Sunday 21st May 2017, Easter 6
by Revd Chris Palmer
Among the various phobias that afflict people is the fear that we will be abandoned. This might arise from some trauma during childhood – a close death, or family breakdown. But it leaves behind an inner anxiety, even belief, that those dear to us are likely to leave. And when it’s acute it damages our ability to have meaningful relationships. When someone gets close to us all seems to be going well until there is some argument or misunderstanding. And then, rather than seeing it as an issue of the moment, it gets interpreted as a sign that the other person no longer loves us. The fear of abandonment can go different ways at this point. Either we get over clingy and possessive, trying to stop the person leaving. Or we withdraw or even leave – better to leave than be left. But either way, the person who fears being abandoned can end up sabotaging a good relationship. Fear of abandonment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I think that we live with a similar fear of spiritual abandonment – we are worried that God will not stick around. Easy promises in childhood – or even adult life – that God is looking after us and will protect us from harm are punctured by the realities of life – we get ill; we are hurt by others – and we fear that God has left. And our reaction is to stand aloof from God – stop praying, stop engaging, stop worshipping; , or get out first – better to imagine that I’ve made a decision to give up on God than live with the sense that he left me. Or we engage in a kind of clingy bargaining – dear God, if you’ll only make my friend well, I’ll say my prayers every day or I’ll give money to so and so cause. Such attitudes simply project our own cynicism onto God. And it means that we abandon God – not the other way round.
But Jesus speaks to this in our Gospel reading. ‘I will not leave you orphaned’ ‘I will ask the father and he will give you another advocate’. Because there is – obviously – trauma in the early stages of the disciples’ relationship with Jesus – he is snatched from them, and in the most brutal fashion.
And Jesus’ answer is not merely to say, ‘it’s OK your fear of abandonment is unfounded: God is with you’. Rather he says that their relationship is enfolded in the relationship which is God. Jesus says, ‘On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.’ And that relationship too suffered trauma in the crucifixion of Jesus – the son is separated from the Father, and on the cross cries ‘My God, my God why have you abandoned me.’ But this trauma far from becoming a wound that forever embitters the relationship which is God – far from breeding suspicion, wariness, clinginess, or reluctance – is absorbed and transfigured by a love that is more lasting and passionate even than death. The fracture which is the crucifixion of Jesus becomes the vulnerability that allows God’s love in to heal and sooth and restore.
To put it another way, true confidence and hope do not arise from having lived such a charmed life that nothing ever troubles us – that is simply naivety. True confidence comes from discovering that God’s love is the deep undertone of existence even after the worst the world can give. This is the gift the disciples find in the resurrection of Jesus. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is the love that binds Father to Son to believer.
Jesus said, “Those who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
I’ve used the fear of abandonment in earthly relationships as a metaphor for dysfunction in our spiritual life, but I suspect that the two are more closely related. Our capacity to relate well to God and relate well to others are intimately connected. A few verses before our reading Jesus says, ‘As I have loved you, so you must love one another.’ To experience love and believe that we are loved in a secure way frees us to love others as equals. It allows us to say sorry when we are wrong and forgive when others are wrong. It gives us the self-respect to know when we are truly being misused and speak up for ourselves. And it gives us a capacity to enjoy friendship not because we need others to tend our ego – but simply because being with others is good. It allows us to be alone too, because alone does not need to mean we are forsaken, but is rather the gift of solitude which nurtures love and deepens trust.
In other words our human relationships and our relationship with God flow in and out of each other. As I’ve said this can have the downside that damage in one area flows into another. But if we allow what is good to feed us, then it can also have the advantage the goodness and health and life in one area can flow into another. Look not for what isn’t working, but for what is. Choose to notice the person who treats you with respect or love, who gives times. Notice the times in prayer or worship or looking at God’s world when you feel most alive or filled with peace and joy. And then allow yourselves to carry these into relationships that are more difficult. Some people find human relationships easier (and I don’t mean that they are confident or gregarious, but that they encounter others as equals without competition or comparison); they may think little of God, but if they do, they carry something of their human relationships into their relationship with God. Other people find the relationship with God easier; they have learned a deep trust in the enduring goodness and faithfulness of God – and they can take this trust into relationship with others.
I suppose in the end what I say is that we need to take the risk of letting ourselves be loved. And so I want to read to you a poem which I was once given at the start of a retreat.
Let Your God Love You by Edwina Gateley
Before your God.
Let your God look upon you.
That is all.
God loves you
With an enormous love,
And only wants
To look upon you
With that love.
Let your God—