"The Peace of Jesus"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 5/17/1998
Psalm 67; John 14:23-29
This morning is part two of her story. Last week we heard about her life experiences. Today we are going to discuss how her faith helped her lived them. What was so striking about Susannah Wesley is how she lived in a swamp for 45 years, remained in total obscurity and yet became the "Mother of Methodism." Only when we grasp how she was able to do that, can we begin to understand the power of faith to transform not only our lives but also the world.
We think of Susannah as a living miracle. Yet she was no more a living miracle than any of us, once we understand how her faith kept her focused on what was really important to her. When we look at the life of Jesus, the similar issues become apparent. He never wrote anything. No one created a detailed biography of his life. And he never traveled more than a hundred miles from his birth place, Bethlehem. Yet he has influenced our world more than any other figure in human history.
People of faith often conclude that God has been responsible for such people. We say, "It is God who ‘calls' prophets and people of strong faith." Does God really do that? Or has God created a process that enables any of us to use the power that comes to us through faith? Obviously, Jesus believed in the latter or he would not have invited us to follow him.
This morning we are going to be discussing how faith transforms us. The word "transform" literally means"to move beyond our current form." And we will discover that this transforming process has almost exclusively to do with how we think.
What distinguished Susannah Wesley from others had to do with the kinds of thoughts she chose to hold in her mind. What could have easily depressed most people caused her to love and rely on God more and more each day. How could such a response to life be possible when we consider her circumstances? This morning we are going to explore this question.
In the Gospel of John, we find these words, "Peace is what I leave with you; it is my own peace that I give you. I do not give it as the world does. Do not be worried and upset, do not be afraid." These are very powerful words because they speak about the quality of Jesus' thoughts. Jesus said, "It is my own peace that I give you. I do not give it as the world does."
First, let us consider his words, "I do not give it as the world does." How does the world give us peace? Most of us tend to link our peacefulness to our job satisfaction, our homes, our relationships, our looking forward to traveling or vacationing, etc. But is this the kind of peace Jesus was teaching? Remember, these words were coming from a man who said, "The Son of Man has no place to lay his head." Jesus was teaching that peace comes from how we think, not from the nature of our circumstances.
Suppose, for example, that Susannah Wesley had devoted time every day to dwelling on all that she considered missing in her life. Suppose day after day she held thoughts like, "If only my husband knew how to love the people in our congregation." "If only my husband knew how to love and understand me." "If only we had more money." "If only we could leave Epworth." "If only my father's notes and sermons had not been destroyed in the fire."
Susannah had made a decision some years before. She decided what kind of thoughts to hold and what kind to discard. She did not spend her time wishing that her life would be different from what it was. She took advantage of every experience to sharpen her faith. As she changed, so did the way she viewed her world. It could be said of her that she chose to "bloom where she had been planted." This is how faith transforms us.
Most of us are quite skilled at preventing ourselves from experiencing the peace that Jesus taught. Let's talk about how we do this. One of the issues we face is that we care what other people think. We try to look a certain way before we go into public. We try to have our homes presentable before others visit. We try to use words that will not offend. Who could find fault with any of these practices? Most of us do these things out of habit. They are common sense. What separates people is the spirit from which they do these things. Are they doing them out of self respect or from their need for approval?
When Richard Nixon defeated Senator George McGovern for the Presidency, the media called the victory "a landslide." Yet, when we look at the numbers, we see that Nixon won by only 55 percent. Forty-five percent of the people had voted against him.
Some of us attempt to live our lives trying to get 100 percent of the popular vote, 100 percent of the time. And we wonder why peace escapes us. When we try to please everyone, what we may be communicating is, "I have more confidence in what you think of me than in what I think of myself." There can be no peace when we automatically elevate the value of other people's opinions over our own.
Jesus did not think this way when he talked to the Scribes and Pharisees. He also did not particularly care what the opinion polls were saying about his personal life. If he had been worried about the public's reaction he would have not allowed prostitutes to touch him, he would not have publicly broken some of the Sabbath laws, and he most certainly would not have allowed himself to be seen eating and drinking with tax collectors and others considered "outcasts." Jesus' identity was not formed by or dependent on what others thought of him. This is a lesson Susannah Wesley had learned well from her parents.
A second issue we face is that we have a difficult time accepting people just as we find them. We really have trouble with this one. This is why we find Susannah Wesley so inspiring. She stayed with Samuel for 45 years.
Many of us feel that it is our duty to help people change for their own good. After all, isn't this what discipleship is about? Isn't this what love requires us to do? What escapes us is what such thinking is communicating about us. We become like an azalea telling the rose bush, "I could really like you if you would only get rid of your thorns."
How did Jesus maintain his peace during his many relationships? He once taught, "Love one another as I love you." And as painful as that may have been at times, that is exactly what he did. For example, he said to Judas, "What you must do, do quickly." When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha both said, "If you would only have been here, my brother would not have died!" We do not find Jesus defending himself or explaining his late arrival in Bethany. He allowed them to be hurt because that is where they were in life. The sisters were not ready to accept the possibility that Jesus had something else that required his attention.
Jesus was always extending his love because that is who he had become. He knew that anyone needing love from him would receive it. And he also knew that those who were looking for flaws and shortcomings would always find them. This remains true of all of us. We experience exactly what our thoughts direct us to find.
Jesus knew that our thoughts provide the meaning to everything we experience. If some of us do not agree with this understanding, then we need to discuss who forms our conclusions for us. Who else is there that puts the interpretation on what is happening to us? Who is it that says, "This is a failure," or "This is an opportunity"? No one other than Susannah Wesley made those decisions. Those choices came from her thoughts about each experience.
For Susannah Wesley, Epworth had become her little piece of Heaven within which to work. Because we are on this side of history, we easily conclude that she lived a painful life filled with sorrows. Did she? There is no record of her ever seeking God to change her circumstances. Why not? Such needy thoughts were not a part of her thinking. She knew that if God wanted her to become a person other than who she was, those opportunities for change would come. This was Susannah's faith, a faith that clearly embodied the peace that Jesus was describing.
What we dwell on day after day only expands. This understanding is what gave her the insights, the abilities, and the stamina to become this very extraordinary woman. She allowed very little to rob her of her peace. And as soon as she discovered self-defeating thoughts entering her mind, she went off to be alone, just as Jesus had done, to remind herself that everything was evolving just as it should. This was her faith.
We have to want peace so intentionally that we choose it each time we are confronted with something that wants to take it away. Have you ever discovered how difficult it is to argue with someone who is more interested in being kind than in being right? We lose our peace the moment we insist that others become who we want them to be. Yet, suppose we are right? Are we to allow error to triumph? Can error ever win or is that just our fear? Let's answer that question.
For some of us there may be a down side to this peace of Jesus. For example, Jesus could have chosen to leave the garden on the night of his betrayal, particularly since he knew what was in the mind of Judas. We could argue that Jesus was acting irresponsibly by staying. He had critical information ahead of time and he could have acted on it. He treasured his peace, however, more than justice and more than concerns over his personal safety. That peace came from a confidence that nothing of this world could ultimately defeat him. It is difficult for us to believe that such an understanding is also true for us as spirit beings.
We could also say the same thing about Susannah Wesley. She could have left Samuel shortly after her marriage. She could have said, "Enough is enough!" and who in our generation would have blamed her? She was extremely attractive in every possible way and could have easily married someone who was far more compatible and supportive.
Her life would have been completely different. She could have hired nannies and teachers. As a result her "methods" for teaching might have been unnecessary and thus remained undeveloped. Susannah could have been infinitely more happy with her material existence, being free now from what had been her life's constant challenges. And perhaps John would have become a professor at Oxford University. If Susannah had made that decision, perhaps we would all be Presbyterians today.
When we treasure peace above all else, there are many aspects of this life that we may miss experiencing. Jesus knew this when he said, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." We have a choice. How many of us in spite of all that we have, would love to have one more thing -- the peacefulness that Jesus offers, a life free of fear? It is his gift to us. We can have it the moment we want it. When we display total confidence that God's will is evolving perfectly in our lives, all of life unfolds in a manner we could never have designed.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We thank you, O God, for being so faithful to us. Whenever we come with our cups extended, you are more than willing to fill them. We have also learned that when we seek wholeness only from our world, we will be filled with only what this world can give. How grateful we are that your love surrounds us, ever ready to make its presence known the moment we decide to open our hearts and minds. Thank you for using every moment of our weakness, our loneliness, our confusion and our neediness, to reveal what such thinking is capable of doing to us. Lift us, O God, and guide us to thoughts that produce the fruit that inspires, sustains and creates confidence. In so doing, enable us to understand the person you created us to be. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Our lives are filled with so many circumstances and drama, O God, that we are grateful for these moments together to clarify our thoughts. There are times when our needs appear to overwhelm us, all because we have tended to seek our joy, our happiness and our peace in a world that seems forever changing.
We are confused when money will not bring us happiness, when our relationships, our jobs, and our health still leave us with a sense of unfulfillment.
And so today, we come seeking a wisdom that is much different from what normally governs our lives. We come seeking a greater trust in you. We come seeking the ability to walk peacefully through circumstances that in another day would have produced frustration. We come wanting to radiate a love that reassures others that we care for them just as they are. We come wanting to develop the ability to surrender every outcome to your creativity. We want that awareness that we are constantly and eternally surrounded by your Spirit. Awaken us, O God, from the slumber that robs us of such awareness. We pray these thoughts through the Spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray. . .