Sunday, April 12, 2015
“Peace be with you.” Three times today! Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” It’s Easter evening, the disciples have seen the risen Lord — well, everyone but Thomas has — and rather than going out to share that amazing news with everyone, the disciples are sitting in a locked house for “fear of the Jews.” It’s surprising, really, that one of the first responses to the Easter miracle of Jesus rising from the dead is not joy, as we might expect, but fear. Partly, the disciples’ fear is rooted in the reality of danger: they know that just a week ago, throngs of people were dancing in the street and waving palms as they welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem, only to turn on Jesus just days later and sentence him to death. The disciples also remember what happened when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead – the religious and political authorities tried to kill Lazarus again so that people would not see the power that Jesus had. And the disciples ALSO know what DID happen to John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, who was beheaded for sharing Jesus’ message that the messiah had come. There was plenty for the disciples to be worried and fearful of, even as they sat face to face with the risen Lord. To give them courage and allay their fears, Jesus says again and again, “Peace be with you.”
Is there anything that’s bothering you, or worse, causing you to be afraid this Easter season? What fears and worries might be keeping you from venturing out of the safe confines of home and church to live a resurrected life with Jesus? Or here’s a simpler way of putting this question: “What keeps you up at night?”
When Pastor Rich and I first moved out to the country, seven miles outside of Stromsburg, Nebraska, we were scared. That might sound strange to you, and it was hilarious to many of our parishioners and neighbors – what’s there to be afraid of in a small town? We had come from living in Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago, where petty thefts, muggings, and gun violence were much, much more prevalent, as you might imagine. The horrific Chicago traffic meant you were WAY more at risk of being injured in a car accident. Police, ambulance, and fire sirens were just a part of the background noise of living in Chicago. But honestly, it could’ve been our young age or just that we were used to growing up in a city, we felt safe in Chicago most of the time.
When we moved out to the country in Nebraska, it was quiet-too quiet. The first month we were there, I awoke one Saturday night to country music blasting outside our bedroom window. I looked out to see that somebody was sitting on our front porch at 3 in the morning! I quickly called the sheriff’s office, and it took thirty minutes for a deputy to respond, while in the meantime the loiterer had thankfully taken off. The Chicago police had a response time of less than 60 seconds. While we lived in Stromsburg, several teenagers were killed tragically in car accidents. We had a bank robbery and a high-speed police car chase of two fugitives through town. One of the houses in our little hamlet burned down in a fire. We experienced several tornadoes coming close to where we lived, and we lived too far from town to hear the tornado sirens. Living in small town Nebraska taught me that no matter where you live, there are things you can be afraid of. We cannot escape the tragedies of life nor the sinfulness of the human condition that causes people to do horrible things to their neighbors. No matter how safe and secure we try to make life, hiding behind locked doors, fear can chase us down and find us. Fear makes it very difficult to trust in that peace that Jesus talks about. So on that very same day as Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples batten down the hatches, locking all the doors in their safe house out of fear. But before tragedy strikes, Jesus finds them first and says, “peace be with you.” Then he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Finally, he breathes on them, giving them the power of the Holy Spirit to go out with courage despite their fears.
After Jesus SENDS the disciples out and strengthens them amidst their fears, Thomas shows up a week later. Thomas get a bad rap, doesn’t he? But I think Thomas is one of the most relatable characters in all of scripture because of his honesty with Jesus. He’s a real human being with doubts and fears like all of us. And I’d like to know WHERE Thomas was when all of the other disciples were huddled in a locked house out of fear. Could it be that Thomas actually had more courage and faith than the other disciples, to be out and about, still calling himself a disciple of Jesus, that convicted and crucified criminal, even if he had some doubts? Notice what Thomas demands to see: he wants to see and touch Jesus’ wounds. He wants to see for himself and know that Jesus had not just risen from the dead but had suffered and died. He sees that Jesus had faced all the fears that we ourselves face as humans: rejection, abuse, injustice, and death. He sees that the risen Christ still bears those marks of suffering and death – that this Jesus overcame death and the grave for us so that we can face our greatest fears with courage and with the power of Christ’s peace.
I don’t mean to dismiss legitimate fears you may have, and I don’t think Jesus dismisses your fears, either. I do think, however, that it is human nature to quickly forget how a resurrected life changes us so that we can live a life of courage in spite of the fears we may have. Christ is risen, he is risen indeed! Alleluia! By the death and resurrection of Jesus, the son of God, we have been given the gift of life abundant and eternal. No one can take that away! No fear is more powerful than that! What’s more, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have been given ultimate, final victory over ALL things that may cause us to fear, including victory over death itself.
Locked doors can’t keep Jesus out. Our worst fears aren’t more powerful than Jesus. Jesus tells us over and over again, “Peace be with you.” This isn’t just a casual phrase that hippies use. It’s not a false hope that life will be quiet and comfortable without any conflict or struggle. I kind of think the English language has watered down the power of those words Jesus tells the disciples and tells us. In Hebrew the word for peace, “shalom,” means something like – be well, be whole. Jesus’ resurrection has restored us to wholeness. Jesus’ peace, Jesus’ shalom, breaks down the fears and locked doors that divide us to bring people back into relationship with each other and with God! Still today, every Sunday, we tell each other “peace be with you,” to remind us that Jesus’ peace is our peace. The world around us may try to scare us and drive us into hiding with fear-mongering tactics. But as followers of Jesus, we know have been made whole because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus’ peace has conquered all our fears. Our relationship with God has been restored. Jesus sends us out with the Holy Spirit breathed upon us, so that we don’t have to stay behind locked doors, whether it’s at home or at church, but can venture out into the community, taking risks for the sake of the gospel. We can share the peace of Christ, which is more than a feel-good phrase, but God’s vision of wholeness for our lives and for our communities. When we greet one another with “peace be with you,” may those words be more than a casual hello, but words of Jesus that sustain us and strengthen us for life in and outside these walls. Amen.