I've been reading N.T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope. It's a fascinating read, about heaven, resurrection and the mission of the church. The premise is that we can't understand the mission or purpose of the church - that's you and me - without understanding heaven and resurrection. And of course, heaven and resurrection can't be addressed without considering the book of Revelation, one of the most fascinating of biblical books. Some years back, I read Eugene Peterson's Reversed Thunder, the best book I have read on Revelation.
So Bishop Wright got me thinking about Revelation again, and I decided to read it once more. It's not going smoothly. Even in the first chapter, I get hung up on things I have read many times, but that now make me stop and say, "What does that mean, anyway?"
One such thing is John's statement that on the Lord's Day, he was "in the Spirit" when he had this amazing vision. He uses this phrase several times in revelation. What does he mean? Considering what happened to him in that state, it seems somewhat different than what we might think today.
Was he in a trance? Was it that he somehow felt especially warm and cozy and close to Jesus? It's hard to be certain. But one thing I can say is that I don't believe I have experienced anything like it, and I don't know anyone else who has.
I've heard it said that John was an apostle, a pastor, a prophet, and a mystic. I believe that. Only a mystic could have such a vision. I'm not an apostle or pastor or, if visions are a requisite, a mystic. I have been called a prophet, but I don't put a lot of weight on that. John had a deep and rich relationship with Jesus, and a boldness about his faith. I'm not certain I can say the same about me.
These things raise some questions in my mind. The church in America and Western Europe today is rationally oriented. It's primarily about mental acceptance of certain beliefs. And the idea of "experiencing" Jesus or the Father is not often considered in most circles.
John lived in a time and culture where knowledge was experiential. They knew God by experiencing him, just as they knew other people by experiencing them.
Much of the American church tends to look down on those who talk about "experiencing God." You know, those people who get all excited, jump up and down, shout, dance, and - heavens! - speak in tongues. After all, it's God, not football. Not good to be excited.
Recently, meeting with a group of Christians I know, one woman was talking about the experiences of different folks as they first come to faith in Jesus. She mentioned those who have a more demonstrative experience, such as in a charismatic church, for example. She said these people might even dance and speak in tongues, doing things many of us consider somewhat extreme.
I was surprised to hear this. Dancing and tongues, on the edge? Extreme? Unusual, certainly, at least in some places. Especially in most evangelical churches. But that wouldn't sell well in the early church, I'm afraid. In fact a lot of our concept of church wouldn't find many buyers in the first century.
I wonder if we have "progressed" so far that the Spirit is a relic of the past? That intimacy with God is a foreign concept? That we haven't any idea what John was experiencing? That we don't know what scripture means when it speaks of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit?
I am certain that folks in much of the "less sophisticated" cultures in our world have no problem with it. They live in a world of intense experience and a full acceptance of the world of the Spirit.
I've been to some of those "demonstrative" charismatic churches. One thing I noticed was that a lot of folks there deeply, enthusiastically loved Jesus, and they weren't shy about showing it. And they claimed God talked to them and they knew him.
Sounds a lot like something John might say. Sounds a lot more interesting to me than another dry, intellectual, "proper" church that makes little difference in anything.
We are perhaps more educated, more sophisticated and beyond such "emotional displays."
But we are much the poorer for it.
When was the last time God spoke to you?