“Sometimes God calms the storm. And sometimes God lets the storm rage and calms his child.”
I first heard these words from one of my personal heroes: the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, who made headlines in 2003 as the first openly gay man to be ordained bishop in the Episcopal Church.
In the wake of his election and the ensuing controversy, Bishop Gene was made the object of numerous injustices: he was smeared with slanderous lies about his moral character, he was the only bishop not to be invited to a global gathering of Anglican bishops, and he even received death threats. On the night of his ordination, Bishop Gene had to wear a bullet-proof vest underneath his liturgical vestments because he had just received an anonymous letter that contained a photograph of Gene with his partner and a message that read, “I have a bullet for both of your heads when you least expect it.”
The threats and the lies didn’t stop there, either. They kept on coming, often from people who quoted the Bible and claimed to spread this hatred in the name of Jesus himself. When I think back on those events, I imagine Jesus saying to Bishop Gene what he said to his disciples in John 16:2-3, warning the early Christian Church about the coming persecution that would be perpetrated in the name of patriotism and religion: “[People] will put you out of [their houses of worship]. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me.”
In all of this, I don’t think anyone would have blamed Bishop Gene if he had started to become a little bitter or resentful inside. After all, he had done nothing to these persecutors except exist, embrace the way God made him, and follow God’s call on his life as a pastor. For these three things, it seemed, he was being tossed into the raging winds of a hurricane.
No one would have blamed him for being angry about it. But the amazing thing is that he wasn’t. I have had the privilege of reading Bishop Gene’s writing, hearing him speak, communicating with him by letter, and even meeting him once. In all of that, I have never seen the slightest trace of bitterness or rancor in him. He has this incredible heart that is full of hope and kindness, even for the ones who are so violently persecuting him. He writes, “Christians are hopeful by nature – not because we have any special confidence in the desire of human beings to do the right thing, but because of our confidence in God to keep prodding, inspiring, and calling us until we do it.”
While the storms of persecution were still swirling around him, Gene was given two pertinent gifts. The first was a satellite photograph of a hurricane, a massive raging storm with a deep blue spot of stillness at the center. The second was a piece of calligraphy with the following quote: “Sometimes God calms the storm. And sometimes God lets the storm rage and calms his child.”
Bishop Gene has come to see himself in that still, blue spot of calm, but not by his own power:
…the fact of the matter is that I cannot live in the eye of the storm on my own. I can’t get myself there or keep myself there. Only God can bring me to that place of peace and sustain me there. Only God can calm and soothe me when hatred and vitriol come my way. Only God can persuade me not to step into the powerful winds swirling about me; when I do, only God can keep me from being swept away by their destructive power.
This power that Bishop Gene describes, the power of God to calm his child while the storm rages on, to keep us in the eye of the hurricane come what may, is what Jesus prays for his disciples in today’s gospel reading.
In this passage, Jesus is praying for his followers on Maundy Thursday, the night of the Last Supper, the night he washed their feet like a servant, and the night was arrested and led away to be crucified.
It seems that Jesus knew (or at least had a very strong hunch about) what was going to happen to him at the hands of the upstanding religious and political authorities. He also had enough insight to see that this persecution wouldn’t end with him: his disciples would endure it as well.
There is something about the divine wisdom Jesus speaks that puts those who hear it perpetually at odds with society’s status quo. Jesus said, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”
Jesus knows that we will be hated, just as he was hated by the world. Once Jesus has opened the eyes of our hearts, we simply cannot be at home with “the way things are” anymore. Quite simply, we “do not belong to the world,” as Jesus said. That hurricane of hatred that came for Jesus on Good Friday is sure to come for each one of us as well. We don’t belong here anymore.
So what, then? What’s the next step? Do we hole up and wait for Jesus to “beam us up” to heaven where these worldly problems can’t bother us anymore? Many Christians have certainly taken that route: they sing, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through”, sit around on their “blessed assurance”, and dream of the day when “I’ll fly away” to a home up in the sky.
But that’s not what Jesus prays for us, his disciples, in this passage. In fact, he prays the exact opposite: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world”. Jesus very specific that “flying away to heaven” is the one thing he is not praying for.
What he does pray is that we would be “protected” in the midst of the storm. The world’s hatred will swirl all around us (as it did to Jesus), but we are anchored to a rock that is much stronger than the winds of that storm.
Our Christian faith does not provide us with a way of escaping that conflict, but with a way of getting through it. Faith is what gives us the courage to stare into the face of the storm and say, “I’m not afraid of you.”
The Church is not afraid of life’s storms because we, her members, know that we do not face them alone. Jesus revealed as much to us when he prayed, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
Now, this is one of my favorite things that Jesus ever said. He says so much with so few words in that little phrase: “that they may be one, as we are one.” It would be too easy to breeze by these words quickly, download their idea into our heads that Jesus wants us to stick together, and then move on to the next sentence. But I want us to stop and really listen to what Jesus is saying: “that they may be one, as we are one.”
Let’s break it down: Jesus is praying that we would be “one”. In our very polite, modern, American value-system, we often translate “one” as “that we would get along/be nice”. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not what Jesus said. The “oneness” about which he speaks is much deeper. Jesus prays that we, his disciples, would be unified at a level that transcends human consciousness and understanding. He wants us to be so unified that, when one of us is pricked, the rest will bleed because we are one.
This oneness has its roots, not in political ideology, ethnic identity, or even religious affiliation, but in something much deeper. Jesus prays. “that they may be one, as we are one.”
He is, of course, referring to his relationship with his heavenly Father in the Trinity. For Christians, the connection between God and Christ is so deep and powerful that it forms the foundation upon which the entire universe is being built. This divine oneness is the central fact of reality; everything else exists because of it. That’s what Jesus means when he says, “as we are one”, and he prays that the members of his Church would be bound together with that very same metaphysical unity.
It’s no wonder then that St. Paul would write about this unity in his letter to the Galatians:
…in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
As members of the Church, brothers and sisters in Christ, we express this unity each week as we gather in prayer to share our common joys and concerns. When one of us has reason to give thanks to God, we all give thanks to God. When one of us lifts a voice to God in pain, we all lift our voices. In prayer, we call upon that deep, divine oneness to work healing in our lives as individuals, as the Church, and as a society.
This prayer of faith puts us in touch with the deeper reality that Jesus talked about. We find in it the strength to stay calm through life’s storms without seeking escape or turning bitter inside. We are not alone in the storm, for we have each other, and through each other, we experience that deep, unifying mystery of Christ “which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”