John Koepke didn’t want to leave his wife, Pat, home alone that horrible day in 1991. Just hours earlier, she had been diagnosed with malignant breast cancer. But she insisted that he go to the office of his Illinois graphics company for a board meeting. Koepke had served as the company’s president for the previous eight years, and his absence would be noticed.
When he got to the office the chairman pulled him aside. “How’s Pat?” the boss asked. “Not too well,” replied Koepke. “We don’t have the details yet, except that the cancer’s malignant.”
“Too bad – this isn’t a good day for you,” said the chairman. “We’re making some changes around here, and you’re no longer needed.”
Koepke disassociated from reality for a moment; he prayed he was having a bad dream. Later he found out the company was reneging on his contractual severance.
This story, which appeared in a June 10, 1996 issue of Fortune Magazine on the way American business terminates its employees, is a common experience for many of us-and it doesn’t have to be the loss of a job.
Every once in a while, life gets out of control, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s your spouse being diagnosed with cancer or losing your job. Maybe it’s an auto accident or a fall in your home. Maybe it’s a minor chest pain that results in quadruple by-pass surgery. I could go on, but you know the scenario. Sometimes life throws a punch that knocks us to the ground. So how do we get back on our feet and keep going when we feel like staying down?
On the evening of that first Easter Sunday, the risen Christ stood among the frightened disciples and said to them, “Peace be with you.” Then, as if to reinforce the greeting, he said to them again, “Peace be with you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit…”
What would it mean for us to claim the peace of Christ for ourselves? Yes, we all have difficult moments in our lives. We all experience the pain of being human. Call it what you will-worry, anxiety, or disappointment. None of us are without some kind of sorrow or trouble. But on this Pentecost Sunday when Jesus gave us the peace of the Holy Spirit, what can it mean for us now?
I would like to suggest that Christ’s peace gives us the power and presence of God just when we need it most. When God is with us, we find the inner strength to face whatever life throws our way.
You hear it again and again. People in the most desperate circumstances, people in dire straits, people at their wits’ end, somehow managing to rise above their circumstances. Where do they get the power to withstand the pressure that would ordinarily bring them down? How do they somehow manage to avoid being crushed by forces greater than themselves? How do they maintain their sense of self without compromising their deepest values, or losing faith, or falling into despair? How do they hold fast to God when the world around them is falling apart?
You know the feeling. Life can be tough, but somehow we manage to get through. It’s a miracle, isn’t it?
Yes, it is a miracle-and that’s the point.
You find yourself at a dead end, but God makes a way where there is no way, and somehow you find the resilience you never thought you possessed.
Perhaps you have had that experience. You don’t know how you’re going to get through some tragedy or crisis, and yet you get through it with a strength that is not your own. Christ through the Spirit is there for you, helping you to cope in whatever comes your way.
You went in for surgery. Loving family and friends tried to be helpful. But the night before, when everyone had left, and you lay alone in that hospital bed awaiting dawn and the long trip to the operating room, you were alone, alone as never before. Desolate? No. There, you felt a great sense of peace. You knew that you were not alone. He was there, as if standing beside you. Helper. Comforter. Holy Spirit. At home with you.
When you marry, someone really becomes part of you. “The two become one flesh,” Jesus said. So when he died, you thought you were dead. Alone at last, after all these years of marriage! You wanted to die; so desolate were the days after his funeral. But you didn’t die. You lived. Somehow, into that void created by his leaving, Jesus came. He made a home with you. Courage, courage you didn’t know you had, rose within you and you went on.
Tomorrow we are having the funeral for one of the saints of this church, Bob White. My only regret as rector is that I didn’t have more time to spend with Bob; I enjoyed his company so much. Bob had quiet conviction, courage, and a deep faith in God. Last autumn when it was apparent that he would have yet another fight with cancer, there was a peace about the man that astonished me. He was determined to get well, but he also placed himself in God’s hands, no matter what the final result. When I last saw him at the hospital, with all the strength he could muster he muttered the Lord’s Prayer with me. He was ready to meet his God.
So where does the power come from to deal with cancer and eventually with death? Somehow the faith and fortitude we never imaged we possessed we find within us thanks to the Holy Spirit – our Comforter, our Consoler, and our God.
When my mother went into the hospital for exploratory stomach surgery, the doctor told us, “We opened her up, saw all the cancer, then closed her up again. There’s nothing we can do.” My mother was an emotional woman. Shocking news would send her to tears. But as we told her the news about her condition, I was amazed at how calm she was, how resigned she was to dying. I had my prayer book and oil with me, and proceeded to anoint her, saying the words that I had said so many times before: “As you are outwardly anointed with this holy oil, so may our heavenly Father grant you the inward anointing of the Holy Spirit.” At that moment it wasn’t my mother, but her son the priest who broke down and cried.
When the end was near-as she knew better than me-we talked about death in a way that amazed me, for my mother who always thought death was a morbid topic now talked about it freely, openly and with candor. She was ready to die, and had placed herself in God’s hands. My final act as her son the priest was to commend her soul to the God who loved her.
From that experience with my mother, I have never doubted that the Holy Spirit helps and comforts us just when we need it, to get through whatever we have to get through, to face whatever we have to face-even death itself- or God is with us.
That’s the good news of our Christian faith, isn’t it? God is with us, always and forever, and therefore we never walk alone. Listen again to the words of Jesus: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you… Receive the Holy Spirit…”
Believe it. It’s true. You have been given the peace and power and presence of God. In all your struggles, in your battle to be a faithful follower of Jesus, you are not alone. You are never alone. Jesus through the Holy Spirit is with you now and forever. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at Saint James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont. He gave this sermon on Jun. 12, 2011, Pentecost Sunday.