Encountering Christ

I have lived most of my life in the Deep South, but my last job took me to New York City where I lived for two and a half years. Being in this fascinating city on a regular basis was quite an adventure. For example, I became alert to sightings of celebrities and other famous people, who, as it turns out, eat at restaurants, shop, and otherwise carry on somewhat normal lives like the rest of us.

One time as we were going through the security line at LaGuardia Airport, our daughter exclaimed to me with whispered excitement, "Mommy, do you see who that is?" She had spotted a famous member of a rock band just ahead of us, and we both were star struck. We lingered as we unloaded our boxes from the screening machine just so we could watch him tie his shoes.

Something akin to star-power pervades the gospel reading today. Much to the disciples' surprise, Jesus walks on water in the midst of a storm. They can hardly believe their eyes. They are scared to death. Their fear is no doubt compounded by their fatigue from trying to manage the boat all night in heavy winds. But Jesus reassures them with that comforting phrase repeated frequently in scripture, "Do not be afraid."

Then Peter boldly ventured, "If it's really you, call me to come to you." Jesus, of course, replies, "Come." Peter climbed out of the boat, began to walk on the water and then got scared all over again. It's as if he gets star struck by what Jesus can do but then second-guesses what his own eyes, ears and heart perceive. Then that awful sinking feeling sets in, and he says to himself, "This amazing, miraculous thing cannot be happening." And, of course, at that point, he is in over his head.

Peter cries out for Jesus to save him, and Jesus responds quickly. They both get into the boat and the winds die down. In a spirit of true worship, those who have just witnessed these astonishing events declare Jesus to be the Son of God.

It must have been truly remarkable to encounter Christ in this new, quite shocking way. His presence produces extraordinary, even miraculous, results. You can feel his power just by being nearby. Jesus literally saves Peter's life and restores the disciples' ability to navigate the seas.

Yet why should anyone be so surprised. Throughout his ministry, Jesus powerfully and consistently unveils God's love and redeeming grace, even without the drama of the stormy sea or anyone walking on water. In Jesus, God's abiding presence is brought close to each of us, whether in a crisis, a mountaintop experience or in everyday encounters.

Have you felt the powerful presence of grace lately? Have you run into any miracles of love or wonderful abundance of mercy when you least expected it? Have you found reassurance in the midst of stormy experiences or calm and comfort when, like Peter, you fear that you're in over your head? If so, perhaps you've felt the miraculous company of Christ.

Psalm 105 tells us to remember with grateful hearts the goodness of God's faithfulness to us. "O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples . . .tell of all his wonderful works." What are the memories from your faith journey when you encountered God's wonderful works, when you felt the powerful presence of Christ nearby to lift you up and calm you down?

Many experiences come to mind when I meditate on these passages. I want to share two. One is from far away in Kenya, and the other from the place I called home for many years, South Carolina.

In 1975, I was among about 30 representatives of The United Methodist Church to an assembly of about a 1000 delegates from over 300 different Christian churches. This meeting, convened by the World Council of Churches in Kenya, was the first of its kind to be held in Africa. It inevitably focused special attention on human rights violations. Many church leaders who gathered were from countries where Christians and others experienced first hand the crushing weight of oppression.

Getting Christians from all over the world together always involves intense, sometimes heated, discussion and debate. One of the controversies at the Nairobi Assembly focused on a sculpture made by Guido Rocha, a Brazilian artist. This figure is a large, life-size crucifix. Unlike most portrayals of Jesus hanging on the cross, however, this one is quite shocking. Its title is "The Tortured Christ." Jesus depicted on this cross is emaciated and screaming in pain and rage. It represents Christ's identification with those who have endured torture and other forms of violence.

I had never encountered such a portrayal of Jesus. I was so shocked I had to sit down and meditate on it when a friend took me to the basement to see it. The meeting organizers had removed it from public viewing because many delegates found the sculpture so deeply disturbing. I was awed by this depiction of Jesus' death. I found it fascinating and believable. Crosses were used in Jesus' day for executions precisely because they caused so much pain.

Paradoxically, I have found this particular display of Christ's agony to give me comfort across the years. As Peter discovered when he thought he would drown, God is with those who experience fear, pain and distress.

I have never experienced torture and likely never will. I don't want to diminish the pain and suffering of those who have been tortured. But those of us who will never know first hand such horrific forms of violence do throughout our lives encounter pain and distress in other ways. We all suffer in one way or another.

Buddhists tell us that all life is suffering. This is not a dismal commentary, although it sounds that way. It's simply a statement of fact. No one escapes. The issue is not do we suffer but rather how do we respond to the reality of our own suffering and that of others. At times I certainly have lost my sense of balance and confidence. Like Peter, I've had that awful sinking feeling of drowning in life's challenges. In those times, I have found myself meditating on the Brazilian artist's crucifix portraying the tortured Christ screaming in agony.

The Zulu of southern Africa have a proverb. They say that when the toe has a thorn, the whole body stoops over to pull it out. At its best, the Christian body (community) is the body of Christ ready to pluck the thorn of suffering from the wounds we all experience. God in Christ provides a powerful presence with all who experience fear and despair, just as Jesus rescued Peter and calmed the stormy seas.

The second story I want to tell is about a Hindu woman, Arunima, who migrated to the US from India as a newlywed some decades ago. She played an important role in my faith journey when together she and I helped to form an interfaith group for women in Columbia, SC.

Unitarian, Bahai, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist women would sit with those of us from the Christian tradition, including mainline Protestants, Catholics and evangelicals. We shared experiences, concerns, songs, sacred texts, prayers, and stories of our faith. We didn't try to resolve our differences. We simply shared them. Some of these women of other faiths prayed for our daughter when she was chronically sick, and in doing so they were for me the embodiment of Christ's compassion. I came to know more about my religious beliefs because I got a glimpse of theirs.

Arunima once observed that during our times of sharing some of the Christian women were shy and somewhat apologetic about their faith. "You Christians are eager to confess and analyze the problems that Christians have," she said, "but you are much less prone to share the depth of your faith conviction." If I put Arunima's words in the vernacular, I would say her message is this: Your witness is so anemic, wimpish and guilt-ridden, why would anyone sign up to be on your team?

But, of course, Arunima was much more gracious. Why, she asked? Why do you seem so apologetic?

Some of the Christian women responded that being from the majority religion, they were eager to be polite and careful, listening and learning from their sisters of other religions, rather than dominating them. Most of the models we experience for sharing testimonies of faith, they said, are aggressive, triumphalistic monologues, not invitational dialogues. We need to learn new, dialogical models, they said.

Forging interfaith relations with integrity is not easy whether we find ourselves in the majority or minority. I had not been one of the shy ones among the women's interfaith group, but I think, I hope, I was polite and careful. In any case, I found myself pondering Arunima's admonition about Christians speaking more convincingly of our faith, this sermon from a devout Hindu woman probing the nature of Christian witness. I became more convinced than I had been before that as Christians we must express the depth of our passion about a life in Christ in more convincing ways. We all would be richer for learning more of each other's faith journey, our various and often remarkable encounters of the living Christ. As Paul says in Romans 10, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"

Have you felt the powerful presence of Christ's love lately? Have you run into any miracles of mercy or a weighty, wonderful abundance of grace in the midst of life's raging storms? Have you found faith coming to the rescue when you're about to drown in those awful sinking feelings of despair and fear?

If so, have you told anyone about it? Have you shared the experience of your faith journey, thus multiplying the possibility that others will come to know the life-transforming power of the one we call Christ?

Would you join me in prayer?

Dear God, thank you for those encounters with the Living Christ that we have every day. Help us to search for the compassion of Christ, the comfort of Christ, and the reality that we really don't have to be afraid in those situations of distress and fear. Help us to be mindful of your presence in our lives every day. Amen.