The Peace of God
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on the Day of Pentecost [5 June 2022]:
Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-27
John was my father’s age. He and his wife Jane had retired and moved to our community. They were life-long Episcopalians. So it made sense that they would join the local church, where I served as priest and rector. Like my Dad, John spent his whole working life as a middle manager in a large American corporation. And like my Dad, John seemed to take to retirement quite naturally.
John was a tall, distinguished looking, and soft-spoken man with a deep and resonate voice. As a way to help integrate him into the life of his new parish community, I asked him to join the parish lectors’ ministry. He was one of those figures that when he read a lesson in the liturgy, people listened. Proof of this is that I still remember the last time he read in church.
Sadly, John had been diagnosed with an advanced lung cancer. Recuperating at home and using oxygen for his labored breathing, it was clear that John would not live too much longer. In one of my home visits to him, I mentioned missing his voice in church, to which John immediately beamed a smile and informed me that he’d like to read one more time, which he did.
Tellingly, it was All Saints Sunday when John read. The air and the leaves were in full transition, just as we were in transition with John and he was with us. John was assigned to read the first lesson. When it came time for his reading, he slowly rose from his pew, dragging a wheeled, portable oxygen tank behind him. The tank’s tubing dangling along his thin and weakened body, bringing the sustaining air to his nose and damaged lungs. There was reverent silence in the congregation as he made his way forward. It felt as if every eye was on John as he made his way to the lectern for what everyone sensed was the last time. He stood ramrod straight at the lectern with his air tank heeled at his side like a well-trained dog; and then John took a deep breath and read these words from the Wisdom of Solomon:
The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive a great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself…[Wisdom 3:1-5]
Finishing the lesson, John beckoned the congregation to respond to the “Word of the Lord”, at which point everyone recognized that God’s Word had indeed been spoken.
Soon thereafter, as John was approaching his death, I visited him once again. Lying in a hospital bed in his living room, with his eyes closed and his breathing short, John beckoned me to his side. In a hoarse whisper, he asked me about the words of the blessing that I would frequently offer at the end of our celebration of the Eucharist. He couldn’t remember the words and desperately wanted to have them at hand. I bent over and whispered the benediction gently in his ear: The peace of God, which passes all our understanding, keep your heart and mind in the love and knowledge of God and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord …
His eyes still closed, John thanked me with a kind smile. I made the sign of the cross over him, hugged Jane, and left. John died soon after that in the hopeful peace of God.
In terms of liturgy and faith, in terms of worship experience and belief, today is a day of demarcation. Today is the Day of Pentecost, the culmination of what began fifty days ago on Easter Sunday. Jesus, the incarnate Word of the living creator God, gives his life freely to the domineering powers of this world and to the shame and agony of the cross. But God knows there is more to God’s life than this horror. In Christ’s rising from the grave, God’s love and life overcome our ancient foe to reveal what life with God is like and to convey what God gives to those who return his love: Peace and unshakable life.
As we have repeatedly stated in all the Eastertides you and I have shared together, Jesus’ resurrection has two, essential aspects to it. The first is clearly about the fact that on the third day Jesus rose from the dead, demonstrating that the God-life is ever transforming death into new life. But the second aspect of Easter, the second essential of resurrection is the clarion message about our own lives in Christ: namely, it is God’s will that what we see in the Risen One is to be what we see in ourselves. And on this occasion of Pentecost, the dividend of resurrection is made manifest in the provision of God’s Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not some amorphous idea. No, rather the Spirit we are given is the gift of participating in God’s Spirit, the content of which is to know and participate in the loving relationship the Father has for the Son and the Son for the Father. The Day of Pentecost marks that event when resurrection became our life’s joy and work, no longer merely following Christ but now also representing him in the world.
Eucharistic Prayer D (the Communion prayer we have been using for the last fifty days; the prayer that Gregory of Nyssa penned in the fourth century and is shared by most Christians in the world) – in this ancient Thanksgiving prayer, we hear clearly the purpose of this holy and life-giving gift of the Spirit. This is what the prayer reminds us of:
And, that we might live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us, he sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all. [BCP., p. 374]
What is the Holy Spirit? That’s a question for next week’s Trinity Sunday gathering; but for now through the Spirit, in sharing in the life-giving, life-transforming relationship the Father and Son have, folks like us are empowered to continue what Jesus began.
From this day’s gospel lesson, Jesus summarizes the point of all this for his perplexed followers – then and now:
I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. And then Jesus concludes his remarks with this. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your heats be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
The Creator of heaven and earth has given his Spirit to those who love the God. This is the love and life that has been revealed in Jesus. The Spirit advocates for us. The Spirit teaches us. The Spirit guides us, counsels, and helps us to live as God’s beloved partners and to share the peace of God with those we meet. As Jesus says, God’s peace is not the peace that the world gives. God’s peace is not the absence of tension. God’s peace is deeper than that. God’s peace is God’s completeness. We see that completeness in Christ; and while God’s peace crosscuts and often baffles our understanding, it is nonetheless the peace, the wholeness, the shalom, the life we and the world desperately need; and it is a gift, something we cannot provide for ourselves.
We are not on our own. We have been given God’s Spirit and the promise of God’s completeness, God’s peace. It passes all our understanding, but the Spirit continues to place God’s love and life in our midst, guiding, comforting, teaching us to keep moving toward what Jesus has revealed.
Come Holy Spirit come. Amen.