Sermon delivered to the people of the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 1, 2016. Listen Here
My time in the hospital as a chaplain has allowed me many opportunities to sit with people in their last moments. These last moments contain a variety of emotions and responses: fear, pain, anger, joy, hope, and peace can sometimes all coexist in one hospital room. One particularly striking afternoon, I was called to the floor to come and talk with a patient; checking in with the nurses, I learned that this particular patient was not only going to die, but that he was also a former prisoner released so that he could die with his family around him. The conversation was stilted at first, question – answer, question – answer, but then he began to open up about how he had found the Catholic Church in prison. The emotional landscape of the room began to shift from fear, pain, and anger to joy, hope, and peace as he described the powerful effects that he felt emerging from his faith, spiritual disciplines, and the gift of the Eucharist.
Every year on Maundy Thursday the Pope celebrates Jesus washing the disciple’s feet by washing the feet of 12 people; until recently, this was done for interior members of the Vatican. Pope Francis, however, has shaken this tradition, including in his foot washing young people, Muslims, women, elderly, disabled, most recently, refugees, and in 2013, prisoners. As the conversation with this patient was coming to an end, I held his hand as he weakly said, “Do you know how that made us feel? When the Pope washed the feet of those prisoners? It made us feel that we were actually people who could be loved by God.” Despite the uncertainty of his circumstances, the hope of the resurrection, he seemed to say, matters even for him.
Our gospel today begins in a similar place. While this is the Sixth Sunday of Easter, this reading from John is still set in the Last Supper, Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, not yet put on trial or gone to the garden to pray and at the news that Jesus would be leaving them, the disciples have an abundance of questions. The ping pong of questions and answers that happens between the disciples and Jesus reveals the disciples’ angst at the news that Jesus will be leaving them. Peter, Thomas, and Philip all pose questions to Jesus about what will happen when Jesus leaves: Why must you go? Where are you going? Can we follow you? How will we know the way if you are not with us? Until finally Judas, not Iscariot, How will you reveal yourself to us and not the world? And Jesus begins his long farewell to the disciples.
Jesus responds with a calm reassurance to all of these questions in his last moments that the disciples will be okay, that they will be able to follow the way, that they have what they need to continue the work of the Father who sent him; the Holy Spirit, which God will send in Jesus’ name will come and be with them as they continue the work teaching them and reminding them of all that Jesus said.
“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you,” Jesus promises. Jesus promises this peace not at the beginning of his ministry and his time with the disciples, but at the end; hours and days before his crucifixion Jesus promises this peace. Knowing what the days ahead would hold for the disciples and for himself, Jesus focuses the beginning of his farewell to the disciples on a peace, not of this world, but a peace that will help them to endure all that is to come in the next days as their Lord, savior, and friend leaves them in such a painful way. The disciples are understandably afraid.
There is much to be afraid of in this world; our world is full of pain and struggle, and peace is not the absence of conflict. The peace that Christ gives is not a promise of a life free of conflict or pain, but rather the reassurance that, because of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, we can face this world without fear and trembling. Christ knows that pain, grief, and sadness await the disciples in the coming days, so he gives his peace.
Christ turned the disciples’ world upside down by showing them the way. The men and women who chose to follow Jesus in those early days underwent a significant shift in how they lived and loved, radically including those who were often excluded. Loving your enemies sounds to our ears like an obvious Christian instruction, and we occasionally lose the intensity of such a command. I imagine for the disciples, following these commands to love felt much easier when they knew Jesus was with them. The disciples are afraid that once Christ leaves them that the they will be unable to continually extend the love of Christ to the world.
Before he leaves, Jesus wants the disciples to know the important things; like a list of important things parents leave before they entrust their children to another, Jesus wants the disciples to know what is vital to the continuing of the work of the Father. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”
Jesus knows that the days to come for the disciples will not be peaceful on their own, but John’s Jesus points to something greater, the peace of God. John’s gospel is often pointing us to something greater; the apostle is often pictured pointing up. John’s Jesus does the same thing; not only will this peace that he is leaving with the disciples abide with them, it also points to something greater.
Jesus is preparing them for the time in between. The time in between when he leaves them and when he returns. This long farewell that Jesus is having with the disciples in John’s telling of the Last Supper is full of dialogue and instruction; they, and consequently we, are tasked with a life that must be lived more and more into the example and image of Christ.
The peace that Christ leaves is not a peace that allows Christians to step away from the pain and the suffering of the world, but rather it is a peace that grants us enough courage and strength to engage the world. Because of the peace of Christ, the disciples knew that they could face the days ahead. As the early church developed, the peace of Christ allowed Christians to face persecution as they sought to bring this peace into the world. This peace extends even to us today, as we see the brokenness of pain and suffering that is happening all around us and we wor
k to make it right; this peace gives us the power to extend God’s love to those who feel that they are unable to be loved by God.
The peace that Christ extends here, then is not a peace that allows a easy way of life for those who love God and follow God’s commandments, no, instead the peace that Christ gives, entrusts, and leaves us with is one that is anchored in the reality of the resurrection. This resurrection peace gives us the assurance that the brokenness and pain of this world will not be the end of the story; it gives us the confidence, even in the uncertainty of our world today, to proclaim that Christ is risen, indeed. This resurrection peace grants us courage to reject a peace that gives us safety and others distress. It is a peace that seeks to bring the love of God into the world, and we, with this peace, must seek to become more and more Christ-like as we live in this world, not with the peace like the world gives, but with the peace of Lord.