O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding… So starts our Collect for this morning. The peace of God which passes all understanding… So begins a classic final blessing many priests use at the end of the Eucharist.
We enter this morning with a prayer that confesses that God’s grace surpasses our understanding. Often our worship ends with the same note. This, I suppose, is so highly appropriate because we live our lives in the midst of a world we do not understand. We practice a faith that we cannot fully comprehend. We tie our lives to ideals like love and joy and peace; ideals that, in the end, can only be embraced but not grasped.
Today our Gospel reading comes from a part of the Gospel of John scholars call Jesus’ “Farewell Discourses.” It is from the words Jesus shared with his disciples at the Last Supper, the night before his death. For five chapters Jesus expresses fully his hopes, love, desires and concerns for his followers and his mission which, upon his resurrection and ascension to the Father, will become their mission.
Like much of John’s Gospel, it reads like a combination of poetry and dense theology. It is, to be frank, not easy to understand. But do we really expect to understand the depths of Jesus’ words? Is understanding them even a worthy goal? I am not sure understanding Jesus’ words, being able to perceive his full and true ideas is what a life of faith is all about. Instead I think it is about seeking to understand God’s wisdom as well as seeking to live in that wisdom even, especially when, God’s wisdom surpasses our understanding.
We live complicated lives. We live in a broken and bruised world. We are imperfect beings seeking a perfect God. We are finite creatures following an infinite God. It should be no surprise that the things of God will surpass our understanding. As St Augustine said, “We are speaking of God, what marvel if you do not comprehend? For if you comprehend, he is not God.”
Perhaps the greatest hope we can hold in such a conundrum is that our Lord never expected us to comprehend these things. Jesus knew that God will always surpass our knowledge.
Consider our Lord’s words to his disciples on the night before his death. Consider that they are spoken to us this morning just as much as they were spoken to Peter and John and James so long ago. 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 hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, 'I am going away, and I am coming to you.'
It is well worth considering these words in our struggles to understand God and to live lives of faith. First, our Lord promises us his peace. He does not promise a lack of trouble or strife. He does promise us peace. It is his peace. The peace which passes all understanding. It is clarity, not certainty, that we are given. We are given a promise that, even in times of trouble, we can know that we are not alone.
Our Lord tells us, “You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’” How can one leave and be present? How can one be absent and still be with us? How can we explain these things to ourselves not to mention to others who seek the faith? This is the mystery of faith. It is what surpasses all understanding. It is when we find that even alone we are accompanied, and that we are given the clarity of our Lord’s presence. But this presence can feel so fleeting in the midst of a dark world filled with troubles and grief.
Peace our Lord declares to us and peace he has promised us. This passage is filled with the benefits and the actions our Lord offers us. But deep in the midst of it is a sentence that serves as a charge to us. “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
Sadness, strife, and turmoil will always be a part of this life. Our Lord has never promised that we will be without such things. He has promised that he will be with us and that we need not be overcome. It is our call and the path to our hope that we let not our hearts be overcome with such trouble or fear.
“Anxiety is a symptom of idolatry,” I once heard a bishop proclaim. In the same line of thought, hope is a symptom of faith.
It was a dark, a very dark, night in Jesus’ life when he spoke the words we have heard this morning. Facing death, unsure of his followers, dreading the torture that lay before him, our Lord spoke words of hope and commissioning to those who believed in him. It was an act of faith for his part. Up to this point there had been very little evidence of the ability of his best friends to take up his mission after he had departed. In fact, there was plenty of evidence for the opposite. It surpasses our understanding why Jesus would believe that they could succeed, or that we could.
The only reason to believe that it was possible is that with God all things are possible, even that which surpasses our understanding.
© 2019, Tom Thoeni