Bill Hattendorf, Lay Preacher
Prelude: An aside before we start with the biblical lessons at hand: Tomorrow is Memorial Day. We don’t say Happy Memorial Day, because it honors the dead who gave their lives for their country. Come November, you can say Happy Veteran’s Day to all the living veterans who served.
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day, as a day to decorate the graves of the fallen veterans. Observance started in remembrance of those who died in the Civil war, known in some Southern circles as the “War Between the States,” or the “Recent Unpleasantness.” Those who sacrificed their lives in the service of our nation in any war were added after their wars, and since 9/11, there has been more mention of those who died in the line of duty in emergency services.
I’ve been fortunate, not losing anyone in my recent ancestry, although every generation has served in some war up through Vietnam. My great-grandfather, John Pender McLeod, served in Gettysburg and elsewhere, belonged to a Vermont Regiment he joined in Brattleboro.
Tonight I will be up in Keene, New Hampshire, on the town square, helping fellow veterans light candles that we put out in red Solo cups all around the square, more than two thousand of them. (cleaning up whatever is left at dawn.) Each candle represents someone who died in the service of his or her country, mostly from New England, but some from beyond as well. We read the name of each person as we take the flame out to a place in the square. One of the candles will represent Fred Hopson, my best buddy in the Army: we trained side by side through Basic and Advanced training, sat next to each other on the plane to Vietnam, served in country together, but he was killed during the Cambodian campaign. I still miss him, and I will honor him and others this Memorial Day who gave their last full measure for God and Country.
Now on to today’s lessons:
Just prior to the beginning of today’s first reading from Acts, Paul and his companions seem to be at a loss for where to go next with the preaching of the gospel. They stumble around the region running into one barrier after another, blocked, we’re told, by the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of Jesus. In today’s reading from Acts, Paul receives a vision in the night, a vision requiring interpretation; requiring a community of faith. The early church faced a tough question as it worked to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission – the spread of the Gospel to all the world.
Some evangelists in the early church understood this Great Commissionas a call to require Gentiles to convert to Judaism, specifically through circumcision – a move that caused many to reject the Gospel. The Council of Jerusalem was called to consider the question, and in the end, this Council of apostles and elders decided that Christ had sent them not to convert the world to Judaism as such, but to bring salvation and the forgiveness of sins to all people, where they were and as whom they were. They were required to transfigure their hearts, not their physical appearance in any way, and accept Christ not as the messiah of the Hebrews but as the savior of the whole world. The invitation is to share the divine Trinitarian life, as it’s
imagined in our second reading today from Revelation 21.
In today’s Gospel of John, it is the last evening that Jesus spends with the disciples before his death. Here, Jesus tries to show them two elements of reality that are difficult to hold
together: he is going away, yet he will not leave them orphaned.
Jesus says, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me / because I live, you also will live.”
The disciples have questions, of course, like: “How is it
that you’ll reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” maybe expectating Jesus to reveal secrets.
But Jesus isn’t interested in hiding knowledge from anyone. While the world will not see him any longer, it will see his followers. To keep the word of Jesus means to keep his commandments. It is to wash one another's feet, to love one another. As the disciples keep the word of Jesus, they will be a community characterized by mutual regard, love and service.
Throughout Jesus’ farewell message, he makes it clear that followers love him by serving others. Jesus' love language here is “acts of service.” Although we might distinguish between loving Jesus and keeping his word, and imagine that we can do one but not the other, Jesus doesn’t recognize that distinction. The clause here in John is a condition of fact: “Those who love me will keep my word” ... Love for Jesus is love in action.
Whether the disciples know it or not, to live that kind of love, they will need the constant presence of God in their midst. Jesus offers that presence with three different promises.
First, he says of himself and the Father about those who love him: “We will come and make our home with them.” From the first chapter of this gospel, we’re told that prior to anyone's love for Jesus, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” It’s saying that no one would be able to love Jesus if the Father had not first loved the world enough to send his Son into it.
The “cohabitation” that Jesus speaks of is not a reward for good behavior. It is simply a statement of where God likes to spend time. It hearkens back to the first chapter of the gospel as well as forward to the future imagined in Revelation where it says: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” So Jesus speaks of the home that the Father will make with those who love him. He promises the guidance of the Holy Spirit as his followers remember him.
Second, Jesus announces the advent of the Spirit among the believers. During the time between his leave-taking and life in the new Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit “will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” The Holy Spirit was to guide the disciples and the church about their experiences of Jesus, and it guides us as we seek to let our love for him show up in the ways we relate to others. The Spirit helps all of us disciples understand Jesus and his word and to love Jesus by keeping his word on behalf of the world.
Finally, Jesus gives his own peace to those he is about to leave. The gospel of John includes no mention of peace until Jesus speaks it here, on the eve of his death. He describes the peace he offers as his own and says that he gives it “not as the world gives.” He will offer it again and again as he appears to the disciples after the resurrection. While he doesn’t describe the peace he offers, from his words here in John, we may conclude that his peace offers the disciples both comfort for troubled hearts and courage in the midst of fear. Throughout the events of his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, as well as in the resurrection, Jesus will embody the peace he offers here.
So why tell the disciples all this now? Recall the disciple’s question: “How is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” It tells us that there are three ways those who love Jesus will continue to see and know him after he goes away:
• In the home that the Father and the Son make with them,
• In the work of the Spirit to call to mind what Jesus taught, and
• In their ongoing experience of peace that comes from him and not from the world.
Jesus tells them ahead of time so that they may believe.
As the events of the immediate – and distant – future unfold, Jesus' followers will be able to trust that God – the One who loved them enough to send the Son – still loves them and still seeks to dwell with them. They will know they are not orphaned.
Maybe the most profound moment in this passage – and probably the most familiar – comes in verse 27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Peace is a commodity we sorely need in our world and is absent for far too many. But into this talk about his upcoming absence, Jesus reassures the disciples, who were fearful about his
departure, that they won’t be left alone, and he bestows peace on them.
He doesn’t just gently wish them peaceful lives – he gives them peace. This is not a wish. This is a gift. It is a gift of
profound importance at this moment in that journey of Jesus and the disciples. Surely he could foresee the turmoil they’d face when he was gone, and he does all he can to prepare them for the next part of the journey. Peace is such an important element of John’s gospel. And, like love, peace is a mark of true
discipleship that is required of disciples – both then and now.
This is not a passive peace. It is an active working toward peace in multiple situations. This Spirit and peace will propel the disciples and the church into active discipleship and mission. It is with the presence of this peace, given by God in Jesus, which enables the disciples and us to live lives of faithfulness.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid,” he said. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.”
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