Sunday, May 5, 2019

Phil Kniss: I could be wrong

Easter 3: New Ways of Seeing
Acts 9:1-20; John 21:1-14

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These could be the four most underused words in the English language.
I could be wrong.
Just not cool to admit that out loud.
We all think it, of course.
Self-doubt is epidemic.
Many people live in constant fear, not just of being wrong,
but being wrong in a big way,
of not being worthy of my status or position,
of being found out by others as a fraud,
of not being enough, as a person.

This is true for people all the way up the social ladder.
Self-doubt and insecurity afflicts
superstar athletes and actors and politicians and presidents.
Maybe especially presidents.
They all live with some measure of self-doubt.
They just never say it out loud.

“I could be wrong.”
What is so hard about stringing those words into a sentence,
and really meaning it?

So much of the current state of our polarized society,
and the hostile mean-spirited rhetoric
that characterizes our politics and public life,
is a result of people trying to hide their uncertainty.
At least, that’s the conclusion I reached,
when I did my armchair social analysis.

But I could be wrong.

Now, being secure in our knowledge of something,
being comfortable with a particular foundational truth-claim,
that’s all well and good.
It can be, and often is, spiritually grounding for us
to be confident and personally secure in our faith claims.
Especially faith claims that are not just my personal assertions,
but are rooted in the wisdom of scripture,
and tested by a discerning faith community.
A confident faith is not what I’m talking about.

But when my (or our) Christian confidence and security
starts getting expressed to others in a forceful way,
or gets inserted into my relationships as a tool
for winning arguments or bullying my opponents,
or if my certainty becomes an excuse to demean others,
and openly declare other groups
as misguided or stupid or even less-than-human,
then I have moved from wholesome Christian faith
to a dangerous religious zeal that bears little resemblance
to the faith of Jesus of Nazareth.

The two stories we heard in our scripture readings today,
are prime examples
of the danger of not admitting, “I could be wrong.”

Let’s look at Acts 9
This is the famous story of Saul on the road to Damascus.
It’s often referred to as Saul’s “conversion.”
I think there’s a better word.
Saul, who was later renamed Paul,
did not convert from one religion to another.
He was, and remained, a Jew, to the core.
He also did not have a so-called spiritual experience,
that convicted him of his personal sins.

That dramatic encounter on the road,
changed his mind about God’s activity in Jesus.
The Greek word for “changing your mind” is repentance.
This is the story of Saul repenting,
changing his way of seeing things and thinking about things.

Before the blinding light hit him on the road,
Saul was not an evil, cruel, and blood-thirsty oppressor,
who finally saw how vile he was,
and gave up his evil ways.

No, no, and no.
Before . . . and after . . . the encounter on the road,
Saul was a zealot for his faith,
for his people, for his God, for his tradition.
He believed his religious framework
was right and holy and God-breathed.
It was essential for salvation.
It was a necessary good that needed to be preserved.

So, long before his Damascus Road experience,
he was full of zeal to preserve the good,
he was in an epic struggle on behalf of Torah, the Temple,
and the kingdom of God.
He was in a struggle on behalf of God himself who called him.
He had a letter from God’s high priest that proved it.
Saul could plainly see, along with other religious leaders,
that this growing movement called “People of the Way”
was a threat to their future as a Jewish people.

Under occupation by the brutal Roman Empire,
it was to their benefit to peacefully coexist
until the political situation changed.
If this new movement gained ground,
Herod and Caesar could easily turn against the whole Jewish people,
and they could all be wiped out, permanently.

Saul knew he was right about this.
And he was doing God a favor by fighting for the right.
It was with a pure heart and a clean conscience
that he went around from town to town
leading the effort to tamp down this resistance,
throwing people in prison,
ensuring their eventual sentence and execution.
He was on God’s side.
He had no doubt that God was pleased with him.
Or if he did, he didn’t show it.

But then the personal encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus,
radically changed Paul’s frame.
He suddenly saw the world differently,
ironically, the moment he was struck blind.

And after several days,
and one pivotal pastoral visit by a reluctant Ananias,
Saul’s blindness was healed,
and he was brought into the emerging community
of this “People of the Way,” followers of Jesus.
His zeal for God and God’s purposes continued undiminished.
His zeal was redirected, but it was undiminished,
and the motivation for his activity remained exactly the same—
to further the purposes of the God of Israel,
and help usher in the reign of God.

When I really think about it,
this story both inspires me,
and scares the hell out of me.
And no, I didn’t just cuss.
I meant that literally.

It scares me to think that my zeal for God
could become co-opted by the devil—
that my heavenly intentions could have hellish consequences.

Thank God that Saul’s good, rational religious framework
was reconstructed,
and his zeal redirected.
Otherwise, this world may never have known
about this fringe movement within Judaism.
Our faith history would be very different.

But see what it took to make him re-think things.
A blinding encounter with Jesus himself on the Damascus Road.
It took an existential crisis that could not be missed,
and could not be explained away or misinterpreted.

It causes me to wonder,
how many deeply-held religious convictions do I hold on to
for good reason,
and with sound logical foundation,
but might be skewed?
might be pointing people away from the kingdom,
instead of toward it?
And what would it take for me to say,
“I could be wrong.”

That’s a sobering question.
And it’s one that everyone of us should be asking ourselves.

This cuts across the whole theological spectrum.
This is not a defense of liberalism against conservatism . . .
or vice-versa.
I’m not arguing for uncritical openness to everything.

All of us need to ask ourselves hard questions from time to time.
What I believe to be true,
that to which I am whole-heartedly committed,
does it ever have the effect of preventing one of God’s children
from experiencing the full and whole life God intends for them?
Can I imagine that ever being the case?
And if so, can I imagine myself saying, “I could be wrong.”

Now, in the case of Saul of Tarsus,
he didn’t just end up saying, “I could be wrong.”
He saw, and admitted, “I was entirely wrong.”
But remember, he got knocked off his donkey with a bolt of lightning,
and heard a voice from heaven.

For myself, short of a blinding encounter on a Damascus road,
I may have little choice
but to continue my journey with some ambiguity.
My walk with Jesus, and with the Jesus people,
may always have a measure of “I could be wrong,”
that I just live with.
What this may teach us, today,
is to hold to our convictions with some humility.

Not suggesting at all that we stop believing it’s true,
or stop living as if it’s true.
No, I do well to name and affirm what I believe to be true,
and to the best of my ability, God helping me,
I will live by what I believe to be true at this time.
But I am also going to nurture a holy openness of mind and spirit.
God still speaks.
So I will keep listening.
Since “I could be wrong.”

The thing about having illusions,
is that nobody knows it when they have one.
Saul lived with an illusion that had deadly consequences
for lots of people.
And he had no idea it was an illusion.
It took a major wallop up-side the head
for him to be given the gift of dis-illusionment.

I may not ever have a Damascus Road encounter
to dispel the illusions I have.
So, humility is in order, it seems to me.
I will still hold my beliefs to be true.
I will still adhere to my values with consistency and integrity,
to the best of my ability.
But I must also be humble,
if I am to learn anything from the heroes of faith in scripture.

Perhaps a worthy way to measure
my faith-filled and faith-motivated actions,
is to ask myself the hypothetical question,
“What IF I was wrong?”
You don’t have to doubt your belief to ask that question.
So what would the likely consequences be,
if a particular conviction turned out to be mistaken?
Who will have paid for my error?

I imagine that the Apostle Paul,
throughout the rest of his powerful ministry
on behalf of Christ and the church,
was haunted many times by the stark realization
that his own illusions led to
the suffering and death of many disciples of Jesus.

In his letters,
it does seem at times that Paul is writing like a man with a past.
Like he’s trying to live into the forgiveness and grace
that he knows God has extended to him,
but which is nevertheless hard to accept.

So as I evaluate the way I pontificate about what I believe,
I would be well to reflect, even as a thought experiment,
“What if I was wrong?”
Who would be harmed?
I should seek to conduct myself with such humility and grace,
that I won’t have burned any bridges behind me,
that I won’t have cut myself off from those who differ from me,
that I won’t have demeaned or bullied anyone,
and made it that much harder for me
to make things right with them,
in the event I ever change my mind,
or . . . to make it harder for the other to repent,
in the event they change their mind.

The Gospel story this morning
was also about the gift of disillusionment that Jesus gave to Peter.
I won’t expound on it,
so read it again sometime from this angle.
Peter spent about three years following Jesus,
holding on to an illusion about who Jesus was,
and how Jesus would exercise his power.
When Jesus willingly walked into the clutches
of Rome and the Jewish leaders,
and took the punishment handed to him,
Peter was completely confounded.
That was his Damascus Road.
He was struck blind.
He could not see a way forward.
So when he couldn’t make sense of anything,
he went back to what he knew—fishing.

And then Jesus came to him on the shoreline,
gently inviting him back,
gently inviting him to see with new eyes.
Jesus gave him the gift of disillusionment.
With a simple call to love,
Jesus helped Peter to begin to see a larger truth.

May we also, motivated by
deep love for Jesus,
deep devotion to God’s reign in the world,
deep commitment to being part of God’s people, and
deep compassion for all who are missing out on God’s shalom,
may we move through life confident and secure in faith,
while open to the high probability
that I have much to learn, and much to repent of.

Open our eyes, Lord. We want to see Jesus.

—Phil Kniss, May 5, 2019

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