First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Kent H. Little
Date: August 18, 2019
Scripture: Rumi, Acts 9:1-9
Sermon: “Seeing in the Dark”
Absorbed in this world you have made it your burden. Rise above this world. There is another vision.
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so, they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
I have to begin this message on Paul as Mystic with a confession. I have long struggled with Paul and the image we see of him in his writings in our scriptures. Much of what I had read and studied in my early adulthood seemed to point to a very legalistic, judgmental, rather cranky follower of Jesus. I have more than once envisioned Paul preaching in church, wandering down the center aisle pointing fingers, not just in general but specifically at those he did not feel measured up.
I did not say a lot about this image of Paul I had in my mind as I journeyed into the ministry, especially with many of my colleagues who seemed to see a whole different picture of the man. I remember I was at a clergy retreat and in a casual setting somehow the topic of Paul came up, I was standing next to a longtime friend and was rather taken aback when my friend looked at me and said, “Paul was a jerk.” I remember looking at him and saying, “Really? Me too!” I will say I am not at that point any longer, I believe there is much in Paul’s writings to guide us.
Some of which now I understand was not written by Paul but added later by others, or whole letters that had been attributed to him written by students of his written in his name. That is important information to remember as one studies the writings of Paul we have in the scriptures.
Another of my favorite stories of studying the writings of Paul was a conversation with my good friend Robert, with whom I went to seminary. He was taking a class, if I remember right it was 1 Corinthians. He and I used to meet early in the morning in the dining hall for a cup of coffee before we went to our first class. I was sitting at a table when Robert came walking in, retrieved a cup of coffee and joined me. And he said, in his dry serious sense of humor, “Kent, I was sitting at the kitchen table this morning finishing my breakfast and reading some of my lesson for today. And in walked Paul and sat down and he spoke to me.” I chuckled and said, “Oh really? And what did he say?” Robert replied, “Paul looked at me and said, ‘Robert, it was just a letter. It was just a letter to a church.’” I like what Marcus Borg has said as I have studied his work on Paul, “We are reading someone else’s mail.”
All of this leading up to our discussion this morning as Paul as Mystic. As I read Paul’s writings, I continue to find myself encountering the Pharisee Paul with his strict and stark teachings and I continue to encounter Paul the grace-filled follower of Jesus whose words take me to a place of love and welcome. I believe they are both in there.
Marcus Borg in his book, Reading the Bible again for the First Time defines a mystic as “…a particular kind of religious personality. Mystics do not simply believe in God; they know God. The defining core of mysticism is thus experiential; mystics have direct, vivid, and typically frequent experiences of the sacred.”
I would perhaps liken it to an experience of seeing in the dark. Not unlike Paul’s experience of being blinded in his Damascus Road experience…then later recovering his eyesight. There is something of that mystery of God we encounter in our own journey, often times in the darkest of experiences.
In the text from Acts we read this morning, Paul has a vision – Borg writes, “a vivid subjective sense of momentarily seeing and hearing another reality. Borg writes, “We do not know how frequently Paul had such experiences. The Damascus Road was certainly one. He also speaks of another in Second Corinthians. Paul relates these visions and encounters with the Divine to not only his Jewish faith but to the person and connection with the Risen Christ, whom he first encounters in his vision on the Damascus Road. In that sense, Borg says, “Paul was not just a Jewish mystic, but a Jewish Christian mystic. …his mystical experience was the source of everything he became as a follower of Jesus.”
Richard Rohr speaks to this visioning and expanding belief in his discussions of Paul as well. He writes, “Paul learned the core of his spirituality from his Jewish tradition and was trying to teach it to what would become another religion called Christianity – which neither Jesus nor Paul foresaw or intended. Most people were not ready for Paul’s nondual way of thinking, and most Christians and Jews have interpreted his thinking in an entirely dualistic way, and even in antagonism to his own beloved Judaism.”
Christians continue to do that today, citing a dualistic, right/wrong belief structure they find in the teachings of Paul, focusing on the legalistic Pharisaic laws that are actually softened by Paul’s in a universal-ness of existence and belief. Rohr points out that too many Christians utilize Paul’s strong metaphors to blame, hate, and separate until ‘my truth’ becomes ‘the truth.”
We see this all the time in our world today, in our country today, in our churches today when we focus on who should be turned away rather than why we should welcome them in. Countries denying entry to some based on partisan ideology rather than our common humanity, profiling persons based on the color of their skin rather than the rule of law. Shaming persons because of the way they look rather than embracing them as sibling. Excluding persons from full participation in the church rather than embracing every child of God.
Too many in the church use Paul’s writings to condemn and control when a deeper study of his work indicates his theology is the exact opposite! The “Mystery of the Crucifixion” Paul speaks of is about who is welcome not about who we can turn away. The mystic experiences of Paul are always an expanding vision of what is possible with the Divine. I would venture to say, this is true with all the mystics I have read and the ones I believe I have encountered. A mystical experience of the Divine Presence expands our understanding of the inclusive love of God…not a limiting of it. This understanding of a narrowing exclusive vision of God is far from the depths of Paul’s belief in and ever-expanding truth of the love of God. “I will show you a more excellent way” he says in Corinthians…the way of love.
James McGrath speaks to the expansive vision of God, “For the whole thrust of Paul’s writings has as its central pillar the conviction that God can enlarge God’s people and be still more inclusive than God had been in the past, even if it means setting aside commands previously given to God’s people.”
This understanding of Paul’s theology and vision is grounded in his writings as James Dunn points out in his book, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, “Paul’s counsel was that ‘each should be fully convinced in their own mind.” Clearly implying the right before God to decide what is appropriate conduct for oneself, even in regard to some cherished but controverted traditions governing social behavior. Paul also clearly accepted the inevitable corollary: that differing praxis would be the result. His point precisely is that two believers could have contrasting or even opposing convictions regarding appropriate conduct, and ‘both’ be acceptable to God. It was not necessary for the one to be wrong for the other to be right.”
Paul’s mystic encounter with the Divine left him with an expanded view and vision of God and God’s purposes. I believe we have lost that in our churches today. It is not Christianity that is no longer relevant or transformative in the world around us, it is that too much of the church has lost its vision of the ever-expanding inclusive nature of God. Too much of the church crammed God into its own little box of narrowness and legalism, of dualism, and right belief rather than an inclusive right relationship, an ever-expanding presence of the Divine encompassing all that is… all who exist, who carry that spark, that light of the creator.
This is who we are called to be as a church, to reclaim the inclusive nature of who we are as the church… not throw it out or walk away… as Followers of the Way of Jesus, as human beings; lovers of the world. It is who we are called to be as the community of faith…the church… lovers of all of it, the whole of existence, in compassion and grace. May it be so. May it be soon.