Today’s readings seem to all connect to something that scholars call “liminality.” Liminality is a word that describes the funny in-between spaces or times that are neither here nor there. When you’re standing in the customs line at the airport or at the border, you’re standing in a liminal space. Not quite Canada, not quite the United States. When someone’s been over to visit you, and they’ve said their goodbyes but they haven’t actually walked out the door yet, that’s a liminal space. Not really here, but not really gone.
Our readings today look at these liminal experiences - these in-between times and spaces. In the Gospel, Jesus and the disciples are in that liminal time between the last supper and Jesus’ crucifixion. He’s told them that he’s going away, but he hasn’t actually left yet. He’s told them that he’s going to die, but it hasn’t happened. The disciples are confused, clearly, or he wouldn’t have to keep repeating himself, which is often the case when we’re in liminality––in that in-between-ness. We sort of have an idea of what is going on, but not really. The past is clearly passed, but the future is hard to see. We live in uncertainty.
This liminality exists in our reading from Acts, too. Just before today’s reading, we hear about Paul wandering all over what we now call the Middle East - Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey - always in-between one place and the next. Paul’s whole life, in fact, is an experience of in-between-ness, in-between the Jewish and the Gentile Christian communities, in-between one country and another. And in our reading from Acts, Paul meets Lydia at an in-between space, outside of the city gates, which means outside of any official holy spaces, but not quite outside because its still a place where people are gathering to pray. Lydia is a ‘worshipper of God,’ which means she is a non-Jewish person who worships the Jewish God––one kind of in-between, and she’s also interested in hearing about Jesus Christ and wants to be baptized–– another kind of in-between. There’s all kinds of liminality going on here.
Even the writing of the Book of Acts and the Gospel of John, and even the Book of Revelation, reflect liminality. They were written in times of in-between-ness. Jesus had ascended to heaven, but he hadn’t come back yet. When John was written, the first Christians were still struggling to understand what it meant that Jesus said, “I am coming to you,” but hadn’t actually come, as far as they could see. The Book of Acts was written by Christians who had seen Pentecost but hadn’t yet seen Jesus coming in glory. The Book of Revelation was written by Christians who’d seen the troubled times that Jesus had warned them of, but still didn’t see any hope of their deliverance. We might look at the entire New Testament as one long struggle of Christians trying to find certainty in the in-between times.
It continues today. We continue to find ourselves in these liminal experiences, living in these in-between moments. In-between the past and the future. In-between death and new life. The glory days of Christianity are over and passed, but we haven’t yet arrived in the new life of what Christian fellowship will look like. The good old days of a church on every corner, filled to capacity, are gone, but we don’t know yet what’s coming in its place. We’re like the disciples, who witnessed the miracles of Jesus, and who’ve been told that those days are now gone, but we’re confused about what Jesus means when he says he’s going to come again.
Even in our daily living, we’re forced into these liminal times and spaces, and this is where the uncertainty of liminality really drags us down. Sliding from one existence to another without any firm ground underneath is frequently overwhelming, in part because we have no idea of what to expect in this in-between time or when it will be over. One of the in-between experiences that I’ve encountered with increasing frequency is that of watching someone go through the onset of cognitive decline. Experiencing someone else’s slide into dementia is hard. That in-between time of not quite in full mental loss but definitely no longer having full mental capacity. That experience of never knowing what the next moment is going to be, of being in-between clarity and complete confusion, of being unable to tell whether the story the person has just told is true or stitched together from bits and pieces of things picked up along the way. This liminal experience is disorienting. It shifts the ground beneath us and leaves us uncertain.
We experience this liminality in other way. For instance, in cases of rapid physical decline, of ourselves or of someone we love, or when we’re waiting for some kind of medical diagnoses. That liminal time between officially healthy and officially sick. It’s so uncertain. That in-between space and time, where the health that existed before is definitely gone, but we don’t know what will be next Everything seems off-kilter, tilted to the side––the center doesn’t hold, the ground is mushy. It is, to use the words from our Gospel, troubling. In liminal experiences, our hearts are troubled and afraid and we are very seldom at peace.
And yet our readings tell us what to do and how to live in these in-between times. We start with the Gospel, where Jesus tell his disciples two things. The first is that they are to keep his word. The disciples will make it through the liminal time after Jesus has left but before he comes back by keeping his word. And what is this word that the disciples, and presumably us, are to keep? Jesus says it in the chapter before this one, “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Jesus tells his disciples to spend this in-between time by loving one another. Love is what gets us through. Love is the ground we stand on. The love of God for us, and our love for one another, is what makes these in-between times and spaces steadier.
And we see from Saint Paul exactly what this love for one another looks like. Paul, the embodiment of liminality, goes out to find those who are struggling in the uncertainty of the in-between, who need the reassurance of hearing that they are loved. Paul, after receiving a vision in a dream––another liminal time, dream-time––did not hang around Jerusalem, the city he knew, waiting for those who needed to hear the good news to come to him. He went out to find people in their own liminal places––to the river outside the gates of the city––and he told them there of Jesus’ love for them. When we are muddling through the in-between times, Jesus tells us, as Paul shows us, to reach out, either physically or emotionally, to those who are also struggling in their own liminal places. We make it through our liminal experiences by going to others in their in-between experiences, and offering them the certainty of love.
We can do this because of the second thing that Jesus tells his disciples, which is that he and the Father and the Holy Spirit will come to them to make their home in them. To live in their hearts. To bring them peace. And this is the word that I think is meant for us today. You see, when we’re troubled, when we’re living in uncertainty and liminality and in-between this and that, in-between past and future, we often close in on ourselves. We close up our hearts, to protect them from further hurt. We cling to the familiar––to the things that we know, to the people that we know, to the places and experiences that we know, even if they’re gone. But when we do that, when we hold only to what we know, which is only to the past, then we’re really only living in what’s dead. We’re stuck in the in-between and we can’t make it to the new life and the future. But Jesus tells us that our certainty and our security and our peace don’t come from the past, from what was, but from God. They come from Christ making a home in our hearts, which is with us wherever we go and whatever we do. We live through these in-between times by knowing that God’s love is filling us up, taking up residence inside us. The ground beneath our feet might be shifting, but the ground that’s in our hearts, the ground that is God’s love for us, never moves.
And so Jesus tells us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Jesus tells us that we have a choice about it––we can let the in-between experiences of life make us afraid, we can let them make us close in on ourselves in self-protection. Or, we can let these liminal experiences transform us so that we are open, not closed. We can let Jesus and the Father and the Holy Spirit do their work in our hearts, opening our hearts, filling us with a love so abundant that we seek out those who are in need so that we can spill some of that love into their lives. We can allow God to transform the uncertainty of our in-between experiences into a certain knowledge that God loves us and is always with us. A certainty that God is indeed bringing new life––new experiences, new homes, new relationships, new friendships. We can allow the in-between experiences to be times of love, rather than fear.
That’s not to say that these liminalities all of a sudden become easy. We don’t open our hearts to love and then one day wake up excited to greet the uncertainty of the day. To open our hearts in love is to risk being hurt, to risk our love not being returned, to risk being rejected. But when we open our hearts to love, and go out to find those who need that love, these in-between times become worthwhile. Love enables us to find ways to live with meaning during these times of not knowing. In the in-between time, opening our hearts to love is what turns it from wasted time to worthwhile time. It’s what allows us to get through the loss of the past without yet having something clear to hold onto. It’s what allows us to be certain, even in times of uncertainty, that what Jesus is true, that he is going away, that he is coming again, and that he and the Father make their home with us. “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Peace be with you, and thanks be to God. Amen.