The CDC’s announcement that vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks, whether indoors or outdoors, stirred all kinds of reactions. Victory for some. A sense that at long last, this long nightmare was starting to draw to a close in a significant — if still incomplete — way. For others, the news was not all that welcome. What about those of us with children who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated? What about those in our communities who are immunocompromised? For some, therefore, the announcement was not a prompt to celebrate but to wonder whether we are moving far too fast.
I am not writing this to mitigate between those reactions. I am not a public health expert nor am I a psychologist who might help us understand the way the last year has affected us all in ways visible and not.
I do see an opportunity to encounter this moment of transition, this moment of long-awaited but fear-inducing change.
I see an opportunity to name in preaching the traumas our communities have endured, the scars we still carry, the hopes we cannot yet articulate. I see an opportunity to invite us all to a generosity and love of our neighbors that reflects the abundance of God’s own grace.
In its yearly journey though the Book of Acts in the season after Easter, the lectionary takes us to the beginning of a story about the followers of Jesus wresting with what comes next. Having witnessed their friend denied justice and brutally executed by an empire which cared only for the propagation of its power, two disciples then encountered him in the flesh on the road to Emmaus. That same resurrected Jesus ate with them even as the disciples were “startled and terrified” (Luke 24:37). As Acts begins, this same Jesus commissions his followers to be witnesses of the good news “…to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), calls them to wait in Jerusalem (1:4), and then ascends into the heavens.
“What now?,” they must have wondered. “What’s next? Where do we go? What do we do? What’s the first step? When do we get going?”
Starting in Acts 1:15, one answer is given. First, seemingly, the community needed to come face-to-face with a trauma not yet addressed in the narrative. In the passage, the community remembers the betrayal of Judas and his terrible demise. One who had walked among them as a follower of Jesus had betrayed both him and the community. Judas had shared meals with his fellow disciples and Jesus alike, had walked with his fellow disciples and Jesus alike, had hoped and prayed alongside his fellow disciples and Jesus.
So, what does the community do in this moment? Peter turns to the Scriptures for imagination and guidance, not so much an explanation for Judas’s betrayal but a sense of what moving forward might be like. And then the community forwards two witnesses whose qualifications are relatively straight-forward: they were there. They saw Jesus heal. They heard him preach. They suffered as he died on an instrument of imperial injustice. They were “startled and terrified” at his resurrection. I wonder if these two witnesses weren’t quite sure what to do next, what would come next. Perhaps, being a witness of Jesus’s gospel does not require that kind of certainty.
And notice that the community does not vote or invite Peter to make the choice between these two witnesses. They cast lots. Why? Not to leave the decision to chance but to invite God’s hand to lead the community.
Acts is not a blueprint for building a perfect community. So also, this scene does not provide easy instructions for how we move in and through the multiple traumas of this last season of our lives. But I wonder what imagination might emerge for us in this story?
I wonder what’s not said in this story. What about those in the community who still missed Judas, their friend? What of those who saw his betrayal as a failing not of the individual but of a community? What about those who were not ready to move on from Judas’s betrayal, who wanted to keep the eleven as a group rather than reconstitute the twelve so that Judas’s absence would be a constant reminder of his betrayal or a persistent warning to others who might do likewise? And what about those who had seen the resurrected Jesus, heard his call to witness to the ends of the earth, but weren’t quite sure they were ready to believe, who still hurt too much to imagine a different future beyond the trauma of loss and betrayal?
So, what comes next for us now?
As COVID numbers plunge here in many parts of the United States, they soar in India. As some in our congregations welcome a new day, others wonder if that new day includes them or even if that new day has yet dawned. So again, what comes next? This little story in Acts might suggest that what comes next is not a smooth, easy, clearly discernible path or instant healing from what we have endured.
What comes next is a call to witness and a promise that God has always walked with us.
What comes next is a path we can only take together because the path God has paved for us is wide enough for us all, including our every scar and hurt and fear. What come next is not an easy dismissal of what we have forgotten, some instant amnesia that sets us free but a resounding grace that helps us take just one more perhaps hesitant step, battered and bruised and hurt and scared but together as God has called us to be.
Eric D. Barreto is the Weyerhaeuser Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. His passion is to pursue scholarship for the sake of the church, and he regularly writes for and teaches in faith communities around the country.
Twitter | @ericbarreto
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