The Revd Dr Donald MacEwan, UNiversity Chaplain
Acts 9:1-9; John 21:1-9
Divine Presence to be Shot
In Hail, Caesar! the new film by the Coen Brothers, the film’s main character is a Hollywood producer. He’s watching the daily footage from one of the films in production, a Biblical epic called Hail, Caesar! The scene is the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus. He watches the actor playing Saul cower before an appearance in the sky. The scene cuts to a blank screen with the words Divine presence to be shot before returning to the fearful Saul. It’s funny, but also thought-provoking. How would they shoot the divine presence?
Both our Bible readings this morning offer footage in a way of the divine presence. Let’s settle down to watch the rushes. The passage from Acts is in fact the very scene which the Coen Brothers had fun with. Saul was on a mission to make life deeply uncomfortable for the first followers of Jesus in Damascus. He already had a fearsome reputation in Jerusalem, as a conservative Jew appalled at this heretical and dangerous offshoot which was, in his less than humble opinion, profaning the one God and dividing Israel. On behalf of the religious authorities, he ravaged the early church, putting its members both men and women into prison whenever he could. He was now taking his robust approach to those Jews in Damascus who had converted.
But en route, he had the original road to Damascus experience. He saw a light – and he saw the light. He heard a voice – “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul understood that this presence is of heaven – “Who are you, Lord?” With that word Lord, he was half-way to conversion. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” It seems that Saul needed little further persuasion. He believed that Jesus was the Lord, that the crucified and risen Jesus was the Messiah, that the divine presence was found in him. Saul was baptized, Saul became Paul, and the early church gained its greatest missionary and first and perhaps greatest theologian.
So much for now for the raw material for Hail, Caesar! Let’s have a look briefly at those grainy early-morning images from the set of another Biblical epic – perhaps Ecce Homo, Behold the Man. It was a few days since the death of Jesus. Peter and some of the other disciples had returned home to Galilee, and returned to their old way of life, fishing on the Sea of Galilee. There was a presence on the beach as they returned with empty nets to the shore. Try again, he said, on the other side. They shot their nets, and they found the fish. The presence on the beach was fugitive, familiar but unclear. The light was still murky. The beloved disciple recognised the figure – “It is the Lord.” Peter left the boat to be near him. They ate together. Jesus commissioned Peter to feed his sheep.
Two films, two scenes, two shots of the divine presence: a light, a voice, a figure on the shore – brief, powerful, fleetingly tangible. Two religious experiences. But the producer in seeing these images has a single thought – Who’s going to pay good money for this if it means nothing to them today? After all, we too have a beach which many people visit in the early morning, at the May Dip if at no other time. But among the presences there, do we encounter the divine? And on the roads to Damascus today, people may well be cowering, fearful, struck dumb, blinded – but not by the presence of God, but by something we might call hellish instead. In other words, contemporary experience seems completely removed from these scriptural tales. Can we make any sense of the divine presence? As Woody Allan said, “If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss Bank.” But in the absence of such obvious appearances, the divine presence still seems to be shot, and the natural suspicion is that it could never be captured, never depicted, never described because it is entirely imagined, a fiction, a fake.
I’d like to suggest that there’s a different way forward here. The more we look for an obvious giveaway presence of God, the more we are likely to be disappointed. How many Christians down the centuries have had a road to Damascus experience like Saul’s? Some, but many more Christians have not. But there are clues in these stories that God can be encountered in many different ways, more subtle, more diffuse perhaps, but none the less real.
For example, in the Easter encounter on the shores of Galilee, it’s suggestive that the risen Jesus was not recognised at first. Seeing was not everything. Indeed the story seems to suggest there are two much more important ways that the risen Christ shares his life with the disciples. First, in the abundance of fish which they catch. This is suggestive that in life’s abundance, in its fertility, in its provision, in its blessing, there is the gift of the redeemer. And then in the meal they share, of bread and fish, there is more than a hint that we encounter the risen life of Jesus, and indeed have it really within us, in our eating. The service of communion, eating of bread and drinking of wine together, is a real presence of the divine.
And in Saul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, again, the divine presence does not seem as obvious on closer investigation. Saul was blinded by the encounter. He did not see, initially. And there’s a funny thing about this story. As it’s told in this chapter, Saul’s companions heard the voice but saw no-one. But when Paul tells the story in Acts 22, he says that his companions saw the light but did not hear the voice – exactly the other way round. Perhaps this is a slip of the tongue. Or perhaps it says that when we try to fix the presence of God, to set down how God reveals himself in human lives, things get slippery. The facts become unstable. Solid perceptions crumble. More important, it seems to me, is that when Saul reached Damascus, he was accepted, he became part of the community, he was reconciled to those he persecuted. He was smitten on that road – but not by power, but by the persecuted One – and the result was a broadened community of love. It’s intriguing that as Caravaggio depicts the story, that the horse and man seem to notice neither voice nor light.
To recap, our roads and beaches can seem bereft of the divine presence: our lives and experience can seem nothing but natural. But in fact even the archetypal Bible-stories of God’s appearing to humanity, on a closer view, show that it was in the ordinary stuff of life that God truly appeared – in fish and bread, in a friend and a community.
And, I would suggest, in all sorts of other ways. In my conversations with students and staff, I often hear of how people encounter the spiritual, the eternal, the divine. For one or two, it has been an overwhelming experience of the presence of God, something quite immediate. But that is rare. Much more often it’s an experience of something from ordinary life. Time spent with a Grandma, recovery from illness, singing in harmony, reaching out to a friend in trouble, sitting quietly in this chapel, reading a poem, an act of love, watching the waves come in, over and over again. These are spiritual experiences: encounters not only with the world, but with the maker, redeemer, spirit.
And this divine presence changes lives. Perhaps that’s why you’re here today, because your experience in time is also spiritual. And it’s part of the reason that next Saturday, some students will be baptised here, and confirmed in the church. Their road to Damascus may look very different from Caravaggio’s – with Saul sent to the ground. But they too have found themselves being transformed by events which have taken place in their own lives – of community, of worship, of reflection and of love. They have responded with faith. Richard Coles, the broadcaster and priest was a preacher here last year. In his autobiography he wrote of his own transformation:
My conversion to Christianity… was just the beginning, a moment of vision, which dazzled and confounded… but these moments of vision fade. The real work of conversion is gradual, the turning away from our fascination with ourselves… to give the completely unexpected reality of God a look in.
If the divine presence could be shot, recorded, laid down, printed on celluloid, streamed on Netflix, it would not lead to faith, but something more like knowledge. AmazonDivine perhaps. We’d perceive God’s presence as we recognise the tower of this chapel as we come over the hill towards Morrisons. But God does not rise up in our sight in that way. Jesus died in humiliation, executed as a criminal. The grave was his home. The divine presence gone. And in being raised, he appeared as a half-familiar figure, shadowy on the shore, as a voice and light, heard or not heard, seen or not seen. But then as now, he is present with us in life’s gift, in the sharing of his meal, in the acceptance of other people, in a community of peace. His presence was not shot to be fixed for ever: but remains to be discerned in every scene of our lives.