He went back so that we too might also return to the One who we have abandoned and forsaken.
A few weeks ago, during Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination hearings, Senator Corey Booker of New Jersey delivered an impassioned speech to support and encourage Judge Jackson in her bid to become the first Black woman to serve as a Supreme Court Justice. In the course of his speech, Senator Booker referenced one of his heroes, Harriet Tubman, who upon escaping from enslavement in the South and gaining her freedom, returned multiple times to lead 70 more people to their own freedom. In Booker’s words, she went back, and she went back with her eyes not only on the North Star, which was her constant guide during her typically winter voyages north, not only on the liberty of the people she had made her purpose, but also on the God she had made her own. The power and the prophetic witness of Tubman’s life rests on the power of her going back, and of the One she had fixed her eyes on as she did.
The previous week, on March 17, we celebrated the Feast of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, who sixteen centuries earlier himself returned to the very people who had previously enslaved him. Having been captured in his teens by pirates and sold as a slave to an Irish chieftain, he worked as a shepherd for six years until, under remarkable circumstances, he escaped back to his native England. But sensing a call not only to the priesthood, but also back to the land of his captivity, he too went back, and as a consequence not only brought the Chrisitan faith to Ireland but birthed a great monastic movement that brought faith and learning to much of Western Europe.
Four centuries earlier, during his first missionary journey, the Apostle Paul and his companion Barnabas preached the message of Jesus in the towns and cities of central Anatolia, and on account of both their preaching and the miraculous healings that Luke records as having occurred by their hands, stirred up strong reactions of both support and opposition in the towns and cities where they traveled. In Lystra, one of their last stops in the region, a group of opponents caught up with them, turned the crowds against them, stoned Paul, dragged him outside of the city, and left him for dead. Paul survived, however, and went on with his little band to complete their circuit in the region. Sometime later, Paul, with a desire to strengthen and encourage the disciples of Jesus in the places they had already traveled, returned to the very place where he had so recently been so violently opposed — Paul, centuries before both Harriet Tubman and Patrick of Ireland, also understood the power of going back.
But all these heroes of faith learned the power of going back from the One whose life motivated them to do the same. For Jesus, before them all, was the One who during the days of what we now call Holy Week went back to Jerusalem against the warnings of his friends to complete the work he had come to do. He returned to Jerusalem with full knowledge of what awaited him there, and yet like Paul and Patrick and Harriet Tubman who were to follow, he did so for the sake of others. Paul returned to Lystra and risked his own life so that others might return to God. Patrick returned to Ireland that the very people who had previously enslaved him might find their own freedom through Jesus. And Harriet Tubman returned 70 times to the South not for her own sake, but that her own people might know the freedom that she had already laid hold of for herself.
So, as we complete these days of Holy Week, let us, as the author of Hebrews admonishes, fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who went back to Jerusalem, and for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despised its shame, and accepted the hostility of the very ones he came to save. He went back so that we too might also return to the One who we have abandoned and forsaken, just as the disciples did during the first Holy Week, and yet who nonetheless waits with arms of embrace open to us and to all others as we respond to his invitation to return to Him.
There is great power in going back.