These days our culture is focused on what sort of experiences we can have.
How do we experience God as Christians?
Take a moment to think about how you would answer that question for yourself: how do I experience God?
In one sense, every experience in this world is an experience of God. He created all things and sustains everything under his sovereign rule. In his world we experience joy, beauty and undeserved grace—yet at the same time pain, tears and disappointment. It is the experience of a very good world that is suffering the effects of our rebellion and God’s judgement of that rebellion. It is a world that hints at the goodness of its creator but at the same time is separated from him.
However, Christians have a unique experience of God through Jesus. Because of Jesus’ death, the separation sin caused has been removed and we can draw near to God. We can hear his voice, speak to him in prayer, and know that he hears us. It is a personal relationship because it is through his son Jesus, who is fully human and fully God. It is a relationship based on the words, recorded only in the Bible, that he uses to communicate with us. These words reflect his divine and human natures: inerrant, powerful, truthful, gracious, loving, just, and wise but written with ordinary words by ordinary human beings about a human—Jesus. With these words we come to understand that every experience we have is an experience of God—and that without his words the world would hint at his goodness but we’d still be separated from him. When we trust his words to us, we are no longer separated from him but are born again into his very own family.
So what about sacraments? Are these also a unique experience of God that only Christians can have? People from a Roman Catholic background certainly think so! They believe that by participating in the Mass and eating and drinking the bread and wine they are really experiencing Jesus in the flesh. Sacraments can be a unique experience of God, however, only as they illustrate the words they represent. In an Anglican Lord’s Supper service the minister says, “The body of Christ was given for you, take and eat this remembering that Christ died for you and feed on him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving” and then gives you a piece of bread to eat. It is a remembrance of the words that Jesus said—“This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22:19). The response that we make when we receive the bread is one of faith—that Jesus did give his life to save us—and thanksgiving to God for this gift. It is by remembering and responding to God’s words to us that we have a unique and personal experience of God. This also happens when the wine is offered, again remembering Jesus’ words, and when someone goes under the water at a baptism service; they are experiences of remembering and responding to God’s words to us in the Bible.
For those who belong to or are influenced by the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, the sacraments—there are seven for them—represent something quite different. The sacraments, in themselves and separate from the words they represent, are a special way to experience God. For example, a Catholic priest in Sydney is required to spend an hour a week adoring the blessed sacrament. This involves putting a piece of bread from the Communion Service into a gold and glass case and adoring it as if it is God. The Catholic Church teaches that Jesus is wholly and substantially present in the bread and wine of the Holy Communion service. This experience of God, that is separate from his words to us, becomes a different God. This god in the bread and the wine competes with the one true God for our faith. We call that idolatry.
For many Catholics, the experience of the Mass, and particularly eating the bread, is the ultimate experience of God in this world. The Catechism of the Roman Catholic church calls it “the source and summit of all Christian ministry… towards which all ministry is orientated”, and describes the bread and wine as “wholly, truly, really and substantially Jesus Christ”1. In a recent dialogue with Prior Dominic Holtz from the Angelicum University in Rome, he claimed that experiencing God through his word every week was tiring, confusing and unclear, but experiencing God through eating the bread was the most complete experience of God possible in this world.
So let’s compare the two. Eating a piece of bread is a pretty poor experience of God: it doesn’t seem very God-like; it is small; not very nutritious; it isn’t particularly powerful—it can’t do anything by its self. It doesn’t teach us anything, help us with anything or mean anything unless we attach a whole lot of meanings to it. Growing up Catholic, the Church connected so many different meanings to the piece of bread that it became confusing and ceased to mean anything concrete to me at all. This confusion was described as mystery, and given even more importance. In comparison, trusting God’s word in the Bible is an excellent experience of God. It reflects his divine nature. It is wise, true, loving, gracious, inerrant, clear, eternal, complete, just and powerful. It also reflects his human nature, being written by human authors, in human contexts, with human language and is ultimately about his Son, Jesus, who became human.
How do we experience God in this world? In general, through everything, but ultimately through his personal Word to us recorded only in the Bible, who became human, died for us and rose from the dead, brought to us by his Spirit. As we speak to the people in our lives, particularly people from a Roman Catholic background, it is a great idea to share the experience we have of God by trusting his word. We can do this by relating our experiences to God’s word specifically, not just to some vague notion of God. Of course, we need to be reading our Bible regularly and know it well to be able to do this. For example, we could say something like, “God really spoke to me this morning when I was reading the Bible and he reminded me that…” or “How did you survive that big storm the other day? It reminded me of that bit in the Bible where it says that people are like grass and our beauty is like flowers, but we are very fragile. Good thing Jesus isn’t!” But an even better experience to share is the experience of reading God’s word together with your Catholic friend, family member or neighbour.
Every experience in this world is an experience of God, but only Christians experience God personally and clearly through his word. Have a go at sharing that experience with others.
ADAPT is a cross-cultural evangelism course to help Christians reach people from Catholic, Muslim and Buddhist backgrounds. Find out more about ADAPT.