“Religious Experiences” / Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 / 13 January 2019
Did you catch the little trick that the writer Luke tries to pull on us here? He’s so uncomfortable with Jesus’ baptism that he brushes past it breezily, in a slurry of words, in hopes that we won’t notice. “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’.” Luke’s embarrassment at Jesus’ baptism is an important detail, and we’ll talk about it in a few minutes. But the event that is described in this passage is the defining moment in Jesus’ life. This is the event that set him on the road to glory, the road to unspeakable suffering, the road to worldwide fame. This thing that happened here at his baptism, this vision of a diving dove, this voice from heaven, assuring him of God’s parental acceptance and love—which were novel ideas in that time and place—this is the deeply personal religious experience that turned a village carpenter into the planet’s most renowned religious leader. Religious experiences! For some of us, they’re quiet and calm, the deep peace of meditation and prayer. For others, they’re public and full of emotion. They can look a little crazy to anyone who doesn’t share them. Honestly, many of the saints were mentally ill—seeing visions and hearing voices. But sometimes into the life of a rational, sensible, sane person, a new thing occurs: an experience of the sacred changes us forever, sets us on a spiritual journey, shows us things we hadn’t considered before. And from its perhaps slightly kooky new perspective, we cannot look away.
In the summer of 1990, when I was twenty years old, I did what college kids were doing in those days: I went to Europe for two months. I’d loved French class in high school, and tested out of it in college, and so France seemed like the place to start. In the days leading up to the trip, for months, I lived off instant grits—which I pocketed in the college cafeteria, where I worked—as I saved up money for my solo trip to Europe. Even so, I barely had enough money for a plane ticket, much less for all the expenses once I got there. But you know how it is when you’re young and determined. I stopped a kindly French lady in the train station in Paris and asked her how to find a youth hostel. She pointed to the big duffle bag that I’d left on the floor behind me and said, “Never turn your back on your luggage! This is a nation of thieves.” And though I would never describe lovely France in such a way, I did get robbed my very first week. I thought I’d cleverly hid all my cash inside my pillow, but someone knew that trick. I was left with only about $200 to last me two months. Determined to make it work, I ended up living that summer on the generosity of strangers.
At one point, I was homeless, sleeping in old German dugout forts in the sand dunes of the French coast. A young German named Volker started bringing me food, and thus I fell in with a team of Pentecostals from Germany, and Holland, and England. They were nice people, but religious in a way that you almost never find in Europe. They had come from different countries to have a sort of camp meeting at an old chateau near the beach. I could come and live with them, they said, if I earned my keep. They gave me room and board, and I spent a few hours each day copying cassette tapes for them. The rest of the day I would spend at the beach, or cycling down country lanes, or exploring that mysterious coast. Yes, the days were memorable and bright. But as soon as the sun set behind the shimmering gray sea, things at the old chateau started to get weird. That’s when my European friends had their religious experiences.
Now, please hear me carefully! I am not mocking anyone’s religious practices. I am not making fun of anyone or condemning their experience of God. My rule of faith is this: If it makes you a kinder, happier person and causes you to make the world a kinder, happier place, then it’s good. Too much religion makes people meaner, and more shame-filled, and narrow, and cruel. These new friends of mine were indeed kind and happy. They were smart, too, most of them. Sensible, professional people with that European directness about them. But at night, they all gathered under a huge awning and turned into people like I’ve never seen. They sang loud, repetitive songs until they were worked up into a frenzy. They danced in place, waved their hands in the air, and moaned. Some fell down on the ground and lay there as if stunned. Others closed their eyes and spoke in unintelligible languages—not French, or German, or Dutch, but, they said, the language of the angels. Most terrifying of all to me at the time was that some people actually went to the microphone and acted as oracles, claiming that God was speaking through them and that they had a message for someone in the crowd. At times, I thought those oracles were directed at me. “Someone out there doesn’t understand the things we’re doing,” an old Englishman declared. “Someone out there thinks we’re a little crazy. But he will understand if he accepts the Holy Spirit.” Each night, my new friends would seek me out and ask me to accept the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues. Each night, I found new places to hide. That’s not how I experience God.
I remember them all with fondness, and their kindness to me was genuine. I was a penniless kid far from home, and they had compassion on me. But they assumed that their experience of God should also be mine. And though I was grateful to them, I ditched them the first chance I got. I met some English tourists on the beach and ran off with them to England. Our religious experiences don’t always make sense to other people. Not all people experience the holy in the very same way. But there’s something deep in the human psyche that longs for connection to the mysterious world. Even those who have no language for it, and those who deny the very existence of it, seek ways to be in union with a deeper life, a fuller love, a more transformative peace. We all experience God here and there, now and then. This is the unexpected thing about human life: We all have, crave, need religious experiences—whether we are people of faith or not.
And there’s Jesus, up till now an obscure carpenter in a little-known hamlet as far from Bethlehem and Jerusalem as he could be, while still residing in the Jewish world. His life has been quiet. After the angels’ songs faded from the night sky, well, he grew into a man, went into a trade, reached what was in those days middle age, at thirty years. I wonder if Mary ever asked herself if it had all been a dream, all the pageantry of three decades past, the angelic visions, the shepherds, the visitors from afar. Jesus’ life has been quiet, and he’s still not married. But he, like many others, falls under the spell of the great preacher, John the Baptist. He gets baptized. The experience is so moving to Jesus that he has a vision: The Spirit descending on him like a dove, and he seems to hear a voice saying, “You’re my own, my child, my beloved. You don’t have to earn my love or fear me. With you I am well pleased.” Then this message of God’s acceptance and love became Jesus’ news for the world. He’d had a religious experience, one that might not make sense to anyone who wasn’t there. But for him, it came accompanied with an affirmation and a calling. After all, you can’t blame Jesus for having issues about who his father was. But here’s an announcement that God is his Father, that he’s no low-born illegitimate child (which people may have claimed), but a beloved child of God.
It changes his life, gives him a new strength, a new song. It hastens his death. It becomes for him a whole new identity, and it changes the course of world history. Of course, Jesus’ biographers haven’t always known what to do with his baptism. Matthew tries to explain it away. And Luke, whose account we just read, tries to squeeze it past his readers so fast that they don’t notice. But as any observer of human creatures knows, it’s the things people say in parentheses that matter the most. Those are quite frequently the things that haunt them so deeply that they don’t know how to talk about them. Luke doesn’t really “get” Jesus’ religious experience at the baptism. Luke doesn’t know why a holy Jesus would need to be baptized to begin with, and maybe he thinks the whole thing with the dove and the voice is kind of weird. But that’s religious experiences for you. They don’t always make sense to people on the outside of them. Can you think of a moment in your life when you felt the presence or the power of God in a memorable and maybe even a definitive way? I find that many people come to church because they’ve had at least one really significant experience of faith at some point in their life—whether at church camp when they were young, or all alone in nature, or when they hit rock bottom, or a hymn struck a deep chord in your spirit—and that one experience has given them a real sense that faith, for all its mystery, is onto something, and it’s something worth pursuing. What set your feet on the path to this place today? How did you become a spiritual seeker or a churchgoer? They keep us coming back for more, don’t they? Once you have had a powerful spiritual event in your life, you spend the rest of your days trying to recapture it, restore it, recreate it. Its power fades with time, but the memory of it can still give you hope and strength. Religious experiences can change what you see. They can change how you live. You can lose your faith in the church. You can lose your belief in creed and Bible. You can come to doubt the whole religious enterprise. But you never escape the events that define you. It’s hard to doubt your own experience. When have you had a religious experience?
And perhaps just as importantly, isn’t it possible to have a bad one? A drunken man wandered into an old-timey baptism down at the river. The preacher, standing out in the water, smelled the whiskey on the man’s breath and asked him, “Do you want to find Jesus?” The man said, “Yes.” So the preacher grabbed him and dunked him under the water, then brought him up and asked, “Have you found Jesus?” The drunk man replied truthfully, “No.” This happened two more times, until finally the preacher began to get frustrated. “Son, have you still not found Jesus?” he asked, after dunking him a fourth time. To which the drunk replied, “No! But before you dunk me again, are you sure this is where he fell in?” And that’s how it is with bad religious experiences. To the question “Do you want to find Jesus?” many answer “Yes.” But then they’re subjected to such a spiritual pummeling that they give up on Jesus and religion altogether. (That’s not how polite churches do it: we bore people till they abandon their quest.)
It’s quite possible to be driven by shaming, guilt-inducing, self-loathing visions of God and the sacred. Indeed, aren’t many religious people in our world doing more harm than good with their notions of original sin, and the apocalypse, and judgment? Isn’t there a toxic conformity and mindless obedience that comes with faith? And how do you tell the good from the bad? The distinction seems so arbitrary that many people in our day despair of religion altogether, and I don’t blame them. You can’t blame good folks who look at the most prominent religious figures in our world today and assume that religion is a thing of violence, mind control, emotional manipulation, oppression, and hate. Psychologists in Britain are entertaining the idea of designating a psychological illness called “RTS,” Religious Trauma Syndrome, for people who’ve been saddled with feelings of guilt, and anxiety, and self-hatred due to their experience of bad religion. They point to a 12-year old who came home and found her family gone. She had been taught that this might happen, immediately assumed that the Rapture had taken place, and fearfully began planning which neighbors’ houses to loot for food. A twelve-year old, preparing to face Armageddon all alone. That’s some bad religion.
The great theologian of the last century, Paul Tillich, said, “Religion opens up the depth of man’s spiritual life which is usually covered by the dust of our daily life and the noise of our secular work. It gives us the experience of the Holy, of something which is untouchable, awe-inspiring, an ultimate meaning, the source of ultimate courage. This is the glory of what we call religion. But beside its glory lies its shame. It makes itself the ultimate and despises the secular. It makes its myths and doctrines, its rites and laws into ultimates and persecutes those who do not subject themselves to it. It forgets that its own existence is a result of man’s tragic estrangement from his true being. It forgets its own emergency character.” In other words, religion is a prop that points to something bigger than itself, something good, life-giving, life-affirming, joy-inducing. It’s only good if it makes us good. Religious experience is only good if it makes us and our world better.
Which brings us to the scariest of questions: How do we know that Jesus wasn’t just a guy with RTS—maybe as a result of a fanatical mother—a guy with an inflated ego who got a bad religious trip at his baptism? How do we know that 21 centuries of Christendom, with all its beauty and shame, have not been kicked off by one man’s crazy delusion? How do we tell the good and true religious experiences from the bad? Well, it’s pretty simple. Jesus’ vision, crazy as it sounds to us, was all about acceptance and love—for himself and for the world. At his baptism, Jesus heard an affirmation that he was beloved of God, that God was not a distant judge but a loving Parent. He did not assume that the message of love and of sonship was to him alone, for he dedicated his life from then on out to a universal proclamation of the sonship and daughtership of all people to a God of love. So, what does that tell us? Any good religious experience will free us from fear, free us from self-loathing, free us to love others as we are loved, and to see the beloved in them. Are you cultivating such experiences for yourself?
My friends at the chateau on the coast in France were not feeling something alien to me, which is what they assumed. The experience of God is universal, available to each and every creature that borrows breath and life from its Creator. They were experiencing the Holy in a way that I could not, but I experience it in ways, perhaps, that they cannot. They were good to me, but if I had anything against them, it’s that they prescribed their experience as the only kind. Let us seek out experiences of God in our lives, the kind that make us more patient, kinder, calmer, happier, more forgiving. And let us respect the experiences of others. Sometimes into the life of a rational, sensible, sane person, a new thing occurs: an experience of the sacred changes us forever, sets us on a spiritual journey, shows us things we hadn’t considered before. And from its perhaps slightly kooky new perspective, we cannot look away. That’s what happened to Jesus at the Jordan, and it changed the trajectory of human history. Let it be so with us. Amen.
“Religious Experiences” / Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 / 13 January 2019