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Category Archives: Easter

A Gift of Peace

(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

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Posted by on May 26, 2019 in Easter, Faith, Jesus, Life, Ministry, Sermon

 

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“And They’ll Know We Are Christians…”

(a sermon for May 19, 2019, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, based on John 13:31-35)

I first read about this a number of years ago, and apparently these days it’s a growing trend: several medical schools across the country are actually adding to its curriculum classes in something called “Medical Improv.”

What we’re talking about here are, in fact, acting classes in which medical students are taught theater arts and the skills necessary to improvise a scene; all this so that these new doctors might learn to  choose their words and gestures deliberately and have their interactions with patients become more empathetic, compassionate and thoughtful.  And furthermore, this according to an article in USA Today, “as accomplished actors, physicians who find themselves too swamped, stressed-out and suspicious to really feel any compassion for their patients can at least act like they care.”

Now, lest you think I’m simply picking on the medical profession, this article goes on to suggest that similar courses of study could easily be developed for all sorts of helping professions (I don’t know about you, but I can think of lot of occupations where this might apply!); jobs where the stress level is such that often the people in those occupations begin to distance themselves emotionally from the people they’re caring for, so often to the detriment of the care receiver.  In all seriousness, the hope is that by taking acting lessons these caregivers will be taught to respond as if they are emotionally connected to the people they’re helping; even if the best they can do at first is to simply to go through the motions.  Is it a case of, “Fake it till you make it?”  Maybe; but the idea is that perhaps, eventually, they’ll come to realize what they’ve been missing and genuinely feel the compassion and care that up till then they’ve only been acting out!

Actually, when you think about it, it’s not all that bad an idea; and I dare say it speaks to an issue far deeper than distracted physicians and grumpy tech support specialists!  The fact is, we are living in a world in which the predominant culture has become so busy, so fast-paced, so focused in the quest for achievement and yet so utterly impersonal in the effort that things like simple human compassion and care risks becoming displaced by the overwhelming nature of life and the drive to get things done!  Moreover, we often make decisions and set priorities – as persons and as a people – without any real concept of how our actions will affect others; we have let our differences of opinion not only divide us but weaponized us;  we have allowed the miracle of technology to become a poor substitute for true communication and as an excuse for not actually talking – or more to the point, listening – to one another; and we have sought to give our families the best of everything but in the process have neglected to teach them about the things in life that truly matter: honesty; integrity; respect for others, especially those who are different from us or with whom we disagree; and a clear sense of right and wrong.  In short, ours is a world where love is not always the operative choice; and make no mistake, what with all its own squabbles and divisions the church is not wholly immune to this, either.  Truly, what Jonathan Swift said back in 1711 sadly often still holds true today: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but no enough to make us love one another.”

Understand, friends, that I say all this not to sound overly morose on a Sunday morning, but to suggest to you this morning that this idea of learning how to be “acting out the love” might well be in order, in the fervent hope that such love will take root in the darkest places of our lives so that it might grow and become genuine.  Indeed, given all that it’s up against in these times, the chance of true love prevailing might well seem unlikely; but then, that’s always been the nature of love, isn’t it: something good and positive and life-changing bursting forth in the face of the unknown. As someone has aptly said, “Genuine love always leaps before it looks.”

And friends, I think that this is what Jesus was talking about when he said to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It’s interesting to note that even though in the church we are very much still in the midst of our Eastertide celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, our text for this morning takes us back to that fateful night of betrayal and desertion, what we know as Maundy Thursday. So at this point in the passion story, Jesus has already spoken about the certainty of his death, he’s already foretold Judas’ betrayal and in an act of humble servitude he’s washed the disciples feet. The crucifixion is less than 24 hours away now, so in everything that Jesus says from here on out there’s this palpable sense of closure; particular in what he has to say to the ones who have been closest to him along the journey, his disciples.  And that’s understandable; after all, he’d been together with this group of twelve for nearly three years, and they would be the ones who would need to carry on after he was gone.  So not only were these essentially words of farewell, but as John relates the story it’s Jesus sharing just a few last words to them that could somehow communicate the wholeness of God’s plan. This goes on for a couple of chapters in John and is often referred to by Biblical scholars as the “Farewell Discourses,” but what’s interesting is that it begins with something very basic: that they should love one another!

Now, at least as they first heard it, this would have been a word very familiar to the disciples’ ears.  Even though Jesus referred to it as a “new” commandment, as faithful Jews the disciples already knew that the law came down to loving God and loving neighbor; as another teacher of Jesus’ time, Rabbi Hillel, had observed, “the rest was commentary.” So of course, Jesus; we should love one another.

But here’s the thing; Jesus wasn’t finished.  Jesus goes on to say, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  And that was something altogether different. By adding this, Jesus was putting his disciples on notice that words of love alone won’t do the job; neither will simply and mindlessly adhering to some loose guidelines of fair play.  No… you are to love one another as I have loved you.  You’re to love with your whole heart; you’re to love with a firm commitment that translates to the way life is actually lived; you’re to love with action that is self-giving and self-sacrificial; you’re to love in ways that demonstrate healing and forgiveness and the utter willingness to offer up your own life if by doing so love will be demonstrated.

You are to love and to live… just like Jesus did.

And, friends… it still applies.  In fact, I would say to you that these four little verses in John’s gospel, almost incidental in their placement amidst the larger story of that fateful night, pretty much says everything we need to know about who we are as Christians and as the church.

What we need to remember from this text is that Jesus did not offer up these words as a casual suggestion, nor even as a credo attached to church membership; this was and is a true commandment for those who would follow Jesus.  As his disciples, we are expected to love one another as Jesus has loved us; truly, we are known as Jesus’ disciples by our love.  It’s not that we won’t fail in the endeavor; indeed, we have failed and we will again (as a cartoonist by the name of Jim Wetzstein has opined, it’s a “good thing that Jesus didn’t say, ‘I’ll love you the way you love one another.’ Because, man, then we’d be in trouble!”), but Jesus is clear that we can’t give up on the effort! What you and I do out of love, whatever we seek to do out of love – even when it falls short of the mark – ends up speaking volumes to the world about the one who has loved us, about Jesus Christ; our love brings Jesus Christ to a disconnected world.  Because love does not happen in a vacuum; just as we understand that a child cannot learn to be kind without having experienced kindness, the love of Jesus Christ is something that needs to be passed on from person to person, life to life, heart to heart.

But by the same token, in order to show this love of Jesus it follows that we need to have received it as our own.  And that’s why it’s crucial, especially in this world and life that has become increasingly disconnected from the kind of genuine love that finds its expression in true faith, that you and I be about the business of actively seeking out the kind of life that puts Christ at the center of it!  Do you remember the old story about the man who over the course of several years, worked to carve an elephant out of a big boulder in his front yard?  The neighbors kept asking him not only how he could possibly create something like that out of something as immovable and unchangeable as a rock, but also how he could keep at it for so long; and his answer was, “Well, I just chipped away at everything in that boulder that didn’t look like an elephant; and once that was gone, there it was!”

Well, likewise in a world where we’re literally surrounded and bombarded by that which would seek to pull us away from love and keep us from Christ’s presence in our lives, we need to keep chipping away at anything that doesn’t look like Jesus.  We need to get rid of the anger, and the hatred, and the prejudice and the envy that’ll fester in our hearts given the slightest opportunity; we need to let go of the old hurts, the past regrets and the lingering guilt that holds us back and keeps us from moving ahead with life; and we need to do away with anything in our lives that doesn’t look or feel like love. Because it’s only in doing that we can truly receive the love that Jesus has to give us, and thus be able to share it with the world.

“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  What an incredible thing it is to be known by our love; how wonderful to be recognized by all those around us as Christ’s true disciples because of our love.  And what a joy to belong to a community of faithful followers – the church itself – that is girded on such love. Love, you see, has the effect of transforming everything we do: in love, our children are instilled with a sense of well-being that they carry throughout the whole of their own lives and bring as a legacy to their own children and grandchildren; in love a spirit of true unity and acceptance grows where once there was division and exile; in love comes the awareness that every word, every deed, every decision made has the power to hurt or to heal, but that doesn’t matter because healing is the first and only priority.  In love, you and I are made true disciples of Jesus; can you imagine what could be done for Jesus’ sake? Can you envision what the world and our lives could be by God’s grace and by our love?

Well, I’m here to tell you this morning that it begins with… acting it out.  As I said before, it begins by loving and living… just like Jesus did.

What a shame that something as defining as faith we so often do by rote; how sad to find ourselves merely going through the motions.  The Christian life – our Christian life – is never meant to be anything less than our embracing of the whole power and wonder of life and living!  How horrible it would be to wake up in the morning and not say that “this is the day the Lord has made,” and not rejoice and be glad in it?  What a tragedy it would be for us not to seize that day for the sake of the Lord in loving one another as Jesus has loved us.

Friends, they will know we are Christians by our love.

Let us make sure that we show them who we are… by our love.

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2019 in Church, Discipleship, Easter, Jesus, Love, Sermon

 

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