“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” John 14:27
It was six years ago at about this time of year that I preached a sermon on these readings at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Parsippany. The Gloria Dei Call Committee came to observe, and I spent the weekend in conversations with that group of wonderful people. A few weeks later I was here meeting the rest of you wonderful people.
I don’t remember exactly what I preached that day, and I never could have imagined all that we have experienced together since that sermon, but I am grateful for it.
It’s funny, isn’t it? How certain events take on new layers of meaning after some time has gone by. Six years ago I was trying to imagine what it would be like to move across the country, to live in New Jersey, to be a pastor here. Would a congregation in New Jersey accept a southern woman with an obsessive love of college basketball? Would I be able to learn how to handle the snow? Would I find friends here? (The question that haunts us from middle school forward.)
I don’t have any of those worries now. I have found dear friends here, I can (mostly) deal with the snow, and you are exceptionally patient with my basketball stories. Looking back, I can see that in the warm way I was received by the call committee and by the people of St. Andrew that day, God was reassuring me that everything would be OK. Don’t be scared, God was saying. I’ve got you.
Our gospel today is a flashback. In recent weeks we’ve heard some of the usual stories about Jesus showing up to prove to his disciples that he really was risen from the dead and to prepare them for what would come next. He’s encountered them on the road to Emmaus (where they didn’t recognize him), in a locked room (where they were huddled together in fear), and on a beach after a fishing expedition (where he cooked them breakfast).
But today we go all the way back to the night when Jesus gathered with his friends for the last time before his death. It’s part of a few chapters in John’s gospel in which Jesus gives what is formally known as his Farewell Discourse. In other words, he’s saying goodbye to many of the people dearest to him. He’s offering these final words of wisdom and comfort before things turn ugly later that night. The evening had already been pretty strange. Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet – in spite of Peter’s protests. He had told them to love other people in that same way – with humility, with tenderness.
And now Jesus is promising them an Advocate. They have no idea what he means. How could they? Jesus is promising them that the Holy Spirit will be there with them when he is not. That Holy Spirit will be an Advocate in the truest sense – as the One who will give them the words to say when they have run out of words, as the counselor who will show them what to do and where to go, as the encourager who will urge them onward when they feel overwhelmed. Later, when they are learning what it means to share their stories of Jesus and lead the growing movement of his followers, some of what he’s saying on this night will make better sense. But for now they are confused.
Then Jesus says this: “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.”
Jesus offers these words of peace on a night when he will be arrested and interrogated and whipped and mocked and executed. Peter will be so afraid that he will tremble in the shadows and pretend he doesn’t know Jesus. The rest will prove no more faithful. All hell is about to break loose, but Jesus says, “I give you peace.”
Later that night, in the midst of terror and confusion, I wonder if any of them remembered what Jesus had said earlier. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” If it occurred to any of them, the words must surely have seemed ironic.
I hear those words now in much less dangerous circumstances, and even I wonder: What does he mean? I flinch a little when he says “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” What do you mean let them, Jesus? Most of the time, when I am afraid, it feels like something I have no control over. I don’t let my heart be troubled. Fear just sneaks up and grabs us all by the ankles, and it is hard to shake off. So when Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled…do not let them be afraid,” my first impulse is to say, “And how exactly am I supposed to stop the fear?”
I’ve been catching up in recent weeks on some of the annual medical tests and appointments that I have been neglecting.
(Let me pause for a moment and offer a public service announcement. I urge you to have whatever routine tests are necessary for your body’s make and model. They are important.)
I thought I had made it through the worst of them, but I got a call that I needed to come back for some follow-up scans. The earliest I could schedule that follow-up was late Tuesday afternoon of this past week. Once the appointment was scheduled, I tried not to think about it.
When I woke up on Tuesday morning, I found myself scared. Scared of what the tests might reveal. Scared of what might come next. Just plain scared.
So I did what I often do when I’m scared. I fired off a few texts to friends who are good at calming me down in these moments. And sure enough, within minutes I had their promises of prayer and words of encouragement.
They heard my fear. One friend reminded me that there is no shame in naming it – that looking at fear in the face and acknowledging it is as vulnerable as it gets – and it is also the only way to get the support that we need. He reminded me that fear has few friends, while I, on the other hand, am surrounded by love and friendship.
It was exactly what I needed to hear. It gave me peace. And the tests turned out fine. All is well. Even if they hadn’t been, I would still have the gift of love in whatever came next.
In his long and winding goodbye speech, Jesus gives his peace as a gift – no strings attached. He makes a point of saying that he does not give this gift in the way that the world gives. We all know how the world gives. The world makes us earn the prize. It makes us wait until we feel worthy or deserving of the gift before we take it. The world might give us many things, but it always expects something in return.
But Jesus does not give like that. He gives us peace. He gives us peace simply because he loves us. Not because we earn it as a prize or can offer something in return. Because he loves us. It is not a peace that promises nothing terrible will happen. It is a peace that promises to be with us throughout the beautiful and terrible moments that are a part of every life.
Writer Mary Karr gave a commencement speech at Syracuse in 2015 in which she talked a lot about fear. She says that the opposite of love isn’t hate or indifference. The opposite of love is fear. And while she acknowledges that most major religions tell you that loving other people helps with the fear, she also knows how powerful fear can be. In her words:
The people sucking up your subway air or getting your job or stealing your boyfriend or just standing ahead of you in Starbucks – the fear and rage and resentment you feel for them or even for yourself can choke your heart.
Fear can take that expensively educated brain of yours and reduce it to the state of a dog crouched over a bone. You know the moments, heart pounding in your ears, sweat bumping down your ribs. Ask yourself at those times, who’s noticing how scared you are.
To me it’s this watcher, or noticer self, that’s who I think you really are.
That’s where your soul is.
That’s where God comes in.
That’s a place you can draw strength from.
The fear, as Mary notes, can be gripping. It is also inevitable. In this crazy life, if we’re never afraid, then we’re probably not paying attention. But when terror cracks open those crevices in our souls, God has a way of getting in. Peace I leave with you. My own peace I give to you. That peace might come dressed as a dear friend. It might find us in a text or a tweet. In something our kids or grandkids or nieces and nephews say. But when it comes, it is a gift – and asks nothing more than to be welcomed in.
Mary ended her commencement speech with a story about a professor named Walt who helped her at a time when she was filled with fear and experiencing significant depression. Walt and his wife helped Mary get into therapy and then gave her several easy jobs so that she could pay for it, like “babysitting” their high school-aged kids who didn’t really need a babysitter.
Walt often took Mary to lunch, and it seemed like an incredible luxury to her to be able to eat in a restaurant. She later asked him, “How will I ever pay you back for all this?”
He said, “It’s not that linear. You’re not going to pay me back; you’re going to go out there and take somebody else to lunch.”
That’s how it works. We receive the gift of peace. We share it with someone else, who in turn shares it with someone else. And eventually we chase all the fear back into the shadows from which it came.
When we share the peace with each other in a few minutes, it helps us remember that we are all in this life together. We are followers of Jesus, and so we, too, do not give peace as the world gives.
We give peace freely, expecting nothing in return, trusting that love will carry us along into the world. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ