Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Gospel according to AIDS

The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen. Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.
1 Peter 4:7-13 (NRSV)

As usual, the wisdom of the lectionary amazes me. This is part of the epistle from today's Daily Office.

Today is World AIDS Day. I remember the first article I read in Time or USNews about some sort of "gay cancer" that was killing young men in terrible ways. The connection between the community and the suffering gave license to many of our culture's deepest fears and prejudices. The problem was not the disease - the problem was the behavior. Righteousness distracted us from doing right.

And so many, too many died without the church's loving presence.

Now things are different. Celebrities have kept AIDS in the public's consciousness. Experience has taught us that HIV doesn't just kill gay men. Decades of research have made "living with AIDS" more than just a euphemism. Like so many cruel diseases, there still isn't a cure - but there is more hope and less ignorance than there used to be.

Peter was not writing about a disease, he was writing to a persecuted church who suffered at the hands of righteous people. His counsel? Love one another. Cover one another's sins with the love of God. Be stewards of one another, for the steward of another's heart cares for a child of God. Offer holy hospitality, speak godly words, serve as Christ did, with all the strength God gives you because serving one another gives glory to God.

So much of the church's initial response to AIDS was not about the disease either. It was about sins and sinners. Many offered shame in the place of service - condemnation instead of compassion. As a consequence, the people who needed Christ's church the most were pushed away. Such failure of charity grieves God's heart.

Peter's exhortation to rejoice in suffering is a tough pill to swallow. On the one hand, we feel ashamed to compare our suffering to Christ's. At the same time, few of us are faithful enough to keep our eyes on Jesus when our own bodies or minds are in pain.

A friend of mine who lives with deep depression episodes once told me that the one thing that comforted her at her darkest hour was knowing that the darkness would not last forever. Our suffering, and the pain of those who love us is not an eternal curse. In the glory of God our trials will come to an end.

While Peter seems to joyfully anticipate the end of the world, he also gives good counsel for the time between now and then. As long as it is possible to glorify God, it is possible to rejoice, even in our own brokenness.

As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, "Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!" The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, "Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!" Jesus stood still and called them, saying, "What do you want me to do for you?" They said to him, "Lord, let our eyes be opened." Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.
Matthew 20:29-34 (NRSV)

The blind men in today's gospel remind me of two things - persistence and faith. I have had friends who refused to let the disease define them. They were not victims of HIV, and they did not allow themselves to be labeled as people with AIDS. They found the courage to insist on living - the virus was incidental, not central to their lives. Their strength and will to go on was not a cry for mercy, but a demand to be allowed to exist. Like the blind men from Jericho, they refused to be discouraged or shouted down. They knew that Jesus would feel their suffering. They believed in life, and many of them believed in Jesus. Though their bodies failed them. their faith never did, and I believe Jesus never did either.

Our compassionate savior suffers with us and desires the health of our hearts as well as our minds and bodies. My friends' hearts are no longer under my stewardship, they are in the arms of Jesus. I pray that God will judge my service to them to have been faithful.



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