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You asked for a sermon on Spiritual Experiences


2 Cor. 12:2-10    Mark 9:2-9    Col. 1:9-14   Luke 11:24-26


1] We live in an age which craves psychedelic extravaganzas; we crave the most intense experiences. The movie theatre we patronize is the one with quadraphonic sound: the huge speakers, strategically placed, cause us to feel that we are at the foot of the mountain when the volcano erupts.

Then there is the IMAX picture screen at Ontario Place. To see the movie of the stunt flier is to feel you are a stunt flier yourself. (Also to learn that the movie is best not seen on a full stomach!)

We must not overlook the proliferation of sex manuals. Sex is now a high-skill performance ostensibly issuing in a high-intensity experience.

And then I hear the preacher say to young people, “Don’t get high on drugs; get high on Jesus.” I wince. Is not Jesus demeaned (to say the least) by speaking of him as a non-criminal substitute for a chemical hit?

People tell me they have never had a “religious experience”. Do they know what they are looking for? How would they know? How would a religious experience differ from a psychological experience or a human experience? Many such people flit from church to church, sect to sect, guru to guru, pursuing the ever-elusive religious experience.

Nonetheless, I understand what underlies their quest. A divinely-placed longing for the transcendent underlies their quest. We are made for God. Insofar as we do not know God we are aware of an emptiness, even though we cannot identify what is missing. A secularized world in fact cannot identify it as spiritual emptiness, but even a secularized world has an emptiness amounting to a vacuum.

A vacuum, everyone knows, does not remain a vacuum if there is anything ready-to-hand which can fill it, even fill it in the sense of clutter it. Paul insists that God has created humankind with a longing for God. Yet humankind is fallen. In the wake of the fall and the human distortion arising from the fall the longing for God is not recognized for what it is. As a result the vacuum gets cluttered with debris. The bottom line is a hunger for God which is always being fed with substitutes which are less than God.


2] You have asked for a sermon on spiritual experiences. My question to you is this: Do you want spiritual experiences (so-called), or do you want GOD, the holy one of Israel? Do you want a psychological “light-up”, or do you want to be known by and know, be embraced by and embrace the one who is indeed the creator, rescuer and sustainer of the cosmos and of your own existence?

In scripture the commonest metaphor for faith is marriage. I think we can help ourselves in sorting out the question which has given rise to today’s sermon if we ponder the nature of marriage. Do I want to be married or do I want an experience? I want to be married; I want the state of being married, the actuality of marriage. Insofar as I am married, then certain experiences appropriate to the actuality of marriage will follow naturally. But if I start by pursuing an experience which seems to be something like the experience of those who are married; if I start by pursuing an experience, then achieving this or that experience will never render me married, never confer the actuality of marriage. At best I shall be left with an experience which can only be described as an experience of “as if married”. “As if” gives it all away; “as if married” means “not married at all”. Therefore, whatever my experience might be, it could never be an experience of being married.

I must put my question again. Do you want a “spiritual experience” (whatever that might be) or do you want God? The quest for religious experience is not new at all; in fact it is as old as humankind. Think of Mexican peasants eating peyote beans. The peyote beans gave then a drug-induced “high” to which they attached religious significance.

Think of the techniques used to get people into trances. You follow a formula and repeat a sound self-hypnotically until you move into unusual mental space.

Even in the days of our Lord’s earthly ministry there were devotees of Greek mystery religions. One such religion had a practice which you would not find appealing but which the devotees swore by. The devotee stood in a pit covered by a lattice-work grill. A bull was led onto the grill. The bull’s throat was slashed. Blood poured through the grill onto the devotee. She was then pronounced “reborn for eternity”. Was she? Or was this exercise a substitute, a clutter-substitute, for that renewal at God’s hand in virtue of the sacrifice of God’s Son? It should be obvious by now that the quest for “spiritual experience” is fraught with danger. After all, there are contemporary equivalents to the lattice-work and the bull’s blood. The cults are the modern equivalent, not to speak of the occult. In other words, if we are going to speak of “spiritual experience” we should understand that not all the spirits are holy. Scripture says as much as it does about spiritual conflict just because it recognizes that not all the spirits are holy. And even where they are not especially unholy, they may yet be decidedly unhelpful.

Frankly, to seek spiritual experiences is to be looking in the wrong direction. The prophet Isaiah cries, “Seek ye the Lord…”. Nowhere are we urged to pursue experiences. We are to seek that God whom we can seek at all only because he has first sought us and found us in Christ Jesus his Son.


3] Let’s look again at the analogy of marriage. To be married is to live in a relationship. The relationship is the reality of marriage. Within this relationship experiences come and go, a great variety of experiences. There is also the “experience” of not being conscious of anything marital at all. I remain married when I am in my study writing a sermon, even though I am not conscious of being married. There is also the experience of quiet contentment in the presence of my wife. There is also a more intense excitement as we share something extraordinary together. And of course there are moments of ecstasy. But no marriage is sustained by ecstasy. You can’t be ecstatic 24 hours per day. Marriages are sustained by commitment.

There is another dimension to marriage about which far less is said these days than needs to be said. When two lives are fused together the suffering of one becomes the suffering of both. If one suffers and the other refuses to have anything to do with that suffering or to make any accommodation at all, then that marriage is listing and in danger of sinking.

The truth of the matter is that 90% of the time being married is to be unaware of any particular experience at all. When I see my wife at the supper table the “experience” I have (if it can be called that) is simply that I am glad to see her. But this is scarcely extraordinary. 90% of the time to be married is to live in each other’s presence without experiencing anything unusual, whether positive or negative. If you were constantly taking the temperature of your marriage by asking yourself, “What kind of experience am I having at this moment?”, you would soon have no marriage at all; and soon you would not be sane.

This “90% of the time” does not mean that nothing is going on at such moments; the relationship is going on; it’s always going on, and the relationship is everything.


4] So it is with that relationship with God which we call faith. In this relationship everything is going on, regardless of how we feel. Nonetheless I should never deny that we do feel.

In the relationship of faith, where everything is going on at all times , there are in fact moments of heightened awareness, moments of greater intensity, and occasionally, moments of inexpressible ecstasy — as well as moments of piercing pain.

Let’s start where you would never expect me to start: “moments of piercing pain”. On the day of Pentecost Peter, spokesperson for the apostles, is preaching the truth and reality of Jesus Christ, crucified, raised, now ruling. Peter acquaints his hearers with him who is the sinner’s judge, the sinner’s only saviour, and therefore the sinner’s only hope. Luke tells us that as all of this strikes home with the hearers they are “cut to the heart” and cry, “What are we going to do?” “Cut to heart”. They felt as though they had been stabbed in a surprise attack. “What are we going to do?” Sudden, stabbing conviction of sinnership doesn’t come to everyone with this intensity. But whenever it does I should never pretend it isn’t genuine spiritual experience. Any experience which impels people to embrace Jesus Christ is of God.

While we are looking at experiences of unusual intensity we should look at an experience of ecstasy. Paul tells the Christians in Corinth that on one occasion he was “caught up into paradise”, and there he “heard things that cannot be uttered”. The experience was so unusual, and so intensely pleasurable, that he does not have adequate words for it. In my reading of Christian biography I have come upon several similar incidents. I have no reason to doubt their veracity.

At the same time, Paul never urges people to pursue the ecstatic experience he had. He never tells them to try to work it up or put themselves in the mood for it. Worked-up artificiality would guarantee that it wasn’t an experience of God. Instead he immediately tells the congregation in Corinth of another experience of his which he does want them to have for themselves; namely, that in the midst of chronic discomfort and chronic weakness he learned that God’s grace would ever be sufficient for him, just as he learned that God’s strength will ever be made perfect not in our strength, but made perfect precisely in our weakness. This is what he wants them to know and find validated in their lives one hundred times over.

We find the same thing when Peter, James and John are with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration. The three disciples are given a vision of Moses and Elijah (the two greatest figures in Israel); they are also made privy to that Word which insists that Jesus is greater than Moses and Elijah inasmuch as Jesus alone is the Son of God. It is an ecstatic experience and they want to freeze the moment, build a shrine, consecrate the spot then and there, relive the experience over and over. Jesus, however, won’t let them do any of this. Jesus takes the three men down the mountainside to a village where an epileptic boy is convulsing, parents are distraught, church people (disciples) appear helpless and feel bad about it, and some religious leaders are agitating a crowd. Jesus tells the three men that the experience on the mountain was good; of course it was good, since it was God-given and they were meant to have it. Still, among the convulsing and the agitated is where his followers belong.

And then there are experiences which are so quiet and undramatic as to be virtually the constant background to our lives. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me”. Needless to say Jesus doesn’t mean that we are constantly “hearing things”, as though we were undergoing auditory hallucinations. He means that his people are unremittingly possessed of the conviction that he is the one to be followed. They continue to hear his voice inasmuch as they are never without the conviction that he is the good shepherd and ever will be. It is not a startling experience; it is not an ecstatic experience. But it is the foundation on which the life of any Christian is built. “My sheep keep on hearing my voice; I continue to know them, and they keep on following me.”

Surely most of our Christian experience is of the non-startling, non-ecstatic order. Most of our Christian experience is so very ordinary that it becomes second nature to us; in truth it is our new nature. Paul writes to the Christians in Colosse, “God has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” There is nothing dramatic about this. While a few people can certainly point to a datable, never-to-be-forgotten moment when they were delivered, most cannot. All that matters is this: as we read newspapers and listen to newscasts, as we observe social trends, as we ponder all that tends to confuse people, beguile people, humanly impoverish people, we know in our hearts that we have been delivered from the dominion (the illegitimate rule) of darkness and have been transferred to the kingdom of Jesus Christ; and in him we know ourselves to be forgiven people. This too is experience; elemental experience.


So far today we have seen that some experiences are intense and momentary, some are throbbing and of greater duration, and some are so quiet as to be unnoticeable most of the time. There is another kind of experience which is genuinely of God; what’s more, it is an experience which all Christians are to own without exception. A few minutes ago I said that when two people are fused together in marriage the suffering of one partner must become the suffering of the other. By faith you and I are fused to Jesus Christ; our being fused to him makes cross-bearing inevitable. The analogy with marriage breaks down here, in that although fused to our Lord we are never called to bear his cross (only he can do that); but in his company we are most certainly called to bear our cross. Which is to say, our discipleship requires a sacrifice of us which we readily make for our Lord’s sake.

You asked for a sermon on spiritual experiences. Yet it is not spiritual experiences that we need. It is God himself. To be rightly related to him is to be acquainted with what St.Peter calls the “many-splendoured grace of God”. Just because God’s grace is many-splendoured what steals over us when we neither look for it nor cultivate it will be richer than anything we have anticipated; rich enough indeed to satisfy us until the day when faith gives way to sight and we know even as we are now known.


                                                                             Rev. Dr. Victor A. Shepherd
17th March, 1991