Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 5, 2013
In the name of the living God: Creater, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
It occurred to me this week as I have been preparing to preach today that there are a whole lot of us who have recently had to say goodbye to someone we loved – a husband, a son, a sister, a mother, a dear friend. It’s been a tough year in that regard.
Unless death is a result of some kind of sudden tragedy, most of our losses occur over a period of time. We live in an age when advanced medications and medical techniques can support life way beyond what was possible just a decade ago. And because of that, most of us have had at least some time to prepare ourselves for an impending death – we’ve had time to let the news of a terminal diagnosis set in a bit.
This gift of time – and it does feel like a gift, for the most part – is an awkward and difficult time, however. We don’t want to give up, we resist letting go: one more procedure, one more treatment, one more surgery, one more year, one more month, one more day. That’s what we want and that’s what we communicate – nonverbally if not verbally.
We avoid talking about the inevitable. Words are so hard to find, even for those of us who are in the business – it’s hard for doctors and nurses, chaplains and priests.
It’s hard for those who will be left to grieve and it’s hard for those who are facing death themselves. It seems that we are all concerned that we not destroy any last vestiges of hope, of conveying our fears. We don’t want to sound unfaithful. We’re concerned that we might sound too morbid – or on the other hand, we do not want to sound trite. And so we are silent.
It usually isn’t until a Hospice worker has prodded us that we say any words about an impending death, and by that time, there are only a few words one can say – and it’s usually a one-way conversation – leaving important questions unanswered.
But who among us wouldn’t give almost anything for one last conversation with those we loved about what they wanted, what they hoped for regarding the future, what they hoped for us?
The Gospel lesson this week is a continuation of Jesus’ last conversations with his disciples. It is all a part of what is commonly known as his “farewell discourse.” While what we read today is, in fact, a discourse and not a two-way conversation, it takes place in the context of Jesus’ friends’ questions and concerns, it is part of a larger conversation in which Jesus is preparing his friends for his death.
Last Sunday we heard this piece of the farewell discourse: “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
In today’s passage, Jesus seems to be stumbling all over himself as he tries to explain what he wants them to remember – what he wants them to know: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them;” “We will come and make our home with them;” “I am going away and I am coming to you;” “If you love me, you will rejoice that I am going to my Father.”
It’s a confusing passage to read. It must have been even more confusing to hear.
We see that while we are often hesitant to engage in conversation about death, Jesus is not. He seems to want to make sure his friends are as prepared as they can be so that when he is no longer with them, they will remember the important things that his life and ministry were all about. Jesus wants them to know the fundamentals and doesn’t simply assume that they have grasped them. He tells them. He reminds them.
There are four things in our lesson today that I think are at the heart of what Jesus wanted and wants his followers to remember.
First, Jesus came to establish a community. This community is comprised of those who obey God’s law – the law of the New Covenant – and that law – the only law pertinent to this new community – is love. “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus tells his friends, “love one another.”
Secondly, Jesus makes the bold claim that God’s love is the reward for obedience to this one law. As the community builds itself on this law, as the community grows into a people who are known for their love, God joins the community in what seems to be a new way. “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them.” “We will come and make our home with them.
Not only will this kind of community be loved by God, according to Jesus, God will move right on in!
Thirdly, though there will be an absence, a real death, Jesus promises his friends that they will not be left alone to figure all of this out by themselves.
No, they will have to, as individuals and as a community, listen for the Spirit’s voice as they remember what Jesus said and did, as they think through and discern together what they ought to do. As they figure out what it means to love each other in the way that God wanted.
The Spirit, Jesus says, will help them with that work. The Spirit will not only comfort them in his absence, the Spirit will help them remember and will continue to teach them.
Finally, Jesus gives them a gift – peace. In both my office and my home I have on my wall a saying that, for me, describes this gift: “Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”
For me, this gift of peace is most profoundly experienced when we humbly realize that we are not in control and yet we can affirm (as we often do in our Celtic services) that, “goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, truth is stronger than lies.”
This is what Jesus taught. This is how Jesus lived.
There is a new community. It is based solely on the law of love. It will be known as a new and distinctive community because of that love. Furthermore, obedience to that law ensures not only the health and witness of the community, but obedience to the law of love also ensures the presence of God within the community.
Such a community is not constrained by time or place – it is a community that transcends earthy existence. It includes all those who have gone before us and those who are yet to come.
It is a community of individuals who have been promised and who have experienced a holy and divine gift – the gift of Spirit – the living breath of God that continues to teach and remind its members about God’s purpose and intent for them.
It is a community that experiences peace.
Those are the words, the truth that Jesus wanted his friends to know before he died. This is what we hold on to as a community of faith. We are to love one another and in so doing, we will be known as God’s people. We will be a place where God dwells and the Spirit will be our companion. We will know peace.
Dear people of St. Paul’s, may that be our reality.