The screenplay for the Oscar nominated film, Up in the Air, written by Jason Reitman, begins by juxtaposing two quotations. “There is no ‘I’ in ‘Team’” is a ‘common business axiom’. “Secure your own mask before assisting others” is a ‘common pre-flight instruction’. The film follows that tension. On the one hand we have a need for relationships, and on the other, so often, it can seem as if our own survival is challenged by them.
Relationships always call for us to give something. They call something forth from us. Effort and energy. Time and patience. Attention and listening. Emptying of self. Forgiveness. Grace. We experience the demand of relationships most fiercely when faced with a person with need we obviously cannot meet ourselves. A person without normalized social boundaries exhausts us over the phone. A sibling with a long history of irresponsibility is again in a serious crisis, and our line of credit has run its course. A person we love is making a decision we doubt, or fear, and we’ll share in the consequences nonetheless. The film is right: on the one hand we have a need for relationships, and yet features of our own life are threatened by their demands.
In fact, being in relationships can kill you.
That was Jesus’ experience. His relationship with the world meant His death; He literally ‘gave himself’ to death. Even beyond His death we experience His resurrection as an opportunity for him to continue giving to us. At the Father’s right hand, after the Father has given His Son, and the Son has given His life, Father and Son send us their very Spirit. All for the demands of love? All for relationships with us? If it weren’t for His divine immortality, meeting the needs of relationships with us would kill Him over and over. And yet He enters them willingly, and asks us, even commands us, to do the same.
Being in relationships Jesus’ way well – loving in relationships in imitation of Jesus – does mean we lay our own survival on the line. In an ongoing Lenten fit, we empty ourselves in order to follow His example. And yet we know the great secret of love disclosed to the world in Christ. As God’s loving expression of Himself, it is always Jesus’ self sacrificial love that actually meets the needs of those we know. As Jesus expressed the Father’s love, so also, in ourselves, we express His. And so as we empty ourselves and remain vulnerable in relationships that are difficult, we do so trusting that we are merely expressions of Christ’s love and that the great need of every human heart we touch can be met, not by something we give of ourselves, but by that which we pass on as from Him.
Each disciple of Christ is like a Valentine’s card from the Father: someone else’s name is written on us, our packaging will be torn and cast aside, we’ll be pried open and read aloud, and maybe even dropped from memory. But the signature of our sender will be seen, and the message of love that matters and meets needs will be spoken.