It struck me this week quite by surprise the realization that today marks the one-year anniversary of the start of our relationship. Last year, on the first Sunday in May, we began our journey together as pastor and congregation.
As I reflect over the past 12 months, I also realize how time seems to have swept by so quickly and how much has happened in that time. It’s a bitter-sweet that I suspect is felt with many anniversaries, whether wedding or birth, death or loss.
Indeed, marking any anniversary — even the joyous ones — brings a sense of loss. Because when I think back on the good times and significant events of the past year in this congregation, I feel the loss of those moments past. In others words, what’s in the past won’t and can’t happen again. And acknowledging that is not easy.
And as the Scriptures show again today in our reading and hearing of them, dealing with loss is best done in relationship. In relationship with one another, we experience the presence of God. Not by ourselves. Not in our heads. Not in words and thoughts alone. But in the quality of our real-time relationships.
Jesus was being a good pastor to his disciples. He was going to leave them, to ascend to heaven. And instead of just going, he prepared them for this loss. Jesus spoke to them about what it would mean for him to be no longer with them on earth in bodily form. He fielded all their questions.
Jesus spoke to them about how in his absence something new would be born in them and in the world. The Holy Spirit was coming in his stead. And the Spirit of God the Father and God the Son would continue to teach them about Jesus.
His disciples, understandably so, were stressed-out about this change in their lives. They were anxious about the proposition of losing Jesus. They already went through the emotional intensity of losing Jesus once before — when he died on the cross. You don’t easily embrace a negative emotion like that a second time in a short while. So, they were fearful, resistant and anxious.
Jesus brings comfort in the promise of his continued presence with them — the result of which would be peace: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27). Christ’s presence brings peace.
I wondered about the ways I’ve normally sought peace, conditional upon achieving several things: stability, material security in life, a calm inner state, no conflict, everybody getting along, easing workloads, a vacation, a quiet place — the usual preconditions we place on having peace. We work so hard to get there, don’t we?
But Jesus’ peace is not as the world gives it. Why? Because Jesus promises that, through the Holy Spirit, we will know peace when we know Jesus is present in our lives, right here and right now. Even when suffering a loss, even amidst conflict and noise and distractions and disruption. Remember when Jesus walked into the locked, upper room where the disciples were hiding “for fear” (John 20:19-23). Those are precisely the contexts into which Jesus is really present.
I read this week that about 50% of all people are fear-based (p.213, Richard Rohr, ‘On the Threshold of Transformation’). The real problem, though, is that we do not acknowledge it or confess it. We disguise it as ‘prudence’, ‘good stewardship’ or ‘common sense’. Politicians, pundits, advertisers and media moguls all seem to me, anyway, invested in ratcheting up people’s sense of panic, because they know how well it works. This leads many church leaders to echo what Michael Harvey claims as the only socially acceptable sin in the church today: fear (p.52, ‘Unlocking the Growth’).
Such unacknowledged turmoil will control us. Is it any wonder, then, that the New Testament warns us more than eighty times to avoid fear? Jesus is constantly encouraging his disciples: “Fear not!” “Be not afraid!” “Do not let your hearts be troubled!” And yet, how many times have we heard any Christian accuse another of the sin of fear?
Returning to relationships, perhaps we are fearful of punishment. And therefore we try to deny our sin and keep it hidden from others, even God.
When I recently found the courage to tell a friend about something I try to hide from people, generally — a bad habit, honestly, I’m kinda embarrassed about — I felt vulnerable. And there was a part of me that wondered if they would still want to be my friend after knowing this little secret of mine. I was afraid my friend might think less of me as a result.
When they continued to relate to me as if nothing like that would hinder our friendship, I experienced a bit of grace. I was reminded of what Jesus said and what he is all about. It made me think about how important it is to trust in God’s love, forgiveness and grace. Because the more I am convinced that Jesus forgives me and that his grace is a pure gift to me out of the abundance of God’s love — the more courage I find to face those dark, hidden places in my life, and confess them!
So, it’s reversed. If I focus on the punishment by sin, I will stay fearful and in denial. But God’s unconditional grace precedes anything I can do, good and bad. Living in trust and belief of God’s love — first and foremost — I am therefore empowered to be authentically me, warts and all!
When we experience the power of God’s healing grace in our lives, it doesn’t mean we won’t suffer loss and grief anymore. It means that God will be made manifest in our lives anew precisely in those moments of weakness and vulnerability. God, in Jesus Christ, will be present to us in our mutual relationships where we are honest, open and trusting with one another.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord (Philippians 4:7). Thanks be to God!