It is after dinner in an upper room. They are reclining, these disciples, leaning on each other's chests, their freshly-washed feet propped up. They have had Passover dinners before, but none like this.
Never before at Passover had a teacher removed his robe and knelt on the floor by a basin, washing his disciples' dusty feet one by one.
Never before at Passover had a rabbi poured a glass of wine and said, "This is the cup of the new covenant, poured out in my blood."
Never before at Passover had a dearly-loved leader said with such calm confidence that someone would betray him.
What Jesus had hinted at to his followers for years--that he would die--is finally coming into focus. It is no longer just a strange and confusing rumor--it is imminent.
The folks gathered in this upper room are a ragtag bunch who left everything to follow Jesus. They were fishermen and tax collectors and carpenters, but now they are followers. They are disciples of Jesus.
And now he--the one who they trusted would be the fulfillment of all their hopes--now he is leaving them.
Jesus has made it clear that he will be dying very soon, and I imagine that the disciples are lost in the shock of the moment. Their whole life the last few years has been consumed by following Jesus--he is their True North, their guide. Without him they will be totally lost.
Although it is an extraordinary moment--this night between Jesus' life and the beginning of his death--it is also quite ordinary. The disciples are tasting one of the most human experiences possible.
So often, this is what it is to live in the world: it is to find ourselves, over and over again, left alone. It is to be abandoned far before we feel we can handle it.
Living in this world, we, like the disciples, face unimaginable trauma and loss and then, somehow, must survive, must, somehow, continue to live and breathe even when it feels impossible.
The scripture for today is a snippet of the much-longer "farewell discourse" between Jesus and his disciples on the night of his arrest. In our reading, when Jesus explains that he is going away, he says, "I do not give to you as the world gives." How, then, does the world give?
The world gives us simple beauties: the full moon on an early morning, the feeling of a sweetheart's hand in ours, a strong cup of coffee before a day of work.
But so often, the world gives trouble. The world gives disappointment. The world gives us fleeting relationships with vulnerable people who hurt us or leave us.
We live our lives trying to give ourselves fully in relationships, only to see our marriages crumble and leave us feeling bitter and alone.
We live in a world full of famine and war.
We live in a country founded on racism and white supremacy. We see our siblings of color consistently subjected to the violence of a system that says they are less-than.
We live with the sense that however we try to mend this hurting world, it will never be enough and we will not make any difference.
How does the world give?
The world gives us shattering trauma.
The world gives us the slow ache of depression.
The world gives us the grief of seeing those we love slip away into addictions, slip away into violence, slip away into death that takes each and every one of us, always too soon.
"The Message" paraphrase of the Bible renders this verse as Jesus saying, "I don't leave you the way you're used to being left--feeling abandoned, bereft." This world with all its fragile beauty leaves us feeling like the floor has fallen out from under us, feeling utterly alone, numb and helpless.
And Jesus knows this when he looks at our lives, and Jesus knows this when he looks at the disciples gathered around him, and Jesus knows they will be filled with fear as they face the world, and yet, and yet, he tells them, "Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you."
Jesus tells his huddled followers that he does not give as the world gives. He does not leave them the way they're used to being left.
He leaves them with peace.
He leaves them with the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth that God will send. This Spirit will do many things. The Spirit will "teach the disciples everything" and will "remind them of all that Jesus has said." And the Spirit will bring to these disciples a peace that will allow them to un-trouble their hearts.
To a room of people who are about to watch their leader and their teacher be brutally murdered by a violent empire, "peace" must sound so foreign. But this is what Jesus gives them. What on earth could it mean?
In our individualistic 3rd-millenium minds, "peace" often carries a deeply personalized meaning. I will be "at peace with myself," I will find inner peace, seek out the peace of a babbling brook. All of that is well and good, but I don't think that it's what Jesus had in mind. The Greek word Jesus uses here, eirene, carries first and foremost the meaning of national tranquility, exemption from the rage and havoc of war, peace between people. This is Jesus' parting gift, on the night before his execution. Peace.
Later in the discourse, we are offered another glimmer of what this peace is like. Jesus tells his disciples, "I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world."
In the face of the trouble this world gives us, Jesus assures us that we will have peace, and Jesus exhorts us to "take heart." The verb he uses here is tharseo. Although "take heart" is a beautiful and poetic translation, the Greek would be more accurately rendered "have courage."
Because Jesus is establishing peace in this world, we can have courage, even in the face of everything the world is throwing at us.
When Jesus tells his disciples that he is giving them peace, he knows what the next days, weeks, months, and even millennia will look like to his followers. He knows that they will be days full of heartache and struggle and oppression and darkness and fear.
He offers peace to us not so that we can find shelter from the world. He offers us peace that we might be able to enter even more deeply into the world--that we would have the courage to live fully and boldly as his disciples, keeping his command to love our neighbors as ourselves.
When everything around the disciples is crumbling, Jesus has equipped us to keep our faith.
"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."
Jesus, on his way to the cross, says this: The world can kill you, and the world may kill you. Having lived a perfect life of love and justice, Jesus' body was hung on a cross, because struggling for justice is dangerous, and because love is costly. There is good reason to be afraid, but Jesus says: Do not fear. Do not let your hearts be troubled.
What Jesus has given us is a deep peace that, however the world looks, we can be confident that love is stronger than hate, that hope is more resilient than fear and despair, and that light can and will and does break through the darkness. Brothers and sisters, we are Easter People--we are people of the empty tomb, people of the resurrection.
Do not be afraid. Take heart. Have courage.
The peace given through the Holy Spirit allows us to live out the final commandment Jesus gives to his disciples: to love one another as he has loved us.
In the light of the resurrection, in the peace the Holy Spirit brings, how shall we live? What does the courage of Easter people look like?
Here is some of what I have seen:
I have seen Black Lives Matter protesters who dare to assert that they too are made in the image of God. One, a woman named Netta, tweeted during the protests in Ferguson that she had to go to church to teach Sunday school because you can't forget about the little ones--the courage of Easter people empowers us both to struggle against unjust systems and to invest in those who will come after us.
I have seen the residents of the central Pacific Marshall Islands--people whose whole country is almost certainly going to be submerged due to global-warming-driven sea rise. Rather than giving into despair, these islanders have chosen to work for climate justice. Loving their ancestors and loving the future generations, these Easter people have insisted, "We are not drowning. We are fighting."
I have seen a friend's mother donate her kidney to a total stranger. I have seen grandparents step up to the exhausting work of raising children when their parents weren't able to. I have seen schoolteachers and nurses and social workers work every day to ensure that all people have dignity. I have seen a thousand thousand small acts of courage--of people taking heart and choosing to have courage in the face of fear.
We too are the disciples gathered in the upper room. We too are the disciples who live in a difficult world, holding pain and loss and sadness. And yet, we too are the disciples at the empty tomb.
We have the Holy Spirit in us and with us. We have a Spirit that is always at our back, that is the very presence of God, as close to us as our own breath, breathing peace and possibility into us.
Even when our hearts are troubled, even when we are afraid, we will be people of courage in this world.
So what will we do? As Easter people, what acts of courage and faith will we take?
- Will we love those who are difficult to love?
- Will we fight for justice?
- Will we pray for those who persecute us?
- Will we welcome the stranger?
- Will we listen to the Holy Spirit and dare to follow?
- How will we live out the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us?
Will you pray with me? O Holy Spirit, you were with the frightened disciples in the upper room. You were with the bereaved and traumatized disciples at the foot of the cross. You were with the abandoned disciples through Holy Saturday and with the amazed disciples on Easter Sunday. Be with us now. Help us to receive the peace that Jesus has given us. Help us to truly be Easter people in this world. Give us courage to move beyond ourselves. Give us courage to walk in this world. Give us courage to love as Christ has loved us. We pray all this through the crucified and risen One. Amen.