May 17, 2020
Acts 17:22-31, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21
Leonard Delorenzo, professor of Theology at Notre Dame, wrote to students about the pandemic upending their academic year: “There is no silver lining here, but there is a lesson. It is not the kind of lesson that anyone can merely teach someone else, as if it were a matter of having the right information. No, this is a lesson that must be absorbed. The lesson is that life, in the end, is about loss, and suffering itself is the teacher.”
The lesson that life is about loss, and suffering is the teacher is not an easy lesson to learn or absorbed. It is extremely painful and even traumatic. No wonder that David Kessler, author of the book titled, Finding Meaning; The Sixth Stage of Grief, writes that “many people are experiencing a number of kinds of grief at the moment. People are grieving over loss of normalcy, connections and economic security. Collective grief is in the air. Naming and understanding the stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance, and finding meaning -helps manage it, but the stages are not necessarily linear.” His advice? “Think about how you can let go of things you can’t control and stock up on compassion for others.”
There is one more kind of grief and it is rather debilitating. It is called anticipatory grief. This kind of grief imagines the worst about the future. And according to the Harvard Business Review, the antidote for anticipatory grief is to focus on present realities. It is to focus on what you still have and not on what you’ve lost or to anticipate the worst about the future!
So, in the midst of loss, suffering, and grieving, we have to:
1. let go of things we cannot control, 2. stock up on compassion for others, 3. focus on what we still have and not what we’ve lost and, I would add 4. continue to be hopeful for the future.
The audience of Peter’s 1st letter was a Christian community scattered in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, at the end of the 1st Century. This community did not have it easy.
They were accused of terrible things and despised by most in the Roman Empire. There was a fire in Rome, and then the persecution started. They suffered tremendous trauma and losses. How would they deal with their crisis? How would or should they respond in the face of their distress? Could we learn from Peter’s advice to the church back then? I believe the answer is yes!
Peter is saying that Christians, in the face of loss, trauma, grief and persecution, should respond by doing what is good and what is right! “Do what is right. Speak the truth and share the hope that is in you if anyone demands from you an accounting. But do so with gentleness and reverence.” He urges them to keep their eyes on Christ for he suffered for their sins, and his suffering brought them to God.
We could paraphrase: They stocked up on compassion! In spite of their own sufferings, they chose to do good and what is right! They repaid evil with a blessing. They showed sympathy and love for others, their hearts were tender and their minds were humble.
When they were persecuted and accused, they did not focus on what they lost. They held onto what they still had and what they still had was what really mattered to them! When they were tortured and killed, they remembered their baptism and the promises of God! They held onto eternal hope! Their future was in the hands of a loving and compassionate God.
And the outcome was indeed astounding- people were mesmerized by their kindness, compassion and gentleness even in the face of mortal danger. They suffered but did not retaliate. They were maligned but they responded in a way that went beyond human understanding and people were attracted it by it.
How on earth did they manage to do so? How were they able to keep their faith, compassion, love and hope? Well the answer goes back to John 14.
Jesus, shortly before he was arrested and crucified was with his Disciples. He said to them: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” This of course was not the first time that Jesus referred to commandments. In John 13 Jesus mentioned a new commandment, “to love one another- by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Loving others is at the core of the Gospel. And those who follow Christ ought to follow Christ’s commandment to love one another. Loving others shows that we are disciples of Christ. It cannot be any clearer: Love of Christ and keeping his commandments are two sides of the same coin. And John later on is even more explicit and practical about this correlation. In 1 John 3:17 we read; “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” and then he says: “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
In the next verse Jesus promises the Disciples the Paraclete. The Paraclete is of course the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth. There are a few words in English to describe the Greek word Paraclete: Advocate, Defending Counsel, Helper and Comforter.
The Holy Spirit would be with them even when Jesus departed from them. Jesus did not leave them orphaned. The Spirit of God would guide them in the truth. One NT scholar writes: “The Spirit guided the church to a rich inner experience and to brotherliness”. The task of the Spirit of God was to strengthen their faith, guide them in the truth of the Gospel, encourage and console them. The Spirit would do these while enabling them to keep the commandment to love one another.
So, in the midst of the early church’s loss, suffering, and grieving, the Spirit of God guided the Christian community to let go of things they could not control and place their trust in God. They stocked up on compassion for others, they focused on what they had in Christ and not what they’ve lost. They continued to be hopeful for the future for Christ would return and will take them to himself.
The promise of the Paraclete was fulfilled for them; they received God’s Spirit. After Pentecost we received God’s Spirit as well! We too have the spirit of God to lead us in the truth, to encourage, console and help us in times of our need!
The Spirit of God enables us to love others and to stock up on compassion for others! In the midst of this pandemic and all the suffering, loss and death it brings, we too can and should keep our eyes on Christ. We are called to place our trust in him knowing that he understands for he suffered for us.
At the same time, we should keep an eye open to others. And when we see the suffering of others, we will be moved to show compassion, reach out to them and do whatever we can to help so that their hope may be restored as well.
It is telling that Jesus starts this conversation with the words, “if you love me”. The same John says that “God is love.”
The world knows that our faith is in a God who loves the world. Even a secular world, a world where some people think that Noah’s wife’s name was Joan of Arc, and that the first commandment was when Eve told Adam to eat the apple, knows that love is a central theme in Christian faith.
People may not know the name of the four Gospels, but they know that God loves human beings. And when Christians talk about God’s love and their actions contradict their words, people will be skeptical. How much can we contribute to the wellbeing of society when we, as a church fulfill Christ’s commandment to love one another? How much hope can we bring to a suffering world when we love one another, when we are compassionate, when we show the world that we what we have in Christ is more precious than anything else?
There are many ways to love others. When I prepared I was struck by one more way. In Acts, Paul is in front of the Areopagus in Athens. He acknowledges that the Athenians are extremely religious. He has seen their objects of worship and then he does something extraordinary: he finds a connection or common ground with them and their world: “I found an altar with the inscription: ‘to an unknown God’”.
And then, after he finds common ground, he explains that he proclaims the unknown God who is now made known! Instead of judging or considering the Athenians idolatrous and superstitious people, Paul finds a way to connect! And then after he connects with them he shares with them the Gospel. He even picks up on a familiar poem of theirs: “In him we live and move and have our being.’
The Apostle Paul connects with people, meet them where they are and then he shares the Gospel. The church has not always done this. Instead of finding common ground, she is easy to condemn the views and practices that are strange or different. Perhaps during these difficult times and in a very divided society we could learn from the Apostle Paul. Instead of attacking or pointing fingers, perhaps we could do more to connect with others and find common ground! After all, God is God and in him we live and move and have our being.
During these very challenging times of suffering, sickness, death and a deep sense of loss, a time when all of us are grieving, let us remember that we are not alone. We have the Paraclete, the Spirit of God, our Advocate, our Counselor and our Helper. God’s Spirit not only leads us into the truth; the Spirit also enables us to love, to be compassionate, to find a connection and common ground with others and to focus on what we have in Christ. The Spirit guides us to hold onto Christian hope. This hope is rooted in Jesus’ resurrection and his promise to return. In spite of everything, we do have a future, for nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.