Fifth Sunday of Easter - May 7, 2023
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Acts 7:55-60 + Ps. 31:1-5, 15-16 + 1 Peter 2:2-10 + John 14:1-14
Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!
Grace to you, and peace, from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ. + I speak to you in the name of the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
Today’s reading evokes one of the most tender exchanges between Jesus and his disciples throughout the four gospels. Jesus presents himself to them as the very embodiment of compassion at a time when their hearts are broken, fearful and terrified, indeed when all hope seems to be lost.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled….I am going to prepare a place for you…”
This passage from John’s gospel points to one of the most revelatory insights of Christian faith. Namely that hope, compassion, indeed the whole of one’s spiritual life is not found in a method or a procedure or any particular set of spiritual practices, but is found rather in a person, a relationship with Christ who himself is the way:
“I am the Way and the Truth and the Life,” Jesus tells us, “To know me is to know my Father. And we will come to you and make a home in you…”
We should not miss the fact that Jesus speaks these words not as resurrected Lord but in what he will call, “the hour of darkness,” just prior to his betrayal, arrest and crucifixion. Strange then, that Mother Church should give us this reading now, in the mist of Eastertide, the season of resurrection. But the truth is, our hearts are still troubled, indeed still broken. Whether by the seemingly overwhelming crises we face as a nation, a globe, a civilization. Or broken by personal tragedy, grief, illness, betrayal, loneliness, longing. Hearts torn asunder by the specter of doubt, the imposition of shame, or the agony of regret.
Indeed, there has not been nor ever will be a human life, a human heart that is not troubled, that harshness and cruelty of life does not break. Which is why the very words Jesus speaks to his disciples in the gospel today he speaks to us still, even as he bears within himself the very brokenness of the world upon the cross.
Indeed, it is precisely this that makes his words so powerful, so efficacious. That he will go on to embody the very comfort he seeks to impart, making his own death and resurrection the very Way for us to follow him. “Take up your cross and follow me,” he says elsewhere. For this is, indeed, the way to the Father: Through brokenness.
It is undoubtedly counter-intuitive to suggest brokenness as the basis for a spiritual relationship with Christ. Yet, as the Psalmist prays in Psalm 51:17
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you will not despise.
The point is not that we should seek brokenness – nor to we have to. It undoubtedly will find us! But this is precisely what makes the words of Christ in the gospel today so profoundly comforting. That in Christ, brokenness is not a barrier to spiritual growth but fodder. A “broken and contrite heart” is the heart in which Christ seeks to make his home. A broken heart is not merely one that lets the light in, as has been oft repeated; but more so, a broken heart lets the light out. The light of Christ already dwells in us, and our brokenness allows it to shine out, much as the broken body of Christ on the cross has counter-intuitively become the very central symbol of Christian faith. Divine love is not concealed but revealed in Christ’s body, broken and crucified. Perhaps that’s why the liturgy itself presents us with things broken: In the Liturgy of the Word we “break open” the Scriptures, even as in the liturgy of the Eucharist, we break open the Bread. Both broken so that the love of God may be revealed.
The Desert Mothers and Fathers of the 4th century were among the first organized communities of Christian contemplatives who escaped into the deserts of Egypt in order to commit themselves to a life transformed by love. They escaped into the desert because they saw the brokenness of the world which they described as a shipwreck. They understood that if they were to be of any help to anyone else, they must first make their way to the shore, and from there they would throw life rafts to those who were still drowning.
Over the centuries, they bequeathed us with a body of literature full of anecdotal stories and pithy sayings that convey both the struggles and the beauty of radical Christian discipleship. Women and men who were deeply committed not merely to interpreting Scripture but to embodying it. Indeed, for them, a text was never really interpreted until it was embodied – sometimes in shocking and unexpected ways.
One of the most consistent themes we see woven throughout their many anecdotal stories is a sense of compassion born not of their own sense of being holy, but of the humble recognition of their own brokenness. This is precisely why they emphasized the teaching of Jesus: “Take the log out of your own eye that you might see the speck in another’s eye.” This is to see one’s own brokenness and through that to embody love for another, so much so that judgment becomes impossible. As one desert father insisted, “when someone is occupied with their own faults, he does not see those in his neighbor.”
This, we must recognize, is the basis for our confession of sin at every liturgy – not to reinforce a sense of guilt or shame, but to provide a compassionate lens of love for one’s neighbor. If Christ is to make his home in us, we have enough cleaning up to do in our own hearts to worry about the heart of another. This is brought to light powerfully in one story from the Desert Mothers and Fathers when a council was called to judge a brother who had committed a fault. One of the elders Abba Moses, refused to attend. But when one of the brothers was sent to him to explain the whole council was waiting for him, he reluctantly agreed to go.
On his way to the meeting, he took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. When the others saw him, they came out to meet him and said, “what is this, Father?” The old man replied, “My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, yet today I am coming to judge the errors of another.” When they all heard him, they said no more to the brother, but forgave him.
Perhaps most powerful about this story, is not that Abba Moses does not judge his brother, as if from a position of holiness, but rather refuses to judge as an act of solidarity by confessing his own sinfulness trails behind him like a leaking jug. This recognition of his own brokenness leads Abba Moses not to feelings of shame or self-deprecation, but becomes the very source of transformational love. Indeed, one might suggest, he took up his cross in the form of a leaky jug, putting an end to judgment for a beloved brother. We might well ask then, what is the shape of our cross? What must we pick up and carry in order to bear the burden of another? In order to embody compassion not merely as Christ did upon his own cross, but as the resurrected Christ continues to do in each of us.
And this is what it means to become another Christ in the world. To see who we are and become who we see: bread broken and given, to carry a leaky jug that we might declare our solidarity with one who otherwise stands condemned. This willingness to be in solidarity with others in their suffering, even in their sin, was one of the ways, the desert, mothers and fathers embodied the call of love. To that end, the story of Abba Moses and his leaky jug conveys the main word the Desert Mothers and Fathers used to describe this action of solidarity. In Greek: bastazo.
It means “to bear” or “carry,” and the word figures prominently in the New Testament to describe Jesus’, own bearing of the cross, the need for disciples to carry their cross, and they need to bear the failings of the weak. As such, bastazo was all but synonymous with “compassion.” To bear the burden of another upon oneself; to stand in solidarity with those who are judged, was indeed, to bring comfort to troubled hearts. To allow one’s own brokenness to be a source of healing, one’s own shortcomings to be a beacon of light, one’s failures to stand as a sign of solidarity with those whose hearts were troubled by guilt, crippled by doubt, oppressed by feelings of shame.
Again, one such story of solidarity, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers tell of a monk who had a “bad reputation” for having been accused by some brothers for cohabitating with a woman in his cell. When one of the famed elders Abba Ammonas was visiting, two of the brothers brought him to the cell of the accused monk. Hearing they were on their way the monk hid the woman in a large trunk which he kept nearby. Upon arriving, Abba Ammonas saw what was happening, but hid the deed from the others. As he came into the cell, he seated himself on the trunk and ordered the brothers to search the whole place. Then, seeing that the monks had searched everywhere without finding the woman, Abba Ammonas reprimanded them for the harm they had caused the accused brother, saying “What is this? May God forgive you!” He then prayed with the monks, and after making everyone else go out, took the accused brother by the hand, and said, “brother, be watchful!”
This is the extent of solidarity that Ammonas would go in order to fulfill the command, “Thou shall not judge.” It is not that he could not see the brother’s sin, but that he would not see it. And whose troubled heart would not be healed by such an embodied solidarity with another’s brokenness? And this too is the very way of Christ to which he calls us. Let then our own brokenness become not a stumbling block but the very way in which that same Christ forges us into a community born of love and compassion.
The gospel today touches upon this most radical and intimate truth of Christianity: Ours is a God who makes his home in us, in our hearts, in our flesh. A God who allows himself to be broken on the Cross, in a Word of Scripture, in a loaf of bread, so that our own brokenness may not be an obstacle to faith but the very path to following Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
+ Father, Son and Holy Spirit.