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Homily: Know Peace & Presence

Homily preached at 8:00 a.m. at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on May 5, 2013.

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C (RCL): Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22:1-5; John 14:23-29.

In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Perhaps you know the quote from American human rights activist Dorothy Thomas, “Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.”

I’ve been thinking about Jason Collins, the African-American NBA player who this week became the first openly gay athlete in a major American team sport. His exclusive testimony in the recent Sports Illustrated offers a picture of a quiet soul, a reluctant prophet, yet a proud individual. He said, “Imagine you’re in the oven, baking. Some of us know and accept our sexuality right away and some need more time to cook.   Collins added, “I should know – I baked for 33 years.”

Most responses since his declaration have been positive and supportive from current and former teammates, and competitors around the league and throughout the sporting world. But not all reaction has been kind or warm. There are those who openly condemn Collins for speaking about being raised with Christian values when some fundamental interpretation of the Bible can be wagged in his face, at his choice, with his decision. I have wondered about the peace Jason Collins is coming to embrace, if it is indeed peace; that inward-dwelling peace that can come from knowing who he is so he can be true to himself.

Today’s reading from the Farewell Discourse of Jesus in the Fourteenth Chapter of John provide us a wealth of themes, including the love and loyalty required of His disciples, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Yet, from a purely pastoral sense, even more central to John’s message is the theme of peace. “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.”

Of all the things we seek in life, peace is likely the dearest, but hardest to find. From the perspective of comfort and well-being, many of us believe peace is the ultimate answer to the pervasive anxiety of existence. Many of us may feel this stress. Whether anxious about the departure of an able, loving interim priest; or the call of the next rector to serve and lead this congregation; or decisions relating to housing and skilled nursing care required for a grieving loved one who lost her spouse of 61+ years; or unexpected renovation surprises from an older house that can literally drain finances, we all seek, need and want peace. Peace of mind. Peace between individuals. Peace in this world.

For the Greeks, peace was understood through the absence of war, but for the Hebrews it was a positive blessing growing out of a right relationship with God. So when Jesus leaves peace with his followers that last night together before his Passion, He is giving them one of the fruits of the great gift of salvation. This wonderful word of farewell is greater than all their troubles and fears.

The Last Supper is finished. Judas is off to the authorities. They are ready to go to the garden. The time has come for Jesus to depart to the Father. The disciples are scared. They know not what lies ahead. They understand the One they have been following is leaving. Yet, there are questions: What do we do now? Is everything over? How do we continue? They are fearful. They are afraid for Jesus and afraid for themselves. Jesus senses their fear. He promises that they will not be alone. Jesus offers them peace and promises them the continued presence of God in the Holy Spirit.

The peace which Jesus speaks of is not a peace that the world can give, but rather a peace which can come only from the Godhead. It is not a sedative or still quiet, but rather it is an “encouraging” stirring of our hearts, minds, bodies and souls to follow in the way of Jesus. The peace of Christ and the encouragement of the Holy Spirit moves in us and through us, guiding us and enabling us to do that to which we are called, regardless of circumstance, by standing firm in the faith of God.

The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the third person of the Trinity, is powerful, empowering, and demanding, and continually drives us to go places we would rarely go, and to do things we have never done. All this is accomplished through obedience to Jesus Christ and through love of God and neighbor.

So, the first thing Jesus promises is God's continued presence, his continued presence through the Holy Spirit.

Jesus also tells them other important details. He tells them what the Advocate will do two things. First, the Advocate will be with them always. They need not ever fear about being alone. Second, the Advocate will teach them, reminding them of everything Jesus has taught them and assist them in their daily lives.

The promise of the Advocate is incredible at this time in Jesus' life. Jesus faces his own death, a death worse than anything we can imagine. Yet, here he is concerned about the disciples’ fear. He does not dwell on his own impending torture. Instead, he addresses their fears of loneliness and despair. Jesus addressing the disciples in this way is a wonderful resource and guide to the Church today.

We live in a world that is broken. It is a world that is in constant distress from local, national and international matters. We see war and strife in too many corners of the world. Hunger and poverty exists in every country. We know distress in our daily lives, in the problems in our schools, and in our communities. We see constant hurt and pain in families. Divorce rates are high. There seems to be no end to the ways we can find to hurt one another in this world. And sometimes if feels like the brokenness of the world will overwhelm us.

Yet, we find hope in the words of Jesus. As he faces death, he offers the disciples words of peace, comfort and hope, promising God will always be present. Furthermore, he promises that God's presence will not be overcome or defeated by the distress of this world. God is at work to constantly to bring forth something better. The promise of the Advocate is that God will be with us even in the brokenness. God will guide us, strengthen us and comfort us even when the world is at its worst. For through the peace of Christ and by the love of God, we have hope.

Mister Rogers said, “When I was a boy and saw scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Fred Rogers was a friend who offered peace and was a beacon of hope for many.

On Dancing with the Stars this past week, they profiled a person of hope who emerged from the smoke and devastation of the Boston Marathon bombings. Adrianne Haslet, a ballroom dancer who lost her lower leg in one of the blasts vowed to dance again. What kind of peace she must have found that sustains her now in this journey and what hope will she share with the world.

Fred Roger and Adrianne Haslet are examples of hope, comfort and peace. May the Holy Spirit abide in us all and work through us to keep us ever mindful of the constant presence and overwhelming love of God.

And I believe Jason Collins, fully embracing his own self and feeling more comfortable in his own skin, might also know the peace of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit moving in his life. I pray that we too may rest in Christ’s peace and love and know that Spirit of God present with us.

“Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.”

“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.”