If you want to see evidence of spring, just look outside in the Saint Mark’s garden. As the weather gets warmer and summer clearly approaches, I can’t help but feel a bit nostalgic. This time of year always reminds me of departures and transitions. Maybe it’s the subtle smell in the air. Maybe it’s the warmth of encroaching summer. Maybe it’s seeing all the recent graduates walking around in academic robes.
Graduating high school students are ready to embark on college journeys. College graduates, if they’re lucky, have one foot in the job market. And transitions are inevitably a little poignant, aren’t they? Friends part for opposite ends of the country. Beloved professors say goodbye to prized students. Dorm rooms are vacated for a long, lonely summer.
Universities vie for their favorite candidates for commencement speakers. And the usual famous faces make their rounds among America’s prestigious universities, doling out the predictable string of somewhat meaningless accolades and clichés. In theory, these speakers are empowering graduates who are listening with bated breath.
“You can do anything.”
“Go and change the world.”
“Live your dreams!”
But what can these well-intentioned words really accomplish for the graduates who are facing so many hurdles ahead in an uncertain and unstable world?
I suppose there was one recent exception to the typical trite commencement address. Philanthropist Robert Smith, in speaking to Morehouse College graduates, put a little meat on his commendatory words when he announced that he would pay off the student loan debt of the entire class of 2019. “We’re going to put a little fuel in your bus,” he told elated students. Fuel indeed.
But let’s face it: the average college graduate, a month or two after the fervor of graduation day, is probably feeling saddled with significant student loan debt and the intimidating prospect of finding a job in an unpredictable market. When the rubber hits the road, the momentary encouraging words of a commencement speaker are probably forgotten, because ultimately those words are doing very little to take away the ever-increasing awareness of the real world’s challenges. With the exception of Robert Smith, very few commencement speakers are going to change the tangible reality of a graduate’s life situation. Very few are going to put fuel in the bus.
Do we sometimes receive Jesus’s words of encouragement and comfort from Scripture as if they are the shallow words of a commencement speaker, words that fail to put any fuel in the bus? Rather than carrying the hope of the Gospel, do they instead seem like empty promises that have failed to come true, like the gift of a shiny new car with no gas in the tank?
We’ve heard Jesus’s words of comfort.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”
“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
These words are from Jesus’s Farewell Discourse to his disciples on the eve of his death, and they are meant to be expressions of encouragement.
They are, in some ways, like a commencement address. Jesus’s disciples have been through the rigorous school of ministry with him. They have heard Christ’s teaching. They have seen him working miracles and performing signs. And now, their teacher is announcing that he will be leaving them. It is a distressing, lonely transition to a new life situation for these disciples. They will be on their own, in the world, just like recent graduates, seemingly without any fuel in the bus.
The Farewell Discourse is even more wistful when considered in the larger context of John’s Gospel. This Gospel is all about Christ as the Incarnate Word of God, made flesh and visible on the earth. But what does the impending absence of this tangible presence mean? The flesh and blood reality of Christ’s earthly presence, which his disciples had come to know and treasure, will depart from them.
And difficulty lies ahead. Jesus is clear that the world that the disciples inhabit is filled with darkness and with powers that oppose God. I would guess that Jesus’s followers probably had some trouble grasping the profound hope in his parting words to them. I would bet that Jesus’s commencement address to his disciples rang a bit hollow in hindsight, in the immediate aftermath of his crucifixion.
Do those same words sound irrelevant to us in our time and place, nearly two thousand years later? Do they seem of little encouragement to those confronting the realities of the harsh, chaotic world in which we currently live?
How can anyone on the verge of losing a home honestly not be afraid? How can any of us, reading about the unfathomable human abuses in Syria not have a troubled heart? How can we on Locust Street not feel agitated in spirit by the opioid epidemic destroying people’s lives in this city?
After all, are troubled hearts really so bad? Don’t you imagine that the pioneers in the civil rights movement had troubled hearts, hearts that were stirred up to take action, to play some human part in affirming the dignity of others? And even today, Christ’s disciples are constantly being agitated into loving response to those in need and thereby accomplishing much for their benefit. Troubled spirits or hearts stirred up over injustice and evil are hearts revealing that they are, in some sense, spiritually alive.
We know, too, that Jesus himself was troubled in his heart on several occasions. He was “greatly disturbed in spirit” at his friend Lazarus’s death. His soul was troubled on the eve of his passion. His spirit was restless when he declared at the Last Supper that Judas would betray him.
So maybe the problem is not with troubled hearts per se, but with the way we interpret Jesus’s commands. When we hear Christ telling us not to be troubled or afraid, do we believe that there is some action we are to take to find for ourselves the peace that only God gives? If we just tried hard enough, we could have untroubled hearts, right?
But is it really up to us to ease our troubled hearts? Instead, what if we view Jesus’s imperatives as performative words? What if these words themselves, by their very utterance, create a new dimension of reality? What if they effect what they say?
When Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid,” he is ushering in a new creation. Remember what God did at the beginning of creation? God said, “Let there be light!” and there was light, expressed in Scripture in just two powerful Hebrew words. Can you picture it: God speaking creation into existence? So, too, with Jesus’s command—“Let not your hearts be troubled!” Jesus is causing God’s power to break into this world and to change it forever. He is making our hearts whole again in peace by speaking those words. Speak the word only, and our souls shall be healed! Jesus knows that our hearts will be troubled, and so he is doing something mysterious but so effective, something that will ultimately not let our hearts stay in such a state of agitation.
And yet it is still easy to despair, isn’t it? We can look around us at a country so shamefully divided and at places that never seem to have any peace. We can question whether Christ will ever come again to us as he promised. We might be tempted to see Christ’s farewell earthly words as the fanciful concoction of yet another commencement speaker.
But, oh, how easy it is to forget that Christ’s gift of God’s peace is not some sentimental notion of everyone getting along or an absence of conflict. God’s peace, God’s shalom, is not some pollyanish human vision of what a nice world looks like. Christ’s peace is God’s real gift to us, and it is not as the world gives. It is not defined in the depths of our fallible imaginations. It is truly the peace that passes all understanding. Just because we don’t see the peace of God right here and right now as we expect it to be, doesn’t mean it isn’t starting to happen. It has already been granted to us when Christ uttered those words to his disciples in his final days on earth.
Unlike the typical commencement speaker who pronounces well-meaning but perhaps meaningless words of encouragement to thousands of graduates, Jesus’s words put fuel in the bus for the journey ahead. Jesus keeps his promises, for as he said he would rise from the dead, so he did.
The peace we long for is God’s; it’s not human-made. The ability to move from troubled hearts and fear to a place of wholeness and healing is not ours to achieve by our own merits. It is for God to work in us. And that work is being accomplished in ways we cannot even begin to understand. It surpasses our understanding.
There are still troubled hearts; there is still fear. The glorious vision of hearts untroubled and unafraid is still yet to be completely revealed. But one thing is sure: God keeps his promises. He has put fuel in our bus, and he continues to put fuel in our bus, to keep us moving in hope towards that eternal and glorious day when there will be no night. He presses us on toward that place where there are no troubled waters, where there is neither sighing nor sorrow but life everlasting. Because God keeps his promises.
Preached by Father Kyle Babin
May 26, 2019
Saint Mark’s Church , Philadelphia