Is God There? Separation Anxiety and The Fear of an Absentee God

I’m preaching this sermon at St. Aiden’s Church in Hartlepool on 29th March at 1900, at their Maundy Sunday service led by my dear friend Revd Gemma Sampson. It’s based on this Bible passage from John 13. 1-17 and 31-35

 

 

I’ve no idea what it’s like to be a child and know God loves me. Or what it’s like to be a Christian teenager. I have no idea what it’s like growing up in a Christian household or saying grace at mealtimes because that’s just what Christian families do. I have no concept of what a steady, deep, wind-swept lifetime of worship and faith is like.

Some of you here will. Some of you are Cradle-Christians.

Others will be like me. You’ll have gone from not knowing God in your life at all, to realising God has always been there, since the very beginning of time. Like me, you’ll have discovered Jesus and you’ll have become a Christian. Some of you are Convert-Christians.

There’s another group too. People who’ve come back to faith after a time away, after walking a different path. For a time you may have felt that God wasn’t for you or you weren’t for God, or the whole thing was a sham. But you came back. You’re a Come-back-Christian.

I think this group also includes Cradle- Christians and Convert-Christians who’ve ever felt, for a period, that God wasn’t obviously present in their lives, that God wasn’t there.

Perhaps this group may really get what scares me. This thing that, as a newish Christian convert who came to faith later in life and didn’t grow up with it, I really, really worry about.

And that thing is separation from God.

It’s not the same as “not- knowing- God- and- then- knowing- God.” I spent 27 years not believing that Got existed and I didn’t feel like I was missing out. God’s absence from my life felt OK because I had absolutely no concept of how much Jesus loved me. To me that’s not painful separation from God. It’s having blinkers on.

But to know it, and then to be separated from it? That’s desperate. It’s the thing that scares me most. Ever feeling God’s presence slip away from me.

When I first became a Christian I was so worried I’d wake up one day and would no longer believe. I was so worried that my faith was shallow and fragile and could be easily unpicked. I was so worried that my belief, even though it felt firm, might float away, and it might turn out I just got a bit swept up in something.

But I now know that my love for Jesus isn’t some temporary madness, some passing phase or fling. I now know my love for God is deep and strong. I know in turn what it is to be loved by God. I know, even though at times I find it hard to comprehend, that Jesus knowingly and willingly went to his death for my sake. Broken and misshapen as I am, dirty as a disciple’s foot before it’s washed, he died for me all the same.

So it is all the more terrifying when I think of what those first disciples went through. What must they have felt when Jesus told them he was leaving? What must they have thought when the guards took him away? What depths of desolation and fear and darkness does a person feel when their Lord and Saviour dies on a cross and is placed, cold and lifeless, in a tomb? Gone. Silent. Absent.

It’s why I find this part of Easter so hard and why I feel so moved reading the passage we heard tonight. The scene the Gospel writer paints is littered with phrases pointing to Jesus’ absence, which I find heart-breaking.

For me, the most poignant and uncomfortable thing is what he says to Peter.

“Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

Because this one’s about choice. Peter is told his actions matter, and he either lets Jesus wash his feet, because of what it symbolises, or he risks being separate from Jesus. Peter needs to understand this. Jesus is teaching him and all of them something very important.

“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

He goes on:

“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.”

How we live matters. When we love one another with acts of service, which is what foot washing represents, we are with Jesus and Jesus is with us.

This is how, even on Maundy Thursday as we see this church visibly transformed, stripped bare as a reminder of Jesus leaving, of God made flesh dying a human death, this is how we know we can still always share with Jesus, be with God.

We reflect Jesus’ love for us and how he lives in us by how we love one another. Loving one another… really, truly, loving one another. Even in the darkness of this night, that’s how we know Jesus lives in us.

By our love for one another, everyone will know that we are His disciples.

∞ 

I’d like to now leave some space for prayer, particularly for anyone currently having a bit of a crisis of faith and who feels God’s voice is very, very quiet in their lives…

Come Lord Jesus.

For anyone, even a cradle-Christian, who has yet to fully experience a Jesus-filled life in all its fullness…

Come Lord Jesus.

And to anyone who has yet to feel God’s absence, because you haven’t yet felt God’s presence…

Come Lord Jesus.

For anyone else who wants more…

Come Lord Jesus.

Lord Jesus show yourself to us, be obvious in our lives. Help us to see. Draw us in. Tell us you’re near. Be alive in us this day. When we fear you’ve gone out of our lives, remind us of your promise that you’ll never ever leave us. Be in the water our feet are washed in. Be in the hands of those doing the washing. Be in the peace. Be in the tears. Be in the waiting. Lord Jesus Help us to be open to you. Show us how to share in you so that you live in us. Break down any barriers we have so we can allow ourselves to be loved by you and to love one another. Christ live in us, always. Amen.

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