I wonder how many parishioners remember the Sunday morning some years ago when we had five visiting bishops with us for Sunday Mass?
I’ll never forget it, since they were invited to a special lunch in the rectory, and the caterer never showed up with the food!
And I certainly remember the homily given by Bishop Douglas Crosby of Hamilton, because he told a story about an Oblate priest who was a very dear friend of his and of mine.
The friend, the late Father Brendan Megannety, got a call from the hospital telling him his father was failing rapidly. So he rushed to his hometown of Welland, and arrived while his father was still conscious.
As he leaned over the bed, his father said something indistinct.
Desperate to hear his father’s last words, he leaned closer and said “Tell me again, Dad.”
Again, he couldn’t make it out. Urgently, he pressed his father. “Try again, Dad, please try again.”
And finally, he understood what the dying man was saying. “Get a haircut.”
The story is funny precisely because we expect someone’s parting words to be profound. They are, after all, the last chance we have to advise, or comfort, or strengthen the ones we love.
Jesus spoke a whole lot of “last words.” What scholars call his “farewell discourse” takes up almost four whole chapters of the Gospel of John. In his long address, Jesus strengthens his disciples for what lies ahead, giving them practical help in facing the trials and challenges they soon will face.
But Jesus did not give these final instructions and promises only to those who walked with him on earth. Every direction and every assurance was meant for you and for me, meant to help us cope with the sorrows and struggles of life.
This morning we only read six verses of this lengthy “last will and testament”, but they contain the heart of our Lord’s farewell message. There are three promises that hold the key to a happy life, and the key to the Christian life.
The first promise is that the Father will not only love those who love Jesus; he will live in them. In the fancier language of scripture scholars, “A new relationship of communion and indwelling will be created between the risen Jesus and his disciples” [Martin and Wright, The Gospel of John, 249]. It’s a personal relationship that’s so intimate that Jesus says he and the Father will make their home with and in each faithful disciple.
The second promise was partly contained in the first: the gift of the Spirit. Obviously, the Spirit will dwell in the hearts of believers, for where Jesus and the Father make a home the Spirit does also. The second promise adds another dimension: the Spirit as both Advocate and Teacher. Jesus makes a total of five promises about the Holy Spirit in the farewell discourse, but this verse sums them up. He will send the Holy Spirit to continue his mission, and the Spirit will be our advocate—the one who pleads our case, who helps us out.
These promises are glorious, more wonderful than we can really understand. Which is a bit of a problem. We don’t get up in the morning and think “what I really need today is a new relationship of communion and indwelling with Jesus.” We may not even be in the habit of turning to the Holy Spirit for support in everyday problems.
So that’s where promise number three comes in. In his third promise, Jesus offer something just about everyone wants and absolutely everyone needs: peace.
Whether it’s the single parent of screaming kids, a cancer patient, an unemployed breadwinner, a stressed-out student, or someone mourning the loss of a loved one—or even just ordinary folks coping with the insane pace of modern life, we all want peace.
That’s obvious enough, but in today’s Gospel Jesus tells us that he wants us to have peace, too. It’s not just because he wants us to be happy, but because peace is really necessary if we’re to know and serve God.
In his little jewel of a book, Searching for and Maintaining Peace, Father Jacques Philippe sums this up: “God is a God of peace. He does not speak and does not operate except in peace, not in trouble and agitation.”
What Jesus promises is something fundamental to our relationship with him. And he goes out of his way to steer us clear from the wrong idea about peace when he says that the peace he gives is not what the world calls peace.
Father Jacques writes that we’ll never know peace, or know it only very briefly, if we understand it as the absence of problems, annoyances and worries. That’s peace as the world gives. God’s peace is something else—it’s a gift from God, not a set of circumstances when everything’s going right.
In fact, we need God’s peace most when everything’s going wrong.
One of the reasons I love Searching for and Maintaining Peace so much is that Father Jacques very accurately lists the reasons we lose our peace: the troubles of life, the fear of being without something, the fear of suffering, the suffering of those around us, the faults and shortcomings of others, our faults and imperfections, decisions we have to make, and—last but not least—our sins.
This guy knows human nature, that’s for sure. But he says every one of these reasons for losing our peace is a bad reason. Every single one.
I think we can all agree, then, that God’s peace is worth having. Really worth having. So how and where do we find it?
Today’s Gospel passage has one answer at the beginning and one at the end. At the beginning, Jesus says “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him…” In short, “love and obedience go together.”  To receive what Jesus promised his disciples, we need to be disciples: we must live what he has taught.
At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus invites the disciples to rejoice, even when they think they’ve lost him—because they won’t really lose him at all. Only when Jesus finishes doing what the Father sent him to do will the Spirit come. We too must rejoice at this perfect plan, whereby Jesus is with us all the time, living in our hearts with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
As Pentecost nears, we need to expect new life in the Spirit. We need t pray for new life in the Spirit. Because it is the Spirit who brings peace.
And Jesus tells the disciples to keep believing—even when things turn very dark on Calvary. We also must believe. Faith is a foundation for peace. Only by faith can we believe that God is greater than the evils around us, and so preserve our peace; only by faith can we believe that God will use our misfortunes for our good, and so maintain our peace.
In short, faith is the pathway to peace.
And peace is probably what filled the heart of my friend’s father when he had no greater worry on his deathbed than the shaggy hair of his son, the priest...