April 19, 2020

Peace Be With You

Passage: John 20: 19-29

Bible Text: John 20: 19-29 | Preacher: Earl Zimmerman | Synopsis: How do we embrace and live into our identity as a peace church. Jesus’ words “Peace be with you” that he shared with his frightened disciples after his death and resurrection can be instructive. Like Jesus, we have been commissioned to share the practice and message of peace and reconciliation.
During our recent conference call with the City of Fairfax mayor David Meyer, he shortened the name of our church to Peace Church as he spoke with us. During our conversation, it became clear that he identified us as the “peace church” in our city. I like that! It’s an identity to embrace and live into.

The story of Jesus’ resurrection appearance to his disciples in John’s Gospel is instructive for our anxious time. They were hiding behind locked doors, as John reports, because of their “fear of the Jews.” That doesn’t make sense because all of them were Jews. One Bible translation clarifies this by saying that they were afraid of the Jewish authorities.

That’s probably what the writer of John’s Gospel meant. One biblical scholar suggests that we might want to change the word Jews to Judeans. All the disciples were from Galilee and faced persecution from the authorities in Judea. An extremely unfortunate outcome of John’s wording is that Christians in later centuries took it at face value to, in turn, justify their persecution of Jews in their midst.

The disciples, who our risen Lord encountered and ministered to, were living in shock, grief, and fear. Given their situation, hiding behind locked doors was a prudent precaution. They had reason to believe that local authorities were planning to arrest them. That’s why they were scared out of their wits when this stranger suddenly appeared in their midst.

The last thing they were expecting was a living Jesus walking through those locked doors. They were instead expecting to hear soldiers with arrest orders pounding on the door. So, Jesus first words, “Peace be with you,” were said in an entirely different situation from us joyfully passing the peace of Christ on a typical Sunday morning, or even virtually as we’re now forced to do.

After their initial fear, can we imagine how the disciples felt when they understood that this was really Jesus? There had to be shame. They had fled and abandoned him when he was arrested. Peter even denied that he knew him. Now, with rumors of resurrection in the air, they were still hiding. It had to be awkward. They had utterly let down their best friend and desperately needed to hear his forgiving and reconciling expression of peace.

Notice, that in the very next sentence, Jesus commissions his traumatized and fearful disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The book of Acts and the pastoral epistles tell the story of what this meant for them and the early church, but what does it mean for us?

We tend to reserve being sent to church ministries such as being a pastor. It makes me uncomfortable when people defer to me as more holy or called than others. It sometimes get humorous when a person using profanity suddenly remembers I’m a pastor and apologizes, “Oops pastor, pardon my French.” How am I supposed to respond? I generally just smile.

I smile because one of my early memories of hearing profanity was when I was a boy and a crusty old neighboring farmer kicked his broken piece of machinery and, in Pennsylvania Dutch, called it a “God damned Democrat.” Democrat was a swear word because for us it meant Italian, Polish, and Irish union members (probably Catholic to boot) who worked in the steel mills and factories in the nearby city of Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

The farming community where I grew up was solidly Republican and that reflected social and ethnic differences every bit as much as political differences. It was about our kind versus their kind. Yes, the divides have morphed today but they’re still with us. In such a world, what does it mean to be a peace church where all belong and are sent as Jesus was sent?

As Paul told the church in Corinth, it involves being ambassadors for God and, like Jesus, being trusted with a ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5: 18). All of us, in the places where we live, work, and play, embody and share this gospel of peace, which transcends all human barriers that oppress people and exclude them from full participation.

All four gospels speak of the disciples’ doubt about this resurrected Jesus. They had never completely comprehended our bought into Jesus’ peace program. At least some had harbored hopes for a violent insurrection that would drive out the hated Romans and usher in the reign of God as a new Jewish state. Now they were demoralized and confused.

Thomas’ refusal to believe, therefore, stands in for the doubts of all the disciples. Doubt is being uncertain and having questions. As Kahlil Gibran has said, “Doubt is pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.” Doubt and faith are not opposites; they belong together. And as theologian Paul Tillich has said, “Serious doubt is confirmation of faith.”

Let’s push that out a bit further. Doubt is an integral part of our spiritual growth. Without it, we would be frozen in time and place with an infantile faith. Our doubts stretch us and make room for more mature reason and faith. I know from personal experience, that this can be painful. Even so, I’ve learned to embrace my doubts as evidence of God’s spirit at work in me.

Unbelief, on the other hand, is a refusal to believe unless I’m bowled over by concrete, undeniable facts—”unless I put my finger into the mark of the nails and place my hand into his side.” Belief comes from a source other than such direct evidence. Belief never goes against clear evidence but it’s willing to trust and take risks. It’s a gift of God.

Consider the vows we make to each other when we get married. Even though we’ve fallen in love, the other person remains a mystery and that’s part of the attraction as we open ourselves to each other. We don’t know what the future holds or the kind of person each of us will become. We take this step in faith.

If we demanded the kind of evidence Thomas was insisting on, nobody would ever get married or take any other risks. Being a church body that receives and gives the peace of Christ is similar. That’s why Jesus told Thomas, “Blessed are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

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