I’ve been saying goodbye to a lot of colleagues and friends this past week. At times it’s been hard – it’s been the bitter half of this bittersweet time – especially where the prevailing sense has been one of worry about what’s next. While I fully acknowledge the hard part of this transition, today I invite you to draw your attention to the sweet half of this bittersweet time.
Begin your reflection by considering the timing of this leave-taking – it is in the midst of Eastertide. It was, is and shall be during this very season that disciples sort through the recent revelations of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and their implications. It is a season that evokes the realization that everything changes – the old passes away and gives way to something new. This is the season when disciples reconsider their relationship with the risen Lord and the Holy Spirit, and the implications of these relationships as we discern how we will live our lives in a new context; one in which we are invited to set aside our anxiety and embrace Jesus’ command to love one another as he has loved us, and to embrace the gift of the Holy Spirit – our counselor, advocate and guide. Easier said than done.
Perhaps for this reason, the lectionary of Eastertide offers lessons and insights into what’s next when we, despite our anxiety, allow Jesus’ Passion and the Holy Spirit to lead our process of learning and discernment. Consider, for example, what happens if we try to reason our way through challenges solely on our own merits, yet fail to give voice to our fears. For illustration, I offer, from the Acts of the Apostles, the story of Ananias and Sapphira.
Even as the community of believers is sharing all they have with one another, Ananias and Sapphira seem plagued by a sense of insufficiency that trumps their ability to love their sisters and brothers in the way that Jesus has loved them. Perhaps they consider it unfaithful to express their misgivings – their concerns. As a result, their anxiety over sharing the entirety of their gifts with the community leads them to hold some things back. What they hold back include some of their treasure, and some of their fear. It is the withholding of their fear that is the most disconcerting for me, for it is a denial of Jesus’ last commandment to “love one another …[j]ust as I have loved you….” Jesus give us this command in the face of his own crisis yet he names the crisis and acknowledges its cost, he holds nothing back from us. In contrast Sapphira and Ananias fail to honestly share their anxiety with the community. They hold back from expressing their doubt. Perhaps they fear being judged by others. But I think they don’t trust the love of Jesus within the community and they don’t trust the Holy Spirit. Their holding back is simply a reaction to the uncertainty they feel in the face of something new. Their holding back is a desire not to risk too much – not to be vulnerable in an uncertain time. Such a feeling is understandable to anyone who has been in their shoes; yet ultimately giving in to such anxiety is a denial of the power of Jesus’ love and the Holy Spirit. And to deny the love of Jesus and the Holy Spirit is akin to calling it a liar, which has consequences.
As a counterpoint, consider Peter’s appearance today before the apostles in Jerusalem. He is offering a report of his work among the gentiles. To the conventional Jew or God fearer, Peter has gone off the reservation. He is a bit like the prodigal child in the eyes of his older brother; yet he is heeding the Holy Spirit and the example of Jesus. The apostles’ and believers’ anxiety over Peter’s association with gentiles and uncircumcised men is leading them to recrimination and perhaps condemnation, until they hear Peter’s testimony to the role of the Holy Spirit in his mission. As a result, the apostles and believers are silenced and accept his testimony. Led by the Holy Spirit in this and other acts of faithful riskiness, the apostles and other believers forever set the way of Jesus Christ on the path of love, inclusiveness and possibility that we now know. May we too listen to the Holy Spirit and trust the love of Jesus and be led to a way forward that challenges us and reveals the power of the Holy Spirit and Jesus making things new in our lives.
Speaking of making things new, through the love of Jesus and the Holy Spirit even the most frightening of texts can be made new. Consider the Revelation to John with its account of a new heaven and a new earth. Though Revelation’s myriad of metaphors and fearful imagery causes many to be preoccupied with the end times and the anxiety they generate; in contrast, today’s reading offers us a glimpse of what awaits us following our own passion and resurrection. Set following the final judgment and the opening of the book of life, this reading affirms and reminds us of what we have to look forward to: a new heaven and a new earth; the home of God among us; and the promise that death, mourning, crying, and pain will be no more. Because the end belongs to Jesus it is no ending at all for his disciples but a new thing, thus there is nothing to fear at all. If we keep this promise before us the present departure is not an ending but a life-giving transition to something new.
Why does Jesus command us to love one another? He does it because love makes room for honest expression of our fears and dread, and by making room it disarms the power of fear or dread in our lives. Love changes our perception – just as a prism refracts light into colors – love harnesses Christ’s light and bends our expectation toward new things and life without end. The alternative is a perspective that is frozen or fixated upon our present anxiety or pain, which is a perspective void of love and new life. Yet Jesus and the prophets implore us to see the Lord who is active among us – this is the sweetness of this bittersweet time.
But what do we do now in the face of departure? Don’t hold back, expecting someone else to take responsibility. Give voice to your fear. Share the gifts you have to share. And above all love one another as Jesus loves you. For it is there you will join Jesus in proclaiming, “See, [we are] making all things new.”