Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been reading a beautiful essay collection called One Long River of Song, by Brian Doyle, who passed away due to complications from a brain tumor in 2017. One essay that particularly stuck out to me, called “Everyone Thinks That Awful Comes by Itself, But It Doesn’t,” begins like this:
I know a guy whose wife fell in love with another man. She told him about it first thing in the morning on a summer day. She then went to start the coffee.
What did you do? I asked.
Just lay abed, he said, listening to her puttering in the kitchen. Everyone thinks that awful comes by itself, but it doesn’t. It comes hand in hand with the normal.
While the essay focuses on life’s tragedies coming hand in hand with normal everyday life, the same could be said for any “awe-full” event, good or bad. Any event, no matter how wonderful or terrifying, no matter how life-changing, still happens within time. There will always be lunches to be made and laundry to do. Our lives are therefore always lived in this tension between change and continuity.
This resonates deeply with my own experiences. Like the rest of the world, I watched in horror on 9/11 as the towers fell; I also spent much of that day trying to sort out a glitch in my course schedule before a looming deadline. My “dark night” experience of 2010-11 changed my life completely, and yet I emerged from that experience more or less the same, with the same values, personality, and longings of the heart. Or even thinking about the pandemic; in so many ways it has changed every aspect of my life, and yet I still do my weekly grocery shop, I still work my normal hours five days a week, I still write in the mornings and read most evenings, and go for neighborhood walks and runs. No matter how much an awe-full or awful event changes things, the more they stay the same.
I couldn’t help but think of this as I was reading today’s Gospel reading, which is Luke’s telling of the story we read last week from John’s Gospel: Jesus’ appearance to his disciples on that first Easter evening. What stood out to me this week was the way Jesus defines the message the apostles were to preach:
Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24.46-46)
Repentance and forgiveness of sins. If you’re familiar with the Scriptures, these words will be very familiar to you. They were the heart of John the Baptist’s message, “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3.3). Jesus then took up John’s message as his own, crying out “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” (Matthew 4.17).
After all that happened during Holy Week, after the cross, after the resurrection, the message is the same.
As the apostles, especially in the letters of Paul and John, point out, everything changed with the cross and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, for them, the resurrection was the lens through which all of history was to be read. And yet, even as everything changed, according to Jesus, the message stays the same. The resurrection does not undo the earlier proclamation, but vindicates and confirms it.
This is actually a surprisingly controversial statement. There are a lot of Christians who seem to think that the cross changed God’s character, that the expectations of God for God’s people were drastically different before and after the crucifixion. (There are even some extreme forms of Christianity that claim that Jesus’ ethical teachings don’t apply to us today because they are for a Kingdom that humanity rejected!) But, as readings like today’s make clear, God’s desires for humanity did not change on Good Friday or Easter Sunday. From the beginning, God’s desire is for healthy and whole relationships with and among people and creation. That was true when God declared creation to be “very good.” It was true when God called Abraham. It was true when God gave the Law to Moses. It was true when the Prophets demanded justice for the oppressed. It was true when John the Baptist cried out for the people to repent. It was true when Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God. It was true when Jesus was crucified. It was true when he appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden and to his disciples here in the Upper Room. And it’s true for us today.
And in a world where we are still prone to hurting one another — in a world where sin exists — there can be no healthy, healed, and whole relationships — there can be no peace, shalom — without repentance and forgiveness.
As we saw last week, as Jesus’ followers, the disciples’ lives and teaching become caught up in his, and so his message is to become their message. They will be witnesses to the hope of repentance and forgiveness. And by virtue of sharing the same Holy Spirit that empowered Jesus and the apostles, we too are caught up in his life and his teaching, and so our lives are too dedicated to this message of repentance and forgiveness.
There is much more to be said about this, especially in our present moment, and I will post again about repentance later this week. But for today, this is what is on my heart to say: God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The world will throw awful and awe-full things our way, but the more things change, the more they stay the same — especially with God. The Easter story did not change God but is a confirmation of the longings of God’s heart proclaimed from generation to generation.
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