We are one step further along the path that leads from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday. One of the benefits of these seven weeks of Eastertide is that we get to hear more of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” that runs from John 14 to 17. These words are intended to be heard as Jesus’ final instructions to the community that will carry the good news to the world. They are spoken, according to John, on the final evening of his life, but we hear them in worship as part of the season that follows the resurrection. As I read this “Farewell Discourse,” what I hear is a word of encouragement. Jesus may be leaving them physically, but he is not abandoning them. He goes to the Father, but the Father will send the Paraclete, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. So, don’t be afraid. Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Instead, rejoice at what is to come.
In the Gospel of John, the Father sends the Holy Spirit to be the continuing presence of Jesus with the church, teaching them, and reminding them, what Jesus said and taught, so they can keep his word as they live in this world. Although the way John speaks of this work of the Spirit can be a bit complicated, the basic message is that while Jesus isn’t with us physically, he continues to be present with us through the Spirit. And through the Spirit, Jesus continues to speak, revealing to us God’s wisdom. That wisdom includes the promise of love we heard last Sunday, and the promise of peace, which we hear today. The word the Spirit of God reminds us of is this: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” So, don’t “let your hearts be troubled.”
When it comes to the peace of Christ, Jesus wants us to know there’s a difference between the kind of peace he promises and the kind of peace the world offers. Therefore, don’t let yourself become ensnared by the world. That is, we shouldn’t let the world define our identities. Instead, we should let Jesus define our identities, and that’s why we need the “divine reminders” the Spirit brings to us.
Before we get to these “Divine Reminders,” I’d like to explore this peace of Christ the Spirit brings to us. When John’s audience heard this message, they would have connected the peace offered by the world to the peace offered to them by the Roman Empire. We know this peace as the Pax Romana. Rome promised peace and security in exchange for loyalty and obedience. Since Rome was the superpower of its day, it tried to impose peace on the Empire through the threat of violence and intimidation. Rome controlled the Mediterranean Sea with its navy, and its army built roads and bridges all across the empire so its Legions could move quickly across the Empire. Because Rome patrolled the seas and the countryside, people could feel secure, but not free. The Roman roads were good for commerce and travel, at least when the troops weren’t on the move. It’s quite likely that Paul made use of these roads as he engaged in his missionary efforts. So you could say that the Roman peace aided the expansion of the church. Nevertheless, despite the benefits of this Pax Romana to society, it wasn’t the same thing as the Pax Christi. In fact, it was the Pax Romana that put Jesus on the cross to begin with.
Down through the centuries, other Empires have promised peace and security, and when people feel insecure they are often tempted to embrace imperial pretensions. This includes the forms of populism that are popping up across the globe today. We see it in Russia, China, Egypt, and India. We see it in Brazil, in Turkey, and in Hungry. We even see it present in the United States and the United Kingdom. There may be a certain amount of security in this, but in the end, it only works for some and not everyone. This promise of security isn’t the same thing as the peace Jesus promises to provide us through the Spirit.
Here is how Ron Allen describes the peace of God as it contrasts with the Pax Romana: “The peace of Jesus is the quality of mutual support characteristic of the heavenly world. It is the active pursuit of the good of the community.” Therefore, we need not be afraid and our hearts need not be troubled, because, as Ron puts it:
“The peace that Jesus gives does not release the community from the dynamics of its multiple struggles—within, with other synagogues, with the world. But, the Continuing Presence of Jesus, gives the believing community the capacity to live through the struggles without being destroyed by them. [Real Spirituality for Real Life].
Jesus never promised us a life without troubles, but he did promise us a way forward in the presence of the Spirit who reminds us of what Jesus said and did and taught so that we might experience the Peace of Christ.
This leads me back to those “Divine Reminders.” What is it about what Jesus said and did that the Spirit wants us to remember? As we seek to answer that question, it’s good to remember that the Gospel of John closes by admitting there are many things that Jesus did, besides what’s written in the Gospel, because “if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn. 21:25).
While I don’t want to push my interpretation of that statement too far, could John’s message be captured in the United Church of Christ slogan “God is still speaking?” Is this what Jesus means when he tells the disciples that the Father will send the Paraclete, the Advocate, the Spirit, to teach us and remind us what Jesus had said? If so, then what is God saying to us in this moment in history?
I’ve been reading a book by Amos Yong that suggests we consider a pneumatological approach to interfaith dialog. That is, as we engage in our interfaith conversations, do we see the Spirit present in the faith communities we’re engaging with? With that in mind, along with John’s text, I thought about Wednesday evening’s Iftar Dinner. I thought about the question as to whether I could discern the presence of the Spirit in that moment? Not only was this a spiritually invigorating moment for me, but from the reports I’ve received from our friends at the Turkish American Society, to was true for them as well. So, was the Spirit present? I would say yes. It’s not that our theologies are exactly the same, but I sense that the Spirit is speaking to us and helping us move toward the peace of God in moments like that.
This is important because there’s some truth in the claim that religion is a threat to the peace and security of the world. It’s easy to use religion as a rallying point for enemy-making when religion gets ensnared in nationalism. We seem adept at creating enemy-making banners that pit Christians against Muslims, or Muslims against Hindus, or even Christians against Christians. That’s just to name a few conflicts that exist in our world. To put this in the words of a hymn of yesteryear, we become “Christian soldiers marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.”
The gospel comes like a fragrance, a nonviolent, pungent reality that one either receives with embrace or turns away from in repulsion. The aroma is zesty. It may provoke reaction. But in itself it is nonviolent. It just is. It does not make enemies, but it surely exposes enemies. It reveals what is already happening—life or death—and invites people to join in the procession. [Us vs. Them, pp. 114-115].
We needn’t go about making enemies. They will reveal themselves by embracing injustice and hate and violence. Sometimes this is done in the name of Jesus, but I don’t believe that this is the message Jesus is speaking through the Spirit.
So what “divine reminders” are you hearing from the Holy Spirit? Is it possible to discern the presence of the Spirit in places we may not at first expect? As I try to answer that question, I must say that I do see signs of the peace of God present in the lives of our friends from the Turkish American Society and elsewhere.
As we consider these questions, let’s return to the opening verses of our reading from John 14. Jesus tells us that if we love him, we will keep his word. With this in mind, we can hear this question posed to us by Ron Allen: “To what degree is the congregation manifesting integrity between the love it confesses for Jesus and the deeds that put that love into action on the model of John 13:1-35?” Remember that in John 13 Jesus models the love of God by washing the feet of his disciples. What then are the divine reminders you are hearing this day?