“Peace Be With You”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (NRSV)
“Peace be with you.” In John’s gospel, these are Jesus’ first post-resurrection words to his male disciples.
It seems to me that the word peace has lost much of its original scope and depth. While it can refer to a sense of personal tranquility, just as often it gets relegated to a lack of geopolitical conflict. In Hebrew, the word for peace is shalom. In Greek, it’s eiréné. In first-century Aramaic, the language of Jesus, it was something like shlama. In the ancient languages, to invoke peace on others was to wish upon them a blessing for which mere words were inadequate. The word peaceevoked the ultimate Mystery from which all things have come and to which all things will go. Jesus was offering his disciples something far more significant than a peace treaty.
Having said that, the context for this story does hold significance. Jesus lived—and even more so did John write—during an era known as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace. If it felt peaceful, though, it was only because Rome had subjugated so much of the known world that, for a time, the empire faced no credible threat from the outside. It also brutally silenced virtually all criticism from the inside. That meant that those who held the wealth and the power could define what was true and just depending on what benefited them. So, it was under the authority of Rome’s version of “peace” that Jesus was crucified. Presbyterian pastor and educator Marjorie Thompson calls that kind of peace “enforced peace.”1 And in no small way, peace imposed through threat of violence allowed and even inspired us to kill God Incarnate.
When the risen Christ says to the disciples, “Peace be with you,” he’s offering something entirely different from the enforced peace of Rome.
Biblically and spiritually speaking, peace is a realm of wholeness, community, and joy. It’s a presence that saturates us. It’s a purpose and a confidence that guide us—even in the midst of fear. When Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” he declares his resurrection presence to the men who betrayed him and abandoned him—men who, at the moment, feel anything but peaceful. And yet, from the realm of Resurrection, unfettered by time, or space, or human frailty, Jesus announces his eternal presence with and his forgiving love for his disciples and for all Creation.
When we share the peace of Christ, we share the same gift Jesus shares with the disciples on Easter evening. And even now, that gift is nothing less than the eternal Christ himself.
Yes, it’s a learned discipline to hold and to be held by the peace of Christ. That makes it easy to deny Resurrection, to say, like Thomas, Seeing is believing, so prove it! And that’s understandable. Experiences of the risen Christ are always subjective. They defy objective proof. (I say that with apologies to everyone who has seen Jesus in the scorch marks on their tortillas or their toast.)
The subjectivity of Mystery also makes it easy to reduce Easter to an individualistic doctrine, something one must accept in order to feel assured of a reservation in the safety of a post-mortem heaven. That turns resurrection faith into a rigidly-controlled institution in which people are contained and homogenized, a system which may be defended by worldly means for selfish purposes. And that kind of religion may fit well into “enforced peace,” but how does it proclaim the realm of Resurrection? How does it share the peace of Christ? How can a self-serving institution embody, as Jesus does, God’s holy justice and advocate for the oppressed without oppressing the oppressor?
Easter offers a way of being in the world that is always new because that same world is always telling us that we—individually and corporately—will be lost unless we impose our will upon others. Easter tells us, and shows us, that true peace is the gift of following Jesus in demonstrating love and compassion toward ourselves, our neighbors, and toward all of Creation. It’s the gift of praying, Your will, not mine.
The Book of Joy is Douglas Abrams’ thoughtful record of a weeklong conversation between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. And these two profoundly influential spiritual leaders say over and over, in as many ways as they can, using as many stories as they can, that there is truly hope for the world when human beings and human communities discover joy by committing themselves to compassion.
In the final chapter, Abrams asks both men to sum up the week’s conversation. Tutu responds saying, “If we think we want to get joy for ourselves, we realize that it’s very short-sighted, short-lived. Joy is the reward, really, of seeking to give joy to others.”2 And the Dalai Lama says that: “…true joyfulness comes from helping others…” and “…the only way to truly change our world is to teach compassion.”3
The remarkable thing about these deceptively simple words is that they are spoken by men who carry deep scars of oppression. Archbishop Tutu lived under and openly contested the cruelty of apartheid in South Africa until that violently racist system fell in 1994. And the Dalai Lama has been in exile since 1959 when China invaded Tibet. Tibetans have been escaping China’s authoritarian control and abuses ever since. And yet both of these men committed themselves to lives of compassion for all people, including those responsible for oppression.
Like Jesus showing up in that locked room to men who had forsaken him when he needed them most, both Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama lived lives of true peace; and one continues to live that life. Such lives are holy words from God saying to the world, “Peace be with you,” all of you!
Here, we begin to understand Jesus’ cryptic words about forgiving and retaining sins. If I acknowledge that the peace of Christ is the very presence of the resurrected Jesus, and if, for whatever reason, I do not share it with you, whoever you are, then I withhold from all of us a richer experience of God’s realm.
Christ’s peace can only be offered to; it cannot be imposed upon. So, it’s not a matter of whether or not others “accept Jesus.” It’s a matter of whether we, as disciples, are humble, grateful, and generous enough to trust that, like candlelight on Christmas Eve, the more we share Christ’s peace, the more there is for everyone.
When we do find the strength for that kind of generous compassion, we discover the deep blessedness of joy, and this blessedness is not associated with seeing, hearing, or touching Jesus in any conventional sense, but from loving and following the one whom we call the Prince of Peace.
Brothers and Sisters, from the ever-deepening depths of my self to the ever-deepening depths of your selves: The peace of Christ be with you all.
1Marjorie Thompson, The Way of Blessedness, Upper Room Books, 2003. (From the Companions in Christ series) p. 86.
2The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. Avery, NY, 2016. p. 293.
3Ibid. pp. 295-296.