What do you do when you’re about to leave a place for good? One year ago, yesterday, I moved here from South Dakota. And even though I was actually returning to my home state and region, there was still a bittersweet sense of the end. In that case, it was the end of my first teaching job, the end of my time living in the house where our son was a baby, and the end of our nearly 5-year experience being part of a community out in the South Dakota plains. As excited as I was to be here—not least because my husband moved here 10 weeks before I did—I still distinctly remember that moment of looking in the rearview mirror as I left town and feeling the swirling emotions twinge in my gut.
I know that feeling well. Partly due to growing up as a Methodist pastor’s kid, I’ve had this experience of moving many times in my life. Depending on how you’re counting things, it’s been either 12 or 22 times I’ve moved. And every time I leave a place, I leave a piece of myself there—a piece of my life, my heart, my experience, and (most heartwrenching of all), the relationships I’ve built with people there. And it’s hard to leave that behind, whether or not I know I’ll be back to visit. I could spend this entire sermon talking about what it felt like to move from this place, or that place, or that other place, and how poignant and difficult those moments are. When an era is ending, a community is changing, or a person is leaving, we are left to the vulnerability of our emotions. We have to find a way to make sense of the world in a different way from how we have been living in it. The old comforts are no longer there. Where can we turn?
Our Gospel text for today comes to us from the middle of what scholars call Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse.” Unsurprisingly, this section of John was given this name because it records the teachings Jesus gave his disciples on the night before he was killed. The Farewell Discourse begins in chapter 13, where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, and continues through chapter 17, when Jesus prays to God on behalf of his disciples. In between, Jesus offers numerous teachings about his relationship with the disciples, his relationship with God, the disciples’ relationship with the world, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. You could almost think of this as Jesus’ last cramming session with his students, to try to get into their heads what they really need to know before the big test.
You see, while the disciples were characteristically oblivious and confused, Jesus was not. He knew what was coming. Not only was his 3-year journey as a traveling rabbi and prophet over, but his human life was about to end in a torturous death. He knew that his disciples’ feet were about to be swept out from under them. (Perhaps this is why he made sure they were so clean! haha) The rituals and routines they had come to expect after months or years of trudging around the Judean countryside with their teacher—those were no longer possible. The reliable, wise rabbi they assumed would be around to answer their burning questions (probably with a question rather than an answer, but still) would not be there. He was going to die, and they would have to go on without him.
And so, Jesus wants to be proactive. Just like most of us would do before leaving a place, or before saying good-bye to a loved one, we try to make preparations as best we can. But there’s no guarantee that the preparations we decide to do will be effective. In Jesus’ case, it’s debatable how effective his efforts were, especially in the beginning. He repeatedly instructs the disciples not to be troubled, but once the established reality starts to break apart, they panic. Peter cuts off a man’s ear when Jesus is arrested. He then denies knowing Jesus, three times in one night. The disciples scatter during the trial and crucifixion, and they hide in a locked room out of fear even after having heard the news that Jesus had risen. They have lost all confidence, all comfort, all hope.
And, in his prescience, this is the situation Jesus is speaking to. The disciples don’t know it yet, but this is where they will soon be, and Jesus wants them to be prepared. The most famous part of this passage is verse 27: “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid.”
Peace. Don’t be afraid. It sounds simple, but I think we all know it is far from it. Just hearing the word “peace” does little to nothing to temper the grief and despair a person feels when going through any traumatic experience. There needs to be more substance behind the word. What is it that Jesus is offering us, exactly? What does peace look like… feel like? If we’re supposed to possess this peace, where is it coming from? How do we get it?
This is where the rest of our passage sheds some light. Let’s go through those questions again, but backwards. First, how do we get peace? Especially when the world is so full of strife, stress, and sorrow. Peace sounds wonderful, but it also sounds unrealistic. The line about “I give to you not as the world gives” is almost laughable, if you think about Jesus saying he is giving the disciples “peace” when they’re about to go through the painful loss and life-altering experience of witnessing their friend and mentor’s gruesome death.
And yet—that peace is real. Against all odds, they will find peace, even if they do live in the pain for a time before the peace comes to full fruition. Because Jesus’ death on the cross is not the end of his story. On the third day, he rises again and defeats the powers of death once and for all! Even when the world seems at its most hopeless, there is still Resurrection. Peace comes through assurance—the knowledge and conviction that death can never and will never have the last word. Jesus says in verse 30 that “this world’s ruler is coming. He has nothing on me.” The disciples don’t see this right away; they are understandably in shock at Jesus’ death. But after Jesus reveals himself to them, resurrected, they go on to spread the gospel with unshakeable vigor. Long after Jesus ascends to heaven, the disciples continue their preaching and ministry of the good news of Jesus Christ even in the face of persecution. Church tradition says that most, if not all, of them were martyred for their faith; like Jesus before them, they were able to face violence with peace in their hearts because they knew that death can hold no victory over us.
Jesus’ Resurrection demonstrates that God’s power is greater than any forces of death or evil. He was raised as a foretaste for all of us of the resurrecting power of God to breathe new life into every nook and cranny of this world, and into every human heart. The passage from Revelation for today describes the New Jerusalem. These visions of God’s new heaven and new earth show us a place of glory, honor, light, and life. It is a place of the healing of the nations, where there will be no more tears, where a river of life-giving water flows through the city giving water to all who are thirsty. I realized this week that the dimensions of the holy city, according to Revelation 21:16, are 1,500 miles cubed. In area, that is almost the size of Australia, and in height it is 5 times the total height of earth’s atmosphere. By choosing to reveal this unfathomable size to us through John of Patmos’ vision, I can only assume that God wants to emphasize, very clearly, that this holy city has room for all. This final destination for the faithful, this place where humankind will dwell face-to-face with God, is vastly large. We need not worry about there being enough room for us, for those we love, or for everyone else who lives a life of faith. After all, peace happens in the absence of scarcity. And God’s kingdom is one of abundance and life.
Now we have some understanding of how the disciples could find peace, even after the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion. The next question is, where does this peace come from? In the text from today, Jesus gives us an answer: “The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you” (v. 26). Peace is achieved through the Resurrection, but it comes to us through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, we are lost. It is far too easy for us as humans to forget the truth, or to be led astray. We miss God’s message for us or try to be our own gods. And God knows this about us; Jesus is sending the Holy Spirit to shield us from our own human failings. The Holy Spirit is God’s presence here on earth today—moving in our hearts, blowing through the world, and constantly bringing forth God’s kingdom of righteousness and peace in new ways and places. Even though Jesus’ time walking this earth has ended, God’s presence with us here is closer than ever. God’s Spirit is in the air we breathe. The Spirit of God teaches us through our experiences, internal nudges, the words of our friends and family, and others we hear or learn from. The Spirit does not have a single location to go to for advice, as Jesus did, but the Spirit is always with us and always offering guidance—when we are ready to listen closely enough.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the Holy Spirit is my favorite part of the Trinity. I know I shouldn’t have favorites because they’re all One God, but I still do. By sending us the Holy Spirit, God shows a commitment to be accessible to ALL. Sending Jesus to walk on earth in a vulnerable, limited human body was a mind-boggling step for the Creator of the universe to take. And I am thankful every day that God chose to take that step. But the difference between Jesus Christ walking on earth and the Holy Spirit blowing through the earth is that Jesus could only be in one place at a time. To be confined to a body limits where you can go (especially in a time before cars or airplanes were invented!). In contrast, the Holy Spirit is everywhere and in everyone. All at once. The Spirit takes many forms, speaks in many ways, and moves humans and the rest of Creation alike to draw closer to God’s intended purposes. My Common English Bible translation calls the Spirit our “Companion” in this passage. Many other translations use the term “Advocate.” The Greek word used here, παράκλητον, means both of those and more: also Helper, or Comforter. As usual, the Holy Spirit is hard to define. But in spite of resisting all forms of definition or fitting into predetermined categories, the Holy Spirit is, for certain, with us and within us. Whenever the thought of peace seems like the furthest thing from reality, our Companion, our Advocate, our Helper and Comforter, the Holy Spirit is as close to us as the air we breathe.
But now that we see both where we can find peace and how it gets to us, the final question is, what is peace? What does it feel like or look like? To me, the answer is simple. Hope. Peace is the feeling of knowing that you are taken care of. Trusting that wrongs will be righted in the end. Courage to take risks for the sake of God’s call because you know that even if the worst case scenario is death, death is nothing to fear. Hope that what we do matters. Hope that what we need (though not necessarily what we want) will be provided. Hope that the Holy Spirit will bring some good out of even the worst atrocities and bring new life out of the most hopeless situations. Hope that we will one day be raised with Jesus into a new city of God where sorrow will be no more. Hope that we will always be loved.
This hope grounds us. It gives us a peace that passes all understanding. A peace that does not give to us as the world gives, for it is not dependent on this world. This peace that is rooted in our Creator God, who, in infinite love, was not content to just create this world, but who is committed to renewing all of Creation into a new heaven and new earth where justice, righteousness, and peace will reign forever.
Hope is what keeps us going in the face of adversity. Hope is what moves us forward even when we are, rightly, afraid. Hope is what allows us to find the God-given joy and humor in life when it’s all too tempting to become cynical or give up. And we as Christians have an infinite supply of hope. We follow a savior who came to us on earth, who died out of love for us, and who defeated death by rising again in new life. We love a God who created the universe, who chose to live a human life, and who leaves no inch of the world without the constantly blowing presence of the Holy Spirit. In our passage this morning, this is what Jesus is reminding us of. He knows that his disciples will soon face the most difficult period of their lives, and so he offers them the peace that he knows can get them through anything. He offers the incomparable comfort of eternal hope, and the companionship of God’s presence with us forever.
So where does this leave us? For the disciples, once they finally discovered this hope (after the Resurrection), this was the beginning of their lifelong ministry of spreading Jesus’ love and teachings far and wide. His new commandment to his disciples, repeated numerous times during the Farewell Discourse, is to love one another. Followers of Jesus Christ are to be known by their love. The love we receive from God fills us to overflowing, spilling out upon one another and the whole world. When he later eats breakfast with the disciples on the lakeshore, the last recorded event in the Gospel of John, Jesus commands Peter: “Feed my sheep.” He says this three times, in fact: “Feed my lambs,” (John 21:15), “Take care of my sheep,” (21:16), and “Feed my sheep,” (21:17). I’m sure there are many interpretations of what those phrases mean, but I believe the ambiguity is intentional. We should feed people with the spiritual food of the gospel. We should feed people physically when they are hungry. We should take care of people, in both body and spirit. This is how we show the love of Jesus Christ to the world.
So as we seek that sense of peace, grounded in the hope of Resurrection and the companionship of the Holy Spirit, we cannot be stagnant. We must move forward, continuing Jesus’ ministry, loving others, and allowing the Spirit to guide us. When we have solid hope in Christ, we gain the courage to follow God’s call wherever that may lead. We are given the priceless opportunity to be participants in God’s kingdom breaking into this worldly reality as Jesus’ message of love continues to transform the world. We can be at peace no matter the storms around us, and we can hold onto the hope that we know to be true: Jesus Christ.