The Adventurous Lectionary – The Third Sunday of Easter – May 5, 2019
Acts 9:1-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
Some weeks, the readings are chockfull of sermon possibilities, and the Third Sunday of Easter is a mother lode of riches for the adventurous preacher. The readings all have a mystical air, but they express the mystic vision in a variety of ways. We can encounter the Living God through revelation and transformation, angelic praise, and ethics and spirituality. We are all mystics, if we open to the Holy, and claim our unique avenue to the Divine. (For more on mysticism, see Epperly, “The Mystic in You: Finding a God-filled World” and “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims.”
If you are able, read the totality of the lectionary recommendation for Acts of the Apostles, all twenty verses. Yes, Paul’s encounter with the bright light of Christ is important and changed the course of history, giving birth to a global faith. But Paul’s encounter is transformational as well as mystical. Paul encounters the Risen Jesus and becomes a new creation. He gets his spiritual-ethical-theological marching orders even though after the experience, he can’t yet see one step ahead of him. The one who sought to persecute the Christian movement now becomes the most ardent proclaimer to God’s people of all races and ethnicities. He receives both a revelation and a vocation, evangelist to the Gentiles. Mystical experiences, in the Christian tradition, are seldom about the individual self’s isolated spiritual journey, but invite us from personal growth to global transformation. Authentic Christian spirituality is about us and not me, about world-loyalty and the production of beauty and justice (Whitehead) and not personal gain.
In the spirit of William Blake, Saul’s/Paul’s “doors of perception” cleansed and open wide and his spirit becomes Christ-like in stature. Paul’s experience is also post-modern in spirit and may address the journeys of today’s millennial and baby boomer seekers. Paul’s faith is initially and ultimately experiential and not doctrinal. Despite the attempt to make Paul the pillar of orthodox theology, his theology is always based on his experience of the living Jesus and the faith of the Gentiles. If the Spirit descends, then you are a follower of Jesus, first class, even if you are an outsider or have no words to describe your experience.
There is another transformational encounter in this passage, that of Ananias, who also has a vision that is also is mystical and vocational in character. Synchronously, Ananias also experiences God and is called to welcome Paul and help him make the transition from darkness to light, physically and spiritually. God can inspire many people at the same time. Is it possible that a congregation might hear the inspiration of God, addressed to several members each in her or his mode of experience and understanding. God is generous with inspiration, shining God’s light on all humankind. (For more on Acts of the Apostles, see Epperly, “Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles in the 21st Century”)
The author of Revelation is also transformed by a mystical encounter with the divine. He is ushered into God’s presence, experiencing, first, angelic praises and, then, hearing the cries of creation. In the spirit of Psalm 150:6, all creation praises God. Every creature is transparent to the divine. No one is left out in God’s quest for universal healing. The adventurous preacher might address the issue of angels. While pastors may not recognize it, their congregants find mystical experiences, near death experiences, healing encounters, and angels of more than passing interest.
Pastors need to address their congregants A well-attended study on the afterlife and near death experiences eventuated in the recent publication of a short book on death, grief, near death experiences, and the afterlife. (Epperly, “From Here to Eternity: Preparing for the Next Adventure”). Another study at my church led to a text on angels and the spirit world. (Epperly, “Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles: A Progressive Vision.”) Pastors should never underestimate the power of adult faith formation to transform a congregation. Even progressive congregations harbor congregants who have traveled “into the mystic,” as singer-songwriter Van Morrison avers.
The Gospel passage, the Risen Christ appears to the disciples, makes them breakfast, and then dialogues with Peter on the nature of discipleship. A meal together with Jesus leads to feeding others. Loving Jesus leads to feeding God’s sheep, and here we are talking about both physical and spiritual hungers. Those who encounter Christ are called to reach out to the world sharing good news for body, mind, and spirit. Followers of Jesus are intended to be both heavenly minded and earthly good.
How does a preacher creatively synthesize these three striking passages? Perhaps, only one will speak to you, and that will suffice. We are not obligated to preach every lectionary passage for a Sunday, but if we read it, we need to say something about it. In my reading of these passages, clearly mysticism leads to mission, and encounters with Christ drive us from individualism to embracing the world in all its diversity. No one is immune from God’s inspiring grace, and everyone can be a vehicle of grace. “We are mystics” as Dorothee Solle asserts and our mysticism guides us to world-healing actions.
Christ is alive, not to be held onto, as Jesus says to his dear friend Mary of Magdala, but to be experienced everywhere. There is no limited election in these passages, no righteous saved or reprobate lost, as strict Calvinists assert, but a universal call to healing and wholeness, embracing all of humanity but going beyond that to address all creation. Let us cultivate the earthly-minded mystic in ourselves and among our congregants.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of 50 books including “Spiritual Declutteing: 40 Days to Personal Transformation and Planetary Healing,” “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God,” and “Process and Pastoral Care.”