Death, Life, and the Finality of God’s Peace

To be an adult person of faith is to wrestle with the question of finality. What is final? What holds the last word?

In some sense, finality is a question that ushers us into adulthood. For what causes us to grow up faster than to lose our grip on something or someone we thought permanent? Painfully we often mature through loss. As humans, it is natural that we rely on people, places and commitments to give shape to our reality. We set down anchors in jobs that seem secure. We put down roots in a relationship with a person who is healthy. We ground ourselves in an institution that we trust. Sadly, growing up often means having your foundations shaken.

Great loss shocks the most grounded human beings precisely because of our sense of finality. We thought we had made the right decision. I dedicated myself to this marriage. I poured my life into this job that I loved. I had made my final answer. How could it have gone so wrong?

When what we thought was final, or who we thought was final passes away, we can find ourselves feeling unmoored, adrift. This is a natural process, and part of growing up. But that doesn’t make the process any less painful, frustrating, and slow. Finding balance again after your world has been shaken takes some time.

Time is short for Jesus in the fourteenth chapter of John. He’s just had his last supper with the disciples. He’s washed their feet. Now he’s trying to prepare them for what is to come. Jesus knows they will face a great sense of loss. They’ve followed him from their fishing boats and tax booths. These disciples live a radically different life than when they first met Jesus. They’re dedicated to caring for the poor and preaching good news. They have followed Jesus, set their hope in Christ. Now Jesus must tell them he’s leaving. And his death won’t be an easy one.

Jesus’ words to this gathering at the last supper echo through the centuries to us: “Do not let your hearts be troubled…and do not let them be afraid.” Jesus, I wish that were easy. To not let my heart be troubled. I wish I had some sort of magic power to help this congregation live with an untroubled heart. But faith is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of practice to train your heart not to be troubled by even the small frustrations in life. I know, because I’m not there yet. But there’s still hope for all of us I believe.

Jesus says to his disciples. “Peace I leave with you; my own peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” In this simple set of sentences, Jesus names the tension of finality. “I do not give to you as the world gives.” In this world, try as we might to create impressions of permanence, little is final. Even the world’s greatest scholars are proven incorrect. Even the world’s greatest works of art fade. And the world’s greatest leaders are those who step down when their term is over. But Jesus does not give as the world gives.

The peace of Christ is final. Christ’s peace has the last word.

Some of you know that one of my favorite prayers was written by Desmond Tutu.

Goodness is stronger than evil;
love is stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
life is stronger than death.

It may seem odd that I called a series of declarative statements a prayer. Often we think of prayer as a set of requests. We petition God in prayer. But, isn’t it true that sometimes our best prayers don’t change God, they change us? Sometimes prayer reminds us what we have forgotten.

Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death.

In our world, day to day it may seem like evil has the final word. Hate may appear to be on the rise. But, as they say, it is always darkest before the dawn. Finality rests with Goodness, with Love, with Light. Goodness, light, love: these are the final words.

But the nature of our life in faith is tension. The Peace of God, this final word, it sometimes strikes a dissonance with the world. In our world the transitory can seem powerful. As I said before, it takes a lot of practice to rest in the peace of Christ. Add to that: sometimes resting in Christ’s peace can set us at odds with the world. As St. Augustine once wrote: “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in [God].”

Just last night The Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan died in New York. He was 94. Fr. Berrigan grew famous for his protest of the Vietnam War. For Daniel, the peace of Christ meant that he found himself confronting the powers of war, poverty, and injustice. But he kept working because he had faith that this peace had the last word. Some may have disagreed with some of Fr. Berrigan’s methods. But can we help but be moved by his faith? Berrigan believed God’s peace has the last word and so we human beings can learn to treat one another justly. We can live in peace.

Two major deaths have touched the life of this parish this week. On Sunday Rick Simoncelli, a longtime member, sometime vestryman, and musician here at the church died peacefully at home after a long struggle with cancer. Wednesday morning Jim Davis, another leader for many years here at Holy Communion, died at Barnes Jewish Hospital after a short illness.

A brief note: Some of you may have been surprised to hear me describe Jim’s illness as short. It was well known that he had an incurable cancer, but the cancer didn’t get a chance to run its full course. Over the last few weeks Jim had a complex series of diagnoses, including pneumonia. His decline was mercifully quick. The night before he died, Jim was joking with his family and telling stories. He was being Jim.

I was privileged to sit with both men shortly before their deaths, and to pray with both families. I spent a great deal of time thinking about death, about loss, and about finality this week. I knew that today I had to preach about the peace of Christ, and I will confess it seemed a difficult task. Death seems so final.

But friends, we are still in the season of Easter. We are Easter people. We believe that life is stronger than death. Death does not have the last word.

In the seventeenth century, the poet and priest John Donne wrestled the idea of death in his tenth Holy Sonnet:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

The poem takes on a tone of taunting as Donne reminds death that “thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men.” Death doesn’t set its own agenda.

Donne summons his faith. Though death appears powerful, Donne remembers the truth on which he grounds his life as a Christian: “Life is stronger than death.”

One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

This final line “death, thou shalt die.” is a subject of debate among scholars of John Donne in the play “Wit” by Margaret Edson, a powerful meditation on mortality. In the play, Edson’s central character, Professor Vivian Bearing, undergoes an experimental treatment for terminal cancer. Suffering in the hospital, she remembers her graduate advisor lecturing her about the punctuation of Donne’s sonnet. The last line is central. Vivian is scolded for choosing an inferior edition of the poem when preparing her paper. In her version a semicolon separates the last phrase. “Death (Capital D) ; (semicolon) thou shalt die.” Death is rendered powerful by this punctuation the advisor tells her.

Better scholars have restored an earlier manuscript we learn. Death begins with a lowercase “d” and, critically, there is no semicolon. There is no finality to death. Nothing as strong as a semicolon. “death, (comma) thou shalt die.” Death is but a pause. A short sleep. Death is but a comma. Death does not have the final word.

Peace I leave with you, my own peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. These can be hard words to hear in a world that presents itself as if it were full of finality. But Christians are those who “even at the grave…make our song ‘alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.’” We trust that somehow, perhaps in a way indescribable with human voices, we will be reunited with those we love but see no longer. Death does not have the final word. Life does. Light does. Love does. Peace has the final word.

We all face loss. It is part of growing older, and part of growing up. We find maturity in faith as we learn to navigate the loss gracefully. We learn that though we had set our roots in a particular place, with a particular people, we can survive, even thrive, if we must be transplanted. We learn that even if we lose a job we loved, the loss does not take away our talents and our learning. We learn that loving someone deeply expands our heart, makes us more capable of loving. Even when someone we love precedes us in death, we can be thankful for what we learned and shared. And we can continue to love. It’s not easy. But is growing up ever easy?

May God bless you with a mature faith. When your foundations are shaken, may you find yourself grounded more and more in the peace of Christ, that peace which the world can never take away. May God have the final word in your life. Amen.

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