An Encounter with the Risen Lord
Christianity and the Bible make a lot of promises. When we tell people about Christ we promise them fulfillment: peace, and joy, and happiness. We promise them that Christianity is a relationship with Christ that will bring meaning to their life. And we offer all of the promises of the Bible, because we believe them. So, we ourselves have believed and those we tell believe, expecting to receive all of these promises. And yet sometimes, it seems that we miss out on them. For all the peace that’s promised, we experience a lot of turmoil. For the joy that’s promised, we experience grief. Instead of fulfillment we find emptiness. And we wonder why all of this is happening. Why aren’t we experiencing God’s promises. Why does Christianity feel like a restriction instead of a liberation?
Sometimes, after getting the message straight, our actions become reversed. We spend so much time working through our religion, that we forget the heart of our “religious practices.” Define for yourself, “What is it to be a Christian?” If we were to ask the world, they would probably come up with something like: “People who go to church every week and don’t do a whole bunch of things.” That’s expected of the world. If you were to poll Christians today on what a “good Christian” is like, you would probably get an answer that includes believing in Jesus, going to church, being baptized, reading the Bible, praying every day, and a whole list of things they don’t do. And all of these things that I’ve just named have two things in common. First, none of them are bad things. Indeed, they are characteristics of a Christian life. But the other common aspect is that none of these things is the end goal of the Christian life. While these things can indeed be meaningful and beneficial, they can also be ritualistic and empty. Our satisfaction in life, all of the things that are promised, cannot be found in empty ritual. And so, if our faith, our view of Christianity is following these rituals, we will never find the promises of God fulfilled in our lives.
The Apostle Paul knew religion better than anybody. In Philippians 3:4-6, he explained his religious experience like this:
4 Yet I could have confidence in myself if anyone could. If others have reason for confidence in their own efforts, I have even more! 5 For I was circumcised when I was eight days old, having been born into a pure-blooded Jewish family that is a branch of the tribe of Benjamin. So I am a real Jew if there ever was one! What’s more, I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. 6 And zealous? Yes, in fact, I harshly persecuted the church. And I obeyed the Jewish law so carefully that I was never accused of any fault.
Paul was dedicated to his religious experience. Now we often fail at these rituals. We forget to pray or read the Bible—or we miss church—and we think that if only we could get ourselves to be more faithful, everything would be better. Have you ever said to yourself, “If only I read the Bible more often… If only I prayed more faithfully… my life would get so much better.” Please don’t think that I’m trying to convince you today to stop reading the Bible or praying. But these things in and of themselves—especially when completed out of a sense of mere obligation—are not the answer.
I remember when I was a kid, I used to pray every night before I went to sleep. I didn’t pray because I was in love with Jesus and just had to talk to him before I went to bed. I prayed because I was convinced that if some tragedy fell upon me in the middle of the night and I had failed to pray, then surely I would go straight to hell. And recently, I was reflecting back on that time while in prayer, and I came to a realization. This may come as a shock to some, but I don’t pray every single night before I go to sleep. There are nights when I forget, or nights when I’m just too tired. But I was reflecting one night and I realized something. How much more precious my prayer must be to God now. Sure I miss sometimes. Sure it’s imperfect, but when I don’t forget it’s birthed not out of a need to pray, but out of my intense love for my savior. Do you think that God would rather hear a tape recorder every night, parroting something that doesn’t come from the heart, or would he rather the earnest outpouring of an imperfect heart?
In fact, Paul, who did pray every day and who did read and study the Holy Scriptures regularly and who did perfectly keep the Law, came to one conclusion about all these things, which he gives in vs. 7+8:
7 I once thought all these things were so very important, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. 8 Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the priceless gain of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I may have Christ
So, then if simply following the ritual doesn’t bring the satisfaction, then maybe it is a problem of the heart. Maybe like the contrast between my prayer of obligation as a child and my prayer from a heart of devotion is the answer. How about when we don’t follow the rituals out of a sense of obligation, but with a passionate heart we go to church, with a passionate heart we pray and read the Bible, and with zeal we follow God’s ways? Is the answer that we have to do all of these things from a committed heart? The answer must be a resounding NO, because Paul himself confessed in vs. 6 that he was a zealous follower of the Law. He zealously kept his rituals. But they still brought him nothing but emptiness.
Earlier this week I went to New York City with my brother for the 9/11 observances. While we were there we wanted to see the Statue of Liberty. He was willing to pay $8.00 to go to Liberty Island, but as usual, I was too cheap and I decided to take the Staten Island Ferry instead. The Staten Island Ferry had a big sign at the entry point that said, “The Staten Island Ferry is free, but does not stop at the Statue of Liberty.” I knew, however, that it does pass close to the Statue so you can see it up close.
Now let’s imagine for a moment that I was a foolish person. And I decided that I would step more passionately on the Ferry. I would really feel in my heart to go to Liberty Island on the Ferry. Indeed, I might even make an impassioned plea to the captain to stop. But no matter how passionate I am about getting to the island, unless I jumped off the Ferry and swam to shore, I wasn’t getting to the island from that ferry. If I was so zealous that I rode back and forth all day, I would accomplish nothing more than discovering that None of the Staten Island Ferry boats stop at Liberty Island. My passion would be wasted. My zeal would go unrewarded. Why? Because I was on the wrong ferry.
Now, if I was so unpassionate that I didn’t even really want to go to Liberty Island, but I got on the $8.00 Statue of Liberty boat, I would have gotten there, whether I was zealous about it or not. Because passion and zeal doesn’t determine where you’re going at all. It only determines how passionately you’re going to get there.
Religious ritual is a ferry that simply doesn’t stop on Fulfillment, Peace, or Joy Island. It doesn’t reach the shore of the Promises of God. Religious ritual only leads to Empty Island. And if you’re zealous or passionate about religious ritual, you’ll end up passionately on Empty Island. Maybe you know that Staten Island is NYCs trash dump. And that’s exactly where religious ritual will get you, is the trash dump of the Island of Emptiness.
If you want the promises of God, you have to get on the right ferry. And what ferry is that. It’s the experience that Paul had, recorded in Acts 9, a personal and real encounter with the Risen Christ. And he sums up this experience in vs. 8, which we’ve already read, when he tells of the “priceless gain of knowing Christ.” Paul had a personal encounter. All the years of religious ritual brought him nothing but emptiness. But one moment in time with the Master, brought him fulfillment beyond anything he could have imagined. The Ferry to Joy, and Peace, and Fulfillment is none other than the Person of Jesus Christ.
These other things, going to church, reading the Bible, praying, they’re all good things. They’re good as long as they are not the end goal, but are instead means to the end. These things are designed not to be what we seek to become, but instead they are the things that can bring us close to Christ so we can have that intimate and personal encounter. Going to church is not something we do to earn points with God, but because Jesus said, “For where two or three gather together in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20) We read the Bible not because it gives us some higher standing with God, but because Jesus is the very Word of God and the Bible is the means by which God chose to reveal himself to us. We don’t find Jesus so that we can read the Bible, we read the Bible so that we may find Jesus. And surely we don’t pray out of ritual, but we do so because it is communication, even communion, with the one whom we love so dearly, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Prayer can be a meaningless ritual or it can be the encounter with God that we so desperately need.
Please notice with me that when Paul speaks of knowing Christ, he’s not talking about some great theological understanding of God. He’s not talking about some great epiphany or revelation that he has realized. There are many false religions that will tell you that knowledge is the key to salvation. I believe in education. I like education. In fact, Christians are commended for studying the Scriptures diligently in the Book of Acts. However, it is not education or knowledge that saves. The knowing Christ that Paul speaks of, the knowledge that is so great that everything else becomes trash in light of it, is not a book knowledge or an intellectual knowledge but a personal, intimate, relationship knowledge of Christ.
A story about the great relationship between a husband and a wife would go great here, but I’m not married yet, so I have to think of something else. Over the past year I’ve read some books about computers and networking. Thank God, I learned enough to pass the exams that I was trying to pass. At least right after I finished reading the books, I could have given you a lot of facts about computers. But throughout the entire study, I never actually did any of the things I read about. I had a lot of knowledge, but when I got a position volunteering in the school system, I realized that I knew nothing about computer networks. Now, after a month of getting in there and putting connectors together, after finding real live problems and having to figure out real live solutions to them, I feel like I know a lot more about computer networks. Every time I go in and spend more time with the network, I learn more and more about it. Now, certainly my relationship with computers is nothing like my relationship with Christ. But there are some parallels. You can study and study and study about Jesus Christ. You can know everything there is to know, and that doesn’t do you any good. Certainly my knowledge of computer networks didn’t make a computer network suddenly appear. I had to do something with that knowledge. And when I did, I discovered that I even needed a different kind of knowledge. And our study of Christ is to one end, to bring us to know him personally. It’s not “about Christ” that brings fulfillment, but it is the “Person of Christ” who brings fulfillment, that is Christ himself. Therefore, it is not knowledge about Christ that brings fulfillment, but it is relationship knowledge of Christ himself that brings the fulfillment.
So many times, I’ve reflected on Christ and what he has done for me. Some things are tangible—like healings and provisions. Some things are intangible—like times when he has filled my heart with peace and joy. I think of the prison, I once dwelt in and how he set me free. In those moments when my heart is filled with love, I want one thing. More than anything, I try to think of a way to convey those experiences to others. I look out and I see people who have not touched Jesus, people who have not had that personal encounter—or maybe did but it was so long ago that it doesn’t sustain them anymore. These people are trying so hard to find it in the rituals, and they’re getting frustrated because they don’t see it. And I just want to convey a little bit of “knowing” Christ to those people. I want to let them know how deeply meaningful “knowing” Jesus is. Because I just know that if they only knew what I know, then they would find the fulfillment and joy that I have found.
And every time I think this way, I come to the same conclusion: I can’t do it. I can’t give them my experiences. There are no words in language to express the knowledge of Christ. We can try, and we do. Others, more eloquent than I, have captured at least some of it. But what I have realized is this. Everyone has to experience Christ for themselves. My experiences are not good enough for you. And your experiences are not good enough for me. Each of us must have our own encounter with Jesus Christ. It is not enough to know him through the limits of knowing others’ experiences of him, but you must have your own experience of him. We must each, as the Psalmist says, “Taste and see that the LORD is good. Oh, the joys of those who trust in him!” (Psalm 34:8) Surely we can share our knowledge. But to what end? Only to encourage one another to experience Christ for ourselves. Too often we try to substitute the experiences of others. But they are not sufficient. The end goal of all our intellectual knowledge of Christ must be one thing: a personal, experiential knowledge of Christ. It is not the idea of Jesus Christ that brings fulfillment, but it is Jesus Christ himself.
Luke 24:13-15, “That same day two of Jesus’ followers were walking to the village of Emmaus, seven miles out of Jerusalem. As they walked along they were talking about everything that had happened. Suddenly, Jesus himself came along and joined them and began walking beside them.”
Jesus had just been crucified. It was a horrible moment for all of his followers. They had lived the past three days not only in despair, but in fear that they may be next. And in the midst of this devastation, there is Good News for these two. They are in the presence of the Risen Lord. Jesus himself comes and stands by them. What a change in circumstance. What a time for their cloudy day to turn to sunshine. But they do not recognize that it is he. And the reason is given in verse 15 as “God kept them from recognizing him.” We could read this, and put all of the blame on God for not recognizing him. But remember that God is also the one who hardened Pharaoh’s heart against Moses and God. But that didn’t vindicate Pharaoh. He was still responsible for his actions. I don’t believe that God controls us like puppets or robots. Therefore, if they didn’t recognize Jesus, then what is the reason that God did not allow them to recognize him? I think that several reasons can be seen from the passage why they did not recognize Jesus although he was standing right there with them.
The followers of Jesus, including the 11 disciples and the faithful members of the multitude were devastated when Jesus was crucified. Their expectations of Jesus were very high. They were summed up in Luke 24:19b-21, “He was a prophet who did wonderful miracles. He was a mighty teacher, highly regarded by both God and all the people. But our leading priests and other religious leaders arrested him and handed him over to be condemned to death, and they crucified him. We had thought he was the Messiah who had come to rescue Israel. That all happened three days ago.”
They had high hopes for this Jesus. And three days before, all hope was lost. There world had come crashing down. All the expectation that had developed over the past 3 ½ years of Jesus’ ministry was just destroyed. They thought he would be the Messiah. They thought he would save them, but he had let them down. He had been killed, and so now they would have to go back to the lives that they were trying to escape through this Jesus. Surely, they were depressed. They were crushed and wounded. In fact, I think we can see the depths of their despair when they continue their explanation. In vs. 17, they were described like this, “sadness written across their faces.” And basically Jesus had asked them what they were so sad about. Now everything I’ve said so far can explain their sadness. They expected Jesus to save them and he had died. That’s certainly a good reason to be sad—at least if you didn’t understand God’s plan. If they had stopped there, it would have seemed normal. But their next statement sets off warning bells for me. For they continued to explain why they were sad by saying,
Luke 24:22-24, “Then some women from our group of his followers were at his tomb early this morning, and they came back with an amazing report. They said his body was missing, and they had seen angels who told them Jesus is alive! Some of our men ran out to see, and sure enough Jesus’ body was gone, just as the women had said.”
Why did this make them sad? Here was the most joyous news of all time: Jesus Christ had risen from the dead! It’s news that millennia later still thrills the souls of billions around the world. And yet they gave this as the reason for their sadness. And here next to them was walking this very Risen Lord. The very answer to all their sadness and depression was with them. All they had to do was reach out and touch him—be it physically or spiritually—they just needed an encounter with Jesus on the road, and everything would be okay. Listen to me—GOD SENT THE ANSWER TO THEIR NEED! God sent the answer for their troubled hearts. But they were so busy wallowing in self-pity that I believe they failed to have the encounter planned for them that day. They may have been asking themselves, like we so often do in times of trouble, “God where are you? Where are you in all this?” And there he was standing right next to them. He was within reach, and yet they weren’t reaching out. Now, in spite of this, Jesus did eventually reveal himself to them briefly.
But I find their discussion after he disappeared very insightful. They made the statement that their hearts were “strangely warmed” when they were walking with him. This reminds me of how we sometimes act. We’re so desperate to receive something from God, and when we don’t receive something tangible, we try to at least settle for something emotional. We become satisfied with “feeling” the presence of the Spirit and getting goosebumps or chills. We become satisfied with some sort of manifestation like being slain in the Spirit or shaking or whatever else we view as a sign of the Spirit’s presence. I’m not against any of these things, when they’re indicators of the genuine work of the Holy Spirit deep inside us. But when we settle for or even begin to seek these emotional experiences, we may miss out on the deeper touch, or the deeper healing that God had planned for us. The men on the road to Emmaus had “strangely warmed” hearts, but who know what else God had in store for them that day. Let’s not sell ourselves short. Let’s not keep grasping at emotional crumbs when Jesus offers us the whole spiritual loaf.
The next encounter I want to look at briefly is Peter’s encounter with the Risen Lord. Peter remember was the one who had denied Christ three times. I can’t imagine the turmoil in his heart knowing that he had abandoned the One he had promised he would follow to death. I only know that if I had done that to someone, if they came back to life, I’d probably want to run as far away from them as I could. I imagine the thought must have run through Peter’s mind too. Certainly he would have anxiety about his first meeting with Jesus after denying him.
Precisely for this reason, Peter had a great need. He needed to receive forgiveness, restoration, and healing from Jesus. And when John recognized that Jesus was on the shore, John 21:7b says he “jumped into the water, and swam ashore.” Perhaps he couldn’t wait. Perhaps he didn’t want to miss out. Maybe he thought that Jesus could disappear at any moment. But whatever the reason, he knew that he needed a touch from Jesus, and nothing was going to get in his way. He saw Jesus and he did what it took to get to him. He couldn’t wait for the boat to get there. He couldn’t wait with everyone else. He had to press ahead of the pack and make his way to Jesus. He was getting his touch from Jesus and nothing could stop him.
Intense need calls for intense measures. Peter got what he needed from Jesus that morning. He received the forgiveness and reconciliation he needed. Jesus charged him with caring for his sheep and revealed some of his future to him. Then he made a simple statement that showed that everything was okay between Peter and Jesus. In vs. 19 he simply said, “Follow me.”
I don’t know the needs of your heart today. Some may have pain so intense that I couldn’t even imagine what you bear. Someone may feel dirty or guilty, like they need forgiveness from Jesus today. Another may be full of anxiety. Others may have more tangible needs like sickness or financial needs. Some may need to find forgiveness for someone else who has hurt them. Others may have accepted Christ and gone through the rituals of church, but never had a real encounter with Jesus Christ. Maybe you’re following Christianity, because someone else told you how great it is, but you’ve never experienced the greatness for yourself.
Even though I don’t know the need, I know the answer. I can’t give you some formula to recite and your problems will go away. I can’t offer some great intellectual answer. But I can give you the solution that is so simple that it’s hard to believe. We used to sing a song when I was young and went like this:
Reach out and touch the Lord as he goes by
You’ll find he’s not too busy to hear your hearts cry
He’s passing by the this moment, your needs he’ll supply
Reach out and touch the Lord as he goes by.
It’s up to you. You can add this sermon to your list of things you know about Jesus. You can all clap and pretend that it was a great sermon and go home and be the same. Or you can forget about me now and answer Jesus’ invitation, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) He’s here now. Right now, he’s here. That’s not just some theology. That’s not just something written down. It’s real. The One who died and rose for you is here now and he wants to touch you tonight. Won’t you press in and let him touch you tonight.
c. 2002 Rev. Stephan Brown