* * *
Sometimes, I am too young to hear Jesus’ words in the Gospel. Or too old. Or too naïve. Or too refined. Often I wonder if God is holding a particular set of words in reserve for a particular time in my life — when I need those words I will finally hear them. Or perhaps I already have, and they have settled into the bedrock of my faith.
The words of Jesus are beautiful and dynamic. They grow in depth of meaning as I grow in depth of experience, emotion, and faith. Many of Jesus’ words mean something new to the disciples after the resurrection because the disciples are different after the resurrection. Likewise, the words of Jesus are the same, the chapters and verses are the same, but I am different every time I read them. In the novel, The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield says a similar thing about the natural history museum:
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finishing catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole…Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that, exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. You’d have an overcoat on this time…Or you’d heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you’d just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you’d be different in some way – I can’t explain what I mean.
Both small differences in me from day to day and large changes in me from year to year can affect my reading of scripture and my encountering the words of Jesus. The climactic change in the lives of the disciples was the resurrection; for me, the changes tend to be small, the differences subtle. But a new encounter with Christ can erupt from even the smallest change, the subtlest difference. When I open myself up to seeing gasoline rainbows, when I realize I am different than I was before, I discover the power of the words of Christ working within me.
In a recent bout of nostalgia, I read some of my old writings and found that I had discussed the same verses on three occasions. After he washes the disciples’ feet, Jesus says, “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” (John 13:34-35). The words were the same each time, but I was different. Here’s what I mean.
It’s May 9, 2004, and Easter season blooms on the domain of Sewanee. I’m a junior in college. I’m two or three steps into the exhaustive process towards ordination. Classes are drawing to an end; exams are approaching. With flagging energy, I am writing lectionary-based reflections on xanga.com (before people ever used the word “blog”). And Jesus’ words encounter me:
“Wow. [Jesus] could not have put it more succinctly, or more beautifully. It does not take mighty acts or wondrous miracles to show people that we are followers of Christ. Just love. But I would argue that love is a mighty act, it is a miracle. Loving with the love Christ taught us – the only true love – is more powerful than anything. […] When we love with the love Christ taught us, we bring Christ to others. This love is powerful, transformative, life-changing, irresistible. Paul tells in his letter to the Romans that nothing can separate us from it. And it is our duty, and it should be our joy, to spread this love to others.”
It’s March 7, 2005, and fog rolls into the domain along with Lent. I’m a senior in college. I’m a postulant for Holy Orders, and I’m waiting for my bishop’s decision about sending me to seminary next school year. I’ve broken John’s Gospel into forty passages, one reflection per day for my Lenten discipline. And Jesus’ same words encounter me again:
“This is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian – to love one another as Christ loves us. We are capable of love because God loves us. Indeed, Paul tells us, ‘God is love.’ So how do we love? I think that is an impossible question to answer succinctly. In a past reflection, I called love the ‘conscious or unconscious search for God in other creatures.’ Searching for God means searching for all that is good, right, true, and graceful about another. However, this does not mean looking past all the other stuff. When we love truly, we see the good and the bad and continue to be in relationship. Contact (spiritual, emotional, &c.) is essential for love – only by staying in contact with God and others can we feel the love that purges our iniquities from us.”
It’s March 20, 2008, and Maundy Thursday comes impossibly early this year. I’m a senior in seminary. I’m a new deacon in the church, and I’m preaching at my field education parish. But the flu keelhauls me for five days, the middle of which is Palm Sunday. Being ill is all I can think about, and Jesus’ words encounter me a third time through that illness.
“Life is only worth living when it can be shared with others. This sharing is another word for love. And love shatters the illusion of self-sufficiency. When the flu knocked me out, my friends served me. I had no choice but to let them serve me because I could not serve myself. And I am better for it. They showed their love for me by bringing me medicine and food. In their act of loving service, they washed my feet. I have a share with them, and we all have a share with Jesus Christ. We are his disciples because we have love for one another. There is no such thing as self-sufficiency. An inability to accept the service of others masquerades as self-sufficiency. But this masquerade is a dismal half-life. Christ came that we may have life, and have it in abundance. Washing each other’s feet, serving one another, and loving each other with the love of God brings this full, abundant life in Christ.”
It’s January 26, 2010, and I’m seeing through the eyes of my old selves. On each day when I read those verses from the Gospel according to John, Jesus encountered me with the same words. And each time, Jesus used my gasoline rainbows to transform me into a new vessel for those words. Over the years, the same words have helped me change into the new person I am continually becoming.
I invite you to look for the gasoline rainbows in your life. You are a new person since you last picked up the Bible. How are you different from the last time you read a particular passage of scripture? What is new about you? How have Jesus’ words made you new? What are your gasoline rainbows?