“Peace Be With You,” John 20:19-31

I spent most of the 1980’s doing youth ministry and was blessed to have a whole crowd of wonderful volunteer adult leaders, including one who played guitar and led our youth groups in singing.  One of the songs we did often came to mind this week as I was working on this sermon.  It’s an old Peter, Paul and Mary song called “Day is Done,” that includes these lyrics:

“Tell me why are you crying my child, I know you’re frightened like everyone.  Is it the thunder in the distance you fear?  Will it help if I stay very near?  I am here.  All will be well when the day is done.”

In our Scipture for today Jesus is saying to the disciples, “I am here.”  He says that with the phrase, “Peace be with you.”  In these 13 verses from John’s Gospel Jesus utters those 4 words not once or twice but three times.  And those words are the first thing he says when he appears mysteriously in a room with locked doors.  “Peace be with you.”  Why are those doors locked?  Because of fear.  And what do we need when we’re frightened- we need peace.  Jesus understands that his friends are afraid, and he has come to bring them peace that only he can provide, the peace that passes all human understanding.

Don’t we all yearn for that kind of peace?  Many tomb stones or sympathy cards include the phrase “Rest in Peace” That prompted someone on Facebook to ask recently, “Why do we only rest in peace? Why don’t we live in peace too?”  The good news in this post resurrection text from John is that we can.  We don’t have to die first.

I had an insight on Maundy Thursday this year about the disciples falling asleep while Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  We worshipped on-line and then I sat down to read.  But I couldn’t stay awake, and I wrote a short blog post about that experience.  In part, I said, “I’m not physically tired, just exhausted with world news overload. Maybe it’s compassion fatigue or just frustration that there seems to be so little I can do to save the world from its warring madness. I can’t not watch the news, and if the scenes from Ukraine or the New York subway shooting aren’t fatiguing enough they are interspersed with incessant mean-spirited and fear-based political ads.

Instead of judging the disciples for napping, maybe they were just worn out from all the weird stuff going on around them. They had to be confused trying to understand Jesus’ determination to put himself in harm’s way and with all his talk about death and resurrection. They had been on an emotional roller coaster from Palm Sunday’s high to this strange trip to the Garden in the dark. Jesus’ strange behavior, insisting on washing their feet, a job only done by servants, not a Messiah. And what did he mean about his broken body and his blood shed for them?

It was too much to comprehend. Maybe their bodies just shut down to get a respite from the confusion in their minds and spirits. They had hoped he was the one to throw off the Roman oppressors and bring them peace, but they were wrong.”

I had stopped at a Tim Horton’s earlier that day which was just two days after the subway shooting in New York.   As I waited for my coffee I found myself looking around for a place to hide if shooting suddenly broke out.  That’s a symptom of the low-grade fear that clings to us like a dryer sheet on a pant leg.  We try to shake it off by turning off the TV and social media, but we can’t unsee those pictures of Putin’s crimes against our sisters and brothers in Mariupol and Kyiv.  We can dress up and have Easter egg hunts and excellent worship to mark Holy Week and Easter (or Passover or Ramadan), but we’re still afraid of what’s happening to our world.  We’re already so awfully tired of COVID.  Wave after wave of extreme weather keeps leaving a path of destruction as they sweep across the country on a weekly basis, and still many people are in denial about climate change. We’re tired, Jesus!  Where is that peace you promised?

I find it helpful to step back and examine this need for peace through the stages of grief developed by Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her classic book, “On Death and Dying.”  She describes 5 stages of grief people go through if they or a loved one are dying:  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally a stage of peace she calls acceptance I think the disciples in the Holy week experiences are in the early stages of grief.  Jesus has told them goodbye at their Passover meal, and they are already grieving.  Sleeping in the garden could be a form of denial, an escape from the reality of the moment.  When the soldiers come after Jesus one of the disciples grabs a sword and lops off the ear of a servant – that’s anger, another natural part of the grieving process.  

And now on Easter night John tells us that the disciples have already been told that morning by the women who were first-hand witnesses that Jesus is alive again.  Two of the disciples, being guys who don’t trust a woman’s word, ran to the tomb to see for themselves.

They call Missouri the show me state because people there insist that only seeing is believing. I don’t think any of the disciples were from. Missouri, but they act like it.   The disciples have not yet seen the risen Christ; so who can blame them for still locking the door?  They are like a little girl crying in her bed during a thunder storm.  When her daddy goes in to comfort her he hugs her and reminds her that Jesus is always there with her.  She looks up at him and says, “I know, Daddy, but sometimes I need someone with skin on them.”  Don’t we all?

Peace comes in many shapes and forms; a hug, a kind word, or just a willingness to sit with someone in their sorrow.  

I have had a springtime ritual for years that I’ve ignored during the COVID years.  For many springs before that I have watched Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner in my favorite baseball movie, “Bull Durham.”  I happened to see it listed as I was channel surfing recently and recorded it; and Diana and I watched it about the time baseball season started.  What struck me this time through were some words that Costner’s character, Crash Davis, says to Annie in the final scene.  Crash is a veteran Minor League catcher, which means he’s good, but not quite good enough to make it to the Major Leagues.  He has just quit the game after setting the dubious record for most home runs in the Minors.  He comes back to Durham and to Annie who is a die-hard baseball groupie and intrepid philosopher of the game.  When Crash, bedraggled and exhausted, tells Annie that he’s hung up his catcher’s gear for the final time she launches into one of her treatises about baseball being a non-linear game.  Crash holds up his hand to stop her.  He says he wants to hear all of her crazy baseball theories but not tonight.  Tonight he says, “I don’t want to think about baseball or anything else.  I just want to be.”  

Isn’t that the peace of mind and soul we are so hungry for?  To rest, to stop worrying and thinking. And just BE.  In the Rock Opera “Jesus Christ Superstar,” there’s a scene about just that.  Jesus is frustrated because his best efforts to move people closer to God’s kingdom of peace and justice are being ignored.  His friend Mary Magdalene tries to comfort him.  Many people see that scene and get distracted by theories that there was a romantic relationship between them, but that’s not the point.  Mary sings a sweet lullaby to Jesus where she says, “Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to problems that upset you, oh don’t you know everything’s alright, yes, everything’s fine, and we want you to sleep well tonight. Let the world turn without you tonight.”

That kind of peace is what Kubler-Ross calls acceptance – the final stage of grief, making peace with the new reality that a loved one is gone or a job has disappeared or a relationship is irreparably damaged.  Or a world has gone mad.  It’s the peace the risen Christ offers his disciples and you and me, but there’s a paradoxical irony in this story.  John tells us that before Jesus offers peace to the disciples he breathes on them.  You have to let someone get very close to breathe on you if you can remember back before the 6 feet of separation we’ve lived with recently.  Breath, of course, in the Scriptures is the word that also means God’s spirit that can create something out of nothing. So the paradox is that we have to have enough peace to let Jesus get close enough to give us real peace! 

I don’t know about you, but on my less faithful days I’m not sure I want Jesus getting that close.  I’m afraid to be that vulnerable; so my own  or doubts  keep Jesus at a safe distance because of fear –fear of judgment, or rejection because I haven’t always lived a virtuous life.  But here’s the key to this story and to the Good News of the Gospel.  Remember that the disciples to whom Jesus offers his peace are the same guys who just 3 days ago denied and abandoned Jesus in his greatest time of need.  If Jesus offers them God’s peace he certainly can do the same for us. 

That’s the friend we have in Jesus we can take everything to in prayer.  If we try to hide parts of ourselves from God we are not only kidding ourselves, we are also revealing our mistaken belief in a God who is way too small.  St. Paul in Romans 8 says “nothing in all creation can separate us from love of God in Christ Jesus.”  And that nothing means nothing. No powers, no principalities, and no Putin can stop God from loving us.   No matter how many of the big 10 commandments we’ve broken Jesus offers us peace. He makes us new creations by breathing the peace that breaks the chains of addiction, hatred, isolation, guilt, and despair.

Rev. Fred Shaw, a friend and colleague and a wonderful Native American storyteller, put it this way recently in a Facebook post.  I liked the way he said it and asked if I could quote him.  He said, “We move too quickly from Good Friday to Easter, and then we fairly fly from Easter back to “normal.” I want to carry both with me throughout my life.

On Good Friday, the most significant words uttered by human lips are heard again, “It is finished!” The Greek word for “finished” carries the meaning of completion, wholeness. For Native people, it is the fullness of the Circle.

All of the love that our Creator has for us from the beginning of time came to fruition in the death of Jesus on the cross. The greatest horror of which humanity is capable, the murder of God’s own innocence. Even that could not separate us from God’s love.

The curtain in the temple that had divided the people from the Holy Presence of God was ripped…from the top down! God’s full acceptance of who we are, and God’s declaration that God loves us anyway, was declared beyond words.”  Let me say that last part again: “God’s declaration that God loves us anyway was declared beyond words.”

What does all this say to our broken, fearful world today? We don’t know when, where, how or even why God will forgive humankind’s unfaithfulness, but in God’s good time, not ours, it will be done. Even if we destroy ourselves and this precious earth God has entrusted into our care, we and all of creation will live and move and have our being eternally in the cosmic source of all Being. Because we put our trust, not in weapons of death and destruction, but in the power of resurrection that assures us that “all will be well when the day is done.” 

You know the line about opera – that it isn’t over till the fat lady sings?  I thought about that when I heard that John Lennon’s son Julian recently sang his father’s wonderful song, “Imagine.”  What makes that remarkable or ominous is that Julian has always said he would never sing that song publicly.  And at least once he qualified that remark by saying, “maybe if it was the end of the world.”  I don’t know if the state of the world had anything to do with it, but he recently sang “Imagine” publicly. 

I’ve always loved the hope that song describes.  Nothing has ever been created that wasn’t first imagined, and those of us who have received Jesus’ gift of peace are called to keep the dream of peace alive, especially when it seems so absent. The song says,

“Imagine all the people
Livin’ for today
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.”

Easter is our invitation to join those who dare to imagine a world of peace.

You may have noticed the white post out by the parking lot as you came up the hill this morning.  We’re going to dedicate it after the service today.  On that Peace Pole are the words “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in English and seven other languages representing God’s children in every part of the world—including Spanish, Hebrew, Swahili, Arabic, ASL, Chinese and Japanese.   The Peace Pole is there where we will see it each time we come and go from here as a reminder to us of God’s peace and as a symbolic beacon of hope in a world bloodied by the ways of war.

Peace is our hope and our prayer, but wishing won’t make it happen.  Prayers without works are dead on arrival, and that’s why Jesus says something else to the disciples and to us after he says “Peace be with you.”  He says, “As God has sent me, so I send you.”  We can’t be peacemakers until we have surrendered to the peace that comes when we get up close and personal with Jesus.

I want to leave you with a thought from a Brazilian writer and journalist, Fernando Sabino.  He wrote, “In the end, everything will be all right.  If it’s not all right, it’s not the end.”  That’s the message for this frightening time in our world.  “Peace be with you.” 

DREAMS AND VISIONS

“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”  (Joel 2:28-29)

When this text from Joel showed up in the daily devotional I’m using (“Gift and Task” by Walter Brueggemann) the words that jumped out for me were “your old men shall dream dreams.”  I have been fairly successful at living in denial about my age, but somehow having my 74th birthday in October while recuperating from back surgery has made that reality come home to roost. So in this youth-oriented culture it felt good to see “old men’ (and I understand that generic term to include women also) included in this list of recipients of God’s Spirit.  

Brueggemann offers this commentary on Joel:  “The contemporaries of Joel are mostly prisoners of the present tense who cannot imagine life other than the way it is now.”  He goes on to describe how Joel offers an escape from that imprisonment. “Joel’s poem tells otherwise! He anticipates a coming time when all sorts of people break out of such weary imprisonment. There will be prophecy, dreams, and visions, acts of imagination opening to otherwise…The news is that God’s intent has not succumbed to our precious status quo.”

That sacred use of imagination to help create a new reality free from the injustices of our present one is exciting and inspiring, but like the ice bucket challenge of a few year ago I was shocked back into my cynical self as I read on into the 3rd chapter of Joel.  That whole chapter is a gruesome account of Yahweh’s revenge upon the enemies of Israel culminating with this exact opposite of the vision of Micah and Isaiah (cf my blog post from October 12 of this year, “Pacifism Put to the Test) when Joel, speaking for Yahweh says, “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears, let the weak say, “‘I am a warrior.’”  (Joel 3:10)

I knew those words reversing the vision of Micah 4:3 and Isaiah 2:4 were in Joel, but I had not remembered that they came immediately after the hopeful words in chapter 2.  My heart sank as I realized that immediately after Joel’s promise that everyone would dream dreams and see visions come a whole chapter where Joel is a prisoner of the present, to use Brueggemann’s phrase.  Joel is trapped in what President Eisenhower would call the military-industrial complex many centuries later. The whole cycle of revenge escalating into more brutal mayhem has been a recurring nightmare throughout the history of humankind. 

We justify our self-destructive reliance on our primal instincts by citing “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” from the Hebrew Scriptures, but what most of us don’t realize is that those words in Leviticus 24:19–21 and Exodus 21:24 were meant to set a limit on revenge so the punishment fit the crime rather than seeking to do the most damage possible on ones foes.  

And just as the Levitical law was an improvement over previous moral codes, so Micah and Isaiah and other prophets in every generation have dreamed ever better dreams and visions, culminating in the life and teachings of Jesus who lived out his vision of God’s peaceable kingdom even when it meant sacrificing life for a greater truth and reality.

But because of human nature every generation must make its own escape from the prison of the present tense.  As God’s children we are so much better than the quagmire of hate in which we are currently living.  God’s spirit is upon us now just as it was in Joel’s time, and that means all of us of every age and every gender, race, creed, sexual orientation and nationality can still dream dreams and see visions of God’s reign where we will beat those swords again into plowshares, put away our nukes and learn war no more.  

As I write this I am reminded of these words from a prophet for our time, John Lennon that still speak to this old dreamer:

“Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man.

Imagine all the people sharing all the world,

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.”