In this chapter I would like to share with you some thoughts on a personal encounter, and experience of Jesus, as my personal Saviour. The gospels are in between two phrases: at the beginning "Come and see"; and at the end "Go and tell". The shepherds at Bethlehem were told the message by angels, which is a fairly reliable authority, but immediately they said "Let us go to Bethlehem, and see this thing for ourselves, which the Lord has made known to us."
It is a long journey from the head down to the heart, from knowing something to really believing it. Knowledge up in the head is academic knowledge, the kind of knowledge I might need to answer questions in an exam. Knowledge down in the heart is experiential knowledge, the kind of knowledge I would have about the Grand Canyon, if I visited it, and spent some time walking around there, studying it. I could talk about it, but you would need to see it yourself before you could understand what it looks like.
Of experiential knowledge it could be said that, for those who don't understand, no words are possible, while, for those who do understand, no words are necessary. You needed to have a car serviced, and I recommended a friend of mine, because I tell you he does a good job, and he does not overcharge. If you decide to leave your car with him, you are acting on belief in what I told you. When you get your car back, you discover that the mechanic did a good job, and he had not overcharged you. The next time you need to have your car serviced, you go back to the same man, and, this time, you are acting on faith, because now you know, you have found out for yourself, you no longer need anyone to tell you.
Faith is acting on what I come to experience for myself, after I had acted on some kind of belief, if you know what I mean! It involves eventually getting down into my heart, opening a door there, and inviting Jesus to come in, and take over.
Some years ago, I used accompany pilgrimages to the Holy Land. We would visit Bethlehem, Nazareth, Calvary, and all the places associated with Jesus, when he walked on this earth. After the group returned to Dublin airport, my final message to them was "Now you have been to the Holy Land, you have no need to return there. From here in, the Holy Land must be in your heart, because, unless Incarnation — God coming to live in a body — happens in you, there is little point in going out to Israel, to celebrate something that happened there a few thousand years ago.
If Jesus came to take on human nature, and human weakness, he must be allowed take on yours, or it will all pass you by. There is nothing automatic about Jesus. Simeon, in the temple, said that Jesus came for the fall as well as the resurrection of many. It all depends on us, whether we accept or reject him. The morning after arriving in Jerusalem, with the pilgrimage group, we always began on the Mount of the Ascension. After visiting there, we used walk down a pathway, towards the Garden of Gethsemane, at the foot of the hill. Half-way down the path, we would visit a little church, which is built in the shape of a tear. It was in this spot that Jesus cried, as he looked across the Kedron valley, at the city of Jerusalem. As he cried, he said "Salvation was within your grasp, and you would not accept it. Now your enemies will surround you on every side, and your temple will be destroyed, and will be left with not one stone upon another."
It is very realistic to look across the same Kedron valley today, thousands of years later, and see soldiers walking or driving around, heavily armed, because they know that their enemies surround them on every side. As for the temple, it is a complete ruin, that can never be re-built. Somewhere in the ruins is the Holy of Holies, that most sacred spot in a temple, where no Jew would dare set foot, and so they cannot enter there now, for fear of standing on such sacred ground. Therefore, they cannot go in to begin building, and the temple can never be re-built. It is a touching reminder, many years later, that there is no peace outside of Jesus Christ. On the very night Jesus was born, it was announced that he came to bring peace on earth to those of good-will.
It is about coming to know Jesus, not just know about him. Knowing about him is in my head, knowing him is in my heart. A group of men chatted one night about good and bad memories. As a result, people were asked to test their memories by reciting something they had learned earlier in life. One young man opted to recite the psalm "The Lord is my Shepherd". He had excellent diction, and a gift for the dramatic, and when he was finished, there was thunderous applause, and he had to recite it a second and a third time. The next man opted to recite the very same psalm. He was elderly, and stooped, and it was difficult to hear him, as he began "The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want..." There was something about the way he recited it that caused everyone to remain silent when he finished, and, indeed, some even whispered a quiet prayer. The first young man to recite the psalm, stood up, and explained the different reception to the two recitals of the same psalm. "It's obvious to me", he said, "that I know the psalm, but that old man, he knows the shepherd."
And, that, dear reader, is at the very heart of what I hoping to share in this chapter.
Jesus is a very personal God. He asked his disciples "Who do people say that I am?" and when they told him, he followed up with the crunch question, "And you, who do you say that I am?" At another time, as he spoke his message, some of those listening found it hard to take, and they turned and walked away. Jesus let them go, because they were free agents. However, he turned to those who remained, and asked them, "Will you also go away?" In other words, he is speaking to you personally.
It is very important to remember that the gospel is not just something that happened thousands of years ago. It can be that, as far as you are concerned, if you don't get personally involved. If, however, I believe that the gospel is now, and I am every person in the gospel, then it must take on a whole new life and urgency for me. I have my own blindness, in the many things I don't see, or don't wish to see. I have my own leprosy, in some of the less pleasant and pleasing aspects of my behaviour. I have my own demons of pride, jealousy, lust, or aggression. Yes, indeed, as in the gospel, Jesus of Nazareth is passing by, each and every day. Jesus did not, and does not, go around healing anybody. He went around, and goes around, with the power to heal, and it's up to the person on the side of the road whether he wants to be healed or not. Anyone who stopped him, and asked him, was healed. He doesn't give me anything; rather he offers me everything. Jesus said that he won't have to judge us at all, because the word he spoke to us will judge us. He goes on to say that, if he had not come, we would have an excuse for our sins, but, now that he has come and spoken, we no longer have any excuse.
There are many miracles in the gospel. If we look at some of these, we will notice that there are a few conditions for a miracle. The first condition is very very important. Peter had fished all night, and had caught nothing. He had failed. A little woman in the crowd had been ill for eighteen years, and had spent every penny she had on doctors, but was no better. She experienced failure. The centurion did all he could for his servant, and Jairus did everything for his daughter, and their best efforts just weren't good enough. That's the first condition, that I am convinced beyond all doubt that I don't have what it takes, that whatever I have, or whatever I'm doing, is just not enough.
The second condition for the miracle is knowing that Jesus can do for me what I cannot do for myself. "But, at your word," said Peter, "I will let down the net." "If I can only touch the hem of his garment," said the little woman in the crowd, "I will be healed." "Say but the word," said the centurion, "and my servant will be healed." Knowing that I cannot, and believing that he can, are the two conditions that produce miracles, and that is just as true today as it was when Jesus walked around the hills of Galilee.
Jesus was very definite that he never said anything unless the Father told him. So he told us the story about the son who got it all wrong, and then, when he came to his senses, he returned to his father, and was met with a hug. He told about two men praying in the temple, where one was boasting about how good he was, and how much better than the other guy he was, while the second man fell on his knees, admitted he was a sinner, and asked God to have mercy on him. That second man, said Jesus, was the good man in the eyes of God. He spoke about a shepherd, who would leave ninety-nine sheep, to go in search of one that was lost, and, when he found it, he carried it back on his shoulders, rejoicing that he had found it. He was forever reaching out to the broken, and the lost, assuring them that it was for such as they that he had come. He said that the healthy do not need a doctor, but those who are ill, and that he had come to find the lost sheep of the House of Israel.
Jesus was always getting into trouble with the Pharisees, and others who were very insistent on proper behaviour. They condemned Jesus for being friendly with public sinners, and the kind of person with which no self-respecting Jew would associate. For example, if I was told that Jesus was physically, visibly present in Dublin today, and I wanted to meet him, to make sure that I would meet him, I would go straight to the Iveagh or the Star of the Sea hostels, or to the Simon Community, because wherever there are broken or marginalised people, be sure you will find Jesus there. Any hope I have to coming into a personal relationship with Jesus is in exact proportion to the extent I can be honest, and get in touch with, and acknowledge my own brokenness.
Christianity is not about external behaviour, about producing nicer people with better morals. I could be a pagan and be a very nice person. It is not about prayer and fasting. No, Christianity is about something that happens inside. It is about Jesus being allowed take on my human nature, and my weaknesses. St Paul says that when someone becomes a Christian, that person becomes a brand new person inside - a whole new life has begun. Just as Jesus came up out of the Jordan river with the burden of human weaknesses on his back, and the power of God in his heart, so with the Christian, who still has his quota of human weaknesses, but he also has the power of God in his heart. "Check up on yourselves," says St. Paul. "Are you really Christian, or are you just pretending to be? Do you experience the power of God within you?" When Paul himself became a Christian, he could say "I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me."
Take someone like Padre Pio, or St. Francis, for example. The presence of Jesus within was so real, that they also had the wounds of Jesus on their bodies as well. There is a very real experiential level to this. In other words, if I have this power within, I will know, and so will those around me. This is not mere pie-in-the-sky stuff; this is for real. If Jesus is present, I will know it, and I won't ever have to presume it.
Mary and Joseph made that mistake one time. They were returning from Jerusalem one time, and they presumed that Jesus was somewhere in the crowd, but when they got home, they discovered he wasn't there at all, and they had to spend the following three days looking for him. By the way, I heard one time of a kid in school, when asked what Mary and Joseph did when Jesus was lost, and she answered, with total confidence, "They went down to the temple, and said three Hail Mary's to St. Anthony!"
Well, anyhow, they found him. I remember, many years ago, there was a preacher man on the back of a lorry, down in the market square of my own home town, and he was thumping the Bible, and talking about finding the Lord. There was a local man, at that time, who was simple, and who attended anywhere a crowd gathered, whether he was invited, was interested, or not. Anyhow, as the preacher got warmed up to this subject, our friend was in the front row, with his usual vacant stare on his face, and the preacher, not knowing him, mistook this to be some sort of spiritual rapture. He turned to our friend, and, with a dramatic gesture of his arms, he drew attention to him, as he asked, "And you, my dear man, have you found the Lord?", to which our hero replied "Naw, did you 'loss' him?" It is never a question of me looking for the Lord, as if he were the one always getting lost. I am the one he is seeking, and he will come to me at any time, in any place, and under each and every circumstance.
Jesus said that he would stay with us always, that he would never abandon us. He said he would not leave us orphans, and then he offered us his Father and his mother. He told us, however, that it would not work unless we became like children. One of the endearing qualities of children is their capacity to trust, and to accept love.
I remember, on his birthday, some years ago, a nephew of mine just accidentally mentioned that fact, in a phone call to me! I laughed, and was sure that everybody on the road knew it was his birthday. When he gets to my age, if he receives something for his birthday, his concern will be to find out when the other person's birthday is, to return the compliment, because, with us adults, there are no free lunches. We do not have the simplicity and the humility of the child, who is delighted with free gifts, and the more the merrier.
A father and mother, with their six-year old boy, went to the supermarket to do the weekly shopping. They were pushing a shopping trolley, as they loaded on their groceries. Eventually, they arrived at the check-out, and the father began putting the items on the conveyor belt for the girl to check them. Just then she turned to him, and said "There's no charge today, everything is free." The father smiles, telling her she is really funny, as he continues to take the items out of the trolley. Once again, the girl says that the goods are free, and, by now, the father, who is nobody's fool, is glancing around, convinced that this has got to be one of those candid camera set-ups. He glances at the girl, to ensure she has a name-tag. Maybe she has had a row with her boss, and this is how she is showing her defiance. By now, the father is beginning to think that enough is enough, and all he wants to do is pay for the groceries, and get out of here. And where, I ask you, is Junior? He heard the magic word "free", and he has just grabbed another trolley, and is flying around the supermarket, filling it with all the things he loves! That, says Jesus, is the heart of a child, who is totally convinced that, as I cannot earn it, I have to depend totally on getting everything for free
St Augustine said "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts will never be at rest, until they rest in you." There is something within the human heart that longs for what God is offering, because we know that God is offering something that we need. The gospel tells us the Jesus came to his own people, but they would not accept him. But to those who did accept him, he gave the right to become children of God. All they need do is accept him, and let him do what he came to do. Jesus has done all he can do, and, now, it is up to us whether we accept that, or not. St. Paul says that the formula for salvation is his blood and our faith. It is what he has done, and whether I believe that or not. Someone can come up with a cure for cancer, but nothing happens until I take that medicine. Despite all he has done, I can still choose to go it alone, and live as if Jesus hadn't come at all.
At Cana of Galilee, Mary told the waiters at the wedding to do whatever Jesus told them, and everything would be alright. In his day, there were many people who died of leprosy, or died as blind people, simply because they never asked him, and he just passed on down the road. From that first Christmas night, there have been many doors and many hearts closed against him. The average person going down the road believes in God, but may not be very convinced that they need him just now. Jesus offers me peace, but I'm totally free to live in misery, and die of ulcers, if I want to. He didn't want Judas to go out to hang himself, but he wouldn't stop him, because, in no way will Jesus bully us, or brow-beat us into listening to him, or accepting him.
There is one major problem with accepting the gospel, and Jesus spoke about that. He thanked his Father for giving a message that is so simple, that intellectuals, or those using the wisdom of the world, will never be able to understand. In other words, it makes no sense at all up in the head. Indeed, Simeon, in the temple, said that Jesus would be a sign of contradiction, because everything he does and says is so different from the so-called wisdom of this world. Unless I come down-stairs into my heart, I will not meet Jesus. Jesus did none of the great things the world proclaims, like leading an army, ruling a nation, or accumulating wealth, yet he is spoken of today all around the world, centuries after he appeared on this earth. Philosophers, theologians, and other people of wisdom, over the centuries, have discussed every word he said, and million of books have been written about him. However, and I think this is funny, if I had the simplicity and humility of a child, I would learn more about Jesus, by turning to him, myself, than I would from all the books in the world.
Kierkegaard, the philosopher, in speaking to Hegel, another philosopher, one time, said, "Aren't we philosophers extraordinary geniuses. We can take the simplest concept, and by the time we have put it in words, you can be sure no one will know what we are talking about. Last week, I was in Copenhagen, and I asked another philosopher for directions to a street not very far away, and he gave me a map of Europe!"
We can do the same with the message of Jesus. We can discuss it till the cows come home, and forget that Jesus wants decisions, not discussions. "You are either for me or against me," he said. When some of his followers walked away, because they considered what he was saying as too difficult for them to accept, he let them go. Instead, he turned to those who remained, and challenged them about where they stood, because their not leaving may not have been a definite decision to stay. Someone said that there are three groups of people in any society. There is a small group that cause things to happen, there's a larger group who watch things happening, and there's the vast majority who haven't a clue what's happening! Jesus will always challenge us to make up our mind, to decide for or against, because there's no in-between, as far as he is concerned.
In several of the remaining chapters in this series, I will be returning many times to the concept of Christian commitment, and to the various ways in which it can be approached. The plain fact is, that, we have nothing, and are nothing, outside of Jesus Christ. If he hadn't come to the rescue, the gates of heaven would be eternally closed against us. When he went down into the river Jordan, the heavens were opened. When he bowed his head in death, the veil of the temple was torn in two, and. for the first time, any one of us can enter into the presence of God. Jesus said that he is the way, and that no one can come to the Father except through him. He is now our Moses, leading us through the desert of life into the Promised Land.