Lectionary Readings – 7th Sunday of Easter
This past Thursday, we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension. Or at least we thought really hard about celebrating the day because it fell in the middle of work week, and so we thought it might be best to push it off until today.
Ascension Day is a feast day for Roman Catholics and Anglicans but for many other denominations, it’s just another day, and for that reason those of us of a liturgical bent may get questions asking what exactly this day represents.
On Thursday, on Facebook, one of the best responses I saw to that question of what exactly Ascension Day is, was this:
Ascension Day is the day that Jesus began working from home.
He had been working in the office with twelve of his favorite co-workers, but he realized that his work in the office was done, and that he could continue his work remotely. After all, he’d been preparing those twelve coworkers to continue the work when he wasn’t physically in the office, and now he needed to follow through on the plan, preparing a new homefor us all somewhere else.
Now, something like this obviously plays better during a time when we are experiencing a global pandemic and, by some estimates, nearly one-half of the world is staying at home to avoid catching and spreading this novel coronavirus. Those that can work from home are doing so, and those that are no longer able to work, are staying home for the same reason. What we used to do, we can no longer do, and what we wish to do, we probably ought not to do.
We’ve been cut off from our coworkers and bosses, and we’ve also been cut off from friends and family. People we used to interact with, people we used to rely on, people we used to look to for support; suddenly those people are only available from a distance. We may be able to call, we may be able to write, we may be able to get together via video conference, but it’s still not the same as being around people, seeing all the smiling faces and hearing the updates from the week behind us.
We’re home. And we are – often – mostly alone.
I imagine that this is how the disciples must have felt after they slowly came to realize that Jesus was not, in fact, going to stick around much longer. They must have had a moment of fear – a certain lack of peace – at coming to this realization, because this passage is part of a larger teaching Jesus is having with his disciples, the last one he had with them before he was betrayed, handed over to the ruling elders of the Synagogue, beaten, and finally crucified. In this discussion with them he repeatedly lets on that he won’t be around much longer.
It seems that Jesus is picking up on the disciples growing concern about him leaving, as in the tail end of Chapter 16, just before our Gospel for today starts, Jesus tells his disciples:
“The hour is coming, indeed, it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. [Or, phrased a bit differently, “I will be left alone.”] Yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me. I say this to you so that you may have peace.” (John 16:32-33a)
And then Jesus continues, praying to the Father, that the Father might glorify him, so that he might glorify the Father. And, as he continues, he says that the Father has given him authority over all people, so that he might give eternal life to all whom the Father has given to him.
And what is eternal life?
To know God.
Jesus knew, as he delivered this teaching to his disciples that he would be going to Jerusalem to his death, and still, because he knew that the final goal, the purpose of his death, was that each of us could know God, he went willingly to fulfill that task.
Jesus was never alone, because he and the Father are one, as he says in verse eleven. They are in communion, in community, with one another. And, the end goal is that we too will know God, and that we too will attain the measure of glory given to all those who believe in “Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”
That, in a nutshell, is the Easter message. The Good News of the salvation of the world, and that is the hope that we cling to. It is the hope of a future blessing of being one with God in eternity, delivered through the purposeful sacrifice of the son on the cross.
That, in itself, should provide us with a modicum of hope, a small bit of peace in the midst of any difficulty. If we know that this life is but a shadow of what is to come, and that the end of this life is just a beginning to a whole new and greater one, then that should provide us with just a touch of hope and peace.
The promise of a future blessing might take away some of the fear of things we experience, but unfortunately, the hope of a future blessing is not always enough to confront current suffering.
When I was in seminary years ago, I was required to do a practicum as a hospital chaplain, and during my first few days of training, the other chaplains shared some of what they called “horror stories” that they had witnessed while working there.
One of them had been called in to visit with a family after a local pastor had come in to meet with a family after they had lost a loved one. The pastor had come in and essentially said, “They are in a better place now,” and left. The family, of course, was a bit dumbstruck, and when the chaplain came in a bit later, they said basically, “Sure, they are in a better place, but what do I do now?”
The patients’ suffering might have ended, but the family’s was only just beginning.
And knowing they might see their loved one again someday simply wasn’t enough to confront the pain they were experiencing at that present moment. They had experienced a great loss, and now were wondering how to cope.
Several weeks ago, at the beginning of the lockdowns that many of the states experienced, a few celebrities started posting selfies of themselves in their home and in their backyards with hashtags like #staysafe, #stayhome, #staypositive, and #allinthistogether. People saw these celebrities in their massive homes with swimming pools, tennis courts, workout centers and enormous back yards and told them in no uncertain terms that they simply were not suffering during the lockdown and economic turmoil that most normal people were experiencing.
People were looking at their own situation, and determining that those who had more were simply not suffering. Forgetting for the moment that they themselves have far more than others have. There will always be people in better situations and will always be people in worse situations.
But we, we tend to only focus on our own situation.
Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the holocaust, spent time in four different concentration camps, including Auschwitz. He later became a counselor, and used his experiences in the concentration camps to develop a form of psychotherapy he called Logotherapy, which he defined as, “healing through meaning.”
After several years of counseling people he came to the conclusion that:
“…suffering is similar to the behavior of gas If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.”
So why bring this up? What do suffering celebrities have to do with holocaust victims, and what, more importantly, can any of this possibly have to do with us?
In today’s New Testament reading, Peter is comforting his readers who are experiencing persecution by letting them know that around the world, their brothers and sisters in the faith were experiencing the same things. We may not be experiencing the same persecution that the early Christians were facing, but right now, across the world, because of this pandemic that has crossed the globe, people are experiencing some form of loss. For some, it might be the loss of a loved one who died of the coronavirus. For some it may be the loss of a job, or of income from a business. For others, it might be the loss of their personal freedoms because they are being asked to wear a mask when they leave the house. For even others, it may be the loss of community, because they cannot spend time with those they love, or spend time at church with those who share their faith. Whether your loss seems large or small to others, it is still a loss to you, and you must give yourself the courage to claim your loss and experience it.
And we must have the same courage, and compassion, to allow others to claim their own loss, whether we understand it or not.
The reasons may be different but the experience is similar.
Again, this abstract idea that other people are experiencing similar things to what we are experiencing may not be as comforting as Peter hoped it might be. It has that vague notion of those on the Titanic all saying #allinthistogether as the ship sinks.
But, in a very real sense, we are all in this together, even if it might feel like we are all miles apart. Even if it feels like we are at home, mostly alone.
In a continuation of his discussion regarding suffering, Viktor Frankl stated that “suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment that it finds meaning.”
Jesus was able to undergo terrific levels of suffering for our sake, because he had purpose, and he knew that his death had greater meaning for the hope of the world. At the tail end of our Gospel reading today, Jesus prayed that we would become one, just has he and the Father are one. God’s desire for us is that believers across the world might live in unity. But not just across the world. Across the country, across the state, and even within our own church.
If we know that our end goal is to find unity within ourselves and within our church – to be one as the Father and the Son are one – then perhaps we may be able to seek out new ways of bringing ourselves closer together even in a time when we are required to remain apart.
So that we can be home, yet never really alone.
I don’t claim to know what those things might be for each of you – mainly because I’m not entirely sure what it will be for me – but I pray that it will become obvious to each of us.
Because if we can find the meaning behind our present shared experiences, then I believe that this time apart from one another may in fact become more of a blessing than simply something we feel we need to endure.