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Keeping the Faith

01 May

“Peace I Leave With You,” by Mark Lawrence

(a sermon for May 1, 2016, the 6th Sunday of Easter, based on John 14:23-29)

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you… Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Not only are these some of the most memorable words that Jesus ever spoke, for me, at least, they are also most certainly among the most comforting.  As a pastor I’ve read this particular passage from John’s gospel on countless occasions over the years – at memorial services and hospital bedsides, in shared moments of deep personal anguish and even during times of national crisis – and for good reason: Jesus’ assurance of a peace that the world cannot give has a way of putting everything we face in this life, however debilitating, in a proper perspective.  It is a reminder that even our deepest grief and sorrow pales in comparison to the all-enveloping peace of God, made real to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  To quote David Lose of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, it “testifies to a sense of wholeness, even rightness, of and in one’s very being… even amid hardship, struggle, conflict and disruption.”

Peace I leave with you… my peace I give to you.  Heavenly words… which makes it all the more interesting, and pretty ironic, that when Jesus was speaking those words about peace, all hell was about to break loose!

Indeed, as we pick up the reading today, it is the “night of betrayal and desertion:” Maundy Thursday, the evening during which Jesus would be handed over to those who hated him and led to his execution.  And in fact, the events of that fateful evening had already begun to unfold: by this time, Judas had already fled the scene in order to betray Jesus; and Peter’s impending denials had also been foretold.  Moreover, there’s this palpable tension in the air, and though they couldn’t yet begin to understand it, the disciples all felt it; and it’s made all the more disturbing by the fact that Jesus is also making it quite clear that he’d be leaving them soon, and in fact that he was about to die.

This is part of what’s referred to in John’s Gospel as “the Farewell Discourses,” in which Jesus is actually saying “good-bye” to his disciples with a wide array of last-minute teachings having to do with the relationship between Jesus and the Father, what it means to truly believe and to fully “abide” in Jesus, and so much more besides.  As you can well imagine, there is a sense of urgency about what Jesus is saying here; as though he wants to make sure that in these final moments he gets everything in that needs to be said; but in and through it all, there’s this overarching truth that the time is coming very soon when Jesus will be gone and it will be up to the disciples to continue on; keeping Jesus’ word and doing his work of love.

And so, when after all of this Jesus finally says to them, “I have said these things to you while I am still with you… my peace I give to you… do not let your heart be troubled,” you have to imagine that it’s spoken with a tone of profound… sadness.  After all, there is quite literally a world of trouble and hurt about to descend; and nothing and nobody – not even Jesus himself – can keep it from happening.  Before the next day is out, Jesus will have died on the cross, and these same disciples who have followed him and placed all their trust and hope in him for the past three years will be scattered, lost and alone; and yet, somehow, they will have to carry on.  They will need to “keep the faith” even when everything has seemed to have fallen apart.  So though John never tells us exactly how Jesus says it, you know that it’s fraught with the kind of emotion that comes when you’re desperately trying to bring some kind of comfort to those you love so deeply, even as you’re preparing them for the worst.

That’s the thing, you see; that’s what Jesus knew about living in this world back then, and sadly, it still holds true today: for as wonderful and as incredibly beautiful as it so often can be, and is (!), there’s no denying that this world also brings a fair measure of trouble and sorrow to life and living.  Ours is a world that is marked by a definite lack of peace, and in fact, as Scott Hoezee has written, “what little peace [this world] has to offer us is always provisional, always suspect, always precarious.  The world cannot finally give what it does not firmly possess itself” just as “a poor man can promise you all the money in the world but has none to give you in the end.”

For you and I to live in such a world as Jesus’ disciples and for us to be “keeping the faith” in all that we do in this life is going require the assurance that comes with peace; but it’s a peace that’s going to have to come from somewhere else, and that’s why Jesus is very clear that he does not give “as the world gives.”  It’s my peace I give to you, says Jesus; and that is what will make all the difference.

Understand, of course, that when Jesus speaks of peace, he is not referring wholly or even primarily to peace in the sense of the absence of any and all conflict – though that is certainly part of it – but rather the peace that envelops us in the midst of everything that this world has to dish out.  To quote David Lose once again, it’s “a peace that allows us to lift our gaze from the troubles that beset us” and to recognize that come what may we can place “ourselves, our loved ones, our fortunes, and our future in God’s hands.”

In the end, you see, it’s not that all the bad things in this world are going to go away, for we know all too well that violence and injustice can seem to run rampant; just as it’s not that our grief at the loss of a loved one is suddenly going to disappear, for it is also true that such sadness runs its own course.  But there is true peace to be known in the midst of such strife; and the kind of peace that Jesus has to offer is that which brings tranquility, strength, hope, courage and purpose in and through it all.  It’s no accident, you know, that when Jesus immediately follows this promise of his peace with the admonition to “not let your hearts be troubled,” (or to “take heart” as it’s sometimes translated) the original Greek word, tharseo, is actually better translated as “have courage.”  In other words, the peace that Jesus gives is the peace that gives us courage to face all the troubles that the world will bring hurtling down at us; so that, even as everything else around us seems to crumble, we are equipped to keep the faith come what may.

It’s also no accident that just prior to this promise of peace, Jesus also assures us of another helper that will be there for us along the way in this world: “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name.”  This word advocate is also translated as “Counselor” in other versions of scripture, but in the original Greek the word that Jesus uses is parakletos, or “paraclete,” which means someone who is “called alongside” of another.  So what we’re given here is a truly “holy” Spirit that stands alongside us in our journey through this world, reminding us of Jesus’ words and teachings as we go, whispering into our hearts all God’s sure and certain promises, lest we might otherwise forget in the strife and sorrow of it all.

These are the promises that matter: the promise that love is stronger than hate; the promise that hope is more absolutely more resilient than fear and despair; the promise that light can and will breaks through the darkness of the world.  These are the promises that assure us that we need not be afraid, but take heart and to have courage not only for the living of these days, but quite often for the facing of this very hour!  It is the reminder we need that in amidst all of the challenges of this world we have this divine peace that the world neither gives nor can ever take away.

Strange what you remember: I’m reminded of a time back in high school when our Senior Class was putting on a production of “The Miracle Worker,” the play about Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan.  Now, on-stage at least, I really didn’t have all that much to do (I did provide some backstage voices and did some really cool sound effects, as I recall!), but I was assigned as understudy for one of the minor roles; which, to be honest with you, was a task I didn’t really take all that seriously until… opening night, when it became increasingly apparent that the young man who was playing the Keller family doctor was out of town competing in a cross-country meet and wasn’t likely to make it back in time for the play!

And of course, immediately I started to panic because I hadn’t learned those lines; I didn’t think I had to!  But now, only a few minutes before show time, I’m all dressed up as a doctor and expected to go on stage!  So I’m desperately trying to memorize this handful of lines that I should have already known; and it’s only a small part, just a handful of lines, but in the stress of that moment and the abject fear of having to face a full auditorium of people, I can’t even remember my name, much less what I’m supposed to say once the curtain rises!

In my panic, I finally went to our director, one of my English teachers and confessed to her that I hadn’t memorized this part; that I wasn’t in any way ready to do this; and could I please just go home?  (Well, okay, maybe not that last part; but remember, by this time I was pretty scared!) And though I’m sure she was none too pleased, my teacher simply sighed and said, “Just do the best you can… and remember, there’s going to be a prompter just offstage who will help you with the lines if you don’t remember.”

Now, the happy ending of this story is that quite literally two minutes before curtain, the kid who was playing the part showed up and I happily let him take his place onstage!  But I never forgot that experience; the utter terror I felt in suddenly being in this place where I could feel so helpless and so seemingly alone; and yet in the midst of that there was this relief in knowing that I wasn’t alone after all, for in fact there would be someone there alongside of me, reminding me of all that I needed to know.

In truth, there have been any number of times in my life when I have found myself overwhelmed and panicked by a sudden onslaught of worldly trials and tribulations.  I am a person of faith, and I truly believe in the goodness of God in Jesus Christ; moreover, I have seen and experienced evidence of that time and time again! And yet, I must confess to you that there have been moments of spiritual turmoil when that ancient biblical prayer has been very true for me:  “O Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

So how wonderful it has been in moments such as these when by grace I have been given this Advocate, this Counselor, this… Prompter, who teaches me again and again of God’s grace, love and peace; who reminds me that in this journey of discipleship I can take heart, keep the faith and never be afraid!  For in Jesus Christ, in tandem with God the Father, I have a peace… true peace… that the world cannot ever give, and that which the world can never take away.

And it’s a peace that belongs to each one of us here, beloved… but in case you need a reminder today, may I suggest that in the bread and the cup we’re provided a bit of a prompt… from Jesus himself.  May this feast of grace and love we share now serve as a clear reminder of his presence, and especially of peace.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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