“Peace be with you”
As a kid in worship, I always knew just how much “church” time was left in the service long before I could tell time with a watch. Standing, sitting, kneeling, praying, singing, and listening, the rhythm and order hardly ever changed. This helped me countdown moments until I could exit the sanctuary and make a beeline for the cookies served at coffee hour. When I was younger, and less enthralled with the listening and praying bit, there was still one part of church I loved-- the passing of the peace. This was the only “church” time when talking was sanctioned. As a loquacious child, it was my one and only opportunity to express my extroversion. “Peace be with you,” I would say with gusto, working my way around the pews to shake the hands of as many people as I could possibly greet.
Back then, I didn’t know what it meant to pass the peace. I had no idea where the tradition originated. I certainly didn’t connect those words with Jesus or realize that of all the words that Jesus could have used upon first seeing and greeting his disciples after his death and resurrection, these were the ones he chose. “Peace be with you,” he said. Not, surprise, I am alive after all. Or I know you must be confused and freaked out by the past three or so days, but here I am! Nothing like that. No grand entry. No red carpet. Simply, “Peace be with you.” And, with these words, he holds out his hands and shows them his side. At this, they all rejoice.
Jesus’ post resurrection appearances raise a few questions, particularly what in the world Jesus looked like after his death. The fact that none of his closest friends seem to recognize him at first glance makes us wonder. Did he look or sound differently than before? If so, then how so? Even when he has whole conversations with people who should know him, not one person concludes that it is him without extra help. Mary only knows him when he says her name. In Luke, a few followers only know him when he breaks bread and gives it to them. Here they know him through his words and his gesture. When he says, “Peace be with you,” and then shows him his hands and side. The literature student in me can’t overlook Jesus repetition. He says, “Peace be with you,” three times. Surely this is important.
I can’t help but wonder if the disciples, upon hearing “Peace be with you,” remembered another instance when Jesus spoke of peace. Earlier in John, when Jesus is trying to prepare them for what is coming, he says this, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid (John 14:27).” Maybe when the disciples heard this the first time, it didn’t carry much meaning. The brewing storm was too far beyond their horizon to cause them any worry. What did they need to know about peace? But, after the past week, the horror and pain, the disappointment and fear, these words cut to the chase. “Peace be with you,” he said. A peace- which frees them from their worry. A peace- which quiets fear. Is there such a thing as this kind of peace?
Peace seems a counterintuitive topic for a sermon in this particular spot on the globe. In many ways, the idea of peace has become trite, overused, and distorted. Between the psychedelic peace symbols floating around in popular culture and even legitimate cries for peace where war rages on and on, the idea of peace is not often considered very seriously. It’s too ideal. It’s too hippy. It’s too unrealistic. Yes, yes, and yes. We are surrounded by t-walls for a reason- because there is no peace- not here, not really anywhere. Go down to the hospital and ask any doctor who has just had the task of trying to save the life of a wounded soldier or civilian casualty mutilated by an IED or VBID. Or, just visit cnn.com and see for yourself just how little peace there appears to be in our post-resurrection world. We have these walls because we need them to protect us from those who are trying to bring us harm every single day.
“And the doors of the house where they met were locked for fear...” We get it. We know just how the disciples were feeling. Their fear of the world “outside of the wire.” Their need to protect themselves from it. Their sense of insecurity in the wake of Jesus’ violent death and their association with him. It’s enough reason to lock the doors, to post armed guards, to be on the defensive. The darkness of the world hovers ever close. They knew it all too well and so do we.
But what about Easter? Yes, it is, in fact, still Easter according to the text. Your bulletin says so because, in the church, we actually celebrate the resurrection for more than just one Sunday morning. The Easter season is seven whole weeks long. It is fifty days where the church attempts, despite competing realities, to live into the fullness of the resurrection-- To be not only a people that knows, cognitively, the implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also to be a community that acts differently because of it.
This is what we strive for on our best Easter days, living without fear and in celebration that, in the end, God’s love conquers death. If the disciples are any indication, however, our striving rarely achieves its goal. Even after Jesus appears to his disciples, defying death and somehow managing to get inside of the house though locked doors, their behavior doesn’t change much. A week later, they are gathered in the house again, with all the doors shut, hiding behind walls instead of spreading the peace which had just been delivered to them by their risen Lord. Now, we have no way to know what they were doing in the week that passed between Jesus’ first and second appearances. Maybe they were skipping through the streets, letting everyone know the good news, that Christ was risen, that death no longer had any sting nor grave any victory. But, somehow, I don’t think that was the case.
Earlier this week, when I picked this text for my sermon, I was ready to deliver a sermon about our one disciple in the story whose name was referenced-- Thomas, most often referred to as “doubting” Thomas. In the history of the church, he has gained a significant reputation. There are many of us who find great comfort in Thomas. In many ways, he is a man of real courage, saying out loud what we are all thinking in our hearts at one time or the other. He refuses to take, at face value, a tall tale spun up by his friends. Quite frankly, who could blame him?
Despite his doubt, God does not abandon him. His lack of faith is not a deal breaker for Jesus. Jesus shows up again and again and again, as many times as it takes, continuing to offer good news. That’s just how Jesus is. But, this story is about more than “doubting Thomas.” He is not the only one in this story that struggles with believing the good news of Easter. He is not the only one who doubts. The disciples, upon hearing the news from Mary that the Lord had risen, lock their doors and cower in fear. This response to the resurrection is far from exemplary. They, too, need a firsthand encounter with Jesus to believe. Thomas merely follows suit.
This is no excuse for Thomas, not even close. It is just recognition of our collective human condition. Most of us are realists. Most of us crave proof, need some kind of evidence. Most of us don’t believe in impossibilities, like the claim that a dead person has come back to life, just because someone tells us its true. Like Thomas, we need more than words. If this wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t be hiding ourselves. We wouldn’t value security over everything else. We wouldn’t worry about illness or go to incredible lengths to protect our families like we do because we would believe that even if the worst thing happened, that wouldn’t be the end. We would have nothing to fear. On Easter, we may profess this. We mouth the words even, but how well do we believe them. Does Easter really make any difference in how we live?
A few years ago, well, more like ten, right before departing for college, a very dear friend gave me a little card, small enough to make the multi-state journey to my new life. For years I kept it in my wallet. My credit cards, student ID and business cards may have varied over time, but this little card remained tucked away, a simple reminder of the community of faith in which I belonged. On it was written these words. “We walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).”
The truth is we want to walk by faith. We want to believe without seeing, and we try. We really do. On some days, our best days, we manage, momentarily. We live as Easter people, willing to forgo the safety of our walls in order to witness the good news in a dangerous world-- by how we live and love and serve our God and our neighbor. But, we also know that every day is not a good day. We find ourselves reeling from bad news, from loss, from grief, from violence and hurt, from the harsh realities which exist all around us. Some days it’s all we can do to put one foot in front of the other and pray that in our doubt, in our need to see, God will come to us again and again and again, helping us remember that we really do have reason to rejoice. Despite all evidence to the contrary, there is good news.
Jesus finds us, wherever we are, no matter how far we have strayed or how scared we have become, and tells us this: Peace be with you. Peace be with you… Amen.