Passage: John 14:18-31
Date: May 13, 2007
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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Today's gospel reading seems to go backwards chronologically. We did Easter five weeks ago, but the lectionary assignment is from the night of Jesus' betrayal and arrest. The best understanding I have about why this reading now is that it points to the future, to Pentecost and the gift of the Advocate, the Spirit. We celebrate Pentecost two Sundays from now.
So, come back with me to that evening of arrest and terror. In that small crowded space in Jerusalem, they had eaten together. Then, Jesus spoke from his heart to those closest to him. Unlike the other gospels, in John's, Jesus emptied his heart at great length, nearly five chapters' worth. Our cut is not quite at the half-way point. Previously that night, Jesus had shocked and embarrassed his disciples, washing their feet like a lowly servant. He had announced his coming betrayal, and dismissed Judas Iscariot to do the deed. He had given his followers a new commandment: they were to love one another as he had loved them. In this instructing, he was loving them, preparing them for the awfulness just ahead. He told them not to be afraid, that he was preparing a way for them. Repeatedly, he spoke about his oneness with God, and that in him they saw God's very being, the way, the truth, and the life. Even with his impending torture and death, Jesus sought to assure his dearest friends, to give them hope when all hope would soon be shattered. He was doing his last things. Death bed words often carry extraordinary weight, for good or ill. Jesus was doing his best, on behalf of those he loved and on behalf of God. Listen to this portion. 14:18-31.
"I will not leave you orphaned, cut off, without roots of belonging and identity," he announced. Did your heart ache for him yesterday, when you read the front page Oregonian story of the young man who had grown up in foster care? As a child, at times his birthday came and went, and no one even acknowledged it. Orphaned. A number of families in Westminster have chosen to adopt children from a variety of countries. In so doing, new roots can grow where others have been cut off, and new beginnings become possible. Not left orphaned at all. Bless you.
In our culture, today has been designated "Mothers' Day," especially by the greeting card, floral, candy, fragrance, jewelry and restaurant industries. It has not been my practice to preach a Mothers' Day sermon, partially because I would not know where to begin or conclude. This day, I remember with gratitude my mother, whose birthday would have been 10 days ago. Many of us, when we think of our mothers, are tremendously thankful. It is good to pause and celebrate the gift. This day also reminds me that my children do not have a mother, and I grieve for them. Others of us never knew our mothers. In addition, I think of people I know, mothers and children, who have difficult or broken relationships with each other, and for whom this day only magnifies the pain or the guilt, the sense of failure or longing. Men and women come to mind who would dearly love to be parents, and for a host of reasons, are not. So, on days like today, I take time to ponder the mystery, the agony and ecstasy, the wonder of human relationships, generation to generation; and in the best sense to be touched by the presence of God in all of that.
Jesus promised God's abiding presence in the reading from John: "I will not leave you orphaned....God will send the Advocate, the Helper, in my name...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." I suspect we hear these last words most often at memorial services. They rightly reassure us of God's gracious presence even in the face the worst, in the presence of death. We can hang on to that because of the crucified and risen Christ. But I believe that the original intent of these words was much broader.
Note the bold contrast which Jesus sets forth: "I do not give [peace] to you as the world gives." By the time the gospel was written, the tiny Christian community had experienced rejection, ostracism, disinheritance, and outright hostility from the majority society. They endured great internal tensions. They lived in the age of Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. That peace was one of domination and oppression, enforced with an iron fist. Their parents in faith had witnessed the Son of God become a victim of this civil peace. In their situation of turmoil, these early Christians knew the presence of the Advocate, the actual reality of John's words. They knew the peace of Christ among them. But, it was a far different peace than the empire promised.
When several of us were in Cuba a few years ago, visiting with Presbyterian Christians, we were privileged to hear stories of faith. During the worst of the Castro government's repression, our partner congregation in Sancti Spiritus dwindled to less than a handful of members. Simply, it was economically and personally dangerous to associate as people who had given their lives to the living Christ. Yet, two or three here and two or three there kept contact, encouraging, praying with and for each other, witnessing to Christ's abiding presence in their midst. As the government gradually relaxed its grip, groups came together. More than that, after a generation of official religious absence, people found that the peace the culture offered was lacking. Deep inside their spirits, a hunger existed that could only be filled spiritually. So, when a number of us traveled there, we were infected with their jubilant faith. Yes, life is challenging, and from our consummerist standpoint, very sparse in things. Yes, they are as human as we are. Yet, what we encountered was the dynamic presence of the Advocate, a peace which the world cannot give.
Any society, by its very nature, tries to sell its citizens a bill of goods. Any culture must attempt to convince its people of the peace inherent within it. As the world's only super-power, national peace is marketed through economic and military domination. We learn that might makes right, and that if the rest of the world would just adopt our cultural, political and economic values, everything would be wonderful. It is hard for us to escape our national arrogance and idolatry. From birth, we are bombarded with thousands of advertisements every day. In subtle and blatant ways, we are brainwashed into a consumerist lifestyle. From deodorants to gated communities to investment strategies to getting homeless people out of sight, we are taught that peace can be purchased, that a bit of greed is not a sin, but rather helps the economy. We all know that it feels good to have something new, even when we do not need it. Simultaneously, we experience the burden of taking care of and protecting our things, and the hollowness of our addiction to them. In contrast with other cultures, we value the individual more than the community, and then wonder why we feel so isolated, orphaned. Our culture teaches the value of property more than people. I have learned that one of the avenues to my personal peace is productivity. That is, somehow a lot of my self-worth is wrapped up in what I do and how well I can do it, rather than simply in my being and its quality. All of this does immense violence to our spirits, and how we live together, as we are pitted one against the other, and us against much of the world. The pursuit of this kind of peace destroys community, wrecks havoc in families, and twists careers. Last week, we learned it causes even a highly reputable pharmaceutical corporation to deliberately lie to the public about the addictive qualities of a very popular pain medication, in the name of corporate profit and job success. Churches and clergy too battle it out for supremacy, for success, for ego satisfaction. When I look at it this way, these cultural promises of peace do not seem so peace-full.
How different is the Prince of Peace and his gift. So different as to be subversive. So different as to challenge social structures and contradict sacred cultural values. He came to the outcast with invitation to belong. He met the broken of heart and mind with healing. He challenged those in control with the fact of God's control. In the hopeless, he nurtured possibility. To the powerless, he gave God's blessing. To those alienated, he offered God's total forgiveness and new beginning. To all, he created belonging, belonging to God and with each other, regardless of past or present. Finally, he said: "Love one another as I have loved you." And then he gave himself for them, for us. How radically different this is.
"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let our hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid." It is almost incomprehensible, this peace Christ offers us. Not an item to be consumed, it is a relationship to be lived into. We will not receive it if our goal is self-sufficiency, if we need to be in control, superior. Friends, our Holy Parent passionately desires far more for us than the world can give. This day, I invite you, us, to be open to that peace we so desperately need. If you have already glimpsed it in your life, if you are permeated with it, thank God. In all that life brings of joy and sorrow, struggle and delight, this wholeness of spirit in community is God's deep intention for us. God loves us that much. As we go forward, may we keep our eyes and hearts on the Prince of Peace.