As we listen to the gospel passage for this Sunday, I ask us to listen in particular for what it says to us, and what it does for us, especially in light of our vision statement, “As followers of Christ, Emmanuel Mennonite Church commits to … choosing peace..” one of our four supreme commitments, along with “worshiping God, nurturing community and extending hospitality.” Listen also for how it links two things that we so often separate and pit against each other: mission and peace, or evangelism and justice.
John 20: 19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
When was the resurrection of Jesus truly good news? For the eleven remaining apostles, the reports they got about the Risen Jesus were mixed news. By rights, in that time and culture, Jesus could have had quite a list of grievances against them. He had been betrayed, another had denied him, none had stayed up to pray with him as he had requested in the Garden of Gethsemane, and all had fled in his hour of need.
“If he is risen, then just what kind of trouble are we in?” the eleven were likely wondering. “Maybe the best we can hope for is that we get pink slips and that he hires new apostles.” But to their surprise, peace broke in. And that’s when the resurrection of Jesus fully, truly became good news for the apostles, and for us.
Peace breaking in and entering might sound like a strange idea. Or like a felony. War breaking out, we’re used to that. Armies and governments compile pages and reams of contingency plans for whenever war should break out. Of course all plans are off, they go to shreds, once the first bullet flies. Still, we are usually much less prepared for peace breaking in, as it did in that upper room where the disciples were hiding, than for war breaking out. But Peace broke into that locked upper room three times. Twice, each time that Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you!” and again when Jesus breathed into his new human creation his Holy Spirit, so that they might share this peace with others.
From the mouth of Jesus, “Peace be with you” is more than just a friendly, customary greeting, like “Hiya pals! I’m back!” He would have said, “Shalom.” In that word you have encapsulated the whole of God’s reason for creation, and the whole of God’s redemptive plan for creation. John records that upon hearing the word, “Shalom,” from the mouth of Jesus, then the apostles were overjoyed. Overjoyed that he was risen, alive, yes. But also overjoyed that he returned to them not with rejection, not with punishment, but with “Shalom,” peace. That meant that he had pardoned their failures of the week before. Even more, they were overjoyed as they all the second, third and a zillionth chances he was offering them. They chose the peace that chose them. Upon making that choice, there would be no more hiding for the disciples. Then they showed as much courage as did the women, like Mary Magdalene, who had stood up for Jesus, and had stood by Jesus, before, during and after his crucifixion. That’s how the theologian Karl Barth defined Christian faith: the courage to accept that we are accepted. And it does take courage.
This morning we can share the joy of those eleven remaining apostles, because that greeting, “Shalom,” meant peace through pardon not only for the eleven, it also means peace through pardon for the whole world, throughout all generations, for all who would also choose to accept that same peace. For if Jesus had come back only to mete out deserved justice on each and every person who ever did or had or could betray him, deny him, abandon him and disappoint him, where would all that punishment and rejection ever stop? We live in a world where so many persons and people groups have long, legitimate lists of grievances against each other, often going back generations, even millenia. And what we’ve done to each other we have effectively done to our Creator. If Jesus had come back from the grave only to settle these accounts, who would be left standing? For as Martin Luther said, “ In our pockets we all carry the nails to Christ’s cross.”
The word, “Shalom” on that day, in that room, meant forgiveness and a new start, not only for the eleven, but for everyone. That first break-in of peace means that everyone and everything can be pardoned, that everyone can offer pardon, and that everyone can accept pardon. Not that its always easy. But as often as we summon up the courage to make that same choice of Christ’s peace through pardon, the resurrection of Jesus becomes good news for us, too.
Brothers and Sisters, the second commitment of our church’s vision statement is right in line with today’s gospel passage, that as disciples of Christ, we follow Christ by “choosing peace.” Not just any peace. Not the peace of any political agenda, left or right. Not the so-called peace imposed by fear of overwhelming retaliation, as shaky as such peace may be. Rather, the peace that comes with God’s pardon.
Choosing that peace has implications for our conduct, our attitudes, thoughts and actions. If we’re going to relax by watching some TV tonight, will we just zone out with some fear-inducing crime drama about some psychopathic mass murderer, or will it be something like the inspiring, edifying documentary that was on last week, about a woman who has broken free of alcohol, abuse and promiscuity, has gotten her children back from foster care, and who is now teaching and helping other abuse victims? Which one sounds like “choosing peace?”
Speaking personally, I know that I have been so attuned, accultrated and addicted to contest and to conquest that I’m not sure I would recognize peace if it walked up to me on the street and said, “Shalom!” the way Jesus did. But the peace of God is always breaking in to us whether we recognize and receive it or not. For me, I sense the presence of peace breaking in, for example, whenever I see the first forsythia blooming in early spring. And then I know that the world is still turning and that we have made it through the brutal blasts and blizzards of winter. I wasn’t so sure of that this past Friday. It also tells me that I’d better hurry up and plant sugar snap peas. I sense peace breaking in when I see children snuggling up with their parents or grandparents. I sense peace breaking in whenever I listen to all the beautiful harmony of our voices lifted up together in worship and praise. Praise, whether of God or people, is a powerful act of peacemaking, and of peace breaking in. And I see peace breaking in, whenever I see and hear people reaching beyond the walls of their hurt, fear and anger with each other and struggling to reknit the web of relationships that was torn, with forgiveness and with steps toward understanding and reconciliation. When such things happen, I think we should take off our shoes; we are standing on holy ground.
I invite you to think for a moment about when and where and how you might experience peace breaking in on you, in particular, the peace of God’s pardon through Jesus……..(Pause)
But peace breaking in to us through pardon is not the end of Jesus’ work in the world. It’s just the start. Jesus said, “Shalom” a second time just before he commissioned the apostles with these words, “As the Father has sent me, so am I sending you.” That was the second time in today’s passage when peace broke in: when Jesus commissioned his church to share this same message of peace through pardon with the world.
When Jesus went on to say, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven,” he is not saying that we have the power to send anyone else to hell just by holding on to a grudge and refusing to forgive them. If anything, that’s how to make a hell on earth for ourselves. No, Jesus is saying that if we, the church, choose not to be sent and choose not to share our peace through pardon with others, there just really is no Plan B, no divine fallback plan, beyond us.
So, how do we choose to share the peace of Christ? If a co-worker did us dirty or took credit for something we did, we can’t choose to have happy, peaceful feelings about that. But will we choose the peace-making response of talking directly, personally, to him or her about how it affected us? And if we do choose to talk with him or her personally, will it be to attack verbally, viciously, to let off steam, or will it be to communicate honestly our hurt, and to invite reconciliation? Or will we gossip with everyone else in the office about it, and so divide people into teams? Which one sounds like choosing the peace that chose us?
If that sounds hard, consider the ways in which we have already been choosing peace. This week I began typing up a simple mission history of Emmanuel Church, for the 15 years I have been here. One thing that struck me is that our mission commitments have included ministries of peacemaking, justice and service, as well as evangelistic, church-planting ministries, both here and overseas. We have often responded generously in support of things like relief kits for war refugees in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have hosted events and helped members engaged in the fight against land mines and cluster munitions, we have supported evangelistic ministries in India and Ethiopia, told the story of courageous peacemaking women like Leyma Gbowee of Liberia at the University of Minnesota, and stood with and ministered to undocumented immigrants.
Listening to our sharing and announcements this morning, I discern……..
And while I commend this church for such a balanced, inclusive missionary enthusiasm, I credit most the Holy Spirit, who is responsible for all the peace breaking in. Peace broke out a third time in that upper room when Jesus breathed his breath, his Spirit, onto the disciples, just like God did in Genesis 2, when he breathed his breath into the clay with which he formed Adam. And then Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” That blessing would be fulfilled 50 days later, on Pentecost.
I cannot overstate, I cannot exaggerate, the importance of The Holy Spirit in either today’s text nor in how we carry out the commision that Jesus gave. May we never forget that we can share Christ’s peace only through a power greater than ourselves. May we never forget that it is God’s Spirit sharing Christ’s peace through us.
Its good to learn all the practical and theoretical things we can about peacemaking communication and techniques. God knows that the human race is too advanced in the arts and sciences of war and too backward in the arts and science of peace. We just did a series on conflict and communication in our Senior High Christian Education class. Some time later this year I’d like to offer some adult Christian education class sessions on things I’ve learned about peace-making and reconciliation from my time at Eastern Mennonite University and with Lombard Center.
But those techniques are only empty vessels at best, manipulative techniques at worst, unless they are filled and guided by the Holy Spirit. As we discern just what is our church’s focus in mission this year, let’s remember three things: one, let’s keep this harmonious blend of peacemaking and evangelism, doing justice and sharing faith; secondly, let us never forget to carry out the ministry of God’s peace through pardon only as those who themselves have been pardoned, because we always need such pardon. Otherwise, the Holy Spirit cannot fill vessels that are full of themselves. Only the penitent can convincingly call people to repentance. The third matter of importance is that we breathe in the Spirit whom Jesus breathed out to us. We invite the Holy Spirit to be and to work in our lives, we make space for him, and continually make him at home with our choices of thought, word and deed. That is the aim and measure of all our prayer, our worship, and our spiritual disciplines.
The good news this morning is that the peace of Christ is always breaking in on us as it did in that upper room, the peace of his pardon. Will we recognize such peace whenever it breaks in on us? Will we accept such peace? And will we share this peace with others? That depends upon his Holy Spirit, and how much room we make for him, how much we let him in.