There is a saying - “there’s no substitute for experience”. When it comes to being really sure about something, being certain about the truth of a matter, then experience is clearly an important factor. Theories are tested by experience. Our suspicions are confirmed or denied. We rarely doubt experience as a key to knowledge - if we have experienced something then we feel a strong conviction of facts.
What about for matters of faith? Is experience relevant? Perhaps all we need are other people’s testimonies of what they say happened to them. Maybe a familiarity with the Bible is enough; or, maybe not. Luke presents us with a story about two travellers on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They were sad, they had lost hope and they were confused. They thought that Jesus was a prophet “mighty in deed and word before God.” They understood what we call the Old Testament to have pointed towards someone who would redeem Israel and they thought this was Jesus. But, Jesus had been killed. He was dead, so that was that. Sure, they had heard some stories about some women who claimed to have seen a vision of angels telling them Jesus was alive and others had confirmed that the tomb was empty. But, as far as these travellers were concerned, that was not enough. Jesus was clearly dead and you don’t come back from death - that's final!
Then, later on in the story, we find these same two travellers dashing back to Jerusalem - 7 miles away - at night. You didn’t travel at night - there were no street lights and robbers and bandits as well as wild animals hid in wait for anyone foolish enough to stray out in the dark. Nevertheless, they rush back, convinced that Jesus is alive, desperate to tell others. They are full of joy, their hearts burning as they begin to understand.
So, what has made the difference? What has enabled these unhappy men without hope, convinced of Jesus’ death to suddenly be full of joy, enthusiasm and a certainty that Jesus is alive? The answer - they met Jesus and he enabled them to understand. It was an experience of the risen Jesus that overcame their doubts about the resurrection and it was an experience of having the Bible opened up to them by Christ that enabled them to gain a fuller understanding of what had been promised and what the Old Testament pointed forward to.
According to Luke, these disciples, like the others whom Jesus later appeared to, needed an experience to really change their mind and transform them. Maybe this is something that we also need? Perhaps we have a vague appreciation of who Jesus is; maybe we think he was a prophet. Possibly we have heard others tell us that they are convinced that Jesus is alive. We may have some understanding of Scripture that makes us think that Jesus could be someone special and think we know what the Old Testament is about. Yet, despite this, like those travellers we might need an experience to really change our minds. We may lack joy, enthusiasm, the certainty of conviction that Jesus has risen and feel we have little to share with others. Maybe we are confused. It could be that we need an experience of Jesus, an experience of the Bible suddenly being made clear to us so that our eyes are opened and our hearts transformed.
These travellers did not know in advance what their experience of Jesus was going to be. In fact, they thought there wasn’t going to be one at all. I’m sure like Thomas they thought “unless I meet the risen Jesus then I won’t believe it”. They weren't looking for a particular experience or emotional high. There was nothing they could do to make this encounter happen. But, they did have to make the choice to invite Jesus to join them. They could have let the moment pass, but they asked him to come with them, even though they still didn’t understand what was going on.
We do not know in advance how we might experience God or how we might ourselves meet Jesus. It is not likely to be in precisely the same way as these men did. But that does not make it any less real. Yearning to encounter him for ourselves and asking him to continue with us is all we can do. We don’t have to figure it all out ourselves. God can help us to understand, little by little. We don’t have to start from a position of strength and happiness - God will meet us in our sorrow, sadness, hopelessness and confusion.
This is not just something for people who are new to faith or are meeting Jesus for the first time. These men clearly had been in Jerusalem, probably seeing what Jesus had done before his death. They may well have heard him teach. This doesn’t mean that they would never again need to experience Jesus - Immanuel - God with us. No matter how long we have been people of faith, we can always benefit from Jesus’ presence by his Spirit. The Spirit continues to teach us individually and also corporately through gifted people and other means. The Spirit can bring us joy, hope, peace and the desire to tell others and overcome our fears.
We cannot manufacture encounters with God. We cannot force God to meet with us in a particular way. We can know that He is present, because God has promised to be with us. We can ask to be more aware and have our eyes opened so that we may see Him walking with us. So often, God is there with us and in the lives of those we love, but we fail to see it. God can help us to see.
God can help us to understand more about Him, about Jesus and the plans for the renewal of creation. As Paul writes in Ephesians 1, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places” (NRSV).
Jesus does not just meet with us once - he can do so again and again. We can feel a joy in our hearts as we read Scripture and can feel it coming alive and making sense. We can have our joy and hope rekindled by him meeting us in our confusion and sadness. When we turn to Jesus, he takes away the veil that hinders our understanding. By his Spirit, Jesus helps us to see and not only that, but to be transformed ever more into his likeness so that we reflect his glory. Until we experience the revealing power of the Spirit of Jesus at work in us, our minds are dull, unable to make sense of it all.
The good news is that this is not something for a special few, but for all of us. Peter was only able to understand and preach at Pentecost because God’s Spirit helped him to do so. He had a profound life-changing experience. He later goes on to say that this is for everyone who will turn to Christ - all can receive the promise.
Revelation 3:19-20 says, “I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (NRSV). Sometimes we choose to keep Jesus outside, refusing to open the door, refusing to ask him to join us on our journey. If we ask him in, if we repent, then he will join us and we can know the joy of being with him.
Do you need an encounter with God? Do you need to know the companionship and loving guidance and teaching of Jesus? Why not ask Jesus to come with you? Why not ask for an experience of our risen loving saviour by his Spirit that you might be freed to know and enjoy the truth and have the desire and strength to share it?
© Joe Lenton, Apr 2012