The following sermon was given by Rev. Nola Reed Knouse, Ph.D. at Ardmore Moravian Church Day of Prayer.
We live in fear-filled days, don’t we? We are afraid of terrorist attacks on shopping malls; we are afraid of cancer; we are afraid of violence; we are afraid of financial meltdown – there’s no need for me to list all the things around us that make us afraid, for you know them, and if you ever find yourself not being afraid you can fix that very quickly by turning on the evening news or logging onto the internet.
But, Brothers and Sisters, that’s not how we as Christians are given to live. In my recent reading straight through the Gospels, I was struck anew by some things Jesus said over and over, a consistent message throughout his interactions with the disciples and others. These messages of Jesus are words we need to hear in our anxiety-ridden society, in our stress-driven lives.
Jesus said, “Go in peace.” He said, “Go in peace” to the woman healed of a 12-year hemorrhage when she came forward in fear and trembling to confess that it was she who had touched his garment. “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mk. 5:34) He said, “Go in peace,” to the sinful woman who came to Simon the Pharisee’s house where Jesus was dining, the woman who stood behind him weeping, who bathed his feet with her tears, dried them with her hair and anointed them with costly ointment. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Lk. 7:50)
And Jesus said, “Do not be afraid.” He said, “Do not be afraid,” to the disciples when he appeared to them walking on the water through the storm, and they were terrified, fearing they were seeing a ghost. (Mt. 14:27) “Take heart,” he said; “it is I; do not be afraid.” He said, “Do not be afraid,” to Peter after the miracle of so many fish in the net after such a long fruitless night of fishing. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” (Lk 5:10) He said, “Do not be afraid,” when he sent the disciples out to preach the good news and warned them of coming persecutions. “Do not be afraid,” he said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Mt. 10:29-31) He said, “Do not be afraid,” when the disciples saw him transfigured and standing with Moses and Elijah in glory, and they fell to the ground terrified. (Mt. 17:7) He said, “Do not be afraid,” when he appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, after the horrors of Friday and the sorrows of Saturday. (Mt. 28:10) And there, not only did he say, “Do not be afraid,” he gave one more gift. “Peace be with you,” he said. Over and over he said it. (John 20:19, 21, 26)
In the words we just heard read from the Gospel of John, Jesus is speaking directly to the anxiety of the disciples. This takes place on the evening before Jesus’ arrest. He has washed their feet and told them to wash one another’s feet. He has told them that one of the twelve disciples will betray him, and that another, Peter, will deny him three times. Of course they’re anxious! He has been telling them, over and over, that he must suffer and die; and now he tells them one of them will betray him to death, and another will deny that he even knows him. And his next words?
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” What? Are you kidding, Master? How can our hearts not be troubled? Look what’s coming our way! We have enemies, and they’re bigger and stronger than we are, and they’re coming for us, and we don’t know when or where, and we’ve had an informer in our midst, and you know it! How can we not be afraid? Are you out of your mind?
But “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” is exactly what he says. To them, and to us. He explains that even when he has left this physical body, this earthly life, we will not be left orphaned; for the Father will send us the Holy Spirit whom we know because he abides with us and will be in us. The Father and the Son together will come to us and make their home with us if we love him. The Holy Spirit will remind us of all that Jesus has said. We are not left alone. It’s not up to us to figure it all out, or even to remember it all. The Holy Spirit – the Lord, the Giver of life – is near.
This peace that Jesus has given is not the absence of conflict. It is not “security” as the world understands it. Jesus does not promise us that we are safe from terrorist attack, from economic disaster, from fatal illness, from random accident. He does promise us that we are not alone. That the Father himself, the creator of all that is; the Son, through whom all things were created, who was and is and is to come; and the Holy Spirit, Teacher, Guide and Comforter – this God, this Three in One, has already made God’s home with us and dwells within us and among us.
This, then, is the very reason Paul can call the Philippians, and us, to rejoice in the Lord always – not in what’s happening to us, but in the Lord. This is truly cause for rejoicing, no matter what’s going on otherwise. And Paul goes on to tell us how to deal with the anxieties that attack us from all sides. Paul says, “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with all thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” In other words, when worry attacks, replace it with prayer.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it, to say, when you worry, just pray? It’s not – at least, it’s not easy for me. Worry strikes when I least expect it, or when I most want a good night’s sleep. But, Sisters and Brothers, doesn’t worrying mean we think we’re trapped in circumstances we can’t control, and we’re responsible to fix it, or at least to find the fix, or just to find a way out? When I’m worrying about something, I’m looking for a solution to a problem – I’m searching for the cure for the cancer that afflicts someone I love. I’m searching for the technique that will bring together people with strongly-held opposing positions. I’m searching for the “security” and “safety”, that freedom from trouble and woe, that I think I need, that I think I deserve. And that’s not what Jesus promises.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” The world has us searching for security, for safety, for a bigger arsenal of defense against all those we perceive as our enemies. The peace that Jesus gives isn’t that at all. Jesus said these words to his disciples, then led them across the Kidron Valley to a place where there was a garden, where Judas met him with soldiers and police to arrest him, to take him to unimaginable suffering and a shameful death. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”
“Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin?”
Jesus promises us peace in the face of all that threatens us. In the face of our own sin and that of others. In the face of the never-ending to-do list. In the face of grief. In the face of all the unknown future. In the face of death itself. That peace is the result, Brothers and Sisters, of Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit. That peace is the result of our knowing his word and doing it – and what is that word, but to love God with our being, and to love God’s people, every one of them, as we love our own selves? That peace is the result of our making a habit of replacing worry with prayer, of choosing over and over to bring God into those silent discussions we have with ourselves in the middle of the night when we start to worry about what we must do tomorrow, or how we can ever face what we must face. As we bring God into those midnight voices – and Paul reminds us, The Lord is near! – then we can offer to him all our requests, with thanksgiving for his very nearness, for the promises he has made – and God keeps all his promises! And you are enabled, through that peace, to keep on doing what you know, to keep the word of Jesus, to love God more and more and to love your neighbors more and more. And as you keep on replacing worry with prayer, accepting Jesus’ gift of peace, and doing what you know, the God of peace will be with you. “Peace I leave with you,” says Jesus. “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.”
Sister Nola is the Director of the Moravian Music Foundation and was recently consecrated as a Presbyter in the Moravian Church.