that human resistance and sin get in the way. Nevertheless, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can’t put it out.
Today’s readings bring this all together by asking us, Where do you experience God? How do you encounter Christ? And how does that change you? Because you can be sure that if it’s an authentic encounter with the Divine it will change you. In fact we could say that if it doesn’t change you, it’s not God.
Isaiah tells of an encounter with the holiness and glory of God that came to him in a vision in the temple. Perhaps he was a priest going about his temple duties when it occurred. We don’t know. What we do have is a record of this religious experience more than two and a half thousand years ago that is still vivid and moving, and words from Isaiah’s experience of God still form part of our liturgy: “Holy, holy, holy…”
This experience completely overwhelmed and humbled Isaiah. It filled him with a sense of his own unworthiness in the face of God’s holiness. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” There was a teaching in Judaism that if you saw God you would not live to tell of it. God’s reality is too much for a mortal to encounter directly. But in Isaiah’s vision he is purified and forgiven. He hears an angelic being say, “Your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” And then when he hears God ask, “Whom shall I send?” he answers right away, “Here am I; send me!”
So there are three parts to this experience of God: first a profound sense of sin and unworthiness; then an experience of being forgiven; finally an ability to respond to God’s call.
This sequence is mirrored in today’s gospel reading. Simon Peter has already encountered Jesus, and seen him heal his mother-in-law. Now Jesus is at the Sea of Galilee (or Gennesaret, as Luke calls it) surrounded by crowds, and he wants to borrow a boat so that he can use the sound amplification of water and teach from a little way out from the shore. He gets into Simon Peter’s boat and asks him to row out, and he speaks to the crowds for a while. Then he tells Simon Peter to go further out into deep water and let the nets down for a catch.
Out of respect for Jesus, which trumps his own weariness and failure to catch anything all night, Simon Peter obeys, and a huge catch is made. This is the miracle that makes Simon Peter realize who Jesus is: it’s a God experience for him. And he is instantly humbled, awed and penitent. “Go away from me, Lord, “ he says, “for I am a sinful man!”
He’s right in Isaiah’s footsteps: this encounter with God in Jesus has brought him to his knees with a full sense of his own unworthiness. But, like Isaiah, it doesn’t end there. It ends with a vocation as Jesus says to him, “From now on you won’t be catching fish, you’ll be catching people.” [The Greek verb means literally “saving alive” – which is rather different from fishing where you definitely don’t save the fish’s life.] Simon Peter drops everything, even leaves the huge catch of fish behind, and follows Jesus – for the rest of his life.
How have you experienced God? How have you encountered Jesus? And how has that changed you, or how is it changing you?
Let me share two examples from my own life – and those of you who’ve heard me preaching for the last 7+ years may recognize these:
In 2006 I went to El Salvador for the first time, and learned about its revolution and bitter civil war in the 1970s to 90s. Archbishop Oscar Romero (now a saint) was initially a conservative, politically inactive religious leader. But as he witnessed the suffering of the poor and the oppression and murder of their leaders and his priests by the military dictatorship he began to speak out more and more in his sermons, demanding justice and an end to the violence. He was eventually assassinated (as he knew he would be) by a gunman hired by the government to silence him. He was saying mass in a small chapel when he was shot and killed with a single bullet to the heart.
As I stood in that chapel, and saw on the wall behind the altar where he died the words in Spanish, saying “At this altar Monsignor Romero laid down his life for his people,” right beside a huge crucifix, I suddenly understood the crucifixion in a whole new light. It was shattering and heart-breaking. It was an encounter with Jesus in a way I had never met or understood him before. And from then on my work involved returning to Central America with groups of young people, and taking part in international solidarity work, as part of living the gospel. It changed me.
An even more personal experience I want to share with you happened in another small chapel, this time in Kapuskasing in 1988 where David and I were co-rectors of the church. I had had a miscarriage, and was grieving hard for this child that had died, while sitting in the chapel alone one evening. Again, there was a crucifix on the wall, a small one. And as I was looking at it and crying, suddenly it was as though I could see Jesus’ arms going from being outstretched on the cross to cradling my little unborn child against his heart. And I knew that it was alright: my child’s life wasn’t lost and wasted but held in God’s infinite, ever-present love. It was a profoundly healing vision that only lasted for a second, but has stayed with me ever since.
When we encounter God– whether in another person, in Jesus, in an event or moment in our lives – it doesn’t inflate, it humbles and heals. It doesn’t confirm us in our habits or comforts or securities, it changes us. It doesn’t leave us where we are, it calls us forward.
So my question to you is, How have you experienced God? How have you encountered Jesus?
Has it been in other people, or in the privacy of personal prayer, or in a life event?
More importantly, How is that encounter changing you? If you experience God as a peaceful presence down by the lake, is that making you a more peaceful person? If you have encountered Jesus as the compassionate one, are you becoming more compassionate?
The humbling news is that we are poor and small and foolish, despite our best efforts to hide it. The good news is that God’s grace is all we need, and God’s light is constantly shining into our broken world. May we turn towards it, and have the courage to be changed. Amen.