Today’s a great text. The disciples are headed back to Jerusalem. And when you think about it, when you get into this scene, the disciples have to be shaking their heads in disbelief about what just happened: Jesus who had died, who had come back to life, who had been with them for a time, is now gone…and this time, for good. He’s been “beamed up to the Mothership,” so to speak. Just as the disciples were getting into a rhythm of his being around, he is gone and they are left behind between a memory and a promise.
The have memories of miracles, and meals, and teachings, and power, as well as the memories of betrayal and denial, broken hearts and broken dreams. And now they have the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit – but what is that? They have no notion of what they will face, what is going to happen next.
As Rachel talked about in her sermon last week, this a time of confusion and wondering “What happens now?” There is, in short, a separation anxiety. We think of only children having separation anxiety – the fear of being away from their Mother – but it affects adults too.
When I was in California last week I saw Graham Creasy, he and his spouse Laura Holmes used to worship with us, many of you know them. He is a physician and he shared with me that separation anxiety is a normal part of growth. But, when it becomes excessive or disabling, when the separation is premature or extreme, or when the person does not have sufficient preparation for or support while navigating the separation – things can get really difficult.
The disciples are now faced with it: anxious about what happens next, separated from the one who has given them their identity.
The still have questions: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” They still envisioned a political revolution against Rome.
Earlier, Jesus had told his disciples; “Do not let your hearts be troubled…. I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” But that didn’t seem to lessen any anxiety for Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
How are the disciples going to know what to do without Jesus being with them? How were they going to carry on? There was so much more to be said, and to say, and now he is gone, completely gone.
But here is the thing that is very important – Jesus has to leave for anything to happen. As Jesus said: “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you.” (John 16:7)
If Jesus had stayed, there would be no spirit, everything would remain localized. If he remains, all would remain stationary. Unless he leaves, the disciples can never claim their own power. They’ll never grow up.
And this is so true, isn’t it? Yes, separation can produce anxiety, but there is no growth without separation. There is no adventure without leaving. No faith unless there is space.
All of life is a series of letting go, of moving through the separation anxiety into whatever is next.
You and I, like the disciples, must figure it out… this living between memories of things past and promises of things to come.
I will never forget the day that Deanne and I took our son Jack to kindergarten. (For those of you who don’t know Jack is now 23.) It was at Boulevard school just up the street. He walked so confidently into the school with all the other new children. Another father who had just dropped off his first child, a daughter, and I stood outside looking in the classroom through the big plate glass window. There was excitement but mostly melancholy.
And when daughter Sarah, turned her back on us and walked into her freshman college dorm – whew!
I felt that very strong anxiety again, this weekend, visiting our daughter Meg in California, who is going to graduate and move away.
It is hard. Yet, I know the truth – no separation, no adventure. No leave-taking, no new life, no new spirit. They have to figure it out on their own – testing and failing, and trying and putting the pieces together in some coherent way.
These separations pale in comparison to the separation of, well, separation and divorce, or certainly death – when you walk away from the bed – and the leave taking is permanent and you must begin, slowly and painfully to put your life together again – living with the memories, realizing how short a time it all was, lots of things didn’t get said, and didn’t get done.
This is what the disciples were feeling. This is what this passage is speaking to. How do we pull our lives together, and move on? Because there is no choice in the matter – we can only choose how to live in the reality of the new reality: Jesus is gone and he is not coming back any time soon.
Our loved one who died is not coming back.
The children walking into school for the first time, or heading into the dorm, or moving away, or getting married, or whatever – they may come back, but they won’t be the same.
The job has ended.
The one you thought was the one – is done, it’s over.
You have left an abusive relationship.
You have separated yourself from the bottle.
You have moved from an old way of thinking.
Here is the thing – and it is marvelous – our Christian faith claim these moments of separation as holy – hard, but holy. There are few answers, but there is movement towards the promise.
And here is the promise: You are not left alone. There is community, and there is life, and love, and all these things that may come in time if you are open. But you have to be willing to trust that it is worth heading back to Jerusalem – so to speak – to the location of the anxiety and wait, and do what has to be done.
The disciples return to the city and what do they do? They pray – opening themselves to whatever God has in store. They wait but they do not isolate themselves; rather, they become community.
There is a tendency I believe – I do this so I suspect some of you may do this too – that in our anxiety we should cut ourselves off from others, thinking, “I don’t want to burden you with my problems.” But the example of the church is that we bear one another’s burdens, and hold each other accountable, and walk through these passages together, until the Spirit comes.
The disciples pray and organize – they remember the promises that Jesus made and they wait. It isn’t easy, it is never easy, but in time life breaks open for them.
And after loneliness, there can come a new love, or a hard fought contentment with being alone.
After a barren time, there can come a new spark. After all the tears are dry, yes, a new joy – “tears may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
Shaped by memory, pulled by promise – waiting in faith for the moment when it breaks.
Graham also shared something he heard with me. “The keys to life,” he said, “are how well you live, how well you love, and how well you let go.”
I think the first two depend on how well we do the third thing – let go of each moment staying open, waiting in faith for the new day, the new spirit, the new life.
From anxiety to power.