“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (Jo. 14:27).
In our Gospel today, Jesus is talking about the heart: not just as the seat of the will, the metaphorical place where we chart a course for our lives (who will we be, what will we do); but the heart as emotional arena, the place where feeling is experienced. The two are related, of course, the will and the affections. The direction we take in life in response to God’s will for us involves the whole of who we are, heart and soul and mind, as it says in the Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 22:37). Charting a course in life is the work of the whole person.
But here in the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks to the heart mainly as the seat of the affections; to hearts that are emotionally buffeted, troubled, and afraid. “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (Jo. 14:27), as he says in our Gospel. He has not lost sight of charting a course. Jesus wants his disciples to follow through, to follow him; as he says at the end of the fourteenth chapter, as his enemies approach to arrest him, “Rise, let us be on our way” (Jo. 14:31). “Rise”: that is, get a grip and move forward. Reach down deep within yourselves, for the good thing that you find within, for action is at hand.
Or, as Jesus says at the beginning of the chapter, in a very similar passage, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me” (Jo. 14:1). Once again, as he does in our Gospel today, Jesus speaks to the heart, to the disciples’ troubled hearts; but he also calls them to belief, to faith. Faith is the handing over of one’s life in trust to God, which is a matter of the will. That’s what charting a course for your life is all about: having faith. Faith demands the whole of who we are; through grace, God’s power and presence in our lives, we turn to God in faith.
Still, Jesus is speaking primarily to the troubled and fearful hearts of the disciples in our Gospel today. He’s speaking to our affections. Let’s unpack this for a minute. The word “troubled” in our reading could almost be rendered “shaken.” There are experiences that leave us almost physically affected, “shaken up”: my sincere hope is that none of us will be having any of these experiences anytime soon. Troubled could suggest a minor disturbance: “that was troubling,” a sort of Downton Abbey comment, about a tempest in a teapot. But that is not what’s up in our Gospel today.
In fact, this word is the same word that John uses when he describes Jesus at the tomb of his dead friend Lazarus. “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (Jo. 11:33). Again, when Jesus knows that Judas will betray him, John records, “Jesus was troubled in spirit” (Jo. 13:21). These things shook him, moved him, troubled him at the deepest level. In both instances, Jesus is staring death in the face. That is the sense of the word as it’s used in our Gospel today.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (Jo. 14:27). The word for this kind of “fear” is a rare one in the New Testament, apparently. It’s mainly found in the Old Testament, in situations where war is threatened. This is gut-wrenching, sweat-producing, run-from-the-battlefield terror; not the sort of walk into a dark room anxiety that gives you a shiver. This sort of fear not only shakes your heart, but it can break your heart.
In our Gospel, Jesus is speaking to folks who are in deep emotional distress, or deep loss and sorrow. We prayed in the collect at the start of our liturgy, “to you all hearts are open.” If Jesus knows our hearts, he knows the challenges we face, the troubled and fearful hearts that plague us as we chart a course as disciples. He’s telling us not be troubled and afraid because it’s quite likely that we will be. There’s nothing amazing about this: the danger of the troubled and fearful heart, a heart that is shaken and scared, comes with the territory.
Today, however, Jesus promises us “peace”: not the peace of placidity, of untroubled days, of perfectly balanced equilibrium; but rather the peace that comes when we’re in right relationship with God, and with one another. Our confirmands are showing us the way, in this glorious Eastertide, charting a course for their lives, through grace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (Jo. 13:27), Jesus says in our Gospel today: promising not peace as the world gives, but the peace that only he can give.
Jesus returned to this theme of peace after his resurrection. “Peace be with you” (Jo. 20:21), is his greeting as he stood among the disciples on the day of resurrection. He knew what it was to be shaken and scared; not only to stare death in the face, as he did before Lazarus’ tomb, and in the shadow of Judas’ betrayal, but to actually suffer death for all of us upon the cross. Yet there he is, on Easter Day, alive and with them once again: giving his peace, in the full light of day, to our fearful and troubled hearts.