A Very Peaceful Presence
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, January 19, 2020
Reading: John 14:15-27
I was mightily inspired by a CBC interview this week with Dustin Ens, a young widower of twenty-four or so years old. His wife, Joanne, had just died. At the age of twenty-four, she had succumbed to influenza in Morden, Manitoba. Tragic. The interview, however, was incredible. I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He was asked how he was coping with the death of a woman he had only married a few months before, and he said that it was a tragic loss. He said, “I'm still trying to come to understand it, but in it all, I am still finding some grace.”
The reporter then said, “So your faith is important to you then?”
Ens said, “It is important to me, and without it I would have no peace.”
They then showed a photo of the church he attended, of tattoos on his arms and knuckles and wrists, one of which spelled out the word “love” and something from the Bible. This was a young man who appeared to have had a somewhat rocky life, and lost his wife, but grace – grace was still present in his life.
What is so singularly powerful about this is that this young man realised that in the midst of his suffering, he was not alone. He wasn’t abandoned, he had strength to draw on, he had a spiritual resource, and clearly looking in his eyes, it made all the difference in his life, which takes me to our text today from the Gospel of John. They were Jesus’s parting words to his disciples before the events of Holy Week and his eventual crucifixion and resurrection. It was an intimate moment, a moment where he was saying he had to leave them, and they must have been devastated. They’d committed their lives to him, they’d followed him for three years – all the things that we talk about in Lent and on Good Friday – here they were, losing the very One that they had committed their lives to.
Yet, in the midst of losing him, Jesus speaks one of the most powerful messages of grace and hope that has ever been written. He promises them that they will not be left alone. He promises them that if they keep their commandments, the commandments that he set, if they live in faithfulness to him, he will be with them. Even more than that, he will send them an advocate, he will send them a comforter, the power of the Holy Spirit, and that this Holy Spirit will give them peace. “My peace, I leave with you.” What could be more comforting than that?
Now, it is a poignant thing that at this time in the church’s year, we should reflect on a moment such as this. Why would we look today, for example, at a moment before his death, when we have just celebrated all the high moments of Christ’s birth and life? We have celebrated the wonderful moments in advent and the preparation for His birth. We had a joyful Christmas, where we have celebrated his arrival. We have celebrated Epiphany and God’s appearing. We have used magnificent language to describe Jesus of Nazareth. We have called him wonderful Counsellor, Mighty King, we have called him Redeemer and Saviour. We have referred to him as the Prince of Peace, Emmanuel, and God with us. In essence, we have declared over Christmas, Advent, and Epiphany that God has been with us in the Son.
God has been with us in Jesus of Nazareth. I'm not sure if you're like me, but I've often wondered, how we connect that powerful ministry, that wonderful birth, that incredible life of Jesus, even to the point of death on a cross, to our lives? How does that historic figure, Jesus of Nazareth, the wonderful Counsellor, the Prince of Peace, come into our lives? The answer is that if God was with us in His Son, the Son is with us in the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ comes to us and comforts us. He says, “I will be with you in the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit.”
This, for me, is a powerful message that makes Christmas all the more relevant and gives greater power to Advent and Epiphany. This brings Christ right into our lives and our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit. “I will ask the Father,” he says, “in my name, to bring you this power of the Holy Spirit.”
Who and why is this Holy Spirit needed in our lives? I think that we live in an age of anxiety, of uncertainty, a time that is perplexing, and hard to understand. There is this sense within the human soul, I believe, in every generation, that we need the guidance and the strength of God, and we need the power of the Holy Spirit.
Recently I read an incredible poem by W.H. Auden, called The Age of Anxiety. It is one of his longest, and I might add, laborious poems, but it is a powerful one. It’s particularly powerful in the context in which Auden wrote it. He’d been conscripted to join the military, and right after the war in 1945 he went with a group of writers to visit Germany, to and observe what happened after the war was over. He went to cities like Dresden, which had been flattened, to Berlin and Leipzig. He saw destruction. He went to Auschwitz and saw the carnage and he was overwhelmed by it. He described his feelings about it and wondered how he was going to deal with the shock of seeing such death and destruction. He even consulted the great Hannah Arendt and asked her if she had any words of wisdom about how to deal with such tragedy. He sought inspiration everywhere.
He found it in his faith, and The Age of Anxiety speaks a lot about God. In one particular stanza there is something that I think is almost timeless about what Auden wrote: “In our anguish we struggle to allude Him, to lie to Him, yet His love observes His appalling promise: His predilection as we wander and weep, He is with us to the end, minding our meanings, our least matter is dear to Him.”
How does this God of whom Auden speaks, in the midst of the most immeasurably awful experiences, bring peace but through the power of his Spirit.
Every age has its anxiety, every age brings with it its own sense of being ill at ease – we’re human, we’re mortal, we’re fallible. The systems we create are human and mortal and fallible; why should we expect not to be anxious at times? Subjectively we feel that anxiety in all ages. We see what is going on around us and worry. I read some of the pieces in the newspaper last week, after the scare that we all got about the nuclear issue. People going out and buying iodine pills, just in case. People were unsure, and they're still unsure. Some of the articles talk about that anxiety and ponder what would happen if it actually went bad?
What would happen if there was a war in the Middle East again? What form would it take? Stress levels were rising, thankfully they are lessening a bit now, but we’re all still a bit on edge. What will this bring?
There are concerns about the world and nature and what is happening to it. People live subjectively and objectively with the anxiety of an age, because we’re mortal, infallible, and imperfect. The world has an anxious tinge to it always. How then do we find peace and how powerful is that peace?
What Jesus said to the disciples was very clear; you're not going to find peace from the anxiety of the world and the problems are around you. The world seeks to find peace in the midst of turmoil, but it is temporary. It is like those who try to find an escape from the problems of the world, as if somehow by separating yourselves from the world, avoiding the dangers, you can avoid the complexities of anxieties by simply moving somewhere or being in a peaceful place.
There is a story that was told many years ago, originating, I believe, in The Times of London, about a woman who decided that she and her family needed to escape the rigours and the problems of life. She was fed up with British society in the late 70s and felt the need to escape. She researched the whole world – where could she go to, to get away from the stresses and strains of life? She did an exhaustive study and finally came to the conclusion that there was one place – this was in 1980 – one place where she could find peace. So, she decided to move to the Falklands. You all know that in 1982, between April and June, there was a war on the Falklands. She was interviewed afterwards and said, “I realised there is nowhere one can go and hide.”
There is also, I think, this predilection on the part of human beings, this propensity to want to think that by victory, or by conquering those difficulties, by breaking down our enemies, by ruining the lives of others and exalting ourselves, we can find, vicariously maybe, some peace.
There was a young German corporal who believed that. He said, “Mankind has grown strong in eternal struggles, and it will only perish through eternal peace.” Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf. The way to peace is struggle. The continuous, ongoing conflict is the road to peace. Bizarre. But do we not, as human beings, think that way? Do we not also sometimes, feel that way? That if we can conquer that what or who is causing us stress, we will find peace? I think we do. It’s a myth, of course, because we never really come to terms with the problems.
It’s the same with always wanting to go into ourselves. Maybe if we go into our own souls and our own self, we can meditate our way to peace. Well, meditation certainly has its benefits and there is something about being aware of ourselves that is helpful but let us not be deluded into thinking that alone is the source of peace. The source of peace, according to the Scripture, is not found in ourselves, but somewhere else.
The great philosopher Simone Weil, one of my heroines, said the following in the wonderful book, Gateway to God: “No matter what effort we make, we cannot acquire for ourselves the good which is not in us. We can only receive it. It is therefore not the inward journey that gives peace, it is the reception of the power of God’s Spirit into our lives.”
That’s where peace resides, that is the strength that Dustin Ens found after the loss of the wife, that is the strength that Auden felt after he’d seen the horrors of post-war Germany. It is the strength and the power of the Spirit.
Jesus says that it’s not as the world gives that I give you. This is not the peace that I offer you. What I offer you is something much more powerful, it is the peace that I bring. “I won't leave you as orphans, I won't leave you alone. I'm going, but the Spirit is coming, and the Father will send the Spirit to you, and this Spirit will live” – notice the language – “in you.” This Spirit will be part of you, this Spirit will come to you and fill you, not only with the assurance of faith, as Paul said in the Book of Romans, that our faith causes us to have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s not just a peaceful relationship with God through faith, it is actually an inner peace that comes from the power of God’s Spirit Himself, and it is that very power and that very spirit that comes into our lives and transforms us.
I love a piece that I read by William Temple, who was the great English thinker and theologian. He wrote this years ago and it’s always stuck with me:
It is no good giving me a play like Hamlet or King Lear and telling me to write a play like that. Shakespeare could do it, I can't. And it is no good showing me a life like the life of Jesus and telling me to live like that. Jesus could do it, I can't.
If the genius of Shakespeare could come and live in me, then I could write plays like that, and if the Spirit of Jesus could come and live in me, I could live like that. That is the power of the Spirit of God, that is the power of the Spirit coming and living in our lives.
It was twenty-nine years ago almost to the day that I boarded a ferry from Nova Scotia to Bar Harbor, Maine. It was a late evening crossing, very cold – minus thirty degrees. I remember driving onto the ferry, parking the car, and going up on deck, then finally coming down when we were about to disembark, and the huge trucks had left their diesel engines running, because they feared switching them off in such cold weather. One could hardly breathe. Exhausted in the car and light-headed from the fumes, I pulled my car out. It was around eleven at night. At minus thirty in Bar Harbor, Maine, you want isolation, folks, that is isolation!
I had to pull into the immigration centre and present my J-visa, for I was about to go and spend time in Massachusetts, studying. I went in and it was so cold that even the immigration officers were huddled around the coffee machine. They said to me, “You know, you have your visa and we just need to process things, but Sir, would you like a coffee and a donut?” I’ve got to tell you, that was the best coffee and donut ever in the history of the world, ever. I talked to them while they were processing my papers. On the television in the background – it was January 1991 – what did you think I saw going on? The bombing of Bagdad, the beginning to the Gulf War.
As I sat and talked to the agents, who were delightful, interested in what I was going to study, wondering what I was going to do, I said, “I'm going to Harvard Divinity College, Harvard Divinity School.”
I told one of the women who was processing the papers, “It’s a far-off war.”
She said, “Well, yes, it is, but it’s not a far-off war for me; my husband is over there right now as we speak. He is one of the trucks that is moving into Kuwait,” and she said, “I'm terrified.”
Then she said, “You know, you're a divinity guy. Would you say a prayer for him? Would you ask the Holy Spirit to protect him?”
So, there I am in Bar Harbor, Maine, with a box of Dunkin Donuts and a woman from the US Immigration Department, praying for the protection and power of the Holy Spirit. I’ve never forgotten it.
I kept thinking about him as the months unravelled there, but she knew what Dustin Ens, W.H. Auden, William Temple, Simone Weil, and the disciples knew: That the power of His Spirit is the power of peace and there’s nothing else like it. May you have that Spirit in your life. Amen.