Seeing the Light
Are you a person who has had a religious experience? Have you, perhaps, seen an angel, heard the voice of God or Christ, woken in the night certain that the Holy Spirit was hovering, lovingly, next to your bed? Have you had some kind of experience that, it is clear to you, was a holy sign? Was it something you saw, or that was said to you? Was it a near-death experience? Was it the timing of the birth or death of someone else? Was it something you read at exactly the time that you needed to read it? Is there a single moment that you can pinpoint in which you came to faith? Was it an “aha” moment, or a light bulb in your heart that suddenly turned on, or a time in prayer when your spirit was transformed and set on fire?
The disciples Peter, James and John have an amazing religious experience: Jesus leads them up a mountain and BAM! He starts to glow in front of them! And if that’s not enough, Elijah and Moses suddenly appear and start talking with Jesus! The disciples are bowled over and try to offer a “normal,” “common sensical” response to something paranormal and non-sensical. They say, “It’s great that we happen to be here to see this because we can quickly nail together a booth for each of—to show you honor and protect you from the elements.” Really, guys? (In all honesty, I can’t fault them—when bizarre things happen of any kind I respond by trying to make it normal and ok.)
And, as if all of this isn’t enough, a cloud comes around them and from it a voice says “This is my chosen one, listen to him!” What greater proof does any human need that Jesus is the Messiah? God declares it directly! Jesus had just predicted to them that he would be tortured and executed, and then God Almighty reassures them by saying, “Yes, he is my beloved son, despite all that will happen to him.” What greater, more reassuring religious experience could there be?
Paul had a rather amazing one himself. He was Saul, travelling on the road to Damascus with some colleagues, intent on delivering threats and murder to any Jews there whom he found to be followers of the Way, as the first Christians called themselves. Out of the blue, he was blinded by a massive light, and from that light Christ himself proclaimed his own Lordship and beseeched Paul to stop his persecutions. Paul changed his life that day; he lived every following moment out of his belief in Christ who had spoken to him. He clung to that faith even as he was killed for it, scholars believe, in a Roman prison. I’m not sure (if I’m to be honest with myself and with you) if I would literally die for my faith. I make an excuse for myself regarding that by saying, “Of course, if Christ spoke to me out of a blinding light I would have the faith to die for my Lord as did Paul.” Well!
I have not had such a dramatic religious experience in my life—I haven’t had any kind of holy revelation. I attended church my whole life and I do so today. I’ve had no “aha” moment, no miracle, no direct communication from God or Christ. I’ve had the long, constant growth and waverings of faith of a very regular person. I have no dramatic story to tell, and that’s fine by me, although it may influence what I am going to say next:
Which is that an emphasis on dramatic faith experiences can sometimes be destructive to Christian communities and to individual seekers. It can leave those who have no such personal theophany to share feeling like they have a lesser faith, or are less favored by the members of the Trinity, since they haven’t chosen to personally reveal either themselves or some other miracle. Sometimes individuals feel the need to create such a mystical experience in order to earn the respect of others, or to inflate a personal spiritual experience so that it has much more significance than it truly did to them. A hierarchy of religious experiences can be used to say that the religious opinions of some should have more authority, more weight, than those of others. “Strong Christians” aren’t necessarily those people who have experienced a divine personal revelation. Rather, we should think of them as lucky Christians!
The Apostle Paul, who had experienced such a powerful direct address by Jesus Christ, never used that experience to build his own religious authority. In fact, the memory of that experience over the rest of his life was his constant source of humility. On the Damascus Road, he learned not that he was special but that he was wrong—murderously wrong. If he were ever tempted to become boastful about his faith, his immense intellect, or anything, he remembered an experience so powerfully humbling that it left him blind for days and led around by the hand like a toddler.
Christ himself, in my reading of scripture, also did not advocate miraculous experiences as the basis of faith. Next Sunday is the first in the season of Lent, a day when the Church reflects on Christ’s temptation by Satan in the wilderness. Several of the Gospels detail three specific temptations; one is for Christ to throw himself down from the top of the Jerusalem temple so that angels may catch him in mid-air. Why is this tempting? Because then everyone would see the miracle, all doubts about his Messiahship would be over, there would be no cross, just Christ as the object of worship for all. Christ says no to Satan’s temptation—he will not be Lord of all on the devil’s terms, and he does not want people to believe in him simply because their eyes saw a miracle but because their hearts, minds and spirits converted to the Gospel—turned from the ways of the god of this world to those of the one true God above.
Paul writes to the Corinthians that, to some, “our gospel is veiled… In their case, the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of… Christ.” Among the first churches that Paul was growing there was also disagreement about the role of personal, dramatic religious experiences. Some people had had them, but many had not. To Paul, and what he wanted the Corinthians to know, is that all who believed in Christ had “seen the light”—“the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” The real challenge was those many people to whom the gospel was “veiled”—people who simply couldn’t see the light because “the god of this world” was blinding their minds. Paul, who had been blinded by the light on the Damascus Road, laments for those now blinded by belief in another kind of God. Who is this “god of this world” who is Paul’s sworn adversary—and ours? It is no namable individual demon, I think, but our own human propensity for violence, cruelty, and discrimination, coming from our greed for money, power, and resources for ourselves. The only alternative to this, the only thing with the power to overcome the god of this world, is “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” It is the true God who shines in our hearts who gives us the ability to overcome the attraction to violence and greed that is within us. Our gospel is veiled to so many, and the blessed assignment of our lives is to “let light shine out of darkness.”
Paul was truly blinded by the light of Christ; the disciples were dazzled by the brightness of Christ as he was transfigured before them. We do our best to live out the light of Christ that is within us, testifying to that light with the whole of our lives, whether or not those around us have the benefit of such a theophany in their own lives. They may only have us, as Paul says: “slaves for Jesus’ sake.” We are deeply flawed messengers, but that doesn’t matter. When so many are truly perishing, our task is to manifest the light that is within us. We can’t produce blinding miracles, and we don’t need to. We can engender and share the faith that is deepest—founded on the quiet, unshakable presence of God and Christ in our lives, they who so simply love us, lead us, and accompany us our whole lives through, and even until we see the light of their eternity.