4/8/18: Peace Be With You, John 20:19-31
Peace Be With You
First in the series: Resurrection By Candlelight
First Lesson: Acts 8
Second Lesson: John 20:19-31
Rev. Scott Dickison
It’s the evening of the resurrection.
Earlier that morning, the tomb had been found empty and Mary had mysteriously encountered the risen Christ. But so much remains unclear. What will happen when the authorities find the tomb is empty? Surely they will come for the disciples, and might they meet the same fate as their savior, their Lord—or as he called himself at the last supper just a few days before: their friend? And yet, was he still their friend? Some have wondered if deep down the disciples aren’t also the slightest bit fearful of the risen Christ, and what he will have to say to them—who abandoned him in the time of trial. They who ran and hid while he suffered. What is one to expect from a dead person now apparently walking and appearing to people?!
They’re gathered in fear of their enemies and perhaps even their friend, when the risen Christ comes to them in their fear and says: Peace be with you.
Just a simple greeting. In fact, it was a common Jewish greeting that you would say to anyone you hadn’t seen in some time. Something like, Hello.Good to see you. And yet on the lips of the risen Christ it’s taken on deeper, if not subtle, meaning. If they could settle their minds and their hearts enough, they might have remembered back to some of the last words he said to them at the table that night. Not long after he had washed their feet, he was talking to them about what was about to happen, preparing them for what they would soon face, and he said to them, “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.” Peace be with you—an echo of that Biblical refrain, Do not be afraid.
And then he shows them his wounds, still open, still tender. And they rejoice. Then we’re told Christ says these words again, Peace be with you, as the Father has sent me, so I send you, and breathes on them and in his breath gives them the Holy Spirit— echoing back to the story of creation where the Lord God forms the new human from the dust of the ground and then breathes the breath of life into him. As if to tell them, to tell us, this is a kind of new creation; a re-creation of humanity and the world. Jesus breathes into them the Holy Spirit to direct and guide them. And in so doing he commissions them to go and tell the story, he sends them out be bearers of this Spirit, messengers of gospel truth and agents of forgiveness—have you noticed this? How Christ charges them with being agents of forgiveness, specifically? Is it possible he’s saying to them: you, too, have been forgiven? And suddenly the light goes out.
In the next verse, the light comes back on. It’s now a week later, but the scene is similar. The disciples are again in the house, behind closed doors, and Jesus again mysteriously comes and stands there among them. This time he approaches poor Thomas, who wasn’t there the week before and in the days in between has done nothing but ask for the same experience that the rest of them had, to see for himself the risen Christ standing before him—guarding his heart, perhaps, wanting to be absolutely sure of what has happened before he gives himself over to it. Can we blame him? Jesus says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” And Thomas responds to this invitation to touch Christ’s wounds with nothing less than the most powerful statement of faith in the gospels: My Lord and my God.
At this confession, Jesus seems to almost turn to face the camera and says to all of us out there reading these words and looking in on this scene so many generations later, “Blessed are you who have not seen yet have come to believe.” The light goes out again, and with that—with these two hazy, frustratingly sparse scenes that happen by candlelight around someone’s dining room table, and are told as if John is remembering a dream he once had, the church is born.
The way the church calendar is arranged we follow the resurrection story as Luke tells it, with Jesus appearing to his disciples over 40 days following his resurrection, before ascending into heaven. He tells them to go back into Jerusalem and wait to receive the Holy Spirit, which we learn was to come at Pentecost, some 10 days later and 50 days after that first Easter morning. And it comes in the form of a “violent wind” and “divided tongues as of fire,” leading to the conversation of thousands and the birth of the church happening to thunderous applause—this is the story of Pentecost that we celebrate.
But John tells things differently.
For John, all of this happens in one continuous motion. As others have noted, Christ’s raising from the dead gives way to Christ’s giving of the Holy Spirit, which gives way to his sending of the disciples out into the world—there all interwoven.And of course the whole feel of the story is different:
There are no crowds—just the disciples, locked behind closed doors in fear.
There are no tongues of fire—just the wounds on Jesus’ hands and side.
There is no violent wind—just the gentle, labored breathing of one newly raised from the grave.
There is no conversion of thousands—just the reassurance given to about a dozen that the one whom they loved and lost lives again, and so will they.
And in these things, these words of peace, these open wounds, this labored breathing, the church is born.
And hear me when I say that I love Luke’s version of it too, and I love how we celebrate Pentecost Sunday here—you may have noticed we’ve ramped it up somewhat in the past few years. With the multi-colored tool fabric hanging from the rafters and the children processing in with their wands of fabric and bells. And everyone wearing brightly colored shirts and dresses and ties—and hats! The more hats in church, the better. Even the choir gets in on the action, forgoing their robes in favor of Hawaiian shirts. Okay, Johnathan Alderman is the only one who wears the Hawaiian shirts. But everyone else has brightly colored clothing, too. It’s a beautiful Sunday, and colorful and fun—all things worthy of the gift of Holy Spirit. In fact, one of our friends told me last year how her young son said after worship that Pentecost was his favorite Holiday. Which is saying something considering there’s no candy or presents!
It’s a beautiful day. And powerful, and important.
And yet there’s something about John’s Pentecost.
I remember Fred Craddock said John shows us the “softer side” of Pentecost. Which is to say, the softer side of church.
Isn’t the church where we remind ourselves and each other of the peace of Christ that has already been given and that is available to us as often as we should claim it? And doesn’t church happen in the silence—even the candle light—that allows us to receive it? Doesn’t it happen in the reassurance that there is nothing of which we should be afraid—not finally?
And doesn’t church happen in the showing and the sharing of our wounds? I heard it said somewhere recently that this is our true calling as the church: to share our wounds. To acknowledge them, to show them, to share them, because it’s only in our wounds that we are truly connected—to each other, to Christ. I remember a line from a Mary Oliver poem we looked at over Lent,
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Tell me, where else is that to be done?
Doesn’t the church happen in the sharing of our doubts, as with Thomas and the rest of them, really?
In the giving and receiving of forgiveness? Where else in our society is forgiveness on the agenda?
And doesn’t church happen in our sending? Some would argue this is the most important of what we do together each Sunday morning, the benediction, when we are sent out into the world, with the hope that the God of hope would go with us, filling us with all joy and peace in believing so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Not the songs we sing, the prayers we offer, the sermon we endure, but the words we go by. And that we leave knowing we have been sent, we’ve been commissioned.
I remember last fall in our Sunday evening bible study experiment we studied a book on Paul written by Adam Hamilton, a Methodist pastor and writer. Writing about Paul and Barnabas’ commissioning into what we know as Paul’s first missionary journey, he noted that this calling came upon Paul and Barnabas during worship, and that this should always be an expectation of our time together: that the Holy Spirit should call us, should commission us in some way. In fact, he says that at the church where he serves as pastor, Church of the Resurrection I believe it’s called, in suburban St. Louis, this conviction has even shaped their worship bulletin. He writes, “In many congregations a bulletin is prepared to guide worshipers through a service…But at the church I serve, our bulletin doesn’t show the order of worship. It doesn't list the hymns or songs of praise. Instead, it’s filled with information about mission and service opportunities. We assume that…the Spirit will call people to mission and service during our worship. We list opportunities for people to respond to the Spirit’s call.”
We’re in the middle of redesigning our worship bulletin here, so don’t be surprised if we take their lead on some of this. Don’t worry, we’ll keep the hymn numbers. And the words to the anthem. And the prayers. Who am I kidding, we’re not going to be able to change anything…
And doesn’t church happen in our rejoicing? Or maybe, isn’t true rejoicing revealed in the church? Not the kind of rejoicing you see at a sporting event or what have you—that’s fine and good. But I’m talking about the rejoicing that’s rooted in something more; something more tender. We held a memorial service yesterday for Mary Anne and Rollin Armour, two pillars of this church who moved away from Macon a few years back due to health concerns. Mary Anne passed away back in September after suffering from Alzheimer’s over these last years, and Rollin just a few weeks ago succumbed to the Parkinson’s that had plagued him for so long. We finally had an opportunity to honor them both yesterday. And it was a beautiful service, with beautiful words said, and memories and all of it. But at the end, our closing hymn was that old Lutheran juggernaut, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. I’m not sure I’d ever sung that at a memorial service before, but as we did, I wondered how could that be. We were there singing the final stanza, and the words, in that moment, fell fresh on me:
That Word above all earthly powers
no thanks to them abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours
through him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill:
God's truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever!
And hearing the music thundering from our new and soon to be dedicated pipe organ, I was almost undone. Yes. Yes! Rejoicing! The church. Isn’t all of this what makes us the church of Jesus Christ, raised from the dead?
And wasn’t it all there in the room with them that night?
There will be times when the Holy Spirit overwhelms us with fire and flame and Hawaiian shirts, and praise God for those moments—they don’t come often and we need to savor and celebrate them when they do. But more often we will feel the Spirit as John describes it. Not setting us on fire, but as the early church fathers used to say, falling on us like sunshine. Warming us gently, and perhaps even giving us a healthy glow for others to see. Coming to us in the gentle, peaceful presence of the one who lives again and calls us to life anew; tender as our wounds, close as our next breath. Deep as our rejoicing. Amen.
Gail O’Day makes this point beautifully in her commentary on John from the New Interpreter’s series.
Mary Oliver, Wild Geese, found in Devotions.
Adam Hamilton, The Call: The Life and Message of the Apostle Paul, 58