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Keeping the Faith

(a sermon for May 3, 2020, the 4th 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.  These are words that matter, especially in times like these: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, 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.  Beautiful, 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 on our text for this morning, it is not yet Easter, but in fact 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 was about to die.

And so, when Jesus finally says to them, “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, there’s no denying that this world also brings a fair measure of trouble and sorrow to life and living. Be it the result of rampant violence and injustice or, for that matter, the spread of a global pandemic, the truth is that you and I live in 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.”

So I think you’ll agree with me when I say that to “keep the faith” in times such as these requires an assurance of peace; but yes, it’s a peace that’s going to have to come from somewhere else.  And that’s why Jesus is very clear to the disciples and to us 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 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 simply going to go away, for we know all too well that oftentimes the struggles we face are ongoing. 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 Jesus immediately follows this promise of his peace with the admonition to “not let your hearts be troubled,” a phrase that can also be translated as “take heart,” or “have courage.” In other words, the peace that Jesus gives is that which gives us strength to face all the troubles that the world has brought 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 Jesus assures us of another helper that will be there for us along the difficult way of 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, or in the original Greek, “paraclete,” which means someone who is “called alongside” of another.  So what Jesus is giving us is a truly “holy” Spirit that will stand alongside us in our journey through this world, reminding us of Jesus’ words and teachings as we go; and 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, friends: 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 break through the darkness of this world.  These are the promises that assure us that we need not be afraid, but take heart and have courage not only for the living of these days, but quite often in 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 can neither give nor take away.

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 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 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 terror there was also 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 – even a few over the past several weeks (!) – when I have found myself overwhelmed and panicked by a sudden onslaught of worldly trials, tribulations and uncertainties… and unless I miss my guess, so have you… maybe that’s what you’re feeling this morning.  In times such as these, friends, it happens… so how wonderful is it that in moments such as these we’ve been this Advocate, this Counselor, this… Prompter; someone who teaches us again and again of God’s grace, love and peace;  someone who reminds us that we take heart, keep the faith and never be afraid!  For in Jesus Christ, in tandem with God the Father, you and I have a peace… true peace… that the world cannot ever give, and can never take away. That’s what we need to remember as these difficult days of quarantine continue. 

But… just case you need a reminder this morning – a prompter, so to speak – may I suggest that we have one today, courtesy of Jesus himself, present to us in the broken bread and the cup of blessing.  Beloved, wherever and however you happen to be today, you are welcomed to partake in this feast of grace and love that it might serve as a clear reminder of his presence, and most especially of his peace.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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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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