How can we know
By Rev. Jeff Lackie On May 26 2019
An open bible sparks conversation. Don’t for a minute let yourselves believe that random strangers aren’t paying attention - especially when you sit down to the free hotel breakfast having slept in on a Saturday morning. To be fair, he was not a random stranger. We had spoken in the elevator (briefly) - he asking if I was ‘ready for the day’ (did I really look that ragged?) I moaned about the death of my phone (How on earth did I sleep until 8:00 o’clock! Turns out the alarm doesn’t ring if your battery is dead...)
So when I set to work after my hastily made egg sandwich, he stopped by again, nodded at my open bible, and quoted Phillip from Acts ch 8:30 (upon hearing the Ethiopian reading Isaiah - “Do you understand what you are reading?”)
Our conversation revealed that we were both students of the word - each after our own fashion. My bible was open on the counter between us, and he pointed to the last sentences of the text. ‘Anyone who adds even a single word…’, and I smiled - because I thought I knew what he meant. Here comes my lesson in scriptural integrity, or so I thought... I thought I was going to get a gentle lecture on how we’ve left the bible behind with our ‘spiritual but not religious’ approach to everything. But instead, he tapped his chest and said “it’s about faith; heart, not head. That’s what we’ve forgotten...”
I was humbled, because he reminded me of the very essential nature of faith in the process of writing and encountering our holy texts.
I also consider myself warned by the voice that sometimes sounds like God in my head about the danger of jumping to conclusions.
I don’t always enjoy these encounters. More often than not, people want to tell you what’s wrong with the church, or what’s wrong with your particular approach to faith. I’m usually cautious about expressing myself fully - but ultimately he asked what I was studying, and I admitted that I was preparing a sermon ‘on John’s gospel and the tail end of Revelation’. My answer surprised him. Frankly, it surprised me too.
Revelation is a bear trap full of land mines. It’s not something that we hear much about on Sunday mornings. For my part, I’m conscious of a long line of public preaching that uses Revelation as a weapon to drive people to faith by fear. We don’t do well with the book - it stands in the tradition of ‘end-of-the-world’ literature; Daniel; Jeremiah; Isaiah; Ezekiel...books that occasionally seem fantastic and otherworldly to the modern mind and ears. We want to explain the inexplicable - we want straight lines drawn through the tangled imagery and archaic language of these ancient, holy texts - and they just aren’t written with that kind of clarity in mind. These are statements of faith; declarations of hope; expressions of delight by those who trust God in spite of (because of?) Personal circumstances that we simply can’t imagine here in the ‘civilized’, ‘christianized’, 21st century.
So what was I thinking? How do I imagine I might make sense (in under 15 minutes on a Sunday morning) of the connection between first century faith and 21st century skepticism? Was I just showing off - safe in the knowledge that I’m not likely to see this person again? Or was this ‘chance encounter’ exactly what Jesus was talking about...Is this ‘how we know’...?
As an expression of faith, Revelation takes some time to get going - full of warnings and all that end of the world stuff that doesn’t sound faithful. But the author was “in the Spirit, on the Lord’s day” when these visions were given to him. A mysterious condition that brought him into the very presence of something HOLY. Mysterious - because we don’t (or can’t) agree on what it means, or how to explain it - but not unexpected…Jesus prepares his disciples for such an event in John’s gospel. “I will not leave you orphaned;” he famously says (John 14:18) - he is preparing them for his death - reminding them that the work of God will continue - and offering them a ‘helper’.
This advocate - this Spirit - will refresh their memories and enable their witness. Jesus will assure his followers of his presence (reveal himself) by means of this Spirit. In the midst of all this talk of love (John 14: 21ff), one disciple (the other Judas) asks the question that continues to plague us. “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?”
How will we know? How can we be sure? How, in the midst of our hunches, our intuition, our wild ideas can we determine what is the voice, the presence, the comfort of God? Jesus says - “The Advocate - the Holy Spirit whom the father will send in my name will teach you everything.”
And love will be one of the signs of the Spirit. Peace will be another. Shared joy in the world, a certain confidence in the discussion of holy things, a sense that this conversation might well be worth having - that this encounter is essential.
As the Easter season comes to a close, we will remember the moment that Jesus was ‘returned to the right hand of the Father.’ Ascension Sunday (next week) brings a period of waiting - the anticipation of the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s presence is essential to the Christian story, for the confidence - the boldness in speech and deed of the first disciples - can hardly be explained by anything but the presence of God’s spirit.
Such boldness is not foreign to us. How do we know? We have all had those moments - brief encounters that suggest the presence of something holy; conversations that took us to a place of grace and fresh understanding. The Spirit is among us. The promise is being kept.