I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.
But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’
Jesus appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. …
Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.
I Corinthians 15:5, 8
Three theophanies in three pieces of Scripture. Isaiah sees God in the temple. Peter recognises Jesus as a prophet and later declares him to be the messiah, the son of the living God. Paul experiences the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.
Each one sees themselves as sinful or unworthy to receive this blessing of grace. Each one goes on to proclaim as prophet, apostle or evangelist to word of God for the people of God. There is a pattern to these stories. What about us is there a similar pattern to our lives of faith?
We might say if we experienced something as powerful as these three experienced then maybe we would be out there preaching boldly.
Bishop Jeremy told the congregation on Friday night of a new Church of England study. At least 70% of those surveyed knew of people that they could possibly share their faith with. However, 90% said that there was no way they would talk about their faith. A big part of the reason was that many felt little or no confidence in their capacity to talk about their faith.
Bishop Jeremy wanted the folk at Sandgate to know that their new priest, the Rev Michael Donaldson, would not be the parish evangelist, the parish Missionary, the one who brings people to faith. He said Mike would walk amongst them and that together they would proclaim the faith and bring people to Christ.
The risk for preachers like Bishop Jeremy and myself is that if we are not careful we make people go away feeling terrible guilty. The good news is that we are not all meant to be Evangelists, any more than we are all meant to be Social Justice activists, or environmental activists, or to work alongside the likes of Mother Teresa in Calcutta. St Paul tells us some will be prophets, some teachers, some evangelists etc. Bp Jeremy wanted the folk at Sandgate to be the body of Christ and together to be about the work of mission.
He did go on to say to them that when preparing people for marriage he usually asked them to tell the stories of how they fell in love and what it was that drew them to each other. He said he told couples, that as the marriage passes through one of the inevitable rough patches remind yourselves of these stories. Then rejuvenate your marriage with the memory of how it began. He wasn’t telling us that for the sake of our marriages, but so that we might go back to the roots of our faith. By recalling our first love for God, or Jesus, that experience that crystallised our faith, then we are able to share our story. For many of us there have been a number of moments when our faith has changed shape or begun to blossom in a new way. Each of those moments become a part of the story we can tell.
When Bishop Jeremy asked us to think about that moment my mind went back to me as a ten-year-old boy. It wasn’t that I had experienced a powerful theophany like Isaiah, Peter or Paul. But I can remember standing in the pulpit in the empty church preaching my first sermon. It was basically God loves us and we are called to love one another. Even without an amazing experience my ten-year-old heart of hearts knew a God of love and the call to living a loving life and that this was Good News for all to hear. In a way, as Bishop Jeremy suggested, that primary experience of grace sustains our faith and remains our primary message. As our faith grows and blossoms the primary message grows depth and breath.
So, no we are not all called to be Evangelists or prophets, never-the-less as part of the Body of Christ we are called to be ready to share our own story of faith. We will each have different moments that have been powerful. One of the couples preparing for Baptism at the moment said, for them it was confirmation. I know others for whom the Alpha course or Cursillo have been powerful moments of grace. For others it might have been standing on a beach taking in the beauty of creation. Hopefully many of you have experienced a number of these moments and together they have enriched and grown your faith. So, go back in your minds eye to those moments in this coming week. Don’t be intimidated by the stories of the heroes of faith like Saint Peter and Paul or Isaiah.
I guess if your stories of grace feel so far back that you can barely remember them then maybe it is time to come and do the Alpha course or go to the diocesan Cursillo. In a marriage when it seems dry and rocky we may need to take time where just the couple head off by themselves leaving the children with good friends. Or we may need to seek out a wise marriage councillor to help us work through the issues. A wise councillor will listen when we say, I hate my spouse, or I am so angry, or my marriage feels arid and grey and dull. They won’t offer quick fixes, they will help you loo at what is happening so that together you can begin to see a way forward.
Our faith is in many ways like a marriage, it is our relationship with God. There are times when retreats, Alpha, Cursillo or a pilgrimage may be the time we need to nurture our relationship with God. Different retreats or courses will help us to discover or rediscover God the creator, or Jesus, the incarnate God or the Spirit of God breathing life into us. In the temple Isaiah was blown away by the glory of the creator God as God’s glory fill the temple. Peter encountered Jesus and his life was turned upside down, it was then transformed again on the day of Pentecost. For Paul it was encounter Jesus whom he had persecuted by persecuting the Church. The Church provides opportunities to renew, to deepen and to grow. We can move from the 90% who would never share their faith to the 10% who may be hesitant but will speak of their faith.
Like a marriage we may have to seek counselling in our faith journey. A wise Spiritual director will listen when you say, I hate God, or I am so angry at God, or why did God let this happen, or my faith feels like eating dry Weetabix for breakfast, dull and boring. The Spiritual Director will not offer a quick fix. Most likely they won’t offer a fix at all. But they will be happy to sit with you in that anger, that hatred, that dreadful dullness. Listening and exploring together a sign of God’s grace might become more evident. Your Spiritual Director will help you explore some of the stories form the Scriptures or the tradition of the Church that will help you to see yourself in the company of great saints.
Ideally, we don’t just go to a Spiritual Director when our faith is at breaking point. We can explore the joyful moments of grace or the horrendous moments that make faith look stupid and everything in between.
My friends, we don’t all have to be like Isaiah catapulted into a life of Prophecy by his vision in the Temple. Nor are we to be like St Peter, or St Paul heroically leading the Church with powerful evangelism because of our encounter with Jesus. Let’s never-the-less as the whole community of faith seek to renew our own faith and then be ready to share that faith with others. For some of us this will become easy, for others it may never be easy. That is OK. Together we walk as the people of God. Together we nurture others in the faith.