(a sermon for May 26, 2019, the 6th Sunday of Easter, based on John 14:23-29)
I was 35 years old before I had ever been on an airplane.
I realize that’s not all that surprising or unusual thing to say; but trust me, at the time this represented a truly momentous occasion in my life! I mean, I’d never really traveled very all that much when I was growing up; and even as an adult where I did go usually involved a road trip across the highways and byways of the northeast corridor! So now, at age 35, to be asked to not only attend a week-long caregiving seminar in Orlando, Florida (and in the dead of winter, no less!) but also to fly there was a welcome and exciting opportunity!
However, I must confess that having never flown before I was a tad nervous about the prospect; in fact, if I’m being honest, the closer I got to the day of departure the more anxious about it I’d become! To be fair, it did seem like practically every other day I’d read something in the news about a plane crashing somewhere in the world; nor was it particularly helpful that friends, family and even fellow clergy had regaled me with their own nightmare stories of air travel gone bad! And the true “icing” on the cake was that on the morning I was to leave, overnight there’d been snow, sleet and freezing rain (!) which required the plane to be de-iced before takeoff!
But the flight actually went very well; just before takeoff I’d decided that a silent prayer was in order (and not just for me, mind you, but also for the pilot, co-pilot, flight attendants and every other person on that airplane, with a side order request for good weather the entire way; hey, it never hurts to ask!), and my journey was as smooth and uneventful as one could hope. And so by the time I’d landed in Philadelphia to make a connecting flight to Orlando, I already felt like an experienced frequent flyer!
Which lasted until just about the time my second flight was on the tarmac…
But on the last leg of my journey I was seated next to this young woman who, once she’d heard I was a minister, immediately and nervously asked if I ever got nervous about flying and I said, lying through my teeth, “Oh, no, not really!” And she said, “Wow, that’s good, pastor, because I hate flying! I don’t even want to be on this flight, but I’m going to visit my sister in Florida because she’s in trouble and to tell the truth, I’m pretty nervous about that!” And for pretty much the remainder of the flight (!) she told me all about it. Now, all these years later, I don’t remember much about the conversation, but I do remember what she said to me as we were landing: “But you know what? I guess I’m not all that worried because I’ve got God with me. I’m not much of a churchgoer,” she went on to say, “and I’m – no offense (they always tell me, “no offense…”) – I’m not even all that religious. But at times like this, I just know that God is there, because there’s this peace that I can feel all over. It’s like… a gift. Do you know what I mean?”
Yes, I did… and I do.
In our text for this morning, we continue in what’s referred to in John’s gospel as Jesus’ “farewell discourses” on the night of his betrayal and arrest. So again, what we have here is Jesus essentially saying good-bye to those closest to him while preparing them for what’s to come; reminding them one last time of the importance of love and how that love is forever linked to “keeping [his] words,” words that are not in fact his, but “from the Father who sent [him].” But more than merely words of farewell, these are also words of promise with Jesus offering up the assurance of an “Advocate, the Holy Spirit,” that would teach his disciples, both then and now, everything they would need to know and would “remind [them] of all that I have said to you.” And it all culminates with Jesus offering up what perhaps the most deeply touching assurances we’re given in the gospels: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.”
That in and of itself is an amazing promise, isn’t it! I mean, think of it; the same Jesus who is now facing the certainty of a violent death has not only already promised to go on ahead and “prepare a place” for his disciples in his “Father’s house,” (John 14:1) now gives them his assurance that, because of God’s sure and certain promises of life, everything will be alright and that they will know the same kind of peace that he himself possesses. It’s no wonder that these words are so often read at graveside services; because if there’s one thing of which we need to be reminded in times of loss it’s that this – the here and now – is not all that there is, but that there’s another place for us when this life is done; a home in heaven that Jesus has already gone to prepare for us by his death on the cross. It is an atoning act of redemptive love, and it is Jesus’ gift of true peace for today, tomorrow, for all of life and beyond life: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”
And as I said earlier, that in and of itself is amazing; but you’ll notice that that’s not all that Jesus promises here; he goes on to say, “I do not give to you as the world gives.” Just a little addition to the promise, a few added words that at first read almost come off as a bit of a qualifier to the promise itself; and yet, friends, I have to tell you that for me it’s that second phrase that not only makes the promise amazing, but also life changing. It’s the assurance that what Jesus is giving us is not what the world gives that makes all the difference!
And what does the world give? Lindsay Popper, UCC pastor and writer in Massachusetts, addresses this question quite honestly: she says, “The world gives us simple beauties: the full moon on an early morning, the feeling of a sweetheart’s hand in ours, a strong cup of coffee before a day of work. But so often, the world gives trouble. The world gives disappointment.” The world, Popper goes on to say, creates famine and war and leaves “shattering trauma” in its wake; it brings forth broken relationships that “leave us feeling bitter and alone… [so often] this world with all its fragile beauty leaves us feeling like the floor has fallen out from under us, feeling utterly alone, numb and helpless.”
And to this, Jesus says, “I do not give to you as the world gives.” Or maybe more to the point, as this verse is translated in The Message, “I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left – feeling abandoned, bereft.” It’s my peace that I’m giving you, says Jesus, so “do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
Two bits of translation here that need to be addressed: first, the Greek word for “peace” that’s used here is eirene, which is pretty much the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word shalom; meaning peace not just in the sense of the cessation of war and conflict, but a whole peace that includes security, safety and prosperity as well as a sense of an inner rest, well-being and harmony, and above all, a state of reconciliation with God now and eternally. As a matter of fact, this word eirene has its roots in the word eiro, which means “to join or bind together that which has been separated;” it’s actually where we get the expression of someone who “has it all together!” What this all means is that the peace that Jesus offers does not in fact guarantee an end to the struggle and hardship that exists in the world; how could it when even as Jesus spoke the words he was about to be sentenced to a brutal death on the cross at the hands of those whose hated him! No, this peace is not the faltering peace of a hurting and sinful world, but it is a true peace that gives comfort in the face of all that world brings forth!
David Lose of Lutheran Seminary says it this way: “The peace Jesus offers is more than the absence of something negative. Indeed… it has its own presence and gravity… [it] testifies to a sense of wholeness, even rightness, of and in one’s very being. It’s a sense of harmony with those persons and things around us. Peace connotes a sense of contentment, but even more fulfillment, a sense that in this moment one is basking in God’s pleasure. And that,” Lose concludes, “can come even amid hardship, struggle, conflict, and disruption.”
In other words, it is the knowledge that even in all the difficulties the world brings forth and in whatever troubles beset us, God is with us; and when we let God take on the burden of the troubles that we cannot change or control, when we “place ourselves, our loved ones, our fortunes, and our future in God’s hands,” that is peace… true peace, and it’s a gift; not as the world gives, but as only Jesus can provide.
So… “do not let you hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid;” which brings us to the other matter of translation: the Greek word that’s used in this verse: tharseo, which is probably better translated as “take heart,” or even better, to “have courage.” In Jesus, you see, in no matter what the world and life is throwing at us, we can take heart and have courage and not be afraid! That’s how my seatmate on the airplane that day could take a flight she was terrified to make to face a family situation she felt utterly ill equipped and unprepared to handle. That’s how those of us who have had to deal with the grief of losing a loved one can find hope for life, now and eternally. That’s how you and I can manage to face down the times and situations of heartache and struggle and oppression and darkness and fear that sooner or later will come our way; and that’s how we “keep the faith,” even when the world around us (and within us!) seems to be spinning helplessly out of control. The peace that Jesus offers us gives us open and courageous hearts; the ability to live fully and boldly as his disciples; truly being “in” the world but not “of” the world, living with strength, joy and ever and always keeping his command to love our neighbors as ourselves.
It’s true and lasting peace, girded in saving love… and it’s a gift.
At a funeral recently, an older gentleman came up to me after the service and asked where he might find the verse I’d read about Jesus going to his Father’s house “where there are many dwelling places… to prepare a place” for us, because, he said, he’d not ever really heard that before and it was something he felt he really needed to think about. I explained, of course, that these were verses from John’s Gospel; shared with him all about how these were Jesus’ “Farewell Discourses” and also how those particular verses have always been helpful to me in knowing what happens to us when we die. And to this he simply smiled and said, “I just feel like this is something I should really know about!”
I’ve been thinking about that ever since… and it seems to me that while what Jesus said to his disciples and us on that fateful night has everything to do with our Lord’s “sure and certain promises” of life eternal and how he is “the way, and the truth and the life;” (14:6) but it also expresses the truth of our Lord’s presence and power in the here and now of our lives! It reminds us that there is nothing we face in this life that God in the person of Jesus Christ hasn’t also experienced. Jesus knows how we’ve been hurt in the life; he knows our disappointments, our struggles and all the ways in which our hopes and expectations for our lives have fallen far short of what we wanted. Jesus knows how easy it is to become discouraged by life and the world and how swiftly weakness gives way to temptation and losing our best selves along the way. Jesus knows us all too well… because he lived as one of us.
Before you and I ever began to live, Jesus already knew what life is all about… but he also knew what it can be… what it should be… and that’s how he can continue to offer us the gift of his peace; how in whatever happens, whatever trials and sorrows and temptations there might be – even in death itself – he can offer us the peace that passes our human understanding… because he’s already been there. Our Jesus can and does provide a peace that the world can neither give nor ever, ever take away!
In whatever comes this week, beloved, I pray you will know that kind of peace as your own.
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry