"Preparing for transformation in this in-between time": May 15 pastoral reflection from Bishop Harris

May 15, 2020

Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

"I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
        Gospel for Easter 6: John 14:15-21; New Revised Standard Version

This portion of Jesus’ farewell to his followers is appointed for this Sunday as we anticipate on Thursday the Holy Day and Feast of the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven. They are words of comfort, a promise and a mandate to love.

Those who followed Jesus were witnesses to his teaching, preaching, compassion and mighty miracles. They had witnessed his betrayal, trial, crucifixion and death. On Good Friday their hopes died. They hid for fear of their lives; they were afraid the Roman government and the crowds would come after them too, and put them to death. They stayed behind locked doors for days, grieving, confused and fearful. How could they, and when could they, go out again? Would they ever be able to return to some normalcy?

And then Jesus rose, breaking the dominion of death, which literally was beyond their comprehension. Jesus was back, and their lives and hopes could resume.

Scripture has given us a look into those days following the resurrection, with accounts of the appearances of the risen Jesus. Jesus appears to the women first, sending them to proclaim the resurrection. Jesus later the same day appears in the Upper Room, and again for the sake of Thomas who had been absent.

In some of these appearances people were trying to get on with life again. Two followers of Jesus did not recognize him as they walked back home from Jerusalem to Emmaus. The disciples returned to the Sea of Galilee, to pick up their life as fishermen, encounter again the risen Jesus, who tells them after a night of unproductive work to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. Jesus prepares them a breakfast before they eventually make their way back to Jerusalem.

Jesus was back among them. Life was not quite the same as before Good Friday, but I am sure they began to relax and laugh and were filled with awe and wonder. They were comforted and assured, regained their strength, began to have hope and look to the future again. A new pattern of life had emerged.

This new “normal” lasted for 40 days. Then Jesus took them to a Bethany hilltop next to Jerusalem:  

They asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." 

When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said,"Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."  Acts 1:5-11; NRSV

And again, Jesus was gone.  

They returned to the locked Upper Room as instructed. The hope and the life before Good Friday, and even the life they had during the last 40 days, were gone.

Sheltering in the room, door and windows shut, they waited bewildered, with uncertainty and fear of arrest. In their minds and out loud, their questions may not have been so much "What’s next?" as "How long before this waiting ends?"

From Good Friday to Easter, and then from Ascension Day until the Day of the Pentecost, the disciples and all followers of Jesus were wondering, and waiting. Life was on hold, in a state of suspension. They were existing in an “in-between time." A time of uncertainty and anxiety. 

It would be 10 days between Jesus' leaving them on the Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. But they didn’t know that it would be only 10 days. They didn’t know how long they would be locked away in fear. Yet again, they did not know what would come next or if life would resume as it had been.

And so it is for us. We are in a state of suspension during this pandemic.  

Most of us are sheltering, fearing COVID-19, concerned about health and our loved ones, worried about finances and employment. We are deprived of being present with each other as a community of faith and the Eucharist. We anxiously long and hope for a return to normal, to life before the COVID-19 pandemic. We live in an “in-between time,” not knowing what the future might hold.

Given the current propensity for division in our society, being separated physically can amplify our social, political, economic, racial, gender and sexuality conflicts.

In a Zoom conference call this week with ecumenical leaders, in which Bishop Alan and I were participants, we heard the bishop of the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church, the Rt. Rev. Sudarshana Devadhar, share his reflection on the term “social distancing."

He reminded us that being socially distant defines and isolates people into categories according to race, age, economics, national origin and prejudicial statuses. He stated we should never be socially distant, for that is anathema to the Gospel of Jesus. The bishop knows this from his life in India and its caste system that designates and prohibits social interaction, confining some as "untouchable." Rather, what we need during this pandemic is to practice physical distancing for public health reasons, not social distancing. More now than ever, we need each other, and we must reach out to each other. His words moved me, and I now will use the term “physical distancing,” for Bishop Devadhar is correct: we cannot condone the term social distancing as a lever towards its full meaning.

Growing evidence reveals that communities of color have less access to medical treatment, as infection rates rise. The inequalities in all levels of education have been exposed; those who don’t have computers and Internet service cannot connect to education and information resources. Domestic violence is on the rise. We hear misleading comments and political spin about the origin and threat of COVID-19, the availability of personal protection equipment, testing and science. These matters are of life and death. These are matters of heart and mind. They are matters of faith and justice.

This pandemic demands that we be physically distant, but also it demands the best of us, to be socially connected and responsible to each other, and not consumed by our desires and individual concerns only. In his book of meditations Daysprings, the Rev. Sam Portaro reminds us that Jesus calls us to move "beyond the superficial distinctions made by communities and individuals, (for) the human family shares a common, fundamental unity. Jesus consistently and constantly called his hearers to return to that principle and live out of it. Distinctions that divide and separate are to be abandoned in favor of love." (page 199)

Life was never the same for those who followed Jesus. Their normal life was not resumed after the crucifixion, nor after Easter, nor after the Ascension. Pentecost was waiting in the wings as the disciples sheltered in a locked and shuttered room. But Pentecost also would bring more tremendous change. Christian faith is not centered on the status quo. It is all about being transformed in, with and by God’s love.

I do not think life will return to what we previously considered normal, not in a few weeks, or months or even in a few years. The world has been altered by COVID-19, and it will continue to alter our way of life. This nation has been at this juncture before with life-altering events that erased what was normal and built a new sense of priorities.

The aftermath of great events in our history remind us that we have continually rebuilt--following the Revolutionary War; the Civil War; World Wars I and II; 9/11; the Kennedy and King assassinations; after epidemics of small pox, yellow fever, influenza, and polio; after natural disasters and mass shootings. The way of life we experienced before COVID-19 will not resume the same way it was. There will be more waiting and more changes ahead. COVID-19 will return after this first run through humanity. Restoration of our activities will roll out in phases; sometimes seemingly moving forward, sometimes moving back for a while. But we will rebuild again.

Jesus said, I will not leave you orphaned…In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.

In this in-between time, we wait, as Jesus’ followers waited between the Ascension and Pentecost. After the Pentecost, the Jesus Movement did not return to the way life was before Easter. Christians were led to a new and challenging future; to take arduous journeys and immigrate to foreign lands; to gather with strangers; to give sacrificially in support of one another. Their in-between time was a time of preparation for transformation. Transformation of heart and mind. Transformation of priorities. Transformation of life. 

And so it is for us. This in-between time allows us to be open to the transforming power of love and prepare for a new future, as we wait.  

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Yours in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris