Taking that first step. Going to the first day of school. Spending the night at a friend's house. Getting behind the wheel of a car. Going out on a date. Heading off to college. Falling in love. Walking down the aisle. Starting a new job. Having a child.
The cycle of life is full of moments of love and letting go that repeat themselves over and over. We love our child with every ounce of life and love that we possess. And then we say goodbye and say it again and again. Sometimes in little ways, and sometimes in ways that are huge and terrifying. And through it all, the love never stops, even when we have pulled away completely.
Being excluded from a friend group. Forgetting your homework. Taking a final exam. Writing a college essay. Undergoing surgery. Struggling with addiction. Losing a job. Losing a parent. Losing a child.
Life is full of challenges that we cannot fix on someone else's behalf. We can try, but trying is usually a mistake. Instead, we can journey with someone, loving them deeply and fervently but, at the same time, letting them go, letting them hurt, letting them heal. The instinct is to rush in a protect the one we love, solve her problems, dump our wisdom and our effort and our love onto the situation. That makes us feel better. We convince ourselves that love makes it our duty to save the one we love. But that only hurts things. Sometimes love means letting go when letting go is hardest.
Today, as we commemorate the life and Christian witness of Boniface, Archbishop of Mainz, missionary to Germany, and martyr, we hear two New Testament stories of loving and letting go. First, Jesus. This is his final farewell--at least until he is reunited with his followers in God's kingdom. He reminds the eleven and their companions how his life and death and resurrection were the fulfillment of God's plan for him and for the world. Then he leads them out of the city, taking them as far as Bethany, and, while he was lifting up his hands to bless them, he was taken out of their sight.
But why did he go? Why did Jesus need to go? Imagine how fruitful his ministry could have been if he had hung around, performing transformational feats of power, reversing the course of human history, overthrowing the oppressors, bringing the full status of love and acceptance to the ends of the earth. But, of course, that could not be. That work was Jesus', but it wasn't his to do. It belonged to his disciples. The transformation of the world cannot succeed if it takes place in and through only one person. As long as Jesus was here, the disciples would only be followers and not the apostles who are sent out to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. In John 16:7, Jesus tells his disciples that they should rejoice because he is going to be taken from them. Only then, he explains, can the Holy Spirit come. In a very real sense, the sending of the Holy Spirit is an expression of a love that requires a letting go.
Then, Paul. He calls together the elders of Ephesus because he knows that he will soon be taken from them. "You yourselves know how I lived among you...serving the Lord with all humility and with tears." Paul reflects on his life and ministry and counts them of zero value except that he, with God's help, might be faithful the Lord in completing the work that God had given him to do. Having given up almost completely the noble identity of a Roman citizen, Paul prefers chains worn for Christ's sake and for the sake of those he serves than the freedom he could find on his own. His love for the Ephesians is real and clear, but now it is time for him to step back: "And now I know that none of you, among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom, will ever see my face again. Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God." It seems almost harsh that someone who loves them that fully would step back so dramatically. "I am not responsible for the blood of any of you," he says. You're on your own. And you have to be. Even though I am willing to die for you, I cannot hold your hand anymore.
God's great love for us is one big and beautiful letting go. As any parent on the first day of school or spouse waiting outside the surgery suite or child sitting in the first pew at a parent's funeral can attest, letting go does not mean an end to love. The love is as strong, as present, as complete as it has ever been, but it is a love that values and honors the other so fully as to let that one go. It is trust. It is faith. God shows us this love every day, and God invites us to participate in it. How might we be loved so fully by God that we find the freedom to love others in the same way--to love them and let them go?