Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
At the last supper, when Judas had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
I’d like to reflect upon a dimension of the spiritual life that we don’t discuss enough, and that is the arc of it, and the ebb and flow of our feelings, as we make our way in this world as a person of faith, and in particular, a follower of Jesus.
Let me begin by telling you of a time when as a young adult–in my mid-twenties–I had what felt at the time to be an important decision to make. It wasn’t a life-changing decision, but a big enough deal that I wanted to get it right. Incidentally, I had already come to the decisions that those being confirmed are making today. I knew that I was a Christian and dedicated my life to following Jesus. In fact, I was in seminary, studying to be a priest. So I was all in, as they say, when it comes to faith, and I was praying about this decision, too, and for days I wrestled with the options, feeling genuinely torn. It was an uncomfortable time, and not an unfamiliar one. I struggled a lot with decisions back then, and in many ways still do. I’m prone to second-guessing myself, making quick decisions and immediately regretting them, going back and forth, wishing that some lightbulb would go off in my head and just settle things.
So back then I went for a swim at a nearby recreation center with this quandary on my mind. Somewhere in the midst of doing laps, the lightbulb went off. Clarity came, washing over me like the water I was swimming through. It felt like a gift from God, lifting me out of the indecisive state I had worked myself into. I knew exactly what to do and I knew why. Energized, I picked up the pace and finished my workout as if competing for Olympic gold. But no sooner had I stepped out of the water and began to dry off when the familiar feelings of uncertainty returned, completely overtaking the confidence I experienced just moments before.
The first thought I had was something like, Really–are you kidding me? Then, thankfully, I burst out laughing–mostly at myself for the way I was stressing over that one decision. That’s when it dawned on me that my feelings of uncertainty, and then certainty, and uncertainty again were just that–they were feelings that come and go. At the same time, I still had the decision to make, and I realized I now had another choice: I could either trust the clarity that came while I swam or go with the rush of doubt that followed. In an act of faith, I chose to trust my experience in the water. I remember praying, “Lord, I’m going to trust this is from you and act on it.”
Let me say again that what I was dealing with at the time wasn’t, in the end, that big of a deal, but the decision to trust the gift of clarity when it came to me, even after it left and I no longer felt it, has helped me more times than I can count when the stakes were higher. It’s drawn me closer to God, because in those times, I walk by faith and do my best to keep going, even when the confidence I felt in a given moment fades away.
What I hope you take away from this story is simply this: how you feel or don’t feel on a given day about God and the importance of God in your life; and what you may or may not believe in the sense of having complete confidence that something is true–these things come and go. But what you will have–and most certainly already have had–are moments like what happened to me in the pool when you feel something, when clarity or insight or an experience that you cannot explain rationally is given to you as a gift. Sometimes it will be strong and clear enough to see you through all the times of struggle and uncertainty that follow. Sometimes it may seem to disappear completely, but that’s when the life of faith becomes real, when you decide to trust the experience, in all its plausible deniability.
Now I’m not saying that every experience of seeming clarity or insight that comes from you is of God–that would be dangerous. They need to be tested in some way. Here is what I’ve learned about them, and how to sort through the ones that are trustworthy from the ones that aren’t–and believe me, I don’t always get this right.
If the experience is of God, the feelings that accompany it are those of love and acceptance–total acceptance of who you are and what you’re going through. If it feels otherwise–as if harsh, mean-spirited or unforgiving–that’s to be rejected (think of that later in the service when I ask you about renouncing forces of evil). It will almost always be the path requiring greater courage, unless what God is trying to say to you is that you need to slow down and not try so hard to make things right on your own. Every once in a while the word or insight that comes to us requires a really dramatic response–but not always, and I daresay, not often, and they generally occur in situations of acute crisis.
One example from my life: two years ago, at what was then the most acute and frightening stage of the covid pandemic before there were vaccines and a lot of people were dying, we had just settled my mom into an assisted living apartment. It promised to be a really good place for her as she recovered from a life-altering surgery and the sudden loss of all her independence. But then her facility had to shut everything down that made life worth living there, and she was quarantined in her room. I couldn’t see her and she couldn’t leave. My husband was away; and I had no way to care for her on my own, but one morning I woke up and knew as clearly as I knew my own name that I had to get her out of there. And I did, and she lived with us for over a year. Were there times afterwards when I wondered if I had made the right decision? Of course. But I had to trust that it was the right thing to do and just do it.
Do you hear what I’m saying: The life of faith is less about the words we say in church–although I’ll get to those in a minute–and more with how we live our lives in a spirit of trust. Can we trust that God is real? Can we believe that the person of Jesus, who lived, taught, healed, upended his society with a message of radical love and justice for the poor and was killed for it, and then was raised by God so that his death was not evidence of failure but an expression of how God’s love cannot be defeated even in death, and whose living presence is with those who choose to follow him, is one to be trusted as a personal Savior, friend, and the way that God reaches us now? The ways we know this isn’t so much as we come to accept or even understand what Christians through the ages have said or wrote about him, but rather how we experience him, and the elusive Spirit of God, in those moments, as the black theologian Thurgood Marshall wrote years ago, when our backs are against the wall.
Now let me say something about all the in-between time, when those moments of clarity or spiritual connection fade or seem far off, when life is more routine, and we’re busy, juggling multiple things at once and tempted to spend way too much time on mindless activities, and nothing seems particularly dramatic or exciting.
These are also spiritual moments, when God, and for Christians, in the person of Jesus, is with us; but the experience isn’t one of an adrenaline rush. It’s quieter, and we need to pay more attention to the little things–the bits of grace and goodness that are all around us, the opportunities we have to make a small difference in the life of another, or to do something good even when no one is watching, or to go deeper in our understanding or knowledge of God through reading one of the gospels that tell of Jesus’ life, or joining a prayer group, or getting involved in a work of justice, or giving some of your money away so that someone else might breathe easier as a result.
This is the work of aligning our lives to what we know matters most, but that gets so easily crowded out by all that’s swirling in and around us. It’s how we learn to hear the voice of Jesus when he speaks really softly, and we become the kind of people that other people recognize as Christians, as a song I used to sing in Youth Group goes, by our love.
So let me leave you with a few phrases from our Scripture texts today that can guide you in all those other times when we’re doing our best to live as if the powerful moments of grace and insight are real, but we don’t feel them as strongly anymore. Consider them a way of orienting your life, or patterning it, on the life of Jesus, who came not only to reveal God in human form, but also to teach us how to live as the children of God that we are.
In the passages from the Acts of the Apostles we heard about what happened to one of Jesus’ disciples after the resurrection. Simon Peter has one of those powerful, life-changing realizations and he says: “I truly understand now that God shows no partiality.” Take that in for a moment, and imagine what it would look like for us to live our lives as if that one statement were true, if we truly understood that God doesn’t play favorites. God doesn’t see one person, or group at school, or neighborhood, or political party, or religious affiliation as more worthy than another. God doesn’t divide humankind the way that we do. What might that mean for us and how we live?
Now, hear Jesus speaking, as the Gospel of John imagines him as he is saying goodbye to his disciples on the night before his death. These are his parting words, what he wants them most to remember when they are feeling discouraged and alone. After I’m gone, he tells them, I need you to love one another as I have loved you. That’s it. That’s what he wanted, and still wants, all those who take on the mantle of Christian to do–to love as he loves, and specifically, to love others as we have been loved by him.
It’s something to think about when we don’t know what to do next–we could reach out in love to another person.
Which brings me back to what I tried to describe at the beginning–what it feels like when we experience something of that love, that assurance that we’re not alone, that we are being led, and inspired, by a presence we can never fully explain or understand, but that we are willing to trust and follow. As we do, we find ourselves becoming more of ourselves, and able to do brave things, and yes, to love others with a generosity of spirit that we didn’t know we had. I’m not saying that we do this all the time, and that we always get it right, because we don’t–and I’ll save that conversation for another time.
For now, I pray that this day, and the prayers that Bishop Shand and I have the privilege of offering on your behalf, will be occasions of real grace and love that you feel and trust. Then may you go from this church and live your life with as much courage and love as you can.