Every year, with the end of term arrival, there begins a series of goodbyes, families and individuals who are leaving, uprooting themselves and severing ties to place and people. It is a difficult time and over the years I have become somewhat calloused to any emotions, until this year. For some reason this time around the goodbyes were more difficult, the lingering sadness more challenging to manage. I’m sure there are many reasons for this, something member care could sort out nicely, but this reflection is not about that. This reflection is about what it means to be a witness within the pain of loss and confusion.
The disciples, at the end of the earthly ministry of Jesus, also faced a difficult goodbye. Over the past 40 days Jesus had been presenting himself to these friends, teaching them about the kingdom of God, preparing them for the next phase of God’s plan. The disciples, witnesses to God’s mighty work through Christ, were still facing confusion and pain. It echoes in their questions, their concern for Israel, for the restoration of God’s promise to His people. They wanted to know if now was the moment where the kingdom was to be restored.
The disciples weren’t just saying goodbye to their leader, their teacher, Lord, and friend, they were saying goodbye to a dream, a worldview that only a few weeks earlier was focused on an earthly kingdom, Rome out, Israel restored. Perhaps included was a sense that reward and power would follow. After three years of ministry, his death on the cross, the resurrection, and now 40 days teaching, these men, who knew Jesus personally, still didn’t understand what God was doing. In confession, I too suffer from this spiritual amnesia. After decades, I am guilty of missing the point, failing to act and think out of my faith but rather out of my fear. I too have asked if Jesus will finally now restore the kingdom to Israel.
But Jesus answers them with grace, reminding them that only God knows the terms on which all will come to completion. We are called to be His witnesses, and are given the very power we seek, not through our own strength but the strength of the Holy Spirit, and not for our own ends, but for the Kingdom’s sake. In the pain and confusion Jesus hasn’t abandoned us, and like disciples before us, God gives us the strength to persevere in any and every season. And here, at the end of their time together, Jesus tells these men they will go to Jerusalem and Judea, and throughout the entire world. He also tells them they will go to Samaria.
A word that no longer stings in our ears, Samaria was not the place respectable people went. It was the place no good person would enter and now Jesus was saying go. We too are called to go. Jesus gives us permission to go places, for the sake of the gospel, we once had been forbidden to enter. Samaria can be a brothel in El Alto, or a slum in Nairobi. It is a rice farm in Capiz and a Muslim man’s home in Cotabato. Samaria is the high places of Metro Manila towers and the low places of a northern Canadian First Nation reserve. Samaria, for me, has been all these places and many more, and I am grateful for having been sent. But I am still sad. I still feel the loss of all the goodbyes.
It is easy to get paralyzed, to stand there staring into the sky, waiting for Jesus to return, longing for him to return, wondering if you can continue. Another confession, I am prone to wonder if any of this matters or is of any worth. I ask again, Lord, when will you restore the kingdom to Israel? In spite of all that I know to be true, I can still get bogged down in my own discouragement, my own self-pity and spiritual amnesia. But then the angels come and cut right through the pain. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand there looking into the sky?” Men of Galilee, another phrase that has lost its sting, a reminder to these men they were mere provincials, the lowly not the elite. Any remaining delusions of grandeur now finally, and ultimately, shattered. These men were called to be witnesses for the true king, the real kingdom, and that meant looking out at the world, not up into the sky. I too am a mere provincial, from Duncan no less, the Nazareth of the West, but I am still called to witness to the world on behalf of my king. Sometimes that includes working through the goodbyes and the sadness, one eye looking outward and one staring into space.
Good women and men from Galilee, from Duncan, from communities around the globe, why do you look up? We all have received the call, to witness the life of Christ to every corner of the globe, and at times we will experience the season of goodbyes. And if that were all, it would be enough because it is for the King and this sacrifice pales in comparison to the one He made for us. But it isn’t the end. The angels don’t leave the disciples alone with their pain, a kick in the pants and a pep talk. They leave them with hope. In the same way Jesus left, he will return. None of this is for naught. The goodbyes will be replaced with warm hellos, moments of reunification and restoration. And as the old hymn reminds me…
Because he lives
I can face tomorrow
Because he lives
All fear is gone
Because I know
He holds the future
And life is worth the living
Just because he lives.