A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 14, 2013 (Easter 3, Year C)
I had a very dramatic experience on Tuesday night. In a lot of ways it was similar to Paul’s conversion experience along the Road to Damascus — the account of which we just heard from the Acts of the Apostles. In the same way there were flashes of blinding light and voices coming from above and people being thrown to the ground and many left mesmerized by a profound encounter with something larger than life. A profound religious experience? It was pro wrestling at the Garden.
I used to wonder what kind of people would pay good money to cheer on gargantuan men doing battle in a ring where the outcome was predetermined. And suddenly I was one of them. Actually it was Zack’s birthday present this year — he’s been dying to go — so I took the boys to see the traveling circus that is WWE Smack Down. I’m pretty sure I was the only Episcopal priest in the entire arena. And, not to stereotype, but I’m pretty sure I was also one of the thinnest people in the entire arena. But at least we got our money’s worth as the show went on for over 3 1/2 hours. That is a lot of musclebound men with strange names and skimpy outfits.
Now that I’ve compared Paul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus to pro wrestling, I should probably just end this sermon and sit down. Or maybe retire. But first I want to talk a bit about dramatic encounters with the holy in our own lives.
I’ve never had a dramatic conversion experience. They happen, of course. God has the power to yank people out of apathy and into new relationship, just as he did with the man formerly known as Saul. But for me, someone who was baptized as an infant and grew up in the church, there was no Road to Damascus, no dramatic conversion. Jesus just was. And I’d imagine many of you have had a similar experience of faith. As with any relationship there have been ups and downs over the years and there have been been moments when I feel God’s presence in acute, tangible ways. But, still, Jesus has always been there from as far back as I can remember. I didn’t meet him for the first time as I was driving down the New Jersey Turnpike on a stormy night or tiptoeing through the tulips in Holland (which I’ve never actually done).
But this doesn’t mean our encounters with the risen Christ are any less dramatic. It might not involve a flash of blinding light or a lighting bolt, but I’d argue that even the quietest encounter with God is dramatic. A gentle tug at the heart, a warm breeze, a fleeting memory of a deceased loved one, an infant’s tiny hand wrapped around your pinky. These are all dramatic moments because in them we meet God. We meet the God who is in all things at all times and any sudden awareness of God’s presence is a dramatic reminder of God’s love for each one of us.
Indeed it is often in the mundane that we encounter the miraculous. Look at this post-resurrection appearance that Jesus makes in today’s gospel passage from John. This was the third time he had appeared to the disciples after that first Easter Day and after a brief fishing expedition, which nicely bookends the call stories when Jesus first saw them and told them to drop their nets and follow him, he invites them to breakfast. The disciples recognize Jesus in the utterly mundane act of eating some broiled fish on the beach.
In fact, so many of the most dramatic moments of divine encounter in Scripture happen over meals — Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, the Last Supper, the Road to Emmaus — another post-resurrection appearance where Jesus is made known to the disciples in the precise moment that bread is broken.
As we think about God’s presence in our lives, I think this story of Saul who becomes Paul also begs the question, what is your first memory of God? If you grew up in the church you may have a particular memory from Sunday School or a story your grandmother told you in the living room of your childhood home. Or if you met God later on in your life you might remember a particular conversation or moment of intense awareness. The first image of God I remember came out of a children’s Bible we had at home. On the inside cover there was a picture of a large multi-colored star. I’m not sure if I decided on my own that that was God or if I pestered my parents enough that they finally just pointed at it and said “There. That’s what God looks like.” But that image has always stuck with me as something mysterious and mystical and many-splendored — not a bad way to think about God.
Paul didn’t have this. He was literally knocked to the ground by the sudden presence of Jesus, someone whose followers he had spent a lot of time and energy persecuting. And let’s face it, on the surface of things, Saul was not a likely candidate for conversion. You’d think Jesus might have chosen someone who was at least apathetic to this new movement rather than someone who was actively hostile to his disciples. At the start of this passage we hear that Saul was all fired up for another full day of persecution — we’re told he was “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” as he set out for Damascus.
But who knows? Perhaps it wasn’t as out of the blue as it seems. Maybe Jesus had been working on him for awhile. That the more Jesus drew near, the more Paul resisted. That Paul was battling with all his heart not to listen to Jesus’ call. After all, by giving in to Jesus he would be repudiating his life’s work and faith. Everyone in his circle of friends and colleagues would disown him on the spot; everything familiar would be flipped upside down. You could understand a fierce denial of Jesus’ invitation to serve him. But at a certain point, like a bottle of champagne that’s shaken up until the pressure builds to such a degree that the cork pops, maybe Paul could no longer contain his resistance to Jesus and it all came pouring out along this Road to Damascus.
Sometimes we resist; sometimes we acquiesce. Isn’t that the way it goes with Jesus? Just when we’re not looking for him, he finds us. And when he does we enter into dramatic encounter with our risen Lord; briefly blending heaven and earth and offering us a glimpse of resurrection glory.
I’m not sure how all of this relates to pro wrestling — maybe I should have saved this analogy for the next time we hear that story of Jacob wrestling an angel in Genesis. But if you saw the sense of enraptured joy on the faces of some of the kids at the Garden on Tuesday night you might say that God was present even in the midst of a wrestling Smack Down.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013