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The Peace of Wholeness

A sermon on John 14:23-29

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Patrick McManaman on Unsplash]

This week my oldest son found a stash of my old photo albums and spent a delighted hour looking through them, laughing at my truly horrific 80’s hairstyles and announcing that, apparently, my face hasn’t changed that much since I was 2, “except for now you have more freckles and wrinkles” (thanks, Sweetheart!).

Despite the loving digs, it was fun to look back at those old pictures and remember moments and stories from my childhood.

Quinn asked about people he didn’t recognize and commented on the notes my Mom and Grandma had written below some of the snapshots, and it pulled me back into memories that I don’t often recall.

It was a good reminder that those early years are still a part of who I am – they are part of the WHOLENESS of who I was created to be.

One of the stories that I did not tell Quinn that night came up for me in a different context this week as I contemplated today’s gospel reading.

You see, I have a very specific memory of my first time hearing this reading from the 14th chapter of John… or at least verse 27:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

This verse was “given” to me in my childhood Sunday School class as part of a lesson where the teachers connected the meaning of each student’s name with a Bible promise.

Since my name, Serena, means peaceful, Jesus’s promise to leave his disciples with peace was an easy selection.

I don’t imagine that my teachers expected this lesson to have a terribly profound impact on my life, but it did.

I took the verse home and memorized it.

I wrote it out in fancy calligraphy on card stock and hung it on my bedroom wall, where it stayed for years!

I took the idea of peace as my personal mission statement: the characteristic that would define who I was and how I interacted with the world.

When I was a girl this promise of peace was simple and reassuring: a sense of calm nestled in my soul.

But toward my teen years it started to get a bit more complicated, especially as the peace of my nuclear family fell apart with my parents’ divorce and I turned to Evangelical Christian sub-culture as a root for my identity instead.

The PROMISE of Christ’s peace as a gift instead became a heavy sense of responsibility to keep the peace:

The impossible responsibility to restore peace between my parents;

The stifling responsibility to shrink myself down into defined expectations of a good Christian girl (quiet, dutiful, never questioning church teachings, DEFINITELY not thinking she could be a pastor);

And the confusing responsibility to “love my neighbor” and to also be unequivocal about rejecting any kind of queer identities as being acceptable to God (which was a confusingly big focus of Evangelical subculture).

The sense that my name somehow meant that I needed to be always communicating and fostering “peace” – in the form of the absence of conflict – ended up creating all kinds of conflict in my soul…

damaging my mental health and twisting my faith into a kind of performance test in which my instincts battled the teachings I had received about who I was allowed to be and what I was allowed to believe.

Thankfully, those messages about what was “allowed” came from a particular Christian sub-culture, not from the scripture that had been given to me as a gift all those years before…

And as I grew up, and studied in seminary (even though I still thought I couldn’t be a pastor), I gained the tools to go back to the scripture and read it on its own terms.

And it turns out, when we really investigate this gospel in its context, Jesus did NOT promise his followers the so-called peace of conflict-avoidance and passive obedience.

Rather, he offers us a peace that is not as the world gives.

That is, the peace of Christ is not the kind of peace defined by just an absence of conflict, but rather a peace that conquers fear.

Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid…

This is important, because fear was exactly what I experienced from the pressure to embody the “perfect peaceful Christian.” Fear of failing. Fear of doing the wrong thing. Fear of believing the wrong thing.

This manifested in a lot of ways, but one that is especially relevant to RIC Sunday was the pressure to express my “love” for LGBTQ+ people by condemning their presumed sin.

For years I felt conflicted and afraid, scared that I had to either hurt people I cared about or betray my faith, because I had been taught that good Christians must condemn homosexuality.

AND I had been taught that good Christians never question their church’s teachings.

But Jesus’s promise of peace in this passage comes in the context of a larger promise: the promise to send the Holy Spirit.

And Jesus promised that the Spirit would do two things:

The Spirit will remind us of the things that Jesus said, yes… (which, by the way, includes not one word about homosexuality…);

And the Spirit will also teach us MORE. Meaning that faith isn’t just sticking to existing teachings and never asking new questions… quite the opposite.

Jesus sends us the Spirit so that we can keep learning; keep growing into the love that is at the absolute center of all of Jesus’s teachings.

And all of that promise is reflected in Jesus’s promise to leave us with HIS peace, an εἰρήνη (eirḗnē) peace.

Εἰρήνη is the original Greek word translated as peace in these verses, (and, incidentally, is the linguistic root that gives my name, Serena it’s peaceful meaning).

It comes from the roots word εἴρω (eírō), which means “to join.”[1] As Lutheran pastor AJ Houseman explains, the peace Jesus is talking about in this passage is the peace that “ties together into a whole.”[2]

It’s a peace that rejects the fracturing caused by human institutions and prejudices.

It’s a peace that conquers the fears that divide and destroy us.

It’s a peace that makes us whole in the life-giving love of Christ.

After worship today, we’ll be hosting a forum to talk about the things that scripture does (and doesn’t) have to say about the diverse sexualities and genders that make up the people of God.

There are reasons why the faith communities of my teen years taught what they did and reasons why I think they are wrong about what scripture teaches.

But the gospel message for us today is far more fundamental than that current debate between different Christian groups.

The gospel message is about wholeness.

You see, as I revisited my childhood memories this week, and traced the evolution in my understanding of what Christ’s promise of peace in John 14:27 really means for me, I came to a new realization:

All of the steps on my faith journey are a part of me:

The simple peace of my childhood;

And the conflicted pressures of trying to meet a narrow expectation about what my peace was supposed to look like;

And the journey of gaining new tools and learning to come back to the same scripture again and again, trusting that Christ’s promised Holy Spirit will have new things to teach me every time.

All of those experiences have been invitations to take Jesus at his word and to trust in his promise of a different kind of peace than we can find anywhere else: an εἰρήνη peace that embraces my wholeness AND the wholeness of all of God’s beloved children.

Thanks be to God.

[1] [2] Video sermon resource for RIC Sunday 2023, from Reconciling Works.


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