A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on May 5, 2013 (Sixth Sunday of Easter/Communion Sunday)
Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25”I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27Peace 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.
28You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. - John 14:23-29
It took me a few years to become a fan of the Harry Potter books (and the films based upon them), written by J. K. Rowling – but once I did, I found them very entertaining. So much so, that I remember dreaming of the characters while I was reading the books – something that makes me suspect that they touch something very deep in us – ancient memories and archetypes. Either that, or else I’m just strange. In the last of the seven books, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the young wizard (almost a young adult) is convinced that he must face the most powerful dark wizard of his time – Lord Voldemort – and that ultimately only one of them would survive. Of course, he is helped by his two friends – Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. Their prospects are grim, because Voldemort has found a way to make himself almost immortal, and because their wise school Headmaster Professor Dumbledore has been killed by one of the teachers at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Just before they leave together on their quest, the three young wizards learn that they have been included in Professor Dumbledore’s will, and each one receives a “parting gift” from him.
- Ron Weasley receives Dumbledore’s “Deluminator” – a magical device that can suck up all the light in a place, and then restore it with a single click.
- Hermione Granger receives an old book of wizard folk tales.
- Harry Potter receives the first Snitch he had ever caught. A Snitch was the quick little flying ball one tried to catch in the game of Quidditch – kind of like a version of soccer played on broomsticks.
They seemed like completely random – and useless gifts to all three. But wouldn’t you know it – when the time came they would be invaluable in their efforts to defeat Voldemort and his followers. Dumbledore was very wise in leaving those gifts to the young wizards.
I wonder if the disciples of Jesus may have felt like that as his life drew to an end. Jesus seems to have known that he wouldn’t be with them much longer; it’s not clear whether the disciples knew or would let themselves believe that. Jesus talks in this passage from John about some “parting gifts” he was going to leave them -- but they probably refused to hear what he was trying to tell them, and had doubts that any gifts he might leave them would be of use once he was gone.
The first gift is that those who love Jesus by keeping his word (his teachings and commandments) would have God and Jesus make their home with them. God and Jesus would “abide” with them. Any place where people live in God’s ways becomes the home of God – a new temple, a new holy city. God is not dead in our world as long as we – and others – love God and live in the ways that God taught us and Jesus embodied.
If you are looking for God, look for a community that loves God. If someone you know is looking for God, invite them to look here!
The second parting gift is the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Greek word that is used in the gospel of John is paracletos (“paraclete”) – a word that is usually translated into English as “Advocate”, or “Helper”, or “Comforter”, or “Intercessor.” This is the rather mysterious form of God that we say in our United Church of Christ Statement of Faith “creates and renews the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.” In the passage from John that we read this morning, Jesus says this Advocate – the Holy Spirit – will “teach us everything, and remind us of all that Jesus has said to the disciples.”
It is as if Jesus was saying, “I have been with you for a while, to show you what God’s love and power look like in the world, and what human life should look like. Now you do it.” The Holy Spirit is what gives us the ability to continue the life and ministry of Jesus.
But this Holy Spirit couldn’t come upon the believers until Jesus was gone – died, resurrected, and ascended back into heaven to be with God. I don’t think it is ever explained why that was the case (although one commentator has suggested that the Holy Spirit is Jesus’ “alter ego” – kind of like Superman and Clark Kent were never seen together. But I do know that sometimes new leaders in the church can’t or won’t step forward until old leaders step aside. Perhaps in the same way we disciples couldn’t step up and take up the work of Jesus until he was gone.
So Jesus left the gift of a dwelling place for God and the comfort of the Holy Spirit. The third “parting gift” was the gift of peace. “I do not give to you as the world gives.” So, what is the difference between this peace that Christ gives us, and the peace that the world gives us? When the author of John uses the word “world”, he means the entire network of systems that do not acknowledge God and Jesus as the source of their existence. It can mean non-believers, but also government, military, business, secular culture, etc. We are ALL profoundly surrounded by and influenced by what John would call “the world.”
Peace is at least a possibility to the world. It may even be desired. But I think the peace that the world seeks and gives is the peace that comes when one is in control, and enemies are intimidated into cautions submission. Such peace can only be illusory – and temporary. The peace that Christ offers is rather a peace that comes from believing that our lives are in God’s hands. Even in the midst of conflict and violence, we know God is with us, loves us, and offers us life even if we suffer and die. It is the peace that can say, “Even though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I fear no evil, for you are with me – your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
It is the peace that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew on the night before he was assassinated, when he said in his final speech:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
And the peace that Jesus gives is really the ancient Jewish idea of shalom, which is much more than just the absence of conflict, but rather a sense of wholeness and complete health – physical, emotional, spiritual. It is being fully human – as God created us to be. The thing that most people don’t get is that it is possible to be sick, wounded, broken-hearted, and living in the midst of violence and oppression – and still have peace – “shalom.” And when the world sees it – they may call it naïve, but they probably – deep down – admire it and crave it for themselves.
The parting gifts of Jesus: being a dwelling place of divine, the Holy Spirit, and peace/shalom. They may seem useless in the face of so much need and corruption and violence in our world. But they have been given to us for our own health and empowerment, and also – as the psalmist says –
“that your way (O God) may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.”
We may wish, in our perplexity about the things going on in our world and the place of the church in it, that Jesus could come among us and take control -- showing us what to do. That won’t happen. But we do have the stories about him, and we have the precious, amazing parting gifts that he left to us. Now it’s our turn.
Robert J. von Trebra