Following Christ When He Runs Away

Friday, November 8, 2013 — Week of Proper 26, Year One

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office:

Psalms 69:1-23(24-30)31-38 (morning) // 73 (evening)

Ezra 7:27-28; 8:21-36

Revelation 15:1-8

Matthew 14:13-21

As many readers of the gospels know, Jesus sometimes withdraws from his ministry to pray in solitude or with a few disciples. When Jesus withdraws in this morning’s gospel, however, he isn’t going on a retreat to refresh his spirit or recharge his spiritual batteries. The trigger for Jesus’ withdrawal is grief, as the first few words of today’s reading tell us: “When Jesus heard of John’s death.”

When Jesus heard the news of John’s execution, “he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Usually, I feel irritated at the crowds who pursue Jesus when he tries to withdraw. They are so eager for healing that they can’t give Jesus any time to nurture his relationship with God. But today, I wonder whether they have a different motivation than getting their own needs met.

The gospel tells us, “when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.” I’m not sure whether “it” refers to the news of John’s death or of Jesus’ withdrawal, or both. But perhaps some of the people simply didn’t want Jesus to be entirely alone while he was grieving. In any case, while Jesus withdrew by boat, the people only followed him as far as they could go on foot, and no farther. Then, they waited for Jesus to return.

And there they were when Jesus came back. The gospel tells us that when Jesus “went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Even when the people presented their needs to him, he didn’t want to send them away, but to feed them. In today’s gospel, Jesus takes a remarkable journey from grief to compassion, from withdrawal to keeping crowds of people close.

The pursuit of people who are grieving is a very delicate art. We need to allow people (and ourselves) to claim space, privacy, and the uniqueness of our own grieving processes. But what a gift it is to follow people to the very edge of our relationships with them, and to be right there on that shore when they look back.

Our gospel today shows us another dimension of what it means to follow Christ. Following Christ doesn’t just mean adhering to his teachings or imitating his goodness. It also means following people in grief when they withdraw, and waiting patiently at the limits of where we can pursue them. As usual, following Christ takes us in directions we might never have expected.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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