Resting in the Peace of Christ

A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

When you were little, really little, did you say bedtime prayers, right before you went to sleep? Did you learn to say the Lord's Prayer? How about this one: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Bedtime prayers are as old as we are – and even older. In fact, bedtime prayer was the beginning of the day for the people in Bible times. The word for praying at night is “vigil.” Bedtime prayer is a way we keep vigil, a way to be vigilant, a way to watch for the morning, before we sleep, while God keeps watch, while God keeps our souls safe.

But we are a sleep-deprived people. We feel so busy. We have trouble getting or going or staying asleep. I wonder: These days, what keeps you up – or wakes you up – at night? Is it an “instant replay” of some of your day's events? Is it the need to unwind, after a very long day? Is it some worry you have, some kind of anxiety? Last night I had trouble getting to sleep because I had a house full of vacationing guests – none of whom had to go to work today! But I also had trouble going to sleep because I found out, just before bedtime, that I had made a mistake – not a huge one, but big enough that I was feeling upset with myself.

What helps you to lie down, to sleep, to rest? To use some Biblical language, what “makes you dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8)? In today's Gospel story from Luke, Jesus makes one of his post-Easter appearances. After his crucifixion and burial, he has risen from the dead. And while the disciples, his friends, are telling others about all this, Jesus comes and stands among them. Last week I talked about how standing is the oldest posture for Christian prayer. Why? Because to stand is to be alive! Just ask anyone who has grown old about having a good night's sleep, then getting up in the morning. . .and simply standing.

“Jesus himself stood among them,” our Gospel story says. And his first words in both Luke's version of the story this week, and John's version of the story last week, are these: “Peace be with you.” How did his friends react? “They were startled and terrified, and they thought they were seeing a ghost.” (Luke 24:36b-38). Resurrection can be scary! When someone comes to life again, literally or otherwise, before our very eyes, we may think we are seeing things. But resurrection, like death, happens. New life comes, every spring. “New every morning is (God's) love,” one of our hymns says. “Through sleep and darkness (we are) safely brought, restored to life and power and thought” (John Keble, 1792-1866).

When we lay ourselves down and go to sleep, we are in that “in-between” place, that place between the “repent” of Lent and the “rejoice” of Easter. When we sleep, we are in a place of pure, divine peace. And our rest is an act of trust – in God. We trust God to carry on without us, for just a little while. Do you know that nighttime prayer from the Book of Common Prayer in New Zealand? It's used all over the world now. Part of it goes like this: “Lord, it is night. The night is for stillness. Let us be still in the presence of God. // It is night after a long day. What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done; let it be. // The night is quiet. Let the quietness of your peace enfold us, all who are dear to us, and all who have no peace.”

Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” What is the peace of Christ, if not trusting in God, if not simply resting in the Lord, if not, at least for now, letting things be? A Catholic priest and spiritual teacher, Richard Rohr, talks about prayer as experiencing God through hope – trusting that God truly is in charge of our world; through safety – protected by the God who loves us; and through the ancient act of doing nothing, of contemplatio, of resting in God. I wonder: What kinds of prayer give you peace today, help you feel safe today, make you rest today?

Here is an answer to that question for people of faith throughout the ages. The Psalms. The Psalms are honest prayers. The Psalms carry power and passion (do you know the story of David?). The Psalms can be risky, raw-edged, subversive, sometimes more than we can take, sometimes just what we need. And the Psalms were first set to music – so, we can sing them!

For me, today's Psalm 4 shows us a God we can trust. A God who refuses to get caught up in our human anxiety. A God who tells us the truth about how we can so easily get confused, make mistakes, ignore God and “run after false gods.” A God who is happy just to be with us – and who makes us happy! A God who helps us to hope, to feel safe, to rest in peace – both when we are alive and when, in our death, we pass on to a larger life in God.

Speaking of singing and stories, do you know the story of a musician named Samuel Sebastian Wesley? Samuel was the grandson of Charles Wesley, who with his brother John, write lots of hymns and founded the movement we now call Methodism. In 19th century England, Samuel Wesley was a leading organist, choirmaster and composer. Seven of his hymn tunes are in the blue Hymnal 1982 you'll find in the pew racks of the Historic Church. I'll bet most of you know one of Samuel Sebastian Wesley's hymns: “The Church's One Foundation.”

There's another fairly well-known hymn tune, one that's usually sung as a choir anthem. It's in your Renew hymnal, and it's called, “Lead me, Lord” (#175). Please look at it with me.

You'll notice that there is only one verse or stanza, divided into two parts that come from two different Psalms. The first half-verse comes from Psalm 5:8 (“Lead me, Lord, lead me in your righteousness; make your way plain before my face.”) The second half comes from the last half of Psalm 4, verse 8. That's the Psalm appointed for today, the one we prayed together.

For thousands of years people of faith have been praying and singing the Psalms. In the Psalms we find fabulous food for thought and prayer. In fact, most monastics – most monks and nuns throughout the world talk about the Psalms as something to chew on. . .but only a little bit at a time. Only a word or a phrase or, at most, a half-verse at a time.

Notice that it is this last half-verse of Psalm 4 – verse 8 “b” – that sums up what I have been saying. It is God alone who makes us lie down, to sleep, to dwell in safety, to rest in the peace of Christ. What we said in Psalm 4:8 (“Only you, Lord, make me dwell in safety”) can be sung in this way: For it is you, Lord; You, Lord, only, that makes me dwell in safety. Do you feel the peace, the safety, the rest in that music? Please sing it with me. . ..

Tonight, may we rest in the peace of Christ; tomorrow, may we rise with Christ in glory.

—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
April 22, 2012