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06 June 2011

Of Disciples and Caterpillars

"Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" Clearly, the disciples are stuck in their own small world. Looking backwards, they long for the return of the "good old days", much like some church members demand of us pastors that we bring back the days "when there were hundreds of children in Sunday School".

Jesus responds by re-directing their expectations and expanding their horizons: "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." And with that, he ascends to heaven. 

If Pentecost hadn't happened soon after this, the disciples might have fallen for a fear monger like infamous Mr. Camping (whose doomsday prediction for May 21 didn't pan out). It isn't easy when you are told that looking backwards is not going to help you, and it's harder still when there is no certainty. "It is not for you to know", says Jesus, "but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you". When we are told of new horizons and no certainty (at least not the sort we want), we are being called to a journey of faith, but fear will be hovering just around the corner.  "Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you", says the writer of First Peter, but sometimes hanging on to what we know seems so much more comforting.

Change is hard. That is the theme of G. Eustace Owen's poem "The Butterfly", in which a beautiful butterfly comes upon a crying caterpillar. Asked what happened to him, the caterpillar wails about being robbed of his brother.

As they talk, the butterfly tells the caterpillar, "It's me, your brother", explaining to the caterpillar that his brother wasn't lost, but has been transformed into a new life. The caterpillar responds with bitter scorn and accuses his butterfly brother of trying to make fun of him.  It's not like the butterfly doesn't try -- much fo the poem is spent with his loving attempt to get through to his brother -- but the poem ends when the butterfly realizes that all the love and care he brings to his brother are to no avail:

The butterfly gave up the struggle. ‘I have,’ he said, ‘no more to say.’
He spread his splendid wings and ascended Into the air and flew away.
And while he fluttered far and wide, The caterpillar sat and cried.

The caterpillar doesn't understand of what his brother talks. He doesn't believe. He prefers to close himself to the possibility of another life.  Seeing his brother ascend into the air, he grumbles that he is too smart to believe in fairy tales.  So it is with the disciples before Jesus yanks them away from their fear, and so it is with many others who have trouble with change.

How can a caterpillar trust a butterfly? The caterpillar only knows his own experience. He lives in a totally different dimension, on a different plane, in a separate reality. How can a caterpillar believe that some day he will fly into the skies? He only knows crawling on the ground. He is encaged in his shell, he knows nothing about his possible wings. He knows nothing about his potentiality.

When Jesus said, "I am the son of God", people became very angry - caterpillars angry at the butterfly; and the caterpillars gathered together, and they killed the butterfly.  Extraordinary courage is necessary to consider that there is something beyond that which we can understand and control, and that this "other" actually can change our lives to the better.  Extraordinary courage is necessary for people to change, for society has fed our egos and our minds so well that we are programmed to stick to what we know.

How about you? Will you shut yourself up because you prefer a safe life in perfect misery?  Or will you consider the possibility that indeed you too could be ascending into a new life?  Will you choose to hang on to what you know, always looking back and wailing about what you have lost?  Or will you let Jesus wake you up?

Fear or Faith, the choice is yours.

Acts 1: 6-14

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