Encountering Christ

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.
Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.”
He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.
That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.
John 21:4-7

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.”
Acts 9:3-6

These verses from Acts are the center of a great and famous story from our faith heritage. In it, we journey with Saul, who has been very busy persecuting any of Jesus’ followers he can find. Saul has a very high opinion of himself as a righteous man, a Roman citizen, and a faithful Jew. He is a Pharisee with a zeal for observing the laws of his religion. And he is a master of control, a man with a plan that he will certainly see to completion—until, suddenly, he cannot see. Saul, who will come to be known as Paul, and one of the great voices of the early church, is converted, changed, by his encounter with Christ. Paul’s conversion is not about leaving Judaism behind for Christianity—there was no Christianity yet! There were only different groups of Jews practicing their religion differently. So Saul’s, or Paul’s, story tells us that we don’t have to change religions in order to be converted. Another word for conversion is alteration, defined as a change in the nature, form, or function of something. What is it that makes us change somewhere along the way, in an unexpected fashion? We are encountering Christ.

How does encountering Christ differ from encountering God? I find God in nature, for instance. There I feel I am encountering God in nature. But encountering Christ is a different concept. It has to do with community and relationship. Christ brings God closer to us, because as Jesus he was one of us. And what do we mean when we say we encounter Christ? We experience God’s love for creation as revealed in Jesus, living or arisen. Sometimes it comes in the joy of a meeting, and sometimes in the sharp recognition of an emptiness longing to be filled.

We encounter God in wonder, and the Holy Spirit in the electrical charge that comes in a surprising connection. But we experience Christ in the realization that we are loved just as we are, by a God who really and truly understands the human experience with its temptations and disappointments and challenges and hurts.

The Swiss evangelist and hymn writer Cesar Malan always liked to speak a word for Jesus. In the 1820’s, while visiting England, he spoke to a young women at his table, saying that he hoped she was a Christian. Charlotte Elliott bristled. She would rather not discuss that question, she said. Malan apologized if he had given offense. For Charlotte, however, Mahan’s witness was a turning point. She could not get his suggestion out of her head. Three weeks later, she met Malan again and told him that ever since he had spoken to her, she had been trying to find Jesus her Savior. How could she come to Him, she wondered? “You have nothing of merit to bring to God. You must come just as you are,” he replied.

Charlotte Elliott later wrote the hymn “Just as I am, without one plea.” Now, even though the language may seem a little old-fashioned to some of us, because we really don’t think in terms of thee and thine anymore, there’s something so touching in her hymn. Behind the Victorian speech lies a cry out to God as revealed in Jesus, a gratitude for encountering Christ and a recognition that we don’t get anything from God because we deserve it, but rather because God loves us just as we are.

There is probably no better example of being loved just as we are than in Christ’s love for Peter, Peter who betrayed him. The story of being directed to fish on the other side of the boat also appears in Luke’s gospel, and we heard it a couple of months ago. But in that case it came at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It was the story of his call to Peter, Andrew, James and John. They give up their work and their lives and follow him. Now Christ, risen from the dead, is calling them again, and he is especially calling Peter. They eat a meal together, just as they did on the night Jesus was arrested, and there are echoes of the story in Christ’s questions to Peter. Just as Jesus told Peter then that he would deny him three times, so now does Christ ask Peter three times: Simon, son of John, do you love me? It’s intriguing that Christ uses Peter’s formal name, instead of the one he has given him earlier. Despite his denials he is still loved and he is still called.

We are vulnerable when we encounter Christ; Peter is naked; Paul is blinded. What are some other examples of meeting Christ in our vulnerability?

Jesus had a heart for children in an era where they didn’t matter much to most people. I was a very little girl when I had my first encounter with Christ. As a little girl going to Sunday School at the Court Street Baptist Church in Portsmouth, Virginia, I saw and heard and felt Jesus Christ in the loving faces around me. One of my church members talks about coming to our church for the first time as a little girl not much older than I am in those memories. Somehow she had a sense of coming home. And I can tell you that it wasn’t just the building that gave her that feeling. When my boys were little, at Sunday School we often sang the song “I am the Church.” “I am the Church, you are the church, we are the church together,” it says. And it’s true. The church is not a building, or a steeple, or even a new sign. The Church is the people. Christ’s church is the people.

In our midst, we have some little children who sparkle with the light of Christ. We see it in their curiosity and their joy. We feel it in their enthusiasm and hear it in their questions. We must never, never be so busy with grown-up concerns that we don’t take time to talk to the children in our church family.

Jesus spent much of his ministry healing those who were ill, and I have no doubt that he waits to encounter us when we are fragile of spirit. In my early thirties, I suffered a severe postpartum depression, and one of the things that was hardest was that music, which has brought so much joy to my life and been a frequent encounter point for me with Christ, had no power to touch or move me. It was a dark night of the soul, indeed, when I went downtown to what I’m sure was a very beautiful concert to celebrate Bach’s birthday at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Luke’s. The whole purpose of going was to seek some healing, but I sat there feeling more alone and detached than ever. I wanted to cry, but I had no tears, only a deep sense of emptiness, a sense that all that mattered to me was lost. My heart was as hard as the benches in the Cathedral and my soul as cavernous as its sanctuary.

It was probably six months later that I sat in a chair at a choral rehearsal and heard the beginning of a piece I had always loved, by the French composer, Fauré. It’s called the “Cantique de Jean Racine,” and although I know a bit of French, I must admit that I had never stopped to think about what the words meant. The music is complex to sing, and I had to focus on the notes and the pronunciation. And when listening to it, I have always just let it wash over me. The voices intertwine and surge, and there is a keen feeling of a holy presence in its composition. And that night at choir rehearsal, just listening to the opening measures on the piano, I felt the tears coming, the tears that had been dried up by depression and disconnection. I felt Christ in that moment.

Christ waits to meet us, too, when we are fragile of body. There are quite a few people in the circle that makes up our church community who can’t get here on Sunday mornings for one reason or another. And I know they are missed by those who know them, and I wish those who don’t could know them, as I have come to by having the opportunity to visit with them. I hope and pray that when I see them Christ will be part of our encounter with one another. Now that doesn’t mean I preach a sermon every time I go visiting!! Some people here have said they might like to go and see our homebound members and friends, but they aren’t sure what they would talk about when they get there. And I wonder if we don’t fear that we need to speak about God in a way that might make us uncomfortable. What if a question comes up that we can’t answer? I have felt that way, going out on my first visits as a student. But what most people really want is to feel loved—for we are no different at the end of our lives than we are at the beginning. And all we need, if Jesus is calling us, is to go out just as we are, as Charlotte Elliott learned and shared with us in her hymn.

Remember, Christ has been here all along. It’s we who are just getting around to noticing him, just as the disciples finally realize the guy on the shore giving good fishing advice is their teacher, their friend, their Lord and Savior. He is the reason that the empty nets are coming up full. He arrives when you least expect him: when you are so sure of yourself you don’t need anyone, then suddenly find yourself helpless; when you are just going about your business but not getting anywhere much; when you are so sad you feel sure no one cares about you and nothing will ever change. That is when grace breaks through, when we are at the bottom, when we ourselves feel like the empty net and then begin to feel it filling again. That is when we encounter Christ.