May 1, 2016
May the word of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable to you, our rock and our redeemer.
Many of you know that I share an apartment with a young family. This young family has two small children, Landon who is three and a half, and Brooke who is almost two. This past Saturday, Landon and Brooke’s parents wanted to attend the wedding reception of a dear friend. They did not want to take the kids to the wedding reception, because the reception began during the kids bedtime. And as any parent of small children will tell you, you do not, under any circumstances, mess with the kids bedtimes. Megan, their mother, decided to hire a babysitter to feed the kids dinner, and put them to bed. So she and her husband Josh could attend the wedding reception.
Now when Megan shared with me their weekend plans, I was a bit skeptical. Brooke, the two year old, is just transitioning out of the “stranger danger” phase of development. Stranger danger is a pretty common developmental phase in children between 18 and 24 months. Stranger danger works like this. Let’s say Grandma comes over on Friday afternoons to watch Brooke. Every Friday when Grandma comes over, Brooke is super happy to see her. Then, overnight, Brooke starts to cry whenever Grandma comes over on Friday. She refuses to let Grandma hold her, or feed her lunch, or take her for walks without Megan there. Brooke doesn’t see Grandma as a loving adult anymore, but as a total stranger. And strangers are now dangerous for Brooke.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, I think we can all relate to Brooke’s experience of stranger danger. Learning to trust people that we don’t know well is scary at any age. Being left behind by the people we love (even for good reasons) is even scarier. As I read today’s text I couldn’t help but wonder if the disciples were experiencing the adult version of stranger danger: anxiety. In our passage for today, Jesus informs his disciples that he is about to leave them to return to the Father. Even though it was always a part of Jesus’ plan to return to the Father, the news catches the disciples off guard. And they are feeling quite anxious. The disciples are anxious that they will not be able to continue their ministry without Jesus’ physical presence. Jesus recognizes the disciple’s anxiety. But rather than try to “fix” the disciple’s anxiety, Jesus models for them the non-anxious presence of God.
The first way that Jesus does this is by reminding them that where love is, Jesus and the Father are at home. Jesus said, “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.” Here we see the intimate connection between the Word of God (Scripture) and God’s love poured out upon the disciples. We see that the route to knowing God is to live the word of Jesus as revealed to us in Scripture. Jesus begins to model the non-anxious presence of God for the disciples by teaching them how to love God as God loves them.
Jesus also models for the disciples the non-anxious presence of God when he tells them that the Father will be sending them the Holy Spirit in his name. Jesus assures the disciples that the Holy Spirit will teach the disciples everything, and remind them of all that Jesus said to them. The Spirit will be their Advocate, helping them discern the will of God in their lives and ministry. In the Holy Spirit, Jesus proclaims that the disciples will not be alone once Jesus returns to the Father. The disciples do not have to worry how they will discern the will of God in their lives and ministry on their own. Because they are not alone. The Holy Spirit will be with them always. Here Jesus announces the indwelling of both “the Father,” and himself in a community of believers, through the Spirit. By sending the Spirit, Jesus reduces the anxiety of the disciples because through the Spirit, Jesus promises to be with them always.
Another way that Jesus models the non-anxious presence of God is by declaring the peace of God. Jesus tells the disciples, “peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” This declaration may sound familiar to you. It is the declaration I used this morning before announcing the passing of the peace. Now the peace that Jesus offers the disciples is different than the peace the world offers. The world often thinks of peace as the absence of conflict. In other words, peace exists when everyone agrees with one another. Or the world thinks of peace as a sense of calm or serenity of spirit. But what Jesus is offering is the peace made possible by the presence of God. When God is present, so too is peace.
This is why we pass the peace in worship after we confess our sins. In our Reformed tradition, we believe that our sin separates us from God. We also believe that if we confess our sins, God will forgive us our sins. Now that we have been forgiven by God, we can pass the peace as a sign of our forgiveness of one another. And forgiveness does not mean the absence of conflict. In fact, the whole reason we pass the peace as a community is to show that the peace of God is more powerful than the conflicts we have with one another. When we pass the peace in our community of faith, we make visible our trust that God’s grace and love is greater than any conflict we have with our neighbor.
A final way that Jesus models the non-anxious presence of God is by explaining to the disciples why he has to return to the Father. He begins by telling them not to be troubled or afraid. That him returning to the Father was part of God’s plan from the beginning. When Jesus says that he is returning to the Father because the Father is “greater than I,” we shouldn’t read this as Jesus saying that God the Father is more powerful than God the Son. This passage is not challenging the doctrine of the Trinity that says that God is one being, three persons. We’re not committing any heresies this morning! Jesus is saying that he is returning to the Father so that Jesus can be submissive to the Father’s will. That him submitting himself to the Father’s will and returning to the Father was part of God’s plan from the beginning. In walking the disciples through his reason for returning to the Father, Jesus helps reduce the disciple’s anxiety over his departure. Because now the disciples don’t see Jesus’ departure as abandonment, but as a part of God’s plan for creation.
Now that we have a sense of how Jesus models the non-anxious presence of God, I want to suggest that being a non-anxious presence is an important aspect of Christian leadership. You may be wondering how we can take Jesus’ example of the non-anxious presence of God and apply it to our own lives? One area we can practice being a non-anxious presence is in our families. It is sometimes challenging to be non-anxious in our families because our relationships with our family members are very important to us. In fact, our relationships with our families are some of the most important relationships in our lives. And the more important the relationship is to us, the more likely we are to become anxious about it. Especially when someone in our family makes a decision that we are not totally on board with.
One person I know who practices the non-anxious presence of God well in her family life is my housemate Megan. Particularly around her daughter Brooke, who can become quite anxious whenever Megan has to leave her. Last week before Megan and Josh left for the wedding reception, she pulled Brooke aside. She told Brooke that she loved her, and that she would be here when she woke up. She reminded Brooke who the babysitter was, and that she was in good hands for the evening. She left a note for the babysitter spelling out Brooke’s bedtime routine. She made sure that Brooke had her favorite stuffed mouse to sleep with. When bedtime rolled around, Brooke was a little fussy, but she went to bed without issue. Megan’s anticipation of Brooke’s anxiety allowed her to take the steps necessary to reduce her anxiety so she (and her sleep-deprived housemate) could go to sleep without incident.
Now you may be wondering if Megan could have reduced Brooke’s anxiety simply by not attending the wedding reception. If Brooke’s fear of strangers was causing her anxiety, would it not be more loving for Megan to put Brooke to bed? I don’t think so. One of the key tasks of parenting is to help children face their fears. Megan won’t be able to put Brooke to bed every night for the rest of her life. Brooke has to start learning how to put herself to bed. But since Brooke is two, she needs a lot of support in putting herself to bed. She needs someone to remind her to brush her teeth, and read her a bedtime story, even if that someone isn’t her mother. Even though Megan wasn’t there to put her to bed, she still hired a babysitter, and instructed the babysitter. In taking care to keep her bedtime routine consistent, Megan taught Brooke how to put herself to bed.
Another area where we can practice being a non-anxious presence is in our church. I believe non-anxiety helps a congregation address its anxiety in a healthy way. I know that sounds contradictory, but let me explain. Right now feels like a very anxious time in the life of our church. And there are many reasons to be anxious. We are living in a season of transitional pastoral leadership. Our congregation is aging, and we are unsure who will be able to serve as leaders. The culture around us is changing. Suddenly Pittsburgh is the hot place to live. New people are moving to our city, and with these new people comes new ideas about what it means to be a community and what it means to be a church. We wonder how to hold on to our traditions in the midst of so much change. We wonder how we will find peace in the midst of all the changes around us?
The good news of this passage is that we don’t have to go searching for peace. Jesus declares to us that wherever the presence of God is, so too is God’s peace. We as a church community believe that God is with us when we gather for worship on Sunday. When we visit a congregant in the hospital. When we prepare a meal to serve at the shelter. When we open our basement to provide meeting spaces for NA and ESL classes. We do not create this peace on our own. The peace of God is made manifest whenever God is present. And God is present when his children gather together in his name. The peace of God is a gift of God for the people of God.
As a church community, we participate in the peace of God when we allow the Holy Spirit to work through us in love. And one way that the Holy Spirit works through us is to remind us of God’s peace in the midst of seemingly anxious circumstances. Particularly, the Holy Spirit works to remind us of God’s peace when we can’t see it. When we’re feeling anxious and unsure of ourselves. But this is why God sends the Holy Spirit to the disciples on the eve of Jesus’ return to the Father. So that we can receive freedom from anxiety by putting our whole trust in God’s grace and love.