The naturalistic theologian James William Buffett once wrote, “Don’t try to describe the scenery if you’ve never seen it.” You can always tell when someone has really experienced something and when they are relating the experience of someone else. There are certain details, certain minutiae that are simply not a part of their story.
For instance, Frank could become just about anyone he wanted to become. He was the master of the bluff, the connoisseur of con artistry. Over the course of nearly a decade, Frank impersonated a pilot, an attorney, an undercover officer, and several other occupations. But even the best of criminals has some degree of conscience and Frank had to draw the line when he began impersonating a physician at a Georgia hospital.
Frank met a ‘fellow physician’ while staying at the River Bend apartments near Atlanta under the guise of ‘taking some time off to do research.
For eleven months, Abagnale impersonated a chief resident pediatrician in a Georgia hospital under the alias Frank Williams. He chose this course after he was nearly arrested disembarking a flight in New Orleans. Afraid of possible capture, he retired temporarily to Georgia. When filling out a rental application he impulsively listed his occupation as “doctor”, fearing that the owner might check with Pan Am if he wrote “pilot”. After befriending a real doctor who lived in the same apartment complex, he agreed to act as a supervisor of resident interns as a favor until the local hospital could find someone else to take the job. The position was not difficult for Abagnale because supervisors did no real medical work. However, he was nearly exposed when an infant almost died from oxygen deprivation because he had no idea what a nurse meant when she said there was a “blue baby.” He was able to fake his way through most of his duties by letting the interns handle the cases coming in during his late-night shift, setting broken bones and other mundane tasks. He left the hospital only after he realized he could put lives at risk by his inability to respond to life-and-death situations.
This story is of course about the exploits of Frank Abagnale, conman extraordinaire turned FBI consultant and security specialist. The story demonstrates that a little knowledge is not only dangerous but also will expose itself for the little knowledge it is in time. For all the times that Abagnale got away with fraud, he had to constantly run from one situation to the next because eventually, someone with more knowledge and experience would recognize his lie. People, some sooner than later, will know a fraud when they see it.
What is experiential faith?
Faith has much in common with Frank’s story in that real faith stands up to the test of scrutiny where the faith of an imposter will be found out. The truth is in the experience of faith, in the authenticity of our interactions with God and other believers who have experienced faith. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about false prophets or those who would declare a falsehood as the truth by saying,
“You will know them by their fruit. Do people get bunches of grapes from thorny weeds, or do they get figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, and every rotten tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, you will know them by their fruit.” – Matthew 7:16-20
In other words, those that have seen the scenery can describe it.
Faith is existential and must be experienced to known. What do I mean by existential? The Christian life is a collection of moments and experiences defined in relation to the presence of God and the understood effect they have on the consciousness of individual people experiencing them. In other words, it is the total connection points you have had with God over the course of your journey and how those connection points have affected that connection between you and God. It’s the scenery that you have seen and the connection you have to seeing it that makes up your experiential knowledge of God and it is that experience that defines who you are now and the potential directions you might go from here in your journey.
Theologian Paul Tillich says it is “…the striving for union with ultimate reality…as a way of life.” This striving comes out of our experience with God and our connection born out of that experience. We understand this as our spiritual walk, our faith journey, our faith life, and countless other ideas but they all lead back to the understanding that we as part of Creation are connected and connecting with God through a variety of means (means of grace as we say in Methodism) to accomplish an existential or experienced faith.
What did John experience?
The story from today’s reading in Luke points to the reality of existential faith as Jesus is questioned by disciples, or followers of his cousin John the Baptist. John sends them from his prison cell, as we can learn from the same story in Matthew, and he sends them with a burning question that is on everyone’s mind, certainly everyone living in the Galilean region, “Are the one who is coming or should we look for someone else?”
The one that they are referring to is the Messiah, the promised one, the redeemer of Israel. But what did that mean? I think understanding the question is key to understanding their experience with Jesus. I believe all shared experiences have certain things in common. First, they have a topos, or physical place that they happen. Second, they have a chronos, a defined time such as Sunday, February 12, 2017 at 10:30 in the morning. And finally, they have a atomos, or a moment, a circumstance that creates the setting in which the experience happens.
I believe these three things are common for all shared experiences and the story we read in Luke is no exception. It happens in Galilee, a province conquered by Rome four generations before when the Hasmonean kings were overthrown. It happens at a time when the Jewish people are still looking for a means to take back their land, a land they held independently mere decades before. Into this experience, John the Baptist sends a question, the ultimate question of their life, the universe, and everything else, “Is Jesus the one?”
The truth is we are always looking for a Messiah. We are always waiting on the person to show up and fix the things that are broken in our lives, the things we cannot or do not know how to fix. Whether it is a religious, political, or personal leader; we are looking to hit the fix it jackpot and have all our problems instantly dealt with so that life is no longer the difficult drudgery that many people feel it is.
It is interesting to me what Jesus says in response to this, “Tell John what you see.” He doesn’t send John’s disciples back with a teaching or a doctrine. He sends them back the experience of witness, having seen the reports of Jesus work and ministry substantiated with the purpose of letting John decide whether Jesus was the modern Messianic figure they were looking for or if they needed to look elsewhere.
The power of story, a part of the power that has propelled the gospel for the past twenty centuries, is tied to the power of experience, of sensory interaction with moments in time and place. This is the power that Jesus invokes by responding to the question in the manner he did. The disciples have borne witness to the reality of Jesus as a holy prophet of God, a healer of the broken, a restorer of those whose lives have fallen apart. This is the story they carry back to John the Baptist, the story they share that they themselves have experienced.
What is our experience?
Robert J. Karris wrote, “Luke’s stories of Jesus’ eating habits proclaim to his readers the gospel that God is imminent to creation, that God longs to be with God’s creation, and that God will remove all boundaries which impede that communion.”
I believe this idea of communion is a good way to express existential faith in that communion is the experience we have of being in the presence of God. Communion is not just the moment we spend together eating bread and juice in front of the church, communion is a deep, abiding experience where the presence of God is intertwined, interwoven with our presence in such a way as to guide us into moments of transcendence and guidance along the path of salvation that we walk. Following Karris’ comment, I believe this is the divine desire of God, to be with us, imminently connected, that we can know the heart, mind, and being of God to the best of our finite nature.
While this is the goal and the hope, we do not always make this connection. Life gets in the way and we find ourselves distracted by our interactions and experiences with others that move us on differing paths from the path of communion with God. We chase our baser emotions and desires and find ourselves disconnected and discouraged by our experiences, wishing that we could somehow undo things that have been done and unsay things that have been said.
Yet, God has offered two paths that lead back to the Divine path no matter the circumstance: grace and mercy. These two paths intersect with our paths over and over to give us opportunity to find our way back to communion with God and connection with others. Grace and mercy offer us the opportunity to make the mistake of taking a wrong path and know that we can find reconciliation and loving support to guide to the place of communion that we have left.
How do we share that experience with others?
Have you seen the commercial about the raccoons eating the nasty garbage? You know, the Geico commercial where a group of raccoons are all rummaging around an overturned trash can and one of them says, “Woah, this is awful, try it.” The raccoon here is trying to create a shared experience by inviting the other to know just how bad the garbage tastes.
Conversely, the Psalmists writes, “Taste and see how good the Lord is! The one who takes refuge in him is truly happy!” This is how we share existential faith with others, we invite them into our lives that can see for themselves the wonders of spiritual communion with God as we walk the journey of life together. It is in letting them see the work of God in you as you walk the path that they will develop a desire to experience what you have experienced and walk as you have walked. This was the invitation extended to each of us and this is the invitation that we must extend to others.
May we find persons of peace in our lives to journey with us and journey well. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
 Abagnale, Frank W.; Redding, Stan (2008). Catch Me If You Can. New York: Random House, Inc. p. 277. ISBN 0-7679-0538-5. Retrieved February 10, 2017.
 (Tillich 1952), p.159
 (Karris 1985), p.348
 Psalm 34:8