“The Mystical Aspect of Change”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – August 27, 2017

Centenary United Methodist Church

Romans 12:1-8; Mark 8:27-30

    As our Gospel lesson opens, Jesus was walking with his disciples in Caesarea Philippi, a Greco-Roman community filled with numerous temples dedicated to various deities. This setting evoked Jesus' curiosity.  He asked, "What are people saying about me?" Without hesitation his disciples answered, "We have heard that you are John the Baptist who has come back to life. Other people believe that you were once Elijah or at least one of the earlier prophets."  (Mark 8:28) 

    Jesus asked, "What do you guys think?  Who do you believe that I am?"  Peter answered, "We believe that you are the Messiah." In the earliest Gospel to be written, Mark wrote that Jesus neither confirmed nor denied Peter's answer.  While Jesus was silent about the matter, he told the disciples not to share such thinking with anyone.

    No matter how we interpret the concept of a Messiah, the image and character have always been associated with a liberator who would save his people from destruction.  For thousands of years, Christians have given Jesus the labels of The Messiah, Savior, Son of Man and Son of God.  We have been taught that by Jesus' death on the cross, we have been saved from our sins.  

    No theologian, however, has ever offered an explanation of how this was accomplished. This morning, we are going to explore what insights about our personal salvation came from Jesus and the Apostle Paul.

    There is little evidence to suggest that the emotional nature of humankind has changed since Jesus' death.  According to early tradition, shortly after Jesus' crucifixion, one by one the disciples were martyred.  The only disciple to make it into his retirement was John who survived in Ephesus.

     Given the experiences that many of us have today, does the concept of personal salvation seem relevant?  We live in a society where individual freedom is highly valued. More of us are economically self-sufficient.  The Internet gives us instant access to anything that we want to know or own.  We can even earn advanced academic degrees on line without ever leaving our island.

    Do people still resonate with the lyric of the Gospel song, "Give me that old time religion, it is good enough for me."  If the words of this song are still true for the masses, why are the pews in our churches becoming increasingly empty?  What is it about our faith that no long touches, affects and influences the way people are living today? 

    To get the answer to these questions, we need to turn to the Scriptures rather than to the theology of the institutional church and its influence over those who were transcribing the Scriptures.  There is quite a difference between what Jesus and Paul taught and what the church has taught for centuries.

    Jesus did not teach that salvation would come as a result of the activities of a Messiah.  He taught that people can be saved from the illusions and delusions of life's many cyclical dramas when they change how they think, feel and interpret their life-experiences.  There can be no question that people do need to be saved from becoming enslaved by the issues of this world.

    This understanding is what Jesus was trying to teach Nicodemus. He said, "Once you experience a spiritual awakening, the changes in your life will be so dramatic that it is like being born again. This happens when you let go of your self-taught and learned responses and replace them with creative and loving attitudes that will enhance the quality of your life in all circumstances. (John 3:1-12) 

    The wife of one of my former parishioners became gravely ill. He stood up in church each week and asked for prayers. John contacted other congregations to pray for her.  Daily, he pleaded with God for the healing of his wife. In spite of his efforts, his wife's health steadily declined over a number of months until his life-partner of 35-years died.

    John's faith bubble burst. His response was disillusionment.  His felt that he had been betrayed and abandoned by God. He refused to trust what he once believed.  As a pastor, I was of little value to him other than to remain an active listener if and when he wanted to talk to me.  He quit coming to church.

    He visited his wife's grave every week.  He would bring expensive bouquets of flowers and sit in front of her headstone and cry bitter tears. He was so consumed by her death that he began to ignore a number of his responsibilities. His life was spiraling out of control. He became unreachable.

    During one of these moments at the cemetery, he had an experience that dramatically changed his life in an instant.  When John suddenly appeared entering my office, I knew immediately that he had regained control over his life.  He was glowing and he had a spring in his step. He could hardly wait to tell me about his encounter. As best as I can reconstruct his story, this is what he said:

I was sitting in my usual place, having a monologue with Dorothy.  Suddenly, I felt a warm, love-filled presence surrounding me.  Inside my mind words began to form that were not mine.  'John, what are you doing to yourself?  Before my cancer arrived, we had 34 years of a very fulfilling marriage. We reared three beautiful children.  They are doing well and have moved on.  You are stuck mourning my death.  John, listen to me, I was liberated from a body that was never going to get better.  You have to let go of me.  Stop bringing flowers. Stop crying. Stop coming here. I am not here!  Please John, do this for me.  Allow the loving man that I know to start living again. Prepare yourself to find another wife. Listen to me now. Our kids will understand.  My dear, John, I wish I could describe for you what life is like where I am, but there just aren't the words.  I am going leave you now. Please follow through on what I am asking you to do.

    As his wife's presence faded, John was left with the result of having had a mystical experience.  He was born again.  His bitter attitudes were gone in an instant. The one thing about having an experience like this is that no one can take those moments away from him.  Salvation came in an instant and it had nothing to do with Jesus' death on a cross.  He had just received a taste of life continuing.  There was no doubting that his wife had just visited him from beyond the grave.

    The Apostle Paul had a similar encounter.  He was the nasty, self-absorbed, angry Saul of Tarsus that was highly motivated to bring Christians to justice. Saul's spirit was radically changed in an instant because of a mystical encounter with Jesus. (Acts 9:4-5)

    Paul, who wrote his letters before any of the Gospels were written, composed his famous love chapter in First Corinthians 13:1-13. Later Paul wrote in our first lesson this morning how others could experience what he did. He wrote,

Do not conform yourselves to all the values that you find in this world, but let God's presence transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind.  Then you will be able to know the will of God and discover how to extend and share your loving energy with everyone.  (Romans 12:2)

    Paul described what salvation looked like for him once he made the transition from being a person who had conformed to the standards of this world to becoming a spirit-being.  Few people can explain how human transformation takes place other than that this change happens once people reverse their energy flow.   

    This shift happens when "This is what I think.  This is what I believe. This is my truth.  This is where I draw the line.  This is where I stand." becomes, "How can I help you?  "Would you like to talk about this over lunch?"  "Have you considered this as an opportunity to grow?" "Have you tried letting go of thoughts that are keeping you depressed and frustrated?"  

    Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone was born into a wealthy Italian family in 1181.  He grew up surrounded my wealth. He learned from his friends to believe that it was fun and liberating to drink heavily, live without a care in the world and become a party animal. His enthusiastic and encouraging friends benefited from his generosity.  During his all fun lifestyle, Giovanni was captured and confined by criminals until his father secured his release by paying a ransom.  

    During his confinement, Giovanni had a mystical experience of God's presence. Just like my friend, John, the change was immediate.  Today, we know him as St. Francis of Assisi who wrote that beautiful prayer that begins, "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. . . " (page 481 United Methodist Hymnal).  The inspiration of Paul and St. Francis came from the same source -- a mystical experience offering insight into the invisible universe of spirit.

    Since we cannot manufacture our own spiritual awakening, how does such an experience happen?  When we reach a point in our lives where we realize that there is more to life than what we have settled for, we are poised for a spiritual awakening.

    This experience happened to Jesus at his baptism. Jesus had provided for his mother and his brothers and sisters.  Now, he was poised to move on to something more fulfilling.  At his baptism, Jesus had a mystical encounter with God and he never looked back.

    Paul gives us a key for understanding salvation when he wrote, "Do not conform yourselves to the values of this world."  We have become ready for an instant change, a total transformation of spirit, when we realize that none of the life-issues that cause us to feel unfulfilled are useful when we leave this life.   

    Unhappy people become that way by building their attitudes one response at a time.  They have allowed themselves to be conformed by their interpretation of their world-view through responses to issues that do not exist anywhere else.        

    Even George Lucas had this awareness when in his first Star Wars movie, he had the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi say, "Use the Force, Luke.  Let go, Luke."  Talk about a mystical experience that spoke volumes to movie audiences.  This experience of letting go was akin to what my former church member, John, heard from his wife, Dorothy. 

    The moment we let go, we are released from what does not serve us and we become useful, compassionate and resourceful role models for everyone.  We are able to carry ourselves with attitudes that produce peace, harmony and laughter. This is what Jesus and Paul were teaching long before Jesus' crucifixion and long before the first Gospel of Mark was written.

    Some Christians might call this experience being saved.  Another way to understand this transformation is what happens to us once we have learned never to allow the issues of this world to become ghettos in our minds.  It is much better to be at peace than to live with unhappy thoughts and negative emotional feelings generated by issues that do not exist in any other world but this one.    



Loving God, thank you for creating us with the ability to experience your guidance. Each time we turn to you during moments of uncertainty, you help us to translate those times into possibilities.  When we feel life has forsaken us, you invite us not to judge or cast blame.  When we try to convince ourselves that life is not working, you invite us to make different choices.  Sometimes our greatest freedom comes when we embrace change without fear.  Guide us to understand that new horizons appear when we are willing to let go of the old ones that often imprisoned us.  Amen.



Loving and ever-present God, long ago a Psalmist wrote, "And what of humankind that Thou, O God, should be mindful of them?" And the same writer answered, "You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honor and made them rulers over all things."

How is it, O God, that often we come to you with many requests for the very issues you have given us the power to solve? We want peace in the world, yet we frequently hold ill-thoughts about our neighbors. We need to experience forgiveness, yet it remains a challenge to give away the very thing we want from you. We come to you for help with one of life's dramas, as though we have forgotten how to take risks and be creative when life presents us with the unexpected.

While we cannot know the outcome of anything we experience, enable us to grow in trust and confidence that our storyline is unfolding for a purpose that we may not understand. As we live with that awareness, may each of us become a disciple who represents your presence in all occasions, all circumstances and to all people. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .