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CAUTION!  ENCOUNTERS WITH GOD CAN BE A MIND-ALTERING EXPERIENCE!

Readings for April 24, 2016:  Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6;  John 13:31-35

 I once knew a man [we’ll call him ‘Henry’] who had a near-death experience that changed his life.  He watched himself die from a place just overhead, and then began to be aware of another “presence” lifting him away into a bright light.  He began to be aware of many other “beings” as well, and there was a sense of overwhelming peace and joy such as Henry had never experienced in his entire life. [The truth was, Henry had been a bit of a rascal, and viewed life as a kind of smorgasbord of pleasures in which he, as a man of wealth, could indulge himself to his hearts content. 

But commitment and love were not very big in his repertoire.  People came and went in Henry’s life, as he used them up and spit them out.]  But here he was now, surrounded by such an utter sense of peace and love and energy that he had never known or even suspected.  And then he heard a voice which said, “Not yet, Henry; I have a mission for you.  And a list of people to get in touch with before you join us for good” And then he felt himself drawn back from the light and the beings of the light and into his body, and he awoke in great pain and distress, with the medical team working feverishly to bring him back to health and life.  From that moment on, Henry was a changed man, and even before he was released from the hospital he had begun the task of calling people on his list.  Some of them he knew; some who were long-distant acquaintances from past years whom he had lost touch with; and others he did not know at all.  He lived long enough to make contact with them all, sharing with them his mysterious experience, and the wondrous love that now filled him to overflowing.  Henry would tell you that he had had an encounter with God that completely altered his mind.

Mind-altering experiences seem to be what always happens when we humans have an encounter with the divine! The early Christian movement began with those who had been close to Jesus before his execution and resurrection. Their experiences after the execution of Jesus -- what we now call the Easter events -- had thrown them into confusion and dismay. An unbelievable joy mixed with their grief as everything they had previously assumed to be true was challenged by their Easter encounters. But as their faith and understanding grew, they became more confident and outspoken about the miracle and power of living in personal relationship with God. They felt empowered by a Holy Spirit energy rising from within themselves. Others began to notice and were attracted to their gatherings and wanted to join their fellowship.  At first, these newcomers were other Palestinian Jews, but gradually Jews of other cultures and backgrounds began to join them.  It was only a matter of time before devout God-seekers from the non-Jewish population would also hear their story and be drawn to learn more.  But how could that happen?  It was forbidden for a devout Jew to associate with Gentiles [that is, those who were not Jewish.]  So how could they even learn about Jesus and what he had taught his Jewish friends and followers?  And that’s where Peter gets caught up in a scandal!  News came back to the Jerusalem assembly that he had been fraternizing with Gentiles – people who neither practised Jewish dietary laws nor followed the rigorous holiness code that set Jews apart from the rest of society.  By doing so, Peter had made himself ritually unclean – no better than a publican [that is, those who compromised their “Jewishness” in order to get ahead in a non-Jewish world.]  Peter’s friends were now caught in the further dilemma of whether or not they could associate with Peter!  At stake was their whole identity as Jews, and their fear that if they followed Peter’s example they too would be considered “unclean” and cut off from Jewish friends and families and neighbours.  How could they fraternize with Gentiles, even believing ones, without compromising their own spiritual identity which was based upon religious laws that prohibited them from such associations?  Yet, how could they refuse to share love and community with those who had so clearly been touched by the same spirit of God as they had?  It was a dilemma that would plague the Christian community throughout its early years.  St. Paul was continually in conflict with those amongst the Christian community who thought that he compromised the faith by not demanding that those he brought into the Christian family also become adherents of Jewish religious practices.  The arguments about what the “conditions of membership” were to be rages on into our own time!  And even today we are challenged and stretched beyond our own “comfort levels” to acknowledge where God’s spirit is at work in places and among people where we didn’t think it could ever be! Yes, encounters with the Divine have always played havoc with people's assumptions about God!

 David Elkind, in his book, The Hurried Child, speaks about the crisis for parents caused by so much shifting of the ground underneath our feet. Although he is writing specifically about how these changing understandings are affecting parents, his observations can apply equally well to all of us who are looking for an "authority" or "rule" on which to base our life. Elkind writes: “The bewildering rapidity and profound extent of ongoing social change are the unique hallmarks of our era, setting us apart from every previous society. … [They are embodied by] three particular sources of stress for parents as adults that have flourished dramatically in recent  years. First, we are more afraid: the threat of violence, theft, and intimidation is now a permanent possibility in life in urban America….    We are more alone:  separation and divorce statistics have reached new highs; … there are more and more people today who live alone because they are unable to find a suitable partner.    We are more professionally insecure:  the threats of technological unemployment, inflation, recession, rising prices, and so on, are also prevalent.    People in stress, like those in ill health, are absorbed with themselves – the demands on them, their reactions and feelings, their [multitude of] anxieties …  [This creates] a dilemma in regard to raising children.  If it is to be done well, child-rearing requires, more than most activities of life, a good deal of decentering from one’s own needs and perspectives.  Such decentering is relatively easy when a society is stable and when there is an extended, supportive structure that the parent can depend on…. [In our society, parents] may expend so much effort coping with the daily stress of living that there is little strength or enthusiasm left over for parenting. “  --Elkind, David, The Hurried Child; Growing Up to Fast Too Soon, p.25ff.

It is our natural tendency as human beings, especially in this rapidly-changing world, to want something “solid and permanent” to hang onto.  One of the places we look to find that is in our religious institutions. The Bible is a rich treasure of people’s experiences with the divine and the "eternal truths" that have been offered to us from God.  But the Bible also recounts the struggle between people to turn Divine truth into something “solid and permanent” and God's insistence on introducing new truth and new understanding in an ever-progressing journey toward a divine vision that is beyond human imagination. (The Bible's label for such "written-in-stone" beliefs is "idolatry," -- replacing an ever-growing Divine-Human relationship with a once-and-for-all time "cook-book" of rules and regulations for life.) Our scripture witness keeps reminding us, through prophets and teachers, that “truth,” as we think we have received it from God, is ever-changing … And so it was, for example, that Peter was confronted by a vision of  “unclean things” that God says are NOT unclean ... [even though Peter (and we too!) had been taught that God had formerly said they WERE!?? Our Gospel reading for today is the great “new commandment” passage of Jesus which is always declared on Maundy Thursday [literally, “New Commandment” Thursday.]  It’s the command to love one  another, just as Christ has loved us.  This, and this alone, says Jesus, marks us as his disciples.  There are no other “conditions of membership.”  We are to “come as we are” and we are to invite others to come as they are!  And together, we celebrate our individual membership in the family of God, and our identity as sisters and brother of Christ. … Yes, and of each other!  It is not our job to pick and choose our brothers and sisters; Christ does that.  It is our job to love one another, and see in each person we meet the spirit and the face of Christ.  Believe what you can; follow whatever religious practices you find helpful, but be prepared to discard or expand it if it ever comes into conflict with your ability to love "even the least of these" who, whether you like it or not, are God's children just as surely as you are!

A family had gathered for Mother's Day. But they were caught in a dilemma: They had planned on taking a family portrait for a special Mother Day gift. But Andrew, who was in a same-sex relationship, would not agree to be in the picture unless his partner could be included [like everyone else’s.]  His brother was anxious that Mother not be uncomfortable showing off the family portrait to her friends, and so he absolutely rejected Andrew's claim.  They were stalemated!  Until Mother, unaware of the predicament, decided to get her own picture & did the arranging herself, [including Andrew’s partner,] oblivious to the issues the others were struggling with, thinking they were protecting Mother. How many times might we find ourselves vehemently "defending God," but actually creating barriers and divisions over issues that God could care less about?

From the Book of Revelation we get this all-inclusive affirmation of what an encounter with God enables us to see: “I looked and I saw a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.  They shouted with loud voices:  “Salvation belongs to our God!”

 May we all have our "minds-made-up" religiosity radically altered by regular "direct encounters" with the Divine!           

                                                                                                                                                                       -- John Anderson

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