Today’s lesson in the Gospel according to John places Jesus and the disciples in Jerusalem just a short time before Jesus will be tried for the crime of inciting an uprising—an uprising based on loving people too deeply. The writer of John calls this the Last Supper discourse, but does not, as in Matthew and Luke, initiate the Eucharist—Holy Communion. As the story continues, the disciples are disturbed and perplexed; they have a lot of questions. Imagine being told by the person you have grown to love and cherish that he is going to be killed—not just die—be killed. Imagine Jesus who is facing his impending death and also his disciples’ anxious souls. Keeping those images in mind, hear the lesson from John 14.
“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me. I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 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. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.”
Jesus seeks to calm their fears. “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you.” Jesus shows unwavering commitment to love and comfort his disciples and to stay the course. He does not change what is to come. Sometimes I wish that Jesus would have said, “Hey guys. I see you are scared. I can understand why you don’t like hearing this. I’ll think of something else. Let’s just forget I said anything about dying.” Could Jesus have changed the course set before him? I don’t know. I believe he could have run away like Moses did and Jacob and Jonah and many others whose stories are part of the Bible. But he didn’t.
So what does it mean for us? It means that our faith is based on the life of one who was like God and who said we do not have to be afraid. When we are afraid, we don’t have to stay there and we have the assurance we are not alone.
Faith, when I think about it, doesn't so much take away all the difficult things in life as makes them bearable. It's actually a little more than that. Faith doesn't take away the difficult things in life, it just keeps them from dominating, from having mastery, from defining who I am and the possibilities around me. It's like these things—our needs, wants, broken places—they still are accurate descriptions of us, at least parts of us, but they no longer define us. We are more than what's missing. We are, as Paul says and Revelation promises, a new creation. Faith makes this possible. Faith understood not as some divine plug for the hole we each carry around inside of us, but rather as a summons to be more, to live and love more, to share more because there is so much more that God desires and designed for us.
The early Christians were not exempt from any of life’s troubles in the first century. Many faced tremendous persecution. The farther they got from the resurrection, the harder it was to stay the course. In our day, our troubles can overwhelm the so-called normalcy of life. In the span of this past week, people of this congregation have faced these things: a loved one hurt in a car accident; faced debilitating illness without insurance; a diagnosis of cancer; a family member who tells us we are unacceptable; the threat of a significant loss of income due to the inability of Congress to deal with the Sequester; facing tests next week that may be good news or not so good; the helplessness we feel when a child at any age becomes ill; a health situation that changes our ability to live alone; and the list goes on.
The words of Jesus in John’s Gospel comforted the early Christians and that same comfort is given to us. The comfort is not just words in an ancient text. The comfort comes through the Holy Spirit who is present among us and is most often witnessed in the actions of others. The key is to recognize the Holy Spirit, the Advocate in the midst of our anxiety and fear and to accept the help offered. I encourage us to be willing to share the painful places and the fears we face with each other. This is what a faith community is to do—bear one another burdens.
In the early Christian communities, the words of Jesus became a greeting: “Peace be with you.” The response was: “And also with you.” It was a reminder of the promise Jesus spoke: “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.” So when we pass the peace each Sunday, it is more than hello or good morning. It is a deep reminder that God is with us through one another. It can’t fix the problems we face, but we know we are not alone. When we look into each other’s eyes and say, “Peace be with you,” it means we stand with each other, share with each other, trust each other, love each other.
Martin Luther once was asked what he would do if he thought the world would end tomorrow, Luther replied, "I would plant a tree today." That's not optimism, but hope; not simply a lack of fear, but courage; not only the absence of disturbance, but peace—Jesus' peace, a peace the world cannot give.