Flights of the Soul

Apr 29, 2018 by

Sermon for Sunday, April 15, 2018       Paula Papky for MacNeill Baptist Church

Acts 3:12-19           Psalm 4               1 John 3:1-7                 Luke 24:36b-48

 

I chose the title, Flights of the Soul, because it is the title of a book by theologian John Pilch.  I think flights of the soul is a particularly apt phrase to ponder during these weeks of celebrating the resurrection.

Do you get the feeling that the disciples are stuck?  They seem that way:  stuck on the terrors of the cross, the death of Jesus, their powerlessness, their grief.  It’s as if the soul has been ripped out of them.  Nothing called “Flights of the Soul” seems to apply to them.  They don’t believe the women who say they’ve been to the tomb and been met by an angel who tells them Jesus, their soul-friend, is not here but has risen.  And even if they believe this idle gossip of the women, what are they to make of it?  What are we to make of it?  The only flight the disciples have experienced since Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion is their own running away and hiding.  They’re shut up in a room, locked into their fear and grief.

But they’re about to experience a soul flight.  They’re about to have a powerful group vision in which Jesus appears among them, talks with them, helps them understand where he is and what comes next.  You might say their souls are about to be restored.  Reminds me of that beloved hymn, “There is a balm in Gilead.”  Especially that line:  “Sometimes I feel discouraged/ and think my work’s in vain,/ But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.:

As I said, that phrase, “Flights of the Soul”, is not one I made up.  The  subtitle of Pilch’s book is, “Visions, Heavenly Journeys, and Peak Experiences in the Biblical World.”  John Pilch has been, until his death a few months ago, a leading expert in social scientific interpretation of the Bible.  In the light of his work, it makes sense for us to take another look at the vision stories of the Bible.

There are so many of them!  Some we’ve known from our earliest years.  Think of Moses and the burning bush; or Mary and the Angel Gabriel.  Remember the vision or dream story of Jacob when he camps alone by a brook?   Jacob, who has just stolen his brother’s birthright, is running for his life.  Sleeping restlessly, he has a vision of wrestling with a stranger all night and coming away limping, no longer able to run away from his problems.  He also dreams of a ladder stretching up to heaven, with angels moving up and down.  These visions lead him to say, “Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know!”

Other vision stories we’ve encountered over the years are almost as familiar.  Some of these experiences happen to Jesus’ friends:  they have visions of Jesus, once dead, now alive, meeting them near the tomb as he does Mary Magdalen; or meeting the two on the Emmaus Road as they are running away from Jerusalem.  And then there’s today’s story in which Jesus appears to the disciples as they are  secretly gathered in a locked room.

There are so many stories of visions or flights of the soul in our Scriptures!    Isaiah receives a call to be a prophet when he is in the temple.  He says, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.”  His vision includes seraphs with six pairs of wings singing “Holy, holy, holy”.  The temple shakes.  There is smoke.  And God speaks to him directly, giving him a mission.  Now that’s unmistakably a vision!

So, too, is the story from Ezekiel 37.  Ezekiel stands looking over a valley filled with the dry bones of those fallen in battle.  Commanded by God to prophesy, he does.  And the bones come together, acquire sinews and flesh, and they breathe.  And they live, a vast multitude.  This is one of my favourite vision stories in the scriptures, this story of Ezekiel’s flight of the soul.  Every now and then the choir gets to sing that jazzy anthem:  dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones…now hear the word of the Lord”

The New Testament has its share of vision stories, too:  shepherds are in the fields at night when suddenly an angel appears, and then a whole host of angels, singing and sending  the shepherds to see this new thing that has taken place.   Zechariah is on duty in the sanctuary of the Lord.  He scoffs when he sees and hears an angel telling him his elderly wife, Elizabeth, will conceive and bear a son, to be called John.  And for his disbelief he is struck dumb until after the birth.  I imagine most of us would be dumbstruck, too, to receive such news.

Another beloved story is contained in Luke 24, in which two disciples are running away from Jerusalem, terrified after the crucifixion lest they too be arrested.  They are on the Emmaus Road when a stranger begins to walk with them and to talk.  The three of them decide to spend the night in an inn.  And the story says that it is at table, when the stranger takes bread, blesses and breaks it and gives it to them, that their eyes are opened, and they recognize Jesus.  All of these vision stories are what we might call eye-openers.  The people who experience them, and those they tell about their experience, have their perspective altered.  They find they can see a way out of their present confusion.

And so, what are we to make of these vision stories?  If we try to read them literally, we get stumped.  We find ourselves asking, but….but….but what’s happening here? How can a dead person walk on a road and stop for dinner at an inn?  And in this locked room, did the disciples really see a ghost?  And how did Jesus come through a wall to stand among them?  And most perplexing in today’s story, did Jesus really eat the fish?  All of these difficulties disappear when we consider that humans can and do enter alternate states of consciousness;  they make what Pilch calls “Flights of the Soul”.  So let’s see how that works.

First, it helps if we can identify these events in our Scriptures as visions.  Fortunately these flights of the soul conform to a pattern.  Those experiencing the visions will frequently be tired, hungry, or troubled.  They will be suffering grief or loss.  They will experience a vision in the dark of night, or maybe by candlelight, as Samuel does when God calls him.

The visions will at first frighten those having them.  How many of these stories have angels or others saying, “Don’t be afraid?” Or as my four-year-old granddaughter, Pippi, said once when she was playing Gabriel:  “Don’t be afraid, Mary!  Isa got good news about a baby!”  The visions often happen at dusk or dawn, when seeing clearly isn’t possible, especially weeping, as Mary Magdalene is.  Often the one seen in the vision wears dazzling white clothes, and even their face shines, as with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.  And sometimes these visions are given when people are praying or in the Temple, as Isaiah was.  Or as the disciples are, probably, at prayer in that secret room.  They’re hiding.  Frightened.  Grieving.  Confused about where they should go from here.

In our day, North Americans are among the 20% of the world’s population who don’t seem to experience these soul flights.  Yet 80% of people in our day have them, expect them and are open to them.  If we really think about it we realize that there are many times throughout an ordinary day or night when we enter alternate states of consciousness.  We dream.  We daydream.  We ponder and pray.  We have a new insight.  But in this technological culture we explain such visions away.  Those of us who have experienced soul flights often don’t speak of them.  And we even dismiss the Scripture stories, imagining that our ancestors in faith were particularly gullible.  Just imagining things.  Sadly, we miss out on the life-changing moments of insight.  Because it’s not only that flights of the soul heighten our perceptions, our seeing, tasting, hearing, touch and smell;  they also offer possibilities for consolation, hope, peace, joy.  All of these possibilities are outcomes of the Bible’s vision stories.  The visions have a purpose.  They call us to live.  To make changes.  To take up a challenge.  To have a renewed sense of the presence of the Holy.  And to treat vision stories with respect and gratitude.

I find it interesting that in the resurrection stories of the Gospels, it is first the women who have these visions and who then also experience joy – after their fears are allayed, they express joy.  They believe what they have witnessed to be real.  They come to the tomb asking themselves whether Jesus is the one they thought he was, the savior.  And if so, where is he now?  Mary Magdalene has these questions answered in her vision and she expresses joy.

The disciples do come around.  They have their own soul flights, as in this story in Luke 24.  Their story continues into the Book of Acts in which are found many dreams and visions.  Those soul flights were badly needed in the communities of struggling Christians, in exile from Jerusalem, living in Turkey, as the gospel writer Luke, does; or living in Syria, Greece, Egypt, and Asia, trying to find their way forward now that war has claimed their city and their traditional faith practices.  During these troubled times, the vision experiences described in the Gospels and in Acts and in the Epistles are taking shape, being circulated, being tested in the exiled faith communities to see if they are of God or not, are genuine or not.   And if they give hope and trust, strengthen faith, build community, include outsiders, offer challenge and a way forward, they are deemed to be of God.

The same rigour must apply today to those in our churches who experience visions, who offer new insight into living out our faith:  their insights must be tested to see if they are of God.  If one of us here at MacNeill has a dream or vision that we should take down the whole front of our church and put in huge windows overlooking the street,  along with a cool coffee bar, well, The Board of Management will help you discern whether your perception is of God.  Just ask yourself, what would John Douglas do?

All four Gospels have a version of this event of Jesus appearing to the eleven in that secret room.  The four stories conform to the pattern for a vision.  Jesus speaks to them saying, “Peace with you.”  They are terrified.  They think they’re seeing a ghost.  Jesus tells them, “See, it is I, myself.”  An important part of a vision story is that the one who is seen self-identifies, as Jesus does.  They’re torn between joy and disbelief as he shows them his wounds, even lets them touch him.  Like other vision stories, then, they experience heightened perceptions.  All their senses are sharpened.  And Jesus eats a piece of fish.  He eats with them as he did all the time when he was with them.  He then explains himself, speaking of himself as the Christ or the Messiah.  He describes the way he has always been present in the Scriptures.  And then, as in so many vision stories, he gives them a mission.  He shows them how to move forward without him.  Start here in Jerusalem, he says.  Proclaim the good news of repentance and forgiveness.  And he promises they will be clothed with power from on high in order to carry out their ministry.

We are two-thirds of the way through the Great Fifty Days of Easter.  And there is still time to ponder the resurrection in these vision stories; to experience the joy and peace and clarity of our continued bond with the risen Christ; and to experience a renewed sense of purpose:  the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

 

 

 

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