In 1977, when I was 31 years old, I went to visit a monastery in the hills of Santa Barbara California. It was a time in my faith journey when I was no longer sure that I had the right answers and I really was beginning to wonder if I even had the right questions.
So I went to visit this monastery. The monks, the brothers living in the house, were kind and hospitable and gave this sad young man a room in the dormitory, three meals a day and plenty of time. So I stayed there a few weeks, reading books, visiting with people, taking long walks; then one of the brothers said to me, “you seem to have a fine intellectual understanding of the faith, in your head, but you’re not giving much time for prayer, in your heart. Why don’t you spend a half-hour in the chapel every night and just pray for guidance?” So I started doing that, without much expectation but giving it time, and one night I met God believing in me.
That was more than half my life ago and I will never forget it: but I will always remember that it came when my heart was filled with sadness, my hands were open and empty, and my life was left without a lot of hope. But what I found was, even there, especially there, was that God was there believing in me.
The day I left to go back to my life outside the monastery I talked to one of the older monks. He had been a Bishop in the African church, retired to the monastery, was around 92 years old. I told him I was going back to the University, going back home to take up my studies and work, and he looked at me and said, “Ah yes, another beginning.” So I went back to make another beginning in the middle of my life and that was the end of my time in Santa Barbara.
The lessons for this Sunday have to do with beginnings, middles and ends. In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul starts a new church at the home of Lydia, “a worshiper of God and a dealer in purple cloth.” She is one of the reminders that the early church was full of strong and capable women, in the tradition of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, and up to the present day whom we remember and give thanks for their mission and ministry, in their birthing and building up of the Christian community.
The reading from the Revelation to John has to do with the end of the world, The word “End” (the greek is Telos) here means both the final act and the final goal. This reading gives us a poetic picture of what we might finally hope for as we walk with God, with Jesus, in the spirit, today. It is a a place of perfect balance and perfect beauty, the hope of heaven. Interestingly, there's no church there, no need for a building, but when we're there, each one stands enlightened by God’s good light, we living eternally in the light of God’s love, in that heavenly City, joining together in that heavenly feast of which this Eucharist is a simple foretaste.
But today’s Gospel plants us right in the middle of everything, in a difficult time, in that seemingly random parade of events from Easter to Pentecost, the weeks that follow from the resurrection of Jesus to the birthday of the church. And now, in this in-between time, Jesus is surprising people: telling Mary Magdalene, “do not hold on to me,” asking Thomas to touch his open wounds, then showing up walking and talking with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, enlightening their hope and understanding. He arranges a surprising fishing expedition, even serves the disciples a bonus breakfast barbecue at the beach. And then he tells his disciples, his friends, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’
Sometimes it is difficult to deal with these comings and goings of the Lord. Sometimes it seems less of a dance and more like a conversation on a phone when the voice keeps fading in and out. We can try to learn to accept the rhythm of it, like the church seasons moving from feast to fast, from penitence to celebration, from dying faith to living hope, but sometimes it’s not easy. But Jesus says, “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.”
And he also tell us,
”I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you... Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
And then sometimes he seems to leave us, even after Easter. And our hearts can still be filled with sadness, our hands open and empty, and our lives left without a lot of hope. He even left the disciples wondering a bit back then. It’s not an uncommon place to be.
But as we move to Pentecost Jesus still promises to meet us in the middle of the way with all our brittle doubts and our ragged faith, sad hearts, and empty open hands. And if we will still reach out he will join with us through the very center of this dangerous journey and accompany us all the way home to that enlightened city, that final heavenly festival, that great feast that is in the middle and the end, of all creation. And Jesus promises that he will share with us the very breath that breathes the universe, that breathes through his own redemptive life, to turn us around, and that breath/spirit will join us on the way. So we wait in the middle of this Easter season to know the fire of Pentecost, that we may find here, in the middle of everywhere, that God creates another beginning to bring us home in the end.
St John Chrysostom writes this in an Easter homily some 1600 years ago, it's a good place to end:
Come… enter into the joy of your Lord…. enjoy the banquet of faith… receive the riches of his goodness. Let no one grieve over his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed; let no one weep over his sins, for pardon has shone from the grave; let no one fear death, for the death of our Saviour has set us free...
Christ is risen and [death is] abolished. Christ is risen and... demons are cast down. Christ is risen and... angels rejoice. Christ is risen and life is freed. Christ is risen and the tomb is emptied of the dead... To Him be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.