PEACE BE WITH YOU
April 8, 2018
John 20:19-31; Acts 4:32-35
In order to understand our gospel lesson for today, we really need to put ourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ disciples who have every reason to be terrified for their lives. Their leader has just been brutally tortured, publicly humiliated, and then executed on a cross—which was one of the most excruciating ways to be put to death ever devised by humankind. Now that the disciples had discovered that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb where they had laid him, the rumors were circulating throughout Jerusalem that the disciples of Jesus had taken his body. In order to do that, they would have had to break the royal seal that Pilate had ordered to secure the tomb because the previous day the religious leaders had expressed concern that Jesus’ disciples actually might come and take his body away. Breaking this seal would have been considered a treasonous act, punishable by death.
Besides this dynamic, Jesus’ disciples probably were using this time to reflect upon and figure out what they could have done differently to prevent this terrible ordeal from happening. Not only had Judas betrayed Jesus and Peter had denied him, all of them had abandoned Jesus shortly after he had been arrested. When Peter tried to prevent Jesus from being arrested by striking the high priest’s guard with his sword, Jesus told him to put away his sword. Obviously, resorting to the use of violence, even in Jesus’ defense, was not the solution for Jesus. However, couldn’t the disciples have advocated for Jesus’ release when Pilate asked the crowd whom they would choose to be set free? Couldn’t they have put themselves in harm’s way and tried to block Jesus’ walk to Golgatha? Given their disloyalty and lack of courage, these disciples’ hearts must have been weighed down with a ton of guilt.
A third dynamic probably going on with these disciples was trying to understand the meaning of everything that had happened during the past 48 hours, in addition to figuring out the meaning of Jesus’ entire ministry in light of this gross injustice. These disciples previously had demonstrated that they had little comprehension about the good news of God’s reign that Jesus so ardently proclaimed throughout his ministry. They had been mystified by the way that Jesus could heal people and feed thousands of people with only a few loaves of bread and a few fish. What did Jesus truly mean when he said that he was the Bread of Life and the Way, the Truth, and the Life? When Jesus shared some bread and a cup of wine with his disciples and told them that these were his body and his own blood, the importance of this simple meal was lost on the disciples. Even when the disciples discovered that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb, we are told that they did not understand the scripture about Jesus being raised from the dead.
Into this milieu of terror, guilt, and uncertainty, Jesus suddenly appears among the disciples and says to them, “Peace be with you.” So as to demonstrate that it was really him, Jesus showed them his hands and his side where he had been pierced by a sword, and said to them again, “Peace be with you.” Although the disciples were excited to see Jesus, we can only imagine how mystified they were once again that Jesus could appear in their midst and be so conciliatory with them after all that they had done to him. Nevertheless, by extending his peace to them, Jesus implicitly was saying to his disciples, “In spite of all that you did to me or did not do to accompany me through this terrible ordeal, I want you to know that I hold nothing against you, because I already have forgiven you.”
Well, that was a relief! However, Jesus did not stop there. Before the disciples could even catch their breath, Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, and if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Was this the same Spirit about which Jesus spoke at their last supper when he said to them, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you?” If so, then the peace of the Holy Spirit would become the bedrock of their faith and courage to follow in the way of Jesus and do all that they would be called to do for the sake of Jesus and the good news that he proclaimed throughout his ministry by loving others just as Jesus had continued to love them throughout this whole ordeal.
This act of Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on his disciples is John’s version of what commonly is known as the Day of Pentecost. In the Gospel of John, the disciples don’t have to wait 50 days before they experience this outpouring of the Holy Spirit and are filled with the peace that comes with knowing that all of their sins have been forgiven and that they have been filled with a power that would enable them to speak truth to power and pursue the justice and peace that Jesus modeled throughout his entire ministry. Once the disciples received this Holy Spirit, they no longer had to be afraid for their lives because they were filled with the peace of knowing that just as Jesus had been raised by God from the dead, they also could count on being raised by God to a new life each and every day of their lives.
In their book, “Things that Make for Peace: A Personal Search for a New Way of Life,” Mary and John Schramm explore what this peace of God might entail as we set out to follow in the way of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Drawing upon the mantra, “If you want peace, work for justice,” the Schramms examine the whole world of inequity and the correlating injustice of economic disparity. As they analyze the role that fasting can play in sensitizing a person to the plight of hunger and poverty, they draw the conclusion that fasting without peacemaking is a lie. In this regard, they remind us that the Hebrew concept of shalom has much more to do with material well-being, security, and personal safety than it has to do with a state of psychological well-being. Therefore, when we talk about being at peace, we are talking about everyone having a safe home in which to live and enough food to eat.
The early disciples obviously came to understand the peace that Jesus extended to them in this way because as soon as they had received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and established the first communities of faithful followers of Jesus, they made sure that no one in their community was in need of proper shelter and enough food to eat. As far as they were concerned, no one claimed private ownership of any possessions and everything that they owned was held in common. Now some people today would love to explain away this early practice of the church as a failed experiment, but for these early followers of Jesus, they all were of one heart and mind about what it meant to be a faithful follower of the risen Jesus who invited them into a realm of peace where justice and righteousness would reign supreme.
As the Schramms so aptly point out, peace is not just a means to an end; peace is a way of life. In this regard, when we greet one another in peace, as we will be doing in a few moments, we not only are offering another person our desire for their peaceful well-being, we also are saying to that person, “I want to make sure that you are doing well economically and socially. If not, then let me do something to help you meet your need.” Otherwise, we become like the prophets who cried out, “Peace, peace” when there is no peace in a person’s life due to all of the economic stress and personal strife that comes from living in a society where the rich keep getting richer and those who are impoverished are driven deeper and deeper into despair.
“Peace be with you,” is a powerful greeting that goes far beyond the casual “hello” or “goodbye” that we normally say when we encounter someone else in our lives. Jesus spoke these words to his disciples three times in order to emphasize and assure them not only that he had forgiven them and that he held nothing against them, but also that he was praying for their well-being, their security, and their freedom to be able to pursue the things that make for peace in this world. They would need this peace in their lives because they would be encountering all kinds of harassment and persecution from many of the religious authorities who wanted to silence them for their proclamation about Jesus’ resurrection and God’s gracious gift of forgiveness.
We also are in need of this peace in our own lives because we all have our fears about what may happen to us if we attempt to live up to Jesus’ expectations and do all that God has created and called us to be and do. We also bear the guilt of having failed Jesus time and time again because we allow the ways of this world and our culture to dominate and control our lives rather than the compassionate, justice-oriented, and non-violent way of Jesus. We live with the constant uncertainty about what tomorrow may bring, especially under the current administration, and we are so tempted to fall deeper and deeper into despair over the plight of homelessness, the racist agendas, the prevalence of violence in our society, our dependency on our military might, and the increasing disregard for our environment.
“Peace be with you,” Jesus says, “because I am right here in your midst, especially in this bread and fruit of the vine, and I have forgiven you for all that you have done to betray me, deny me, and forsake the ways that I have taught you to live. I share my peace with you because I have revealed to you the end of the story—a resurrected life that has defeated the power of death in all of its manifestations. Therefore, you are free now to experience a new way of life—and that way is the way of peace and shalom. Amen.