“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
This week’s sermon is brought to us by our former seminarian Leif McLellan. We are grateful to him for bringing us the Word today.
So last fall, around Thanksgiving, I had to move out of my on-campus apartment at Drew because of a heating issue in the building. I chose to move into an on-campus townhouse where one of my friends was living. Now, this townhouse was originally built for maybe 3 people. And I was person number 4 moving in. Yup, 4 young men living in a space for 3. What could go wrong? Now, I am not going to pretend like I am the cleanest person in the world… but I will do my dishes, yes all my dishes, regularly. This is not how 2 of my roommates operate. They are more… clean what they need for lunch kind of guys. Of course this means that the sink fills up real quick and stays full. For a long time. The other day, I simply had enough. I didn’t care that the sink was full of dishes that weren’t mine. I cleaned them all. Boy did it feel good to have a clean sink. I told my friend about it, and he was delighted. He told me that now he feels like he can cook. He no longer has to deal with a dirty sink.
I love my friend dearly, and I can’t blame him for not wanting to cook when the sink looks like a post-Godzilla Tokyo. But I think his desire for cleanliness—let’s call it purity—illustrates a trap we Christians get ourselves into all the time. We often have such a desire for purity that we lock ourselves up in purity paralysis. We so concern ourselves with cleanliness that we fail to participate in the feast that God sets before us.
Among other things, our scripture reading from Acts today is a story about purity. We enter todays story of the early Jesus movement just after a gentile, a military commander named Cornelius, seeks out Peter because and Angel of the Lord came to him. Just before the group that Cornelius sent arrives, Peter receives a vision from God while praying. Peter recounts this vision in today’s reading: A big sheet descends from heaven towards Peter like some sort of celestial slide show. He looks and he sees a wide variety of animals: four footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. A voice says to Peter, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter replies, “No way! I am too pure for that! I’ve NEVER eaten anything unholy or unclean.” The divine voice answers, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane!”
If Peter would have remembered his Genesis stories, he would have remembered that God made all things and saw that they were good—very good. He needed a voice from heaven to drill into his heart that God has made all creatures holy. Peter eventually comes to Cornelius. And he says to Cornelius and a group of gentiles, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Peter then starts a preaching tour among the gentiles and we read that “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”
At the beginning of our reading, we learn that there were some apostles and believers who were grumbling about Peter’s new openness. “The circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”” These men—yes they were men—were so concerned with the purity of this new Jesus movement that they couldn’t handle the thought of sharing it with uncircumcised folks. They wanted to restrict the movement of the Holy Spirit—as if they could.
Now, I want to make a couple of things very clear. This is NOT a story about “Christianity” being more “tolerant” than Judaism. This is a story written by Jews about Jews. Peter is a Jew operating with a particular, first century Jewish frame of mind. Notice how no one in this story is called a Christian. A thing called “Christianity” did not exist until the 4thcentury. Instead, there are apostles and believers. This early church was a particular subset of Jews who followed Jesus. They were also a subset of Jews who apparently did not like associating with gentiles. Even though Peter says “it is unlawful for Jews to associate with non-Jews,” we know that Jews DID associate in many different ways with non-Jews. The ancient world was like today in the sense that diverse peoples were always mingling with one another. This is a story about a particular group of Jews who learned that the Holy Spirit burns in ways they cannot control.
These Christ followers were experiencing purity paralysis. It took God sending a vision and a Roman sending his slaves to break them out of their desire for purity. This desire for purity shrouded their eyes to the work of the Spirit. I love what Peter says to his grumbling church: “If God gave [the gentiles] the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” Peter can see that these folks outside his own little circle have the gift of the Holy Spirit. They have valid experiences of the divine. They have something to offer God’s reign that is always breaking into this world. Peter also recognizes his own part in trying to keep these people out. “Who was I that I could hinder God?” He recognizes that little old Peter with his little purity games are no match for the Holy Spirit. Why constrict this little group? Why try to hinder God when God offers life abundant?
Just like in the story, even if we don’t realize it, we experience the same kind of purity paralysis that Peter and his community did. Can you think of ways you have felt pressured to be pure? What does purity look like in this corner of New Jersey? Is it having a family like everyone else’s? Is it keeping our mistakes shoved underneath the rug?
If I had to hazard a guess, when many of us hear the word ‘purity’ we think of bodies and sexuality. When Peter refused to eat the animals in his vision, he says, “nothing unclean has entered my mouth.” He is worried that his body will be defiled by something entering it. But God reassures him: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” No matter what you have done with your body, God declares it holy and clean. No matter what has been done to your body, God declares it holy and clean. Any talk of pure bodies is pure illusion. The Holy Spirit has come to each one of you. And it not only cleanses us, but it also burns, whether we know it or not, with a desire for the God of Life.
Not only do we as individuals feel so much pressure to be pure, we try to impose this same purity on our society. Our culture tells us that certain bodies don’t belong. Remember how Peter’s church in Jerusalem said that those with uncircumcised bodies do not belong. Today, those excluded bodies might be “too fat” or “too skinny;” they might have scars on their wrists or wrinkles on their face; they might be intersex or transgendered bodes. We constrict our circle of acceptable people until we find that we have really ignored the gifts of God.
One of my best friends from college, her name is Chloe, discovered about two years ago that she is a woman. Her gender at birth was assigned as male but she knows herself to be female. In her senior year of college, before she made this discovery, we were roommates. Now, since I’ve known her, Chloe has always been very witty and outgoing and empathetic—all around fun to hang out with. But I could tell that year that she was hitting a real bad funk. She rarely turned in assignments on time; she expressed very little enthusiasm for the future; her self-esteem seemed very low… After she came out as trans and started taking hormones, I saw a night and day difference in her. I remember one day I asked how she was doing, and she replied, “How can I not be doing well when I wake up loving the woman that I am?” …Wow, what a gift! … What a gift to love the skin you’re in. God has given us so many people like Chloe who show us how to rejoice in our bodies as they are.
Together with the apostle Peter, we ask: if God gave others the same gift that God gave us when we first believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who are we that we could hinder God? God shifts our focus from purity to gift. Our bodies and other bodies are not impure things that we should fear. They are gifts. Yes, our bodies are oftentimes weak; we will fail and make mistakes. But with a world crying out for justice, we make a bigger mistake seeking after purity. We need not be timid disciples, afraid that we might overstep the boundaries that constrict us. God has made us holy with the Holy Spirit through Christ Jesus. That is something to celebrate! God has given us every gift we need for an abundant life. Thanks be to God!