In just a few hours, I begin a three-month sabbatical. As a result, my last couple of weeks have been dedicated in large part to getting ready to go, and doing what I can to help the people who will handle things in my absence.
That, it turns out, is the theme of our Gospel reading. We have been celebrating Christ’s resurrection, and the Easter season continues for another couple of weeks. But in the reading assigned for this morning, we have gone back to the Last Supper. Jesus has just washed the feet of the disciples. Now Judas has left, gone to betray Jesus to the authorities. As he says, Jesus will be with his remaining disciples “only a little longer.” He is trying to get them ready for his imminent departure.
The disciples seem to have missed most of what Jesus was saying to them throughout this section of the Gospel, even the parts that seem pretty obvious. But there is an ambiguity here that they could not possibly have seen at the time.
Jesus is actually preparing them for two departures.
First, Jesus is about to die. In a few hours, he will be arrested, crucified, and buried. That’s one departure, and probably the main one he had in mind.
But as we all know, the story keeps going. Jesus rises again. Over several weeks, Jesus appears to the disciples many times. Then Jesus ascends into heaven. So there is a first departure when Jesus dies, and a second departure when Jesus ascends.
Jesus’ two departures are similar in some important ways and different in other important ways. Both the similarities and the differences have something to teach us about departures in general, including my departure on sabbatical.
Start with the similarities. In both, the disciples have to say goodbye to their beloved master, and that is hard. But in both cases, Jesus’ departure is life-giving.
Jesus’ first departure, his death, conquers death. Jesus dies that we might live. Jesus’ death brings us life, now and forever. That is good news.
Jesus’ second departure, his ascent into heaven, is also good news. As he tried to explain to the disciples, only after Jesus returned to heaven, could he send the Holy Spirit to them. Somehow Jesus’ departure was connected to the Holy Spirit coming to dwell in us, both individually and as God’s people in the world.
Now, I am not Jesus! My departure for a few months does not compare to Jesus’ crucifixion or ascension. I know that! But one lesson we can learn from Jesus’ departures is that departures make new life possible. That raises an obvious question for us this morning is: what is the new life that you can expect here while I am gone?
Hopefully I will be a better priest for Saint David’s when I return, better able to serve this congregation as we take the next steps in our journey with Christ. But our reading suggests more than that. Our reading suggests that my departure itself may be life-giving for Saint David’s.
That life may take a lot of forms. But one is predictable. Priests go on sabbatical in part so that congregations experience life without their regular priest. My absence is the best possible reminder that the priest is not the one who makes the Church work. God’s people rely first on God, and second on each other. The priest is a distant third.
We all know that in our heads. But people need to know it in their hearts, too. I am up front week after week, and it could begin to seem like Saint David’s depends on me. But in my absence, others will lead worship, and manage the office, and teach our children, and keep the Church looking good, and supporting people in need, and generally doing all the things that Churches do.
When I get back, I am hoping you will be glad to see me! But by that time, anyone who might have been tempted to think otherwise will know that the strength and well-being of Saint David’s comes from the grace of God and the faithfulness of our people. That knowledge is a life-giving gift.
Back to Jesus’ departures. The contrast between the two departures teaches another lesson. Both of Jesus’ departures were life-giving. But the disciples reacted very differently to the two.
Think about how the disciples reacted to Jesus’ first departure, to his crucifixion. I am talking about the two days before his resurrection. When Jesus was arrested, the disciples went into hiding. They were paralyzed with guilt and fear. They had no idea what to do. They had no idea where to go. All they could do was cower and wait for something to happen that might give them some hope or guidance because they had none. That’s one option for how to respond to a departure, obviously not a very good one!
Now, think about how the disciples reacted to Jesus’ second departure, to his ascension. Once again, they were hanging out together in the upper room, waiting. But this time the waiting was different. This time they waited with expectation and hope. They waited for the gift of the Holy Spirit. And when the Spirit came, they exploded out into the streets, proclaiming the good news of God’s salvation.
And so began the Church’s non-violent conquest of the Roman Empire. Outsiders saw the little band of Christians, poor and ignorant though they were, filled with the power that comes from knowing God and so capable of changing the world. Outsiders wanted that power, too. Who wouldn’t?
That is a very different option for responding to a departure. In both cases, Jesus was gone. In both cases, Jesus’ departure meant new life, whether or not the disciples could see it. But only in the second case did the disciples truly experience the power and the glory of God in their lives. Only in the second case, could the disciples embrace their God-given mission to share with God in changing the world from the nightmare it is for some into the dream that God has for it.
I say again, I know I am not Jesus. My sabbatical is not at all like getting crucified or ascending into heaven. You are not likely to experience my time away as a particularly dramatic moment in the life of our Church, for good or ill.
But I take great comfort in knowing that you are option two people, that you will remain open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit while I am gone, that you will keep moving forward as God’s people in the world.
I particularly emphasize this because I want to talk about it when I return. During my sabbatical, I am going to be thinking and praying about the next step in our Christian journey, about what I hear God calling us to be and to do. I am counting on you to do the same. What does it mean to be God’s Church in southern New England in 2019?
I am going to miss you all terribly. I am going to hate being rooted out of my community of faith for three months. But my time in the wilderness should give me new life. And my departure should open the way for the Holy Spirit to give you new life, too. I can’t wait to talk about it when I get back.
So I thank God and you and the Diocese for the opportunity you are giving me. And I pray that we can all use it well, to God’s greater glory. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan