Second Sunday of Easter C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, Wi.
This Sunday, the second Sunday in Easter, is usually one of my favorite Sundays. In some places, like in the congregation where I served on internship, it’s Holy Hilarity Sunday. Holy Hilarity is a modern take on an ancient tradition in the church of using the resurrection of Jesus Christ to mock the devil and the breaking of his power. My year, we turned the service into a production of the movie The Blues Brothers, and I daresay we were wildly successful!
It’s also one of my favorite Sundays because it’s usually the Sunday on which I get to give my annual rant about how the phrase Doubting Thomas is insultingly inaccurate since Thomas only asks for the exact same proof that the other ten disciples get, so if we are going to give Thomas a bad rap, then the other ten disciples need to be given the exact same bad rap! (There, I condensed my entire rant into one sentence—new sermon record!)
But this morning, I don’t want to focus on either Christ’s victory over the devil or Thomas. Instead, I want to focus on one word that Jesus uses with the disciples, that he gives them: peace.
It’s such a short, simple word, peace. We hear it all the time, we use it all the time. For us—actually, for all human history—it’s been the one word that encapsulates what we all dream and hope for: an end to war, an end to violence, calm, tranquility, love. Merriam-Webster defines “peace” as “a state in which there is no war or fighting; an agreement to end a war; a period of time when there is no war or fighting.”
So when Jesus tells his disciples that “peace be with them” and breathes the Holy Spirit on them, I should feel glad and uplifted. And for a time, maybe I do.
This is John’s version of the story of Pentecost. We’re used to the loud rushing wind story of the Acts of the Apostles with the tongues of fire and the multiple languages and a brilliant speech by Simon Peter. But in this version, Jesus appears to the disciples in the locked room, blows his breath on them, and declares “peace” to them. It’s a wonderfully intimate experience, this bestowal of the divine presence on Christ’s closest, if not his most faithful and reliable followers.
But it’s hard. It’s hard to feel that peace and that presence when in our globalized world there is so little peace. When I last looked up the statistic for how many non-state terrorist attacks have happened in 2016, it was after the Brussels attack (which, by the way, wasn’t the only terrorist attack that day). Since then, there have been 36 other terrorist attacks in the world resulting in 262 people killed and many more injured.
Depending on how you count, there are currently about 54 ongoing conflicts and wars across the world, armed conflicts where people are killing each other. According to the FBI, there were about 14,000 murders in the United States in 2014 (the numbers from 2015 won’t be ready for a few months yet). Our world isn’t peaceful.
Neither was the world the disciples lived in. Judea was a province under the military occupation of the Roman Empire. 40 years after Jesus’s ascension, the province revolted against Rome in a war led by the zealots. Jerusalem is sacked and the temple destroyed. According to the historian Josephus the last remaining extremists, about 960 people, holed themselves up in the fortress of Masada. For 2 years, the Romans used slaves to literally build a ramp out of dirt and rocks up the mountain to break into the fortress. Either they killed everyone they found, or the rebels committed ritual suicide before the soldiers got there. Either way, it marked the end of a brutal suppression of a revolution.
The world we live in is not and never has been at peace. So for Jesus to claim that peace is now with his disciples, the peace of God which passes all understanding, it rings hollow in my ears. If peace is supposed to be with us, then it needs to get here soon and not on our terms.
When I think about what it might take to achieve peace, I think about the terrible cost usually involved. Because for many, peace means being so terrifyingly brutal that no one would dare challenge their power or authority on threat of total annihilation. Because for many, peace means sacrificing justice in the name of order. Because for many, peace is the result of a great exercise of power and might: peace is the result of war when the “right” people win. And that terrifies me.
Peace as brought by human beings is horrific. It is brought about through murder and coercion, a false peace that gives the illusion of justice in order to hide its shortcomings. The Roman Empire of Jesus’s day brought peace, the “Pax Romana”; but the Judeans knew it was the peace of the sword, kept by the military force of the empire that sacrificed anything and anyone in the name of peace. We are no different. If this is the peace that Jesus offers his disciples, then I want no part in it. I want nothing at all to do with it.
But that’s not the peace that Jesus brings. At least, I don’t think it is.
I think it’s safe to say that peace through might was the peace that many in Jerusalem wanted Jesus to bring. They cheered him on as he entered the city, proclaiming him King. They expected that he would take his throne and wield the might of the king, wipe out the occupying Roman forces and make Judea great again. They expected him to wage war on their behalf and reestablish their dominance so that none would challenge them again.
And we know what happened when they were disappointed. We know what happened when Jesus didn’t live up to their expectations for ushering in peace. We know the story of Christ’s crucifixion, death, and burial.
Instead we have this story, a story of peace of different sort: Jesus appearing to a group of frightened disciples who have locked themselves away in hiding. He breathes on them and says, “Peace be with you.” No wars, no battles, no terror—just peace. Just a word spoken to a group of frightened people who needed comfort and grace in that moment.
What a simple gesture, but a powerful one. And soon we begin to realize that the peace that Jesus brings, which seemed so innocuous and innocent and tiny takes hold in those disciples. Biblical and early church tradition tells us that this ragtag group of misfits, bumbling fools, takes that peace of Jesus and does remarkable things with it. They break bread together, sharing meals and taking the food to those who are hungry. They are driven by the Spirit they’ve received to care for the poor and the oppressed in their very midst without expectation. They take these simple words of Jesus, “Peace be with you,” and with them they do something as simple as immersing people in ordinary water to adopt them into the family of God. They refuse to fight in the army, refuse to capitulate to the “peace” of the sword and carry out that false peace in the name of Rome.
They do it without conquest, without harm, without coercion. They do it with love; they do it with peace. They do it the hard way, the small way.
Today, as we celebrate the baptism of a new brother into the adopted family of God, we see that peace in action again. Against the power and war of evil, God uses water. Instead of crowning him a soldier, God crowns him with a cross of oil. Instead of calling him to war, God calls him to peace.
The way before him isn’t easy–we know all too well just how difficult it is. The way we human beings is a lot easier than God’s subversive, simple, vulnerable peace. But God’s peace is imbued by the Holy Spirit and given by Jesus Christ himself to his disciples, who have spent the last 2000 years passing it on themselves.
One of the oldest rituals in Christian worship is the passing of the peace. Many people nowadays just treat it as a time to say hello to people and catch up on the week’s event. But it’s more than that–it’s a unifying sign of the peace we share and strive for. It’s a chance for reconciliation and reminding each other of our baptismal calling. It looks forward to the day when the peace given by Christ truly is the peace of the entire world, the peace of the sword supplanted by the peace of God.
We’re not there yet. But every week, we get a bit of a taste of what that peace is like, and we get a chance to pass it on. So this morning, you’ll hear those words again. And I hope and pray that together, we will one day replace “Peace be with you,” with “Peace is here.”
Peace be with you.