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Change, Disruption, and Peace: The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sunday, May 22, 2022:
Acts 16:9-15
John 14:23-29

Just a bit earlier in the Gospel, in a passage we tend to turn to at the end of life and at funerals, Jesus has said that he is going away, back to the heart of God, where there are many dwelling places. He’s going up (‘up’) to prepare a dwelling place for us (which is a reversal of the beginning of John, in which he comes down to dwell with us), and then, he says, “I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” So he’s going to go away, and he’s going to come back. We will feel his presence, and also his absence. And a change, but ultimately, a reunion of that presence. He’s evoking these earlier words when he says, as we heard, “You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.'” This is a passage of comfort, but it’s also unsettling, because there is an expectation of change. A change in how the relationship between the disciples and Jesus would be experienced.

Think of a modern example: A parent telling their child that they’re going to move to a new city (a better one), get a new home (a bigger one with a great yard), and the kid will meet new, friends for life at an even better school. The reaction of the child is utter fear. Crying, temper tantrum, maybe even runs away. Growing up one might move past such extreme reactions, but there’s probably some element of that trepidation that we carry with us, because change is tough, and there’s an element of uncertainty.

What was the reaction of the disciples when Jesus was transfigured on the mountaintop and visited by saints of old? They wanted to preserve the moment. What does Mary Magdalene do when she finally recognizes the risen Jesus in the garden? She clings to him. What does Jesus do after stopping for supper after walking with the two disciples toward the town of Emmaus? They finally recognize him as he breaks the bread and just like that… he disappears. So there’s something here in this passage about the rhythm of life, and the spiritual life, of moments of stability, and moments of change. And the destabilization that occurs as we move from one to the other.

And in the first reading, coming not too long after the events in the Gospel, we have a story with some similar attributes: God calls Paul to something, and that leads to a change, involving risk and movement. And on the other side we hear “The Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to listen eagerly to what was said.” But in between the vision to Paul and the work within Lydia’s heart, is this big, risky, change-filled experience. From the Hebrew scriptures we have an example like Jonah’s, that shows us how not to handle this; what happens when our fears and prejudices steer us. But we have a positive example here in Acts, and the result is a victory, not just of the baptism of a household and an addition to the growing community of Jesus-followers, but the forming of community. “Come and stay at my house” says Lydia.

‘Home’ is a theme in the Gospel reading, too. “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” In situations of change, or risk, or displacement, there is this message of consistency; of “God with us.” And when we do have to navigate times of uncertainty and change, Jesus, in this discourse leaves his followers (and leaves us) with other reassuring words: “peace I give to you.” A peace that’s different from what the world gives, he says.

What is at the core of this peace? What is it in our religious tradition that helps us actually find and even experience this peace? (Another way of putting it is something like ‘what is the peace that can be found in our life as Church that is often absent in the wider world?’) Spend some time with that. And if it’s a struggle to come up with anything, then you’ve probably started getting a sense for what you might want to start working and praying for: the areas in your life and heart that need peace and healing. We might each have a slightly different response. For me, the rhythm of confession and forgiveness is important, as it’s so different from much of the discourse in the wider world, where shortcomings are denied, but also forgiveness withheld. Maybe it’s the belief that everyone is made in the image of God, and beloved by God. And the challenge to even love our enemies; certainly a countercultural ethic in an increasingly polarized world. Or maybe it’s the practice of Eucharist, in which our stance toward God and the world is one of thankfulness and sharing; not greed or scarcity.

And so with this message of reassurance comes a challenge: that we, and the community of the Church, be a place of visible, authentic peace to a world for which ultimate peace is likely an impossibility. But our peace needs to be true: not an insulation from the problems of the world, or the problems in ourselves, or the problems in the Church. But a peace that comes from the Holy Spirit that is with us, and in us, and teaches us, and reminds us of the way of Jesus.

And here we are, still in this pandemic, a great disruptor and change-maker. In the human community and the Church community it is felt and interpreted in different ways. For some, things are basically back to normal; for others, things haven’t changed much in two and a half years. It’s into moments and controversies like these that we are called to remember words like we heard proclaimed in the scriptures today: God is with us. Change is the norm more than the exception. “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.”

© 2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter