Experiences of Divinity

St. John’s United Methodist Church of Baltimore
Rev. Jackson H. Day, Pastor
Third Sunday of Easter, May 1, 2022[1]

         We human beings have relationships, connections with others that have a degree of mutuality – I relate to you, and you relate to me.  We have relationships with people, and we have relationships with animals who recognize us and trust us and depend upon us.  And we have attachments which are one way.  I still have the terrycloth panda I was given when I was 9 months old.  The panda doesn’t relate to me, but I relate to it.  Some years ago some people had pet rocks, when that was the rage.  

         And when you come to church, you hear people talking about a relationship with God.  Is that a different kind of relationship?  Is our relationship with God similar to our relationships with others, or is it something different?  

         It frustrates me sometimes when someone dies, and I am told that they have gone to be with God.  Can’t we be with God when we’re still here?  Whatever happened to “he walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own?”

         Some would say our relationships with others are about this life and this world, and our relationship with God is about the next life and the next world.  In this world we have living people, animals and flowers, spaceships and asteroids, suns and stars.  There is another world in which we find heaven and hell, God, Jesus, miracles, saints, answers to questions science can’t answer, and all the people who are dead. 

         There’s a hymn that was immensely popular a century and a half ago.  A musician named Joseph Webster visited a friend, who noticed that Webster seemed to be depressed.  “I’ll be OK by and by,” Webster responded.  The friend, named Fillmore Bennett, hoping to help his friend, quickly wrote a poem based on those words and gave them to Webster.  Webster took the poem and immediately set it to music.  The resulting song has been recorded in our lifetime by Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton.  Here are the words:

There’s a land that is fairer than day
And by faith we can see it afar
For the Father waits over the way
To prepare us a dwelling place there
In the sweet by and by
We shall meet on that beautiful shore

We shall sing on that beautiful shore
The melodious songs of the blessed
And our spirit shall sorrow no more
Not a sign for the blessing of rest
In the sweet by and by
We shall meet on that beautiful shore

         As Christians we do pray for each other, and our relationships offer consolation.   This hymn is a variation on the consoling words, “things will get better.”  And we do believe that things will get better, if not in this life, then in the next life.  The hymn was popular with the Salvation Army, which worked with people who might well need to wait until the next life in order for this to get better – or so they believed.  But it negates the question, “to what extent do we wait for the next life and to what extent must we work for social justice in this one?”


         Not everyone was happy with the Salvation Army and this song.  A Swedish immigrant who came to America in 1902,  Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, also known as Joseph Hillström, finally became best known with the name Joe Hill:  a labor activist and song writer.  He was a leading light of the radical labor organization The Industrial Workers of the World – known as the Wobblies – writing many radical songs for them.  Joe Hill saw how religion was being used to keep oppressed workers from ending their oppression.  In 1911 Joe Hill wrote some alternate words to the song we just read.  Joe Hill’s words have been sung by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Utah Phillips.  This is now from the 19th edition of the “Little Red Songbook”:

Long-haired preachers come out every night
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right
But when asked how ‘bout something to eat
They will answer in voices so sweet

You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

And the Starvation Army, they play
And they sing and they clap and they pray
Till they get all your coin on the drum
Then they tell you when you’re on the bum

You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

Holy Rollers and Jumpers come out
And they holler, they jump and they shout
Give your money to Jesus, they say
He will cure all diseases today.

If you fight hard for children and wife
Try to get something good in this life
You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell
When you de you will sure go to hell.

Workingmen of all countries, unite
Side by side we for freedom will fight
When the world and its wealth we have gained
To the grafters we’ll sing this refrain:

You will eat, bye and bye
When you’ve learned how to cook and how to fry
Chop some wood, ‘twill do you good
Then you’ll eat in the sweet bye and bye.

         I read one account of a stereotypical mining town where there was a pretty little Episcopal church on the hilltop near the mine owner’s estate, attended by the mine owner and other notables in the town, and they were happy to give financial support to the Pentecostal church in the valley attended by the coal miners because the church assured the coal miners that though conditions were rough in this life, they should just put up with them, because they could look forward to better in the next.  


         Some modern religious writing about social justice uses the term “empire” to identify entities that oppose social justice.  In Bible times empire had a bad ring.  It was the empires of its enemies that captured and oppressed ancient Israel and Judah.  It was the Roman Empire that oppressed the people of Palestine in the time of Jesus and the time of the Acts of the Apostles.  It was the later Roman Empire that changed Christianity when it made Christianity the official religion of the empire.  

         So in looking at forces today which oppose the Christian message of social justice, forces which are either not bothered by oppression or actively promote it, where would we see Empire today?  Certainly in Vladimir Putin’s dreams of a restored Russian empire.  Certainly in Islamic States’ picture of a new Caliphate in the middle east.  But in the United States?  Would Empire not describe the plutocrats who owned the factories and mines that Joe Hill was trying to organize?  Would Empire not describe the plutocrats who increasingly own large segments of the American economy, from media to trade?  Would Empire not describe those who promote disharmony of race and sexual orientation in order to further their own purposes?


         So now let’s take a look at some of the figures in this morning’s lectionary and see what they tell us!

         The story we read from the book of Acts[2] is the Road to Damascus story in which Saul, the persecutor of Christians, became Paul, the missionary who brought the Christian faith to lands around the Mediterranean.  Does Saul have a weekday world and a Sunday world?  Saul has an experience of divinity.  Does it take him away from the world he lives in, or does it push him farther into it?  

         Saul does not convert from Judaism to Christianity.  Saul never stopped seeing himself as a Jew.  But Saul made a dramatic change.  What was it?  The religious leaders Saul was supporting in his war on the new followers of Christ were a part of the Roman Empire.  The change Saul made in those first three days in Damascus was that as Paul, he stopped serving the Empire.  Paul experienced the Divine, and the result was to change who Paul served.

         There’s another character in this morning’s Acts story:  Ananias.  Ananias was already a follower of Christ; there was already a small community of followers in Damascus.  But they were fearful and had to be careful, because if they attracted the attention of the Empire and its various agents, they could all lose their lives.  In the Acts story, we hear that God spoke to Ananias and told him to go see Paul. Ananias knew of Paul’s reputation; Paul represented the Empire!  

         No, God told him, Paul no longer represents the Empire; you are to go to him and make him welcome.  Doing that took courage on Ananias’ part because in a police state you have to be very careful who you trust.  Even appearing to reconcile with one’s enemies required great personal risk.  


         And in the lectionary’s Gospel lesson we have some others who experienced the divine.[3]  How does that take place?  Jesus, who was crucified by the Empire, serves them breakfast.

         Perhaps Peter lived in two worlds, one in which Jesus lived and one in which Jesus didn’t.  After the crucifixion he had seen one or two appearances of Jesus, but most of the time, Jesus was no longer with the disciples.  Jesus was not with them 24/7 as he had been before the cross.  So Peter had moved to a world in which Jesus’ presence as not a reality.

         What do you do when someone no longer seems present?  You do what is comfortable.  You do what you know.  For Peter, it meant getting the fishing boat out and going to catch fish.  They fished at night.  By dawn, no fish.  A figure stood on the shore but they didn’t recognize him.  “Catch any fish?”  “Not at all.”  “Well then, try lowering your nets on the other side of the boat!”  And the nets were full of fish.  One of the disciples – that mysterious one “that Jesus loved” – recognized Jesus and said, “It’s the Lord.”  Jesus tells them, “I’ve got a fire.  Bring some of the fish, and let’s have breakfast.”

         At breakfast they lived in one world in which there were fishermen, there were fish, and there was breakfast.  And there was Jesus who had confronted the Empire, been crucified, and somehow emerged victorious on the other side.  One world.  

         It was a world that included social justice.  It was a world that included restorative justice.  Jesus had a task to accomplish with Peter.  Peter on whom Jesus would build the church.  Peter who had betrayed Jesus three times.  The Empire would say that the one who betrays does immeasurable harm and must be punished.  But Jesus?  Jesus asked Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  And Peter responded, “Yes, Lord, you know I do.”  Jesus asked him twice more.  Could it have been that Jesus needed to ask Peter one time for each of Peter’s betrayals?  Each time, Peter said yes, more vehemently.  Each time Jesus responded, “Feed my sheep.”  

         When you feed someone, you give them the nourishment they need.  For sheep it’s both grass to eat and protection from wolves.  For human beings, it’s not just food for the body, but it’s food for the soul – and we are created with the soul of God the creator, we are created to have agency, to accomplish things – and not to be slaves of anyone.  For Jesus to tell Peter, “Feed my Sheep” was to tell Peter, “Give people something that will help them stand up to the Empire.”

         For those whose lives were touched by Jesus and Peter and Paul, there was no Sunday world and weekday world, there was just one world.


         We live in one world, not two.  God is present in this life, not just the next. Justice and Peace are intended for this life, not just the next.  Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you.” We read that at funerals to console ourselves that there is a place for those who have died, and that is indeed true, but nothing in the Bible tells us that the place that Jesus has gone to prepare does not start right now, right here.  In this world.

         The writer of the article I read about Joe Hill referred to his song as non-religious.  No, I don’t think so.  I think Joe Hill was profoundly religious.

[1] Lectionary: Acts 5:27-32, Ps 118:14-29, Ps 150, Rev 1:4-8, John 20:19-31

[2] Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
9:1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest
9:2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
9:3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.
9:4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
9:5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
9:6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
9:7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.
9:8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
9:9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
9:10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”
9:11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying,
9:12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”
9:13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem;
9:14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”
9:15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel;
9:16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
9:17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
9:18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized,
9:19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus,
9:20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

[3] John 21:1-19

21:1 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.

21:2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.

21:3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

21:4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.

21:5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.”

21:6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.

21:7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.

21:8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

21:9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread.

21:10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”

21:11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.

21:12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.

21:13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.

21:14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

21:15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

21:16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

21:17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

21:18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”

21:19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”