A Chance Encounter

I was at Rowe United Methodist Church (Milan, NY) on Sunday; their service starts at 9:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for the 5th Sunday in Easter, 6 May 2012, were Acts 8: 26 – 40; 1 John 4: 7 – 21, and John 15: 1 – 8.

I will be at Trinity-Boscobel UMC (Buchanan, NY) next Sunday for the 6th Sunday in Easter and Mother’s Day. The service starts at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend.

I found myself working in two streams of thought this past week that will merge into one for this message.

One was a stream related to education and my background in chemistry (see “To Offer a New Vision”). In light of much of what has transpired this past week, our ability to learn, to see beyond tomorrow and around the next corner will be critical to our success as a society and as a church.

The other stream is one that I have been in, as it were, for some time now. It is the thought about when one meets Jesus. It is, in part, one of the reasons for the title of this message.

About a month ago, John Meunier, a blogging colleague of mine from Indiana, wrote about John Wesley’s experience leading up to his heart warming experience at the Aldersgate Chapel and wondered whether we are helping people achieve that moment when we know that we have been saved (see “Are we showing the way?”).

I appreciate what John M. blogs about because he offers insights into what John Wesley wrote. He pointed out that Wesley was convinced or thought that the conversion to being a Christian could or should be long and gradual as opposed to an instantaneous conversion. Wesley felt this way, in part, because he did not think he had experienced such a quick conversion.

But all he, Wesley, could find in the Bible was Paul’s three days of blindness. Wesley’s struggles with this came at the time when he had just returned from the colonies and was in what could be politely called a deep funk. Then came what has become the Aldersgate moment when he felt his heart strangely warmed. Coincidentally, Charles Wesley was at home, literally gravely ill because of the colony failures, when he felt the same way. At that moment, the Methodist Revival truly began as the Wesley brothers were empowered by the Holy Spirit and what was a mechanistic approach to religion changed into a heart-felt approach.

Now, I believe that everyone will or has encountered Jesus. For some, it will be like Paul; for others, it will be like Wesley. No matter how it happens, it will happen in way that is reflective of each individual. For Paul, it was a dramatic encounter because of what Paul was seeking to do; for Wesley, it was a quiet and comforting because it was what Wesley needed at that time. Laurie Beth Jones, in the prologue to her third book, Jesus in Blue Jeans, described her encounter with Jesus as follows,

Many years ago I dreamed that I was standing in a meadow. Suddenly I saw a man approaching me. As he got nearer I gasped to realize that it was Jesus in Blue Jeans. When he saw the expression on my face he said, “Why are you surprised? I came to them wearing robes because they wore robes. I come to you in blue jeans because you wear blue jeans.”

(I first mentioned Laurie Beth Jones’ encounter with Jesus Christ in a message I gave at Tompkins Corners back in 2003 (“And When You Least Expect It”) but I didn’t really explain what happened to her; I would do that in “A New Vision” (which is also a companion piece to what I said last Thursday – “To Offer a New Vision” ) and “By the Side of the Road”.)

We are more apt, as Laurie Beth did, meet him in a casual encounter during the day; in fact, we are probably not even going to know that it was Him until later. The prayer that guides us when we are in “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen” includes a statement that one of those who come to be feed each Saturday might well be Jesus.

For myself, I believe that my conversion was like that of Wesley, a moment in time when I knew for certain, as did Wesley that Christ was mine and mine alone. Now, I have encountered many in my life who feel that the conversion moment has to be on the order of Paul, though perhaps not lasting three days.

They understand that it is a life changing experience but for some reason feel that it must be a “big” moment in life. For those whose lives are changed in this way, they want everyone’s encounter to be that way and they are apt to refuse that one can change in the way that Wesley did. And I am sure there are some, as John M. asked, who want desire and encounter a moment like Paul but get one as did Wesley. They may be as disappointed as those who expect Jesus to come to them from the clouds in bright shining robes.

Whatever the moment, however you encounter Jesus, it will be reflective of who you are and where you are in your life at that moment. It is not the church’s responsibility to arrange the encounter; the church’s responsibility is to make sure that you are prepared for the encounter, to offer the knowledge that will let you know that it is Christ you have meet that day.

I cannot help but recall what Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

As an analogy, let me offer some thoughts from teaching chemistry again. Many students struggle with chemistry because they are not prepared for the course. Oh, they have the materials and the tools but their thinking is slightly off. They come into my chemistry class expecting that it will be like their other classes where the instructor puts the notes on the board, gives them pages to read out of the book, and then tells them what will be on the test. There is absolutely no processing of information done; in the words of basic computer programming – garbage in, garbage out.

When I starting teaching chemistry, I became acquainted with the educational philosophy of Jean Piaget and his ideas about how children learn. One thing that research has discovered is that chemistry is taught at one level of learning and often at a higher level than what students are learning at. For students to learn chemistry they must be involved in it or the concepts and ideas presented are meaningless. Oh, you can memorize them and, if the questions are asked in the right way, use what you have memorized to get a good grade on the test and in the course. But this mechanistic approach does not allow you to understand chemistry.

To understand chemistry, you have to do chemistry; you simply cannot open a book and begin reading about it. You may see the words and you may memorize the words but you will not truly understand what the words mean until you do something with them.

For many, church is like that. They know the words; in fact, they probably have them memorized better than most (certainly better than me). But that doesn’t mean that they necessarily know what the words mean. The man from Ethiopia was in that situation. He had the words but they meant nothing to him because he had no clue what was going on. It was only in conversation with Philip that those words began to have meaning.

John M. makes the following comment about John Wesley’s conversion moment:

I know this story, but tonight in reading it I took note of how important it was for Wesley that he was told and taught what to expect. Böhler not only argued doctrine with him, but also he introduced him to people who had been converted and he taught Wesley what he would experience. He tutored Wesley.

Wesley had developed a mechanistic approach to religion, a method that would lead his group at Oxford to be called “The Methodists”. But it was missing something and it wasn’t until he had the discussion with Peter Böhler about the nature of Christ that he was able to complete the process of becoming who is was truly meant to be.

The question for each one of us today should not be about conversion. Our presence here today says that we have accepted Christ. No, the question is one about our ability and our desire to help others find Christ.

There has to be more to being a Christian than being a member of a church who perhaps comes every Sunday. It isn’t what you do on Sunday that defines your Christianity, your belief, your faith; it is what you do with it afterwards.

Jesus used the analogy of the grapevine for a number of reasons. First, most people understood what it took to care for the grapevine. The people knew that a healthy vine was likely to have some branches that bore no fruit or it perhaps bore a fruit that was sour tasting as well as many vines that have luscious, sweet-tasting grapes.

I remember that grape arbor that was part of my grandmother’s property in St. Louis. For my brothers, sister, and cousins, it was more of a place to play than anything else. What grapes that grew on those vines were often small and either tasteless or sour tasting. But we knew that at one time, the grapes were plentiful and sweet tasting. It wasn’t that my grandmother didn’t care about the grapes or the grape vine but she lived by herself most of the time and taking care of the grape vine was not necessarily the priority it was when she first began

To be a Christian is to be part of the Vine that is Christ. How we see that relationship, how we understand that relationship will determine the nature of the fruit that is produced.

There are some whose Christianity, if it can be called that, is a sour and bitter Christianity. I have never understood how that is possible but I have encountered many with that attitude. Theirs is a bitter fruit. An encounter with such a person is likely to lead you away from Christ. Sadly, there are many of these Christians in the world today. Oh, I am sure that when they first joined the church the fruit of their labors was wonderful. But they never cared for the vine and it slowly withered away and now they drive the people away.

Some have a bland, almost tasteless fruit. They will help you but that encounter will bring you no closer to Christ that one was before. It is almost as if they feel that they must suck up any nourishment in the fruit for themselves and are not willing to share it.

But those who have taken to heart the words that John wrote in his 1st letter will love all, without question, without judgment. Theirs is the most delicious fruit of the vine.

One of the tasks before us is to make sure that all members of the church have some role to play in the church. It need not be a big role but any stretch of the imagination but it needs to be something. In this way, the vine that they are never wilts or grows useless but rather continues to produce healthy and tasty fruit for many, many years.

Because, no matter whom we are or how old we are, there will undoubtedly be a moment in our live when we will encounter someone who needs to know about Jesus. Perhaps it has already occurred; perhaps it has happened in a way that you don’t even know. But it is probably going to happen again and this time you know that it will.

So what shall you do? This is perhaps the greatest question facing the church today but again the answer is in the words that have been studied, read, and spoken for almost two thousand years. First, we cannot be afraid to help others find Christ. As John wrote in his first letter, a fearful life, a fear of death and judgment, has no love in it. And ours must be a life of love. We cannot profess to love God but hate our friends. To do so is hypocrisy in its worst possible form.

I also feel that how one is called to respond to this message is unique to that individual. To expect each person to do the same as everyone else is to ignore the uniqueness of the individual. If Christ comes to us in a manner reflective of whom we are, then our response will be in the same way. If we all responded in the same manner, it might prove to be very boring and not very much fun.

There will be a moment in each person’s life where they will encounter Jesus Christ. It might be a deliberate moment or it might be a chance encounter. It will be a moment that will change their lives. And there will be some who will encounter, mostly by chance, who will see Christ in us and want to know what that is all about. It will be a moment that will change their lives. The question then is how we individually and collectively will help others when they have that chance encounter, that opportunity to change their lives.

2 thoughts on “A Chance Encounter

  1. Pingback: Defining Love « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

  2. Pingback: Must You See To Believe? | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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