Kairos: the Critical Moment

Third Sunday of Easter Scripture Readings

When my father died, I experienced a strange mixture of emotions. There was, of course, grief, but it was mixed with confusion—what do I need to do next?—and even some gratitude, both for his long life and for the privilege of being with him until the end. Over time, many other emotions seeped into the mix, some immediately identifiable, others not so much. But then, when my mother died only eight months later, along with all those same emotions—although heightened because I hadn’t had time to finish mourning the loss of my father—there was one startlingly new emotion. It derived from the sudden realization that I was now an orphan, and there was no one left for me to rely on outside myself. It wasn’t that I was all that reliant on them as an adult, but that the unique place they held in my consciousness as my source, my elders, and my ancestors, was, for the first time in my life, empty. I felt it as a palpable emptiness.

As I said, I was fortunate. I had them both for almost fifty years. The disciples in today’s gospel reading had Jesus for only three. At first, we might imagine that their experience couldn’t possibly have been all that profound. After all, they barely had enough time to get to know him. Yet, that assumption ignores one critical aspect of the Apostle’s time with Jesus. These men and women had upended their lives to follow Jesus. They’d left their livelihoods, their families, their entire way of life, and dedicated themselves to him. They were not just students, but disciples. That meant having to set aside their own ideas, their own dreams, their own wills and allow themselves to be molded into the image of their master. Their old lives were irretrievably gone, and now, in the wake of the crucifixion, their new lives seemed to have died along with Jesus. They could no longer go back to being the people they once were, yet it seemed equally impossible to go forward because, as Thomas once said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; so how can we know the way?” [John 14:5]

In today’s gospel taken from Saint Luke, we encounter the disciples not only lost but startled and terrified. Even the basic realities of life and death that they’d taken for granted up until that moment were shattered when the risen Jesus stood in their midst. They’d always assumed that alive meant alive and dead meant dead. But this was something entirely different. Everything they thought they knew and everything they thought they understood was turned on its head when suddenly dead meant alive. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the confusion and fear the disciples felt when the physical Jesus stood before them alive.

The Greek word that’s used when Jesus is quoted as asking, “Why do questions arise in your hearts?” is quite interesting. The word means “to question,” but it also means “to doubt” and even “to reason” or “to calculate.” In other words, the disciples were doing exactly what we would be doing if a dead person stood before us, speaking to us. They were trying to figure it all out. “Are my eyes deceiving me?” “Who is this really, and how did he get in here?” “Is this one of those apparitions I’ve heard about?” So, Jesus not only spoke to them, but he showed them his wounds and invited them to touch him—just as John had reported in his gospel—and even went so far as to eat something to prove his point. “A ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.”

And yet, from that moment on, nothing was the same as before. Jesus didn’t so much come back from the dead as he came forward. Notice that he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you.” Although he was physically present among them, he was not “still with” them, but had gone on ahead. He had gone where his disciples would one day follow. This was the disciples’ kairos: that critical moment that forever divides what came before from what comes after. The old not only faded into the mists of memory, but it crumbled away, leaving little or nothing of itself behind, while the new was only a hint of what was to come.

I believe that in every life of grace—every authentic spiritual journey—there comes a kairos after which nothing is the same. I remember mine vividly. I was participating in a session of gestalt group therapy where I was standing in the middle of the group of participants who were modeling my life. Suddenly, I felt on a cellular level that I no longer wanted any part of it. At that instant, it no longer made any sense to me. I had no idea about the way forward, but the way back no longer existed for me. The only thing I was sure of at that moment was that I had to trust the process and that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, God really was behind it all. I had to trust without proof that I was standing in the will of God and that, ultimately, God knew what he was doing, even if I didn’t.

Luke’s gospel is all about trusting the will of God. As Luke tells the story, Jesus never preaches to the Gentiles. His focus is limited entirely to the children of Israel. Then, at this moment—the event described in today’s gospel reading—all that changes. When Jesus opens their minds to the Scriptures, he is helping them to gain a deeper understanding of the underlying will of God and a realization that nothing in God’s world is left to chance. The resurrection of Jesus, as well as our own resurrection, is built into the human story from the beginning. God—the Living God—is “God of the living not the dead.” [Matthew 22:32] God—the God of the future—is entirely trustworthy. Once we have passed through the kairos, that critical moment, there is nothing ahead of us to fear. That’s why, in Luke’s gospel, from that moment forward, the Church became outward-facing and the disciples were no longer stunned into terrified inaction. Jesus’s mission to the Gentiles had begun through the newborn Church.

So, how about it? When was your kairos? When did you leave your fearful past behind? When did you find yourself rootless and lost with no other option but to trust that somehow, in some way, you’d be taken care of? When did you embrace your uncertain future because you had no other choice? That was the moment of your passion, death, and resurrection. That was when you stepped into a new life that defied anything you’d imagined it’d be. That’s the essence of adult spirituality. That’s why Christianity isn’t for kids. Examine that passage from death to life in your own experience and see how your trust in God—when you had no other option—paid off. For those of us who’ve been there, we know that God carried us safely into a future we couldn’t have imagined. Now, it’s our turn to be outward-facing, giving testimony by our thoughts, words, and deeds to what God has done for us. Jesus says to you today what he said to his disciples then, “You are witnesses of these things.”

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