The Peace of Christ
John 14: 23-29
This is a week when we need to hear Jesus say, “My peace I give to you” (John 14: 27).
Exams and final papers always crowd these last weeks of the semester, ever present, hanging there over your heads, even in the blessed day or two you might have between due dates. There is a certain level of stress that revs up during this time and I notice a lot of you tucking your heads and forging forward, with little mantras like “I think I can” and “5 more days and I’m at the beach” and “One more and I’m done forever.”
For some it’s the last exam period of this degree and whether that describes you or not, that means transitions – for the one graduating and for the rest of us who remain here in community. The graduate moves on to a job or a job search or wedding planning or the transition to grad school. The ones still in school move on to a summer job or an internship or the bumpy re-entry into life in your parents’ house.
It’s a week when we need to hear those words: “My peace I give to you.”
The oil keeps flowing, black and greasy, into the gulf at an alarming rate. It’s hard to watch the news and feel so helpless as the gallon totals spin out of control and no one seems to have a good or workable idea about how to plug the leak or contain it.
And here we are at UVA still reeling from the horrible and tragic news that has spilled out from Grounds and into the national media this week. Yeardley Love was senselessly killed and it seems it was her former boyfriend and your classmate, George Huguely, who was responsible. Her family held a funeral mass yesterday and he has been in jail all week. Two fourth-year athletes about to graduate and move into their own transitions. And now neither one will go forward as would have been expected only one week ago. And now violence and needless, senseless, death and tragedy come a step closer to all of our lives, contaminating the Grounds and the community like the oil in the Gulf.
This is a week when we are in need of peace. Not peace merely as the cessation of violence and war and stress. Not peace in some sort of blissed out, ethereal, non-incarnational way. We need flesh and blood, right in the midst of all this mess peace. We need real peace, something much deeper and more resilient. We need the kind of peace that only Jesus can give and he says right here in John, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (v. 27).
At the Wednesday night vigil for Yeardley Love President Casteen said he hoped that the tragedy would move students to act. He said he hoped you would be outraged by what happened and that this would stir you to action. He said quite forcefully and directly that no one should ever endure the sort of physical attack Yeardley endured before her death and that no one should stand by when they see or know of such violence. He urged everyone to speak up and tell someone if you know of this happening around you. He said he himself would listen, would go with you to the police.
I want to echo this plea. It should go without saying that I am someone you can come to with anything. It should go without saying that, whether you have been beaten up, seen or heard of it happening, or have done this to someone yourself, I am someone you can come to for help. It should go without saying that I am here for you but I am saying it anyway, to be clear and obvious about it, so there is no question. For seemingly big or small problems, if you need help or don’t know what to do, you can come talk with me.
Enough said on that for now. I want to go back to another part of what President Casteen said, that he hoped this tragedy would rouse you to act, that it would stir up in you appropriate emotions and actions, like outrage. I want to go back to this because, in light of the passage from John this week, it seems like Casteen might be talking about the Holy Spirit and the kind of peace Christ gives to us.
Jesus says these words as he is about to leave his community of disciples. Scholars refer to this part of John as the farewell discourse. Though we are still in the Easter season now, John’s text takes place on Thursday night of Holy Week, just moments after Jesus has given the disciples the new commandment to love one another. During the conversation that follows that evening the disciples start to get anxious. Peter emotionally, nervously, and unthinkingly blurts out that he’ll never betray Jesus (John 13: 36-38). Philip’s troubled heart leads him to demand that Jesus show them the Father, so that they can all be assured about where it is he’s off to next (John 14: 8-14). Thomas wonders how they will know the way if Jesus won’t tell them where he’s going and why they can’t come (John 14: 5-7). They aren’t handling the transition well. Sometimes that’s how it is, with transitions and uncertain times.
So Jesus goes over it again. He speaks to their deepest fears and longings and anxieties when he tells them, just a few verses before our passage, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (John 14: 18). They must be ravaged with fear for Jesus to compare his departure to being orphaned. Then the heart of our passage, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14: 27).
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not let them be afraid. That’s an interesting way to phrase it, don’t you think? He doesn’t say, as biblical angels so often do, “fear not!” He says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and afraid.” As if it’s possible to face that sort of loss and transition and radical change without fear and a troubled heart. As if it’s we ourselves who let – who allow – our hearts to be troubled and afraid. As if we can control this. Huh.
I have to say that I don’t know if it is possible to walk through hard times like these without fear. It is hard for me to imagine a peace this complete – so complete that in troubling, fearful times I journey on, without a troubled or fearful heart. I don’t know. But I think it’s enough that God believes it’s possible. God does not set us up to fail, so if Jesus leaves for his crucifixion with these words, then he must think we are capable of living this way. Even if I am not there yet myself, it is comforting and hopeful to know that God thinks we can all get there.
One thing I know is that, at the very least, we are called to live abundant lives in spite of fear. We are called not to act on our fears but to act out of something much deeper and more powerful, a peace beyond any understanding but real and sustaining nonetheless. We are called to abundant, whole lives, called by God who is bigger even than our myriad fears. As one commentator put it, we are called to “a life that draws its power from the wild peace of the Spirit” (www.gbod.org/worship).
The kind of peace Jesus is talking about is similar to shalom. It’s peace in the midst of un-peace. It’s peace as “wholeness and well-being, the all-inclusive gift of God” – the same peace that Jesus first speaks as the risen Lord on Easter (The People’s New Testament Commentary, Boring & Craddock, p. 339; John 20:19). It’s the peace that changes the way we see things, so that we are actively living a kingdom life here in the midst of the transitions and troubles and fears of life.
After spending some time with this passage this week I started to wonder if maybe the Holy Spirit is peace. Jesus says that when he leaves the disciples he is sending the Holy Spirit to remind everyone of all that he said and taught. Then the very next thing he says is “Peace I leave with you.” Maybe the Holy Spirit is the way we find untroubled and unafraid hearts. Maybe the Holy Spirit helps us see what God is doing when all our eyes want to see is violence and death.
The Spirit helps us carry on the work of the kingdom, teaches us, inspires, outrages, leads us, comforts us, gives us peace. The Spirit is the real presence of Christ with us now and present in all the world – just as present as Jesus was when he walked the earth. We didn’t “miss out” on the real revelation of Christ 2000 years ago – it’s happening right now, in 2010, in this room, at UVA, in your life. We have not been left alone. All we have to do is let our hearts rest in that peace and live out of it right in the midst of this often unpeaceful world.
We talk about the “real presence” of Christ in the meal we share each week. We mean to say we’re eating bread and wine but somehow in these elements and through this meal together we meet Christ. Right before we eat, we ask God to pour out the Holy Spirit on the gifts of bread and wine and on all of us, hungry pilgrims at the table. We expect to be formed into the body of Christ. Living out of expectation is what Christians are good at. Maybe that’s how our hearts become a little less troubled and afraid.
In this meal, in our community of faith, and in the world, the Spirit of God is just as real, powerful and even incarnational as when Jesus walked the earth. I say “incarnational” because we are the incarnation. We are the body of Christ now. And, through the Spirit, that real presence of Christ is always available for everyone. Maybe that’s how we practice letting our hearts be untroubled and unafraid. Maybe we rely on God with us right here in this moment, living out the peace that we long for, accept thankfully, and hope one day to fully embody.
Maybe when we look around this rickety world and feel lonely and scared for our community and grief for those who are sick … when we are tempted to think this right here, this that we see on first glance, this thin veneer of “life” is all there is and there is nothing abundant about it …maybe when we face yet another hard time, family drama, broken relationship, fearful transition… maybe this is when we open our hands and try to let our hearts be open and ask to know the peace of Christ.
Because it’s already here, underlying and woven through all of that “first glance” stuff, ready to show us the way.
The peace of Christ is here to stay. Thanks be to God!
© 2010 Deborah E. Lewis