“Peace be with you.” (Congregation: And also with you). Good, you knew just what to do. It’s a good thing we practice this call and response each Sunday. Why do we do this? Is it just a nice ritual to say hello to people we haven’t seen for a few days, like a Christian version of “good morning?”
A key to understanding what this practice is about is noticing where it is placed in our worship service. We “pass the peace” after we have confessed our sins to Godand received again the good news of reconciliation: In Jesus Christ, you are forgiven! Then we go around sharing the forgiveness we’ve first received with our neighbors and our fellow disciples. We rehearse passing Christ’s peace in worship because it is an integral and formational spiritual practice for living out our identity as God’s children, an essential way in which the Holy Spirit is revealed in the church.
“Peace be with you,” says the Risen Christ to his disciples in John’s “Pentecost” narrative. Pentecost is the church’s feast day, in which we celebrate the giving and receiving of the Holy Spirit, when the disciples of Jesus were transformed from fearful followers to bold apostles, a community of believers, powerfully sent to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. But John’s account is quite different from the Acts 2 story that we usually read. There is no rushing wind, tongues of fire, or public miracle of people speaking in many languages. We’ve noted that the original audience of John’s gospel was probably a close-knit group of Jesus-followers who’d been cast out of the synagogues and faced persecution. Befitting that context, John’s telling of the Holy Spirit’s coming seems much more private and intimate.
This story begins on Easter evening. Mary Magdalene has returned from the garden saying “I have seen the Lord,” but nonetheless, the disciples are huddled together in a house with locked doors. I imagine they are sad, confused, and afraid all at once. The text says they are afraid of the Jewish leaders who sent Jesus to his crucifixion. They know they might be next. So the disciples want some privacy and security, a quiet respite from the tumult of recent days. They are looking for “peace” defined as a lack of disturbance. The locked doors put a barrier between themselves and possible confrontation.
I don’t know about you, but that’s just the sort of peacefulness I often long for. Undisturbed calm. Our world changes so quickly, and the times we live in are so often hurried, uncertain, and anxious. Some days I crave a hideaway where I can escape.A quiet place where I can lock out disturbances or avoid confrontation with bad news.
Of course, the trouble with locked doors is that they may keep dangerous elements out, but they also trap those inside in a tight space with few options. Nothing new can enter or exit, so there is a kind of status quo paralysis. And however we may sometimes long for undisturbed calm, it turns out we were not made for a static existence. If we must sit still too long, most of us eventually get restless and start longing for something new. Ultimately, the only place where we can truly “rest in peace,” undisturbed, is when we are lying beneath a headstone.
“Peace be with you,” Jesus says, and our first clue that he’s offering something different from this lack-of-disturbance-sort-of-peace is that he says it having somehow entered the room without going through the locked door. That’s a little disturbing, don’t you think?
Our second clue is that he says it again after having demonstrated the scars in his hands and his side. He does this because the disciples do not at first recognize him, but it is a disturbing reminder that Jesus’ identity—and those of us who follow him—will be forever bound up with his death on a cross. To this, Jesus adds a few words, guaranteed to disturb the disciples for the rest of their lives! “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Finally, to cap off the unnerving weirdness of this scene, Jesus breathes on them: “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
There is a world of implications in this brief scrap of scripture. First, the Risen Christ cannot and will not be kept out of any place in our world. It doesn’t matter how seemingly dead-end of a location our path through life has taken us. Jesus can find us and encounter us there. A stone-sealed tomb couldn’t keep him in; neither can this locked door cannot keep him out. I find this news simultaneously exhilarating and unsettling.
About Christ’s resurrection, Anna Carter Florence likes to say, “If dead things won’t stay dead, what can you count on?” Well, it turns out that we can count on the Triune God to show up when and where we least expect him offering to unbind from the locked rooms of destructive attitudes, habits, and practices and deliver us to more spacious places. We can count on him to show up and offer reconciliation in any dead-end relationship we’ve ever experienced. We can count on him to offer new life we had never imagined possible. And, in Jesus Christ, we can count on the Creator to continue creating.
Remember how John points out that the Risen Lord appears on the “first day of the week”? Flashback to Genesis 1, when the wind from God swept over the waters, and God said “Let there be light.” Remember that the words wind, breath, and spirit are the same word in Greek and Hebrew? The first day of the new creation is happening at that very moment in the room with the disciples. Jesus comes and breathes a holy wind, beginning to heal the long effects of primal sin.[i] Flashback to Genesis 2, when God breathed the breath of life into the nostrils of the man he formed from the dust. Tom Wright says, “Now in the new creation, the restoring life of God is breathed out through Jesus, making new people of the disciples, and, through them, offering this new life to the world.”[ii]
Jesus breathes the peace of Christ into those disciples, something much more profound than a surface tranquility. Paul calls it the “peace that passes understanding,” for when it takes root in you, you can walk into and through any kind of chaos or devastation with courage, determination and hope. This peace is the peace of reconciliation with God, the peace we receive as we come to deeply trust God’s gracious, self-giving, forgiving love in Jesus Christ.
And as we receive it, as we take hold of it, we are empowered to extend such love to others. This is what Jesus commissions the disciples to do. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” That sounds pretty intimidating, doesn’t it? A big job, and Jesus is telling us to do it? We might wonder how we qualify. The truth is, we don’t—until we breathe in the Holy Spirit Jesus has exhaled upon us, and then it is God in us who makes it possible for us to both hold one another accountable and offer one another forgiveness of sins. This is the peace we offer one another.
And, my friends, remember, this is not some overwhelming task we must accomplish under the hand of a harsh taskmaster to earn a forthcoming reward. It is a gracious gift, a present treasure we can choose to receive or not. It is given to us unconditionally by a loving Lord who invites us—each and every one of us, no matter how lofty or low we think our “qualifications—to participate in his life-saving, life-giving, new-life-creating mission.
Breath: what an intimate, personal way to share such a gift! We are invited to share Christ’s peace with others in just as intimate and personal ways. As we make ourselves available to Christ’s holy breathing in us, those ways will come as naturally to us as breathing. We don’t have to go looking for ways to share the peace of Christ with others. They are right there in front of us whenever we remember to pay attention.
I asked Linda Fratzke if I could share with you a marvelous story she told me over the phone when I called to check in with her. It begins in another locked room, of sorts, the ICU waiting room. Linda was sitting there one day during this past month of David’s declining health. There was one other person in the room, a young woman on her cell phone. Overhearing the conversation, it didn’t take Linda long to assess that the young woman’s boyfriend was abusively controlling.
When she got off the phone, the young woman turned to Linda. “I’m sorry you had to listen to that,” she said. Linda nodded, and then felt a compassionate pull to counsel the young woman to get out of the relationship. Later, the woman told Linda her friends and family had been saying the same thing for weeks, but hearing it from a stranger made a strong impact. She finally decided to take action to get out of the situation.
Linda told me that she might not have said anything, but echoing through her mind, she heard the words the pastor of their Arizona church says every Sunday in the benediction: “Wherever you are, God has put you there for a reason.” As she sat in that waiting room, assuming she was there to accompany her dying husband through treatment, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, Linda was able to see that her purpose was even bigger than that, and she was empowered to offer her witness, letting fresh air through the doors of that young woman’s locked room, and breathing into her the possibility of new life in Christ.
My friends, this Pentecost, Jesus Christ has come to stand among us in this room and has breathed the Holy Spirit upon us. Breathe in deep of this fresh wind. Let it clear away all the distractions so that you can see the powerful truth: God has given you the peace of Christ, and put you where you are in your own life for a purpose. Receive and breathe deeply of the Holy Spirit, that you may breathe out peace and share the forgiving, restoring, life-giving love of our Crucified and Risen Lord.
Alleluia and Amen.
[i] Tom Wright, 150.
[ii] Tom Wright, John for Everyone, Part 2, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 149-150.