If you have ever lived overseas for a period of time, or travelled overseas, you might have experienced the strange phenomenon of picking up whatever pop song was popular at the time and having it stand as your musical memory of a country, though its impact might have been fleeting even in the country of its origin. For me, the song is Niente Paura, by Ligabue, whose Italian lyrics I do not understand, except the title: “nothing to fear,” or “no worries.” The video is peopled with what seem to be troubled young men and women, weighted by the worries of the world, and at the end an elderly couple, who though world-weary share a deep love for each other. I think I get the video, even if not all of the lyrics. It seems to be suggesting that to struggle through the trials of this world can bring you to a deeply shared love, but it does not discount the trials themselves. Usually when I tell myself “don’t worry,” I fear something or am worrying myself sick. I am almost wishing my worries away with a kind of crude magic: if I say it, it will be so.
No need for the crude or the magic, as we learn in many of the readings for this week. Both the first and the second readings for much of the Seventh Week of Easter have this “nothing to fear” quality and it is not because everything is wonderful, but because things are about to get bad, at least at the human level where we all live, work and eat. One of the themes that the readings this week are asking us, I think, is to grasp the reality of suffering. At a spiritual level this “nothing to fear” or “no worries” attitude can sometimes seem like a cop out, an inability to take seriously the pain or suffering that drives us to our knees or crushes hope. Christians can talk a lot about suffering in an ethereal way, as a means to avoid thinking about other people’s suffering or feeling their own. Yet, the readings for this week balance the human pain and losses with the comfort that Jesus, too, will experience this loss and has transcend it not by wishing it away but by accepting it. The Apostle Paul, too, gives us a model of one who for the faith accepts the pain that will come his way for the greater glory of God’s kingdom. Both Jesus and Paul in the readings this week focus our minds on the suffering that will come and that we must experience.
The Ascension, celebrated last week, is the triumph over suffering, but this week we are told by Jesus what is the task for those of us who remain to carry on his work in his name. It is not that he warns us to be fearful, but that he warns us to be real. John 16:33 (Monday) says, “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” John 17: 14-15 (Wednesday) states, “I gave them your word, and the world hated them, because they do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the Evil One.” John 21:18 (Friday) has Jesus speak, to Peter directly, “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”
Paul, speaking to the elders of Ephesus in Miletus says, in Acts 20:22-23 (Tuesday), “But now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem. What will happen to me there I do not know, except that in one city after another the Holy Spirit has been warning me that imprisonment and hardships await me.” The elders responded to Paul's speech in Acts 20:37-38 (Wednesday): “They were all weeping loudly as they threw their arms around Paul and kissed him, for they were deeply distressed that he had said that they would never see his face again.” Paul was arrested in Jerusalem and after speaking to the Sanhedrin as described in Acts 23, things got heated: Acts 23:9-10 (Thursday) describes that “The dispute was so serious that the commander, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, ordered his troops to go down and rescue Paul from their midst and take him into the compound. The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage. For just as you have borne witness to my cause in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness in Rome.”
The “no worries” of the Gospel of John and the Acts of the Apostles are not freedom from suffering and pain, not even unjust suffering and pain, but of the constancy of God’s love through all of the various trials that we will be brought. Paul speaks to the elders of Ephesus not only of the suffering that awaits him, but of its end: “Yet I consider life of no importance to me, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to bear witness to the Gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24 -Tuesday). Why does Paul consider life "of no importance" to him? Only because he yearns for eternal life. In John 17:1-3 (Tuesday), Jesus says, “Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you, just as you gave him authority over all people, so that your son may give eternal life to all you gave him. Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.” It is in knowing God that true life is grasped and experienced. Paul does not reject life; he grasps for it in its fullness.
What this means is the promise of glory through Christ, the glory that is truly his from eternity, is our destiny:
“And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me. Father, they are your gift to me. I wish that where I am they also may be with me, that they may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world also does not know you, but I know you, and they know that you sent me. I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.” (John 17:22-26 – Thursday)
I should be clear: I am no lover of pain or suffering and do not desire it for anyone. I also think it is our task to remove it whenever and wherever possible and to make certain that it be stopped before it happens if possible. Yet, the reality of evil and the reality of a fallen world mean that we will suffer. The task is not to minimize the pain, to ignore the pain, or to look away from it, but to embrace it in God’s love, accompanied by the promise that God’s glory is love everlasting. "No worries" is not to pretend a joy and glory that is not real, but to know that real joy and glory transcends our pain and worries, however real they are.
John W. Martens