Sunday, April 8, 2018

Peace Be with You (Sermon)

“Peace Be With You”
John 20:19-29
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

John 20:19-29
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (NRSV)

         In the fourth gospel, Jesus’ first post-resurrection words to the male disciples are “Peace be with you.”
         Today, the word peace has lost much of its original depth and energy. While it can refer to a sense of calm and contentment, it’s most often associated with a lack of martial conflict. When we speak of a peacekeeping force, we’re talking about a military presence, aren’t we? When maintaining peace requires continual preparation for war, it’s anything but peaceful. But as much as human beings seem to love violence, the peace we enjoy may never be more than temporary truce. Marjorie Thompson calls that “enforced peace,” and enforced peace, she says, inevitably becomes a “breeding ground for…conflict” because enforced peace and authentic justice occur in different realms.1
The Pax Romana was an example of enforced peace. If it felt peaceful, it was only because Rome had subjugated so much of the known world that, for a time, the empire faced no credible threat from the outside and brutally silenced virtually all criticism from the inside. That meant that those who held the wealth and the power could define what was ethical and just depending on what benefited them.
Jesus lived and worked during the early years of the Pax Romana. It formed the cultural backdrop for his ministry. And it was under the authority of Rome’s great “peace” that God’s Son was tried, convicted, and crucified.
When Jesus says to the disciples, “Peace be with you,” he has in mind something entirely different than the peace of Rome.
In Hebrew, the word is Shalom. In Greek, it’s Eiréné. In first-century Aramaic, the language of Jesus, it was something like Shlama. In the ancient languages, to invoke peace on others was to wish upon them a blessing for which mere words were inadequate. The word peace evoked something of the ultimate Mystery from which all things have come and to which all things will go.
The ancients understood peace as a realm in which humankind could live – a realm of wholeness, community, well-being, and joy, a presence that saturated and surrounded them – even in the midst of fear. I hear the ancients saying that to experience peace is to experience nothing less than the presence of God.
When Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” he declares his resurrection presence with the men who betrayed him and abandoned him – and who now feel anything but peaceful. From the realm of resurrection, unfettered by space, or time, or human frailty, Jesus announces his eternal presence with, love for, and forgiveness of his disciples and all humankind.
When we share the peace of Christ, we share the same gift he shares with the disciples on Easter evening. And I think that when we truly sense the Peace of Christ, regardless of circumstances, we experience, firsthand, the saturating and surrounding presence of the risen Jesus.
Without question, it’s a learned discipline to hold and to be held by the peace of Christ. That makes it easy to deny resurrection, to say, like Thomas, ‘Seeing is believing, so prove it.’ But that’s an easy out. You and I don’t get the kind of objective proof that Thomas gets one week later. At least, I’ve never known anyone who has. And, like you, I can’t substantiate a two-thousand-year-old account of a subjective, mystical experience.
It’s also easy to reduce Easter to an individualistic doctrine, something one agrees to intellectually in order to call oneself “saved,” and, therefore, to feel assured of a reservation in the safety of heaven. That turns resurrection faith into a rigorously controlled institution in which people are homogenized and contained, a religious establishment that may be defended by worldly means. That kind of religion doesn’t proclaim the realm of resurrection. But it does square with enforced peace. It paves the way for confusing spiritual blessedness and worldly privilege. And when blessing gets cheapened into privilege, peace becomes just what it was for Jesus, a subversive undercurrent of holy justice advocating for the poor, the outcast, and the forgotten. True peace, then, the Peace of Christ, becomes a threat to those who claim more than their share.
Shane Smith, the associate pastor at Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church, recently made the observation that when a person or group has gotten used to privilege, equality may feel like oppression.2 But that’s the gift of resurrection. It proclaims God’s desire that no one and no thing be denied the saturating and surrounding wholeness of equality, community, well-being, and joy.
This is difficult for me to accept, because it requires me to confess my own sin, the sin of smugly thinking that my thinking is so in line with Jesus’ thinking that right now I can think of specific people and groups whose humiliation and demise I would secretly enjoy. That’s not to say that I change my opinions or weaken my commitments. It is to say that humility, gratitude, and generosity make a far more constructive place to begin engaging the world than self-righteous judgement.
Then there’s the sin of my failure to work intentionally for equality and justice because I know that as more people get to embrace their own full humanity and Belovedness of God, as a white, Protestant, hetero-sexual, first-world male, I will probably enjoy less and less privilege.
Finally, in my sin, I avoid Jesus’ call to embrace, share, and proclaim the fullness of his peace so that I don’t offend the powerful. It’s safer, more comfortable, and more lucrative for me that way.
I think we’re getting into what Jesus means with his cryptic words about forgiving and retaining sins. When I acknowledge that the peace of Christ is the very presence of the resurrected Jesus, and if, for whatever reason, I don’t share it with others, then I withhold from them and myself a fuller experience of God’s kingdom. Because Jesus’ peace is offered to and not imposed upon, it’s not a matter of whether or not others recognize it and receive it. It’s a matter of whether we, as disciples, are grateful and generous enough to realize that, like candlelight on Christmas Eve, the more we share it, the more there is for everyone.
Jesus’ response to Thomas removes the final nail from the coffin. When offering his wounds to Thomas, Jesus is saying that his peace, his resurrection presence, is revealed and experienced most authentically when we admit our brokenness and our pain, and when we enter the brokenness and the pain of the world. That’s why, in the gradual steps of blessedness in Matthew’s Beatitudes, peace is the penultimate blessing. It comes just before persecution.
It seems to me that when we find the strength for that kind of humility, compassion, and generosity, we discover the deep blessedness of faith – a blessedness not associated with seeing, hearing, and touching Jesus in any conventional sense, but from, nonetheless, believing, trusting, and following the Prince of Peace.
I mean this from the ever-deepening depths of my self to the ever-deepening depths of your selves: The peace of Christ be with you all.
1Marjorie Thompson, The Way of Blessedness, Upper Room Books, 2003. (From the Companions in Christ series) p. 86.
2From a Facebook post on 4/3/18.