One of the themes in today’s readings is “leaving” -- and “being left”. Knowing when to stay and when to leave, how to say “goodbye”, or “goodbye for now,” and how to deal with being left are essential skills in life. The most serious “goodbyes” of life….leaving home for the first time, lengthy separations from loved ones, and death for example, can be unbelievably difficult, even emotionally crippling, without the kind of hope that grows from our faith.
I had a difficult “goodbye” recently. Some weeks ago I was in another state with my youngest brother who was hospitalized for a complicated surgery with an extensive recovery period. The evening before his surgery, he gathered several of his closest friends together. A few of them were acquainted but didn’t know each other well; a few knew each other and didn’t like each other much; another couple were surprised to be included in such an intimate group; I was meeting most of them for the first time. He then told us what he knew about the surgery and expected outcomes, about his hopes and fears, and what he was entrusting each of us to do while he was anesthetized, hospitalized or otherwise unable to do them. During the next week, this small group became an amazing community – his “circle of trust” as we began to call ourselves. Grievances were set aside along with the customary rituals where strangers get acquainted and build trust. We provided round-the-clock support for him and each other, coordinating schedules so people could attend to their own work and families, recognizing when someone needed a break, and challenging others to rise to the need. As the older sister, and the one who had the most health care experience, I was given a rather exalted place in this community. But then came day 6 when I would fly home. Even though we had prepared for this, with the continuing tasks covered efficiently, I was not prepared for how difficult it was emotionally to leave my brother, who was still seriously ill and hospitalized, and to leave this new community of loving people. I deeply wanted to stay - I was needed, I was valued and loved, and no one could do what I could do, at least not as well!
I can imagine that Paul must have felt this at times…. “Here is a group of people eager for the good news of Jesus – they need me, they love me, I have a powerful story to share of my conversion, and who better to continue to give them the good news -- maybe I could just stay here?”. If Paul had not identified local leaders and left, Christianity would not have spread very far. Likewise, if Paul had stayed in hostile environments, even after being stoned and left for dead, he might have had a much shorter career as an itinerant preacher and Christianity would not have spread very far either. At some point, whether the people were ready or not, whether he wanted to or not, he needed to move on so they could experience the risen Christ for themselves, and begin gathering their own “good news” stories.
Likewise with Jesus. He assures his disciples that he will be with them but that he must leave and will come back. If Jesus had not left, he would have remained as the man “Jesus” and not become the “Christ.” If he hadn’t left, they would have clung to him, his words, his miracles, his stories, not realizing that they too were capable of preaching, healing and being transformed into more loving people, following him in his mission, leaders in their own right. Jesus also knew how to say “goodbye for now”… If he hadn’t given the disciples this message… that he was “going away and would come back” … would they have recognized him as the Christ? Would they have recognized the Spirit as the one whom he sent to continue his mission?
If I had not left my brother and his friends, the circle of trust and care would have stayed small instead of growing and expanding to include others -- yes, there were struggles, but they worked them out quite well without me; and I believe each one was touched powerfully by this experience. (Happy ending: brother having remarkable healing and recovery.)
We want loved ones to stay, but unless they leave, we cannot live into the potential that God has given us. And unless we leave others, and allow them to develop their potential, we risk crippling those around us, and stagnating ourselves. We are now the Body of Christ… and it is up to us to “make known the glorious splendor of God’s kingdom”.
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