If our life really is most deeply about our relationship with God, then it is about Jesus. It is by looking at Jesus and spending time with Jesus that we see who God really is. It is by getting to know Jesus that we come to experience God’s incredible love for us.
I know – it’s Lent. I should be writing about sin or hell or some other equally uplifting topic. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about Jesus. Until a few years ago, I would have agreed with the statement, “It would have been great to have lived back in the first century and been able to hear Jesus teach, to see him heal, to share a meal with him.” There’s no doubt it would have been great. But Jesus himself promises us something even better than the experiences his disciples had when he walked the earth.
On the night before he was crucified, Jesus told the disciples, “But in fact, it is best for you that I go away, because if I don’t, the Advocate won’t come. If I do go away, then I will send him to you” (John
15:7). How can it be best for the disciples that Jesus is going to leave them? Could it get any better than being with Jesus, walking the dusty roads of Israel and Galilee? Yes. Having the Holy Spirit – the Advocate – live within them would be better. Having Jesus always present (“Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” [Matthew 28:20]) would be better. You never hear Peter, James or John saying in their letters, “You know, you should have been there when Jesus was walking the earth with us. Those were the days! I wish Jesus were here in bodily form again.” None of them say that. As far as we know, none of the disciples who knew and loved Jesus and ate and drank with him ever grew nostalgic for the “good old days” when Jesus walked the earth as a real flesh-and-blood human being. (Thanks to Wayne Jacobsen for this insight.)
Somehow, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples experienced Jesus in an even deeper way than they had when he was with them during their three years of following him around. Even Paul,
who probably never met Jesus before the crucifixion (and even if he did, he certainly didn’t follow him or even like him) never says, “I wish I would have gotten to know Jesus before he died and rose.” Instead, Paul says things like, “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” (Philippians 3:8-9). For Paul, knowing Jesus makes everything else inconsequential. Knowing Jesus is the greatest thing in the world for Paul, and Paul never met him until after the crucifixion and resurrection.
What this says to me is that we can meet Jesus, too. We can have an experience of his presence and his love that is amazing and that reorients everything we think and do. This doesn’t necessarily mean
some kind of overwhelming supernatural experience (although people I respect have had such experiences and I’m sure these kinds of experiences still happen). But it does mean a real sense of Christ’s presence and of his leading in our lives. When we pray and listen to him, we do get a sense of the direction he is leading us. Sometimes that is dramatic, but more often than not it is a growing confidence over time (it could be months or years) that God is drawing us in a certain direction.
Both ways of experiencing God are equally real.
Someone could object that we’ll be mistaken about God’s leading. After all, it does sound sort of mystical. Can we be wrong about where we feel that God is leading us? Of course! People misunderstood Jesus all the time when he preached and taught in the first century. His closest disciples often had no idea what he was talking about. (“Beware the yeast of the Pharisees,” Jesus says, and the disciples start to worry that they don’t have any bread. The silly thing about their worrying is that Jesus says this right after he feeds 5,000 people – with bread and fish. When you’re with Jesus you don’t need to worry about lunch. Somehow they miss it. [See Matthew 16:5-12.]) But that doesn’t mean that we cannot really experience God’s love and direction in our lives. And if we check our sense of God’s leading against the Bible and other believers whom we trust, we can prevent ourselves from simply indulging our own desires and calling it God’s leading.
The New Testament tells us that the early followers of Jesus experienced his presence and power. There is a strand of church tradition that says that experiencing Jesus’ presence and power in extraordinary ways was only for the early church. But there’s no biblical reason to believe that. And there are plenty of people who do continue to experience God as real and loving and faithful. This doesn’t mean all problems go away or that we constantly live in a sentimental feeling of “everything’s going to be okay.” It does mean an exciting walk with an active God who does not abandon us, even in the worst times. Jesus didn’t say, “Stick with me and your life will be easy and you’ll always be happy.” He did say, “In the world you will have a lot of trouble. But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Spend some time talking to God. Spend some time listening for God’s voice. Spend some time reading the gospels to see more of who Jesus is. Ask God to make himself real to you, and ask to experience his
love for you. That might be a good discipline for Lent (and beyond). Sure beats giving up chocolate.