by Rev. Andie Raynor
Gospel lesson: John 14:23-29
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….
There were actually two choices for today’s Gospel lesson, which I found quite curious. In fact, when Scott first sent me the scripture readings, I thought he’d make a mistake. But I should have known that our pastor never makes mistakes! I don’t know why there were two choices. Although they were both from the Gospel of John, they were quite different. One was from the fifth chapter, telling the story of a man who’d been paralyzed for 38 years; the other, which we heard this morning, was from John chapter 14. It is part of what is known as Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples on the night before his arrest. How to choose?
So, I did what most pastors would do: I pictured myself at my computer around midnight and tried to decide which scripture would finally catch fire in my mind. Having worked in the field of death and dying for almost 20 years now, it’s no wonder that the passage from John 14 was the one I chose.
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.
These are the words I recite at nearly every funeral service I officiate. They are familiar; they are comforting. They are true but they are also mysterious. As I prepared for this morning, I felt as if I was reading them for the first time. Scripture is amazing that way, isn’t it? You can read the same passage 99 times; and, yet, that 100th time a whole new facet may be revealed.
I had a professor in Divinity School, Fr. George MacRae, who taught me this. He was a magnificent and revered New Testament scholar. I took two courses from him, one on I Corinthians and one on the Gospel of John. One day a student asked Professor MacRae why he never used notes during his lecture. Was it because the professor had taught for so long that knew his material by heart? “Oh no, quite the contrary,” MacRae replied. “I don’t use notes because I want to stay open to any new insights that might be revealed.” As a brilliant scholar and a person of deep faith, he recognized the mystery inherent in the scriptures and believed that a new understanding was always possible.
In this spirit, let’s take a closer look at John 14:23-29.
Here is the setting. It’s the night before Jesus is arrested. The disciples have gathered in the upper room. Jesus has washed their feet, they have eaten together; but the atmosphere is foreboding and the disciples are growing increasingly anxious. Jesus is talking in rather mysterious terms about leaving them, saying things like, “Where I go, you cannot follow.” One after the other—Peter, then Thomas, then Phillip, then Judas (not Iscariot)—ask for clarification. And we can feel their panic growing. “Don’t leave us, Jesus! Don’t leave us!”
I don’t know if there is a worse feeling than feeling alone. Abandoned. Left behind. Ask any child who has gotten, even temporarily, separated from a parent. It’s terrifying. Think of a time you might have gotten lost or run out of gas on a dark road, with no phone and no lights in sight. I think of my mom, now alone in her kitchen, feeling the absence of my father every day. She feels left behind; where he went she cannot yet follow.
My father had a glimmer of this feeling once, many years ago, but it had a more humorous conclusion. He and my mom were at the grocery store. He went down one aisle to get something and she continued on to the next. After he got what he needed, probably peanut butter, he walked to the next aisle looking for my mom…and then the next aisle…and then the next…and then he started to panic. Where was she? His heart started racing with each empty aisle he passed. Did he think something terrible had happened to her? No! It’s the rapture! He thought. And I’ve been left behind! I’m not sure that would have been everybody’s first reaction but he was studying Revelations at the time. As it turned out, of course, it was not the rapture but rather one of those humorous quirks of timing. He just kept missing her as he walked. He was enormously relieved to find her; of course, she had been blissfully unaware and not worried about him at all.
Who has not felt alone? Who of us has not felt abandoned by our loved ones, by our friends, or by God at some point in our lives? It’s so frightening when you don’t know what’s going to happen to you. Whether you’ve lost someone you love or you’ve lost a job and don’t know how you’re going to pay the rent, or you’ve gotten a diagnosis that is difficult to bear, I’m pretty sure all of us has had a moment – probably many – where we have been afraid and have wondered if there is anyone who would take care of us. We have felt orphaned and alone.
The disciples were standing on the precipice of alone. And it was terrifying. Jesus knew they were afraid and he offered them—and us—words that are both mystical and reassuring. First, he promises that he will always be with them; and I don’t think he means this in a vague, metaphoric way. We often say that to the bereaved after a loved one has died: he’ll always be with you; she’ll always be with you. While I believe this is true, it is difficult to grasp. What does that mean? That our loved ones are hanging out here on earth until we join them? Somehow I don’t think so. Maybe it’s that a part of them lives on in us and in our memories, that we can conjure them to the table with our laughter and can feel them beside us as we remember.
Earlier in the 14th chapter of John, Jesus tells his disciples, “I am in my Father and you are in me and I am in you.” I am in my Father; you are in me; I am in you. It’s a beautiful circle. And if we can see our loved ones in us, how much more should we be able to see the Spirit of the living Christ.
How many of you are familiar with the cell phone app called Snapchat? Maybe you have to have a child under the age of thirty. Anyway, there are lots of fun and silly things you can do with pictures, especially selfies, including distorting your face into raccoons, skeletons, strawberries, etc. In fact, if any of you watched the televised Correspondents’ Dinner last night (which I should not have been doing, given the sermon), you might remember a filmed moment where President Obama swiped the First Ladies phone. As he takes a selfie, he jokes about how Obama Care is working…but his face distorts into a scary mask of sorts. That’s Snapchat.
Anyway, one of the things you can do on Snapchat is to swap faces with someone in a picture. I don’t recommend doing this with younger people. Even though you will look great, they will look horrifying, which is a real eye opener! Thumbing through my pictures, I came across one of my dad; and on a whim, I superimposed his face on mine. The result was so moving for me. Even though he looked better in a beard than I do, I could literally see him in me. It was as if he was looking out to me through my own eyes. I could feel his warmth and his gentle spirit. And I experienced in a deeper way how much of him still lives in me.
Jesus obviously didn’t have Snapchat so he had to get his point across to the disciples in imagery and metaphore. He tells them that, if they love him, he and God will make their home in them. How comforting that must have sounded to these faithful friends who had left their own homes to follow him. In a real sense, they had been homeless for three years. Now they will have home within themselves; that’s where Jesus will live; that’s where they can find him when he goes—within.
Notice how Jesus uses the word, we, when it comes to his relationship with God. We will make our home in you; we will reside in you. Jesus is already at home with God. His physical body was God’s temple. It’s where God resided; it’s how his friends could see and hear and touch God. We do not have that physical temple to touch but Jesus promises to reside within us. He taught that the kingdom of God is both to come, comparing it to a house that is being prepared for us with many rooms; and the kingdom of God is within. God resides within us.
Christ’s spirit is like a flame within each one of us. The more we act with kindness, the more we offer love to one another, the more oxygen feeds the flame. And when we feel alone, we have that part of God, called the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to accompany us. Jesus tells his disciples that God is sending the Advocate in his name to accompany the disciples. And what’s interesting to me is that he says this Advocate will both teach them, as well as remind them of everything that Jesus has said to them. In other words, the teaching is ongoing. And so, when people cling to old ideas, pointing to scripture as if God’s word is stagnant, they close themselves off to new understandings and to all that the Spirit is trying to teach us. Professor MacRae was right. We should be open to new insights. We should remember Jesus’ words, yes—but the Spirit, who is with us, is continuing to teach us.
I don’t know if the disciples found any comfort in these words of Jesus—at least in the heat of the moment. It’s hard to hear anything properly when you are anxious and afraid. So he tells them to take heart, to have courage, and to not be troubled. You can hear his great tenderness and his love in these words. It’s gonna be okay, he’s saying. This doesn’t mean that they will be spared hardship or suffering—in fact, they were not. Jesus is not promising that kind of comfort. That’s the kind of comfort that the world tries to give: the promise of safety and security and freedom from harm. These are fleeting; they can change or vanish in an instant. The peace that Jesus gives does not rely on life going well; it is the deep down assurance that God lives in us and we live in God; and nothing can separate us from this love.
These are beautiful words but they often slip through our fingers like water when we are struggling. I’m thinking of yet another mother and father in my community, who recently lost a 20 year-old son to a drug overdose. That makes six young people from my children’s graduating classes that have died in less than two years in Rye. What peace can this mother have? What peace can I offer her as a Christian minister, a mother, a neighbor? The world can give her no peace. Perhaps the peace that Jesus gives is something like the cupped hands of the Holy Spirit, the place where the bereaved can collapse and wail. The kind of peace that Jesus gives us is peace for the long haul, after the friends have gone home and people have gone back to their lives. It is the peace that comes from knowing we are not alone and that there is a destination for our souls, a place that has been promised and prepared for us, and where we will be together again.
Finally, Jesus tells his disciples, Look, you should be happy for me. I am going to the Father. I’m going home. If you loved me, you would rejoice for me. In other words, snap out of it. Trust me.
It is so hard to let go of people we love. It’s so hard. And I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for the disciples. But Jesus says, rejoice for me.
When I am most missing my dad, I try to rejoice for him. I imagine him exploring the spiritual realm, something that had fascinated him all of his life, and I see him happy and free. I would not pull him back to this world for anything—not to assuage my grief or my mother’s loneliness. When I am most happy for him, I experience the pain of his absence less. And, strangely, I feel him most with me. Is it that way for you? When you are laughing or happy, don’t you feel your loved ones near? And when you are most tearful, they seem so distant. Maybe that’s part of why Jesus tells the disciples to rejoice for him, for it is in joy that they will find him.
Things will fall apart, physically, spiritually, or emotionally for most of us at some time or another. It may be a crisis of faith. It may be the loss of a job, the ending of a relationship, the diagnosis of an illness, the death of a loved one. These unpredictable events are part of our human condition; and when something like this happens, we may wonder what is to become of us.
Jesus is still trying to prepare us. “My peace I give to you,” he says. The peace that Jesus experienced stemmed from his unity with God. They were in perfect oneness. This is what he is giving us: oneness with God. Here it is, he’s saying, take it; it’s yours. It won’t go away; it’s not dependent on what happens in the world. It’s eternal. To experience oneness, we simply need to spend some time with the Divine. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said something like, ““Can a rock that has been in the sunlight all day not fail to give off warmth and heat at night?” And so it follows, “can one who has lived in the sunlight of God’s love not fail to give off warmth and love?”
When we have absorbed the light of God, we will be willing to keep Jesus’ word. And what does he ask of us? To love one another, to care for one another, to clothe one another, to feed one another. Love knows no orphans. When trouble comes, as it often does, we need only unclench our fists and take hold of a hand. The indwelling Spirit in me is the same as the one in you. The indwelling Spirit in you is the same one in me. We are kin, called to love and serve and comfort one another. May it be so.