5/26/2016: Peace I Leave With You, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29
Peace I Leave With You
First Lesson: Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
Second Lesson: John 14:23-29
The “Every Sunday” sort of church goer—and if you’re here on Memorial Day weekend that probably includes you—will notice that the lectionary takes some interesting turns these weeks following Easter Sunday. After first continuing the story by taking us to the days and weeks and perhaps even years following Jesus’ resurrection in the gospels when Jesus appeared to the disciples in the upper room and by the lake shore, it abruptly turns us around and takes us back to the days just before he died. Specifically, these last couple of weeks we find ourselves in the Gospel of John on the Thursday of Holy Week at what would prove to be the Last Supper he would share with his disciples, and we hear again his words to them as he tries as best he can to prepare them—and perhaps in some way, prepare himself—for his death.
It’s a long and winding conversation, which is really more like a monologue. Scholars call it his “Farewell Discourse,” which gives it a kind of official air, but the words themselves reveal something much more intimate. Jesus has a lot on his mind that final night. His words to the disciples are at times beautiful, at times rambling, but underneath all of them is a deep tenderness that we don’t often appreciate. It’s there at that last supper that he calls them, for the first time, his friends. It’s there at that last supper that he tells them, as we heard last week, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” And here in our scripture this morning he tells them, Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you…Don’t let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid—words of comfort and hope that aren’t so different from the dying wishes of any number of loved ones.
And in fact, I’ve come to believe that this is perhaps the critical lens through which to view these chapters in John, which, not coincidently, include some of the most powerful theological statements we have in all the gospels: whatever these words may mean for the church on a grander scale, they’re first of all words of comfort from Jesus spoken to his friends on the eve of his death.
This grounds things a bit. It can perhaps feel a bit too abstract when Jesus tells the disciples he’ll send “the Advocate” to stay with them and remind them all that he's said to them. Some translations are even more sterile and say “the Paraclete.”
But the Greek word is paracletos, which literally means “the one who walks beside.” Jesus is leaving but he’s sending them someone to walk along beside them. Some translations say a “Comforter,” which I like.
I remember years ago when Julie and I were leading the Making Disciples calls for the 3rd through 5th graders, which is essentially our version of a confirmation class, where we go over the essentials of Christian faith. We were talking about the Holy Spirit and about some of the different images in Scripture associated with the it. And we mentioned the Comforter here in John, and one of the children raised her hand and said, I like that one. It’s like God wrapping you in a big comfy blanket.
I think this is exactly how Jesus meant it. There on the night before he was to die, hands still wet from washing his disciples’ feet, he wasn’t saying to them, Let me outline a theology of the third person of the Trinity. He was saying to them, I love you, so much. I’m about to leave you, but don’t worry. A part of me will stay with you.
Without this story the Holy Spirit is just a matter of doctrine. But with it, the Holy Spirit is revealed first of all to be the final wish of a dying man to the people he loves—and really, the final wish of any of us for the people we love. It’s God’s promise that, come what may, we’re not alone. All of which makes complete sense, because there’s no more powerful force in the shaping of our faith than death.
It’s often not until we encounter death, or find ourselves close to death—our own or those we love— that we feel the full weight and gravity of faith. I would even say that Christian faith doesn’t make sense—not completely, not deeply—until you have come to know death in some intimate way. As it’s told, some years back during a lecture, one of our great cantankerous Baptist preachers, Carlyle Marney, confessed that there were days he didn't know if he believed in the resurrection or not. Afterward, his friend stopped him in the hall and said, "Marney, whoever told you that you had to believe in the resurrection every day?" Marney said, “Well, if you know so much, when do I have to believe in the resurrection?" His friend responded, "On the day you die and the day you help someone else die; that's when you believe in the resurrection.”
Death is at the heart of the story we tell. We don’t often think of it in these terms, but it’s true. Yes, there is resurrection at the end, but there can be no resurrection without death. But even before the death of Christ, so much of the gospels center on Jesus preparing those around him for his death. Jesus is constantly—almost from the moment he calls his disciples—talking about his death, telling them how it must be, what they must do after he’s gone, at times confiding in them as he struggles with it, as he would later this night in the garden. The story comes to a head with Jesus’ death, but in a sense, Jesus is dying throughout the gospels. And wouldn't that shape everything?
In their book, Speaking of Dying, Dale and Joy Goldsmith, along with Fred Craddock, lift up the scriptural witness of Christ as a starting place for what they call a "theology of dying.” A theology of death would have more to do with what happens after we die: where we believe we will go, what it will be like, and so forth—what the church has perhaps talked about too much. But a theology of dying would have to do with what we experience before death. How we prepare for it, how we approach it. It’s rooted in what we know and believe about the story of Scripture that speaks to our hopes, fears and our needs leading up to death. This is where Jesus was his entire ministry—preparing for his own death, which was imminent. And so shouldn't the gospels have something to say to us about how we might do the same when the time comes? In fact, they point out that each of the last words or phrases that Jesus says from the cross— often lifted up as part of a “Seven Last Words” service on Good Friday—give voice to a common human need or fear or hope at the end of life.
When Jesus says, My God, my God, why have your forsaken me? he gives voice to the reality of our suffering, to the inner struggle that is so natural to the dying process. How powerful is it to know that two of the four gospels report that Jesus’ final words before he died were, My God, My God, why? Doesn’t that give us and our loved ones permission to ask the same?
The Gospel of Luke reports that Jesus also said, Father forgive them, for they know not what they do, giving voice to our need to reconcile, to resolve unattended grievances.
He then moves to hope: Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise—Jesus is just as honest about his hope as he is his fear.
He expresses his own physical needs: I am thirsty, Jesus says in John. And then looks to the needs of others, saying to his mother and the disciple whom he loved: Woman, here is your son…Here is our mother. It’s so important for those who are dying to know that loved ones are taken care of.
From there, Jesus commits himself to God: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit—not giving up, but giving over, and the difference is so crucial. This is handing one’s life over to the God of love—the truest act of faith. And finally, Christ accepts and even embraces his end: It is finished, he says in John. Not a statement of hopelessness but of great hope; of resolution, the end of one’s life’s work.
All of which amounts to what we can only call a “good death”—and there is such a thing. It’s a great hope, a goal that in many ways we’ve lost sight of, I think, that understands the reality of death as a stage of life that we can take a measure of control over. We should hope to take an active role in how are final years, months, and days will be. And allowing and helping our loved ones to do this is one of the greatest gifts we can offer when we walk with them toward their own end.
What would it mean to know that this, too, is the good news: that the abundant life Christ speaks of and offers is available not simply after we die but as we prepare to?
Or that in Jesus we have a model not simply for how to live but how to die—remembering that dying is part of life?
And when you find yourself in those moments and seasons of loss and grief, would it be a comfort for your own faith—or what feels like a lack of it—to know that the whole of Christian faith was born of that same grief you feel?
Would it be a comfort to know that the same promise of resurrection that God offered then still stands for you now?
Would this make us Easter people?
 A told by Kyle Childress, The Christian Century (Nov. 2, 2010): 20
 Speaking of Dying, Chapter 3