I write this week in anticipation of the return of students to the campus of Valparaiso University. They’ve been gone since the day before Thanksgiving. At 60 days, this has been perhaps the longest winter break in the history of the University. We really needed it. After an exhausting, break-less semester rife with pandemic-prescribed restrictions and adaptations, perhaps you were as eager as I for a long stretch of relatively schedule-free days of mask-free home confinement. It felt good.
So, as the days added up to weeks and then months, the break did its work of reinvigorating me for the return of the life and work that we share together. I began to look ahead more and more eagerly to the swell in our campus population this weekend.
For Christians who follow the yearly cycle of weekly Bible readings as we do at the Chapel of the Resurrection, the weeks following Christmas are given over to the accounts of the revealing of Jesus’ identity as the bodily presence of God in creation. The season started on January 6 with the worship of the Magi who, though they may not have completely understood the ramifications, recognized Jesus as royalty over and against competing human claims of authority. The next week featured an account of Jesus’ baptism at the hands of his cousin John accompanied by the appearance of the Holy Spirit and the declaration of Jesus’ identity as the beloved Son of the Father. Now we have two weeks (last Sunday and the coming one) of stories of Jesus calling together a growing company of followers. Because this cycle recurs annually, this gathering of disciples comes to look somewhat like a reunion.
For me, this notion of the disciples’ reunion, accompanied by my anticipation of our collective return to campus, recalls a line from that 1980 movie classic, The Blues Brothers.
“We’re putting the band back together.”
In the movie, “Joliet” Jake Blues and his blood brother, Elwood, are reunited following Jake’s parole after three years in prison. They visit St. Helen of the Blessed Shroud Orphanage where they were raised and learn from Sister Mary Stigmata that it will be closed soon for unpaid property taxes. Later at the Triple Rock Baptist Church, during a sermon delivered by the Rev. Cleophus James (played by the Godfather of Soul, James Brown) Jake has his own epiphany and determines to reassemble their old band, “The Blues Brothers,” to raise money and save the orphanage.
As Elwood Blues puts it, “We’re on a mission from God.”
Getting back together with the purpose of doing something good. That’s what the start of the semester feels like for me. Picking up again with Jesus’ first disciples when he calls to them “Follow me!” Not knowing what the days ahead will bring but knowing that it is good to be together – even with the adaptations and limitations – and knowing that there is good work to be done even if we, as is the case of the Blues Brothers, are imperfect, fundamentally flawed, human beings.
This is so, not because of the talent or genius that we bring to the world’s problems but because we who join in the disciples’ reunion are marked with the same cross of Christ. As such we are part of a larger body of those who hear the words of Jesus, are baptized into his identity, break bread with his companions, and live as ones forgiving and being forgiven. As a people so marked we live out our lives in a larger world of others who may or may not believe as we do. They may not recognize the same God, much less God’s mission. How will we be in this wider world?
When Martin Luther, the 16th century church reformer, gave up the monastery to rejoin ordinary life, he left the place of “a brotherhood” of men set apart for life together and entered into a neighborhood. A neighborhood is a particular place inhabited by particular people. They are neither strangers nor family, rather, they are people who have not chosen one another and yet they share a common space. As such, they have a common claim to that space since neither “owns” the neighborhood. For Luther, the scriptural teaching to “love your neighbor as yourself” governed and guided every action in this common space. It required self-love as a condition for neighbor-love, but it also commended the call to neighbor-love as a limit on self-love. The neighborhood is a fundamentally equal place under the grace of God. Further, the neighbor with whom we share the neighborhood is the occasion for us to be as Christ to them and recognize the presence of Christ in them.
Even while for many of us the winter break was a welcome rest, for us and others, it was also a time of trial and stress. The scourge of the pandemic continues to take lives and threaten the most vulnerable among us. Actions of political and ethnic violence tear at the fabric of our common life. Yet, we are called to be with one another and for one another in ways that reflect the reality of God’s gracious and abundant love here on this campus, in this community and in this country.
We’re putting the band back together. We’re on a mission from God.
Jan. 20, 2021
Rev. James A. Wetzstein serves as University Pastor at Valparaiso University and takes turns writing weekly devotions.