Preached on Easter VI at St Alban’s in Albany,CA Click here to read the day’s scripture.
“The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” – Acts 10:45
They were astounded.
Why are we always so surprised when the Holy Spirit has transformed someone?
Why is it that we struggle to love one another in a way that invites and encourages this transformation?
It is a tricky thing. For when we look for transformation in people, we can make the mistake of entangling our own needs. Our hope for them becomes expectation when we need someone to “transform” in a way that will make us feel better about them, to change in a way that will conform to what we need them to be in our lives. Inevitably, we are disappointed because we don’t get what we want out of people. This is not love.
So, we adjust. We lower our expectations and resign ourselves to keep expecting people to show up the same way they always do. We decide to tolerate the things that disappoint us, even the things that might harm us, just so we can feel loved and needed in some way. And perhaps we deaden a part of ourselves and decide to stick it out, doing what we can to keep the relationship in balance. We may even get mad if the other person does change because it ruins our effort to maintain a fragile stasis. And while some may call this love, I would disagree. This is not love.
And let’s face it… some of us have a need to be that transformational element in someone else’s life. I know I’ve wanted to be that before. We want our love to change them. We believe that all a person needs is someone to believe in them and we desperately want to be that person. But this is not love either.
Love is a patient curiosity. Love is a wondering anticipation. Love is never astounded and never surprised because it is that which is able to see the Truth that has always been there. It is that which sees Christ in one another, sees God alive in creation. And it is merely waiting for you to see it too.
Love happens when that undefended, vulnerable place in me sees that undefended, vulnerable place in you and says, “Oh, there you are!” And those places are strengthened when they see one another.
And then, Love continues its patient watchfulness, awaiting the next opening, the next opportunity for connection. Very simply, Love is God looking through our eyes.
On occasion, I’ve indulged myself up here by talked about one of my favorite TV shows – Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now, I apologize if you’re disappointed in the fact that I’m about to do it again.
One of the reasons I love this series so much is because a few of the characters go through incredibly profound transformations. This is a bold risk in a television series because the whole reason people keep watching a TV show is that they identify with the characters in some way, they connect to them – either “loving” them or “loving” to hate them. So, when a screenwriter decides to have a character undergo a transformation, they run the risk of alienating the audience.
And if you think about it, that’s not much different than real life. We’re often afraid that if we make a change in our lives, if we really live our life fully and become a new creation, we will lose connection with the people that matter the most to us. In some cases, unfortunately, that might actually be true.
So, back to Buffy. As you might imagine, Buffy is our heroine. And, based on the title of the show, you’ve probably also guessed that she is a vampire slayer. However, as we advance through the series, we find that she slays more than just vampires. She defends human life against all manner of evil. And one of the more evil characters is a vampire named Spike. When he first arrives in the story it’s early on – Season 2 of a 7 season series… and I have watched all 7 seasons at least 3 times.
Spike is Buffy’s nemesis. And he is dangerous. He has killed 2 slayers before and vows to kill her. And we love to hate Spike (who, by the way, is so named because of his chosen method of torturing his victims with a railroad spike) and we just want Buffy to “dust” him (because, you see, vampires turn to dust when you slay them). And Buffy does her best to take him out but he always proves just a little too cunning, as does she prove to be too good of a slayer for him to kill. It’s a well-written tension in the plot that keeps the audience interested.
Over the course of the seven seasons, both Buffy and Spike change in significant ways. They change so profoundly, in fact, that none of the other characters on the show are really willing to fully accept their transformations. Even though the other characters love Buffy, nearly all of them are unable to see her anew. And none of them are able to accept the change in Spike. Now, I’m not going to spoil the surprise for you by telling you everything that happens, should you ever choose to watch the series, which I highly recommend.
But I will say this: the transformation in these characters only becomes integrated when the other bears witness to it, when the transformation is somehow fully seen and accepted by another. Let me say that again – transformation is only integrated into our being when someone Loves us enough to bear witness to this new creation.
When Buffy acknowledges, honors, and chooses to trust in Spike’s change of heart. When Spike witnesses, affirms, and defends the change in Buffy’s very being. This is Love, my friends.
This is Love, not because it meets with some sentimentalized version of romance. But rather, this is Love because these characters are willing to surrender their version of reality, willing to let go of their needs, their grudges, their identities and in a sense, lay down their lives… in order to see the Truth that stands before them.
They are willing to bear witness to a new creation.
As a Christian, I would say they are willing to let God see through their eyes.
If we think about it, what happens to us when something new occurs to us? A shift in our worldview, a new understanding of ourselves that gives us a sense of freedom, a sense of connection, a sense of awe, or even a sense of capacity? I’m willing to bet that you have all experienced something like this in your lives.
Perhaps when you were young, you learned a new skill and couldn’t wait to show someone. Or you might have had a life-changing experience that gave you a new understanding of God and you desperately needed to talk to someone about it. Or, perhaps we are in relationship with someone who refuses to see a change in us: a parent who cannot see us as an adult, a partner who holds on to a mistake we’ve made in the past, a work colleague or manager who has formed an opinion of us based on someone else’s evaluation of our work.
How does it feel when the people in our lives are unwilling or unable to be curious about us? How does it feel when no one will bear witness to our transformation? How does it feel when people put you in a box that is convenient for them?
It is a form of death. It is a kind of killing. And our culture is so proficient at issuing death sentences. We seem to demand that people never sway from what they stand for, or believe in. We seem to need people to sit tight in a file box we keep well labeled and we stand at the ready to demonize them should they choose to step out of it. And we are astounded when someone has a change of heart.
Do we really think that little of God that we are astounded when the Holy Spirit births a new creation in our midst?
Peter was a disciple of Jesus. He was there when Jesus gave the commandment to love one another just as Jesus had loved them. And here is Peter’s first chance to put the rubber to the road after receiving that wacky vision that he is not the authority to choose what is holy and what is profane. Peter is given the opportunity to witnesses the Holy Spirit at work to see transformation in people.
When “the gift of the Holy Spirit [pours] out even on the Gentiles,” what Peter is called to do is beyond acceptance, beyond tolerance, beyond his own definition of what transformation should look like. And he is called to witness, to affirm. Peter is called to Love in a new way. To look upon these people with the eyes of God. To Love as Jesus Loved him.
Peter, this man who was always questioning and worried, always just a little nervous.
Who wanted to build tents for Elijah, Moses and Jesus when Jesus was transfigured before his eyes because he didn’t quite understand what was happening.
Who got so confused because Jesus wanted to wash his feet.
Who denied Jesus 3 times on the day of his torment and death.
Peter, whom Jesus always Loved with a patient curiosity, using the eyes of God to see the Truth.
This man Simon Peter is called to Love as Jesus Loved him.
And so he stands… willing to bear witness to a new creation
Opening himself to the Love that is God looking through our eyes.
And when that happens, our questions and anxiety disappear, our confusion evaporates, our defenses drop. And just like Peter, we simply Love one another and we automatically embody that patient curiosity for one another that is simply waiting to greet our friend, “Oh, hey! There you are.”