Passing the Peace

When 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.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” John 20:19-21

At the beginning of today’s gospel reading, Jesus wafts right through the locked door and he says to his friends, “Peace be with you.” Now, that’s not an uncommon greeting in the New Testament. It appears in four of the epistles, as well as in Luke’s gospel. But Jesus is about more than greeting his friends. He has appeared to deliver the Holy Spirit, and with it a mission to the world for his followers.

It raises the question of just what we are doing when in church we “pass the peace.” I found in my first six months or so here that few of us actually used the formula for passing the peace when greeting each other at the beginning of worship. We didn’t say, “The Peace of Christ be with you,” or respond, “And also with you.” We just said, “Good morning,” or “good to see you.” And when I say “we,” I mean me, too. Sometimes passing the peace feels too formal or strange. At the big church my family used to attend, I noticed that we and the other people seated in the first 6 pews or so always “passed the peace,” while people sitting further back always said, “Good morning,” instead. We probably felt more pious, but I have to admit I never really thought about what we were saying.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with greeting each other. In fact, I suggested to the Deacons that we start calling what we were doing by its right name and save “Passing the Peace” for communion Sundays, and not in place of greeting each other, but in addition to it. And we greet each other enthusiastically every Sunday, I find, both before the service starts and also when we have the chance in our worship time. And, honestly, I didn’t spend much time thinking about it again until I began looking at this text and asking myself just what it means to pass the peace of Christ.

Christ, risen that very morning, appears to his disciples, by which the gospel writer probably doesn’t mean just the Eleven but rather a wider group of followers who had gathered together in a locked room, fearful that the authorities would do to them what had already been done to Jesus. His first words may seem meant to reassure, but as we explore what he means by “peace,” this expression is probably not so comforting. For the peace he passes to his friends and his followers is not simply the relief of their anxiety or a warm and fuzzy feeling. It is a responsibility and a mission to the world.

But before they can receive Christ’s peace—really receive it—the disciples have to recognize him. They look at his hands and his feet, and then they know him. By his scars they know him. And then he says to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He is commissioning them, telling them that they are not just being comforted, but being sent out to do God’s work. In John’s gospel, the Pentecost event, in which the Holy Spirit comes to the disciples, happens right here, in the locked room, on the evening of Easter Day. The Spirit comes on Christ’s breath, just as in the Book of Genesis, life came to Adam on God’s breath.

And with it comes the work they are being sent to do.

20:22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
20:23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Jesus had died for the sake of our forgiveness, to bring about our reconciliation with God. And in John’s gospel, that is what forgiveness is all about. Sin, to John, is not about doing bad things but about failing to see God’s love for us revealed in Jesus. Sin, to John, is about being out of relationship with God. So Christ, risen from the tomb, comes through the locked doors that can easily represent our disconnection from God. Christ breaks through the man-made barriers and breathes life into the frightened disciples. And he gives them a job to do; they are to continue his work, to be sent as he was sent, and to bring about the reconciliation of others to God.

That sounds like a great job for them, doesn’t it? After all, they had been right there with Jesus throughout his ministry, had seen him in action, had listened to him day after night after week after month for the three years he journeyed and taught. They were certainly well-equipped for ministry. First the disciples recognized him, then they received the spirit, and then they were sent. But here’s the rub. He wants us to do that job, too. We, too, are breathed on and sent, as soon as we recognize Jesus as Lord.

And maybe that’s why we are sometimes reluctant to say those words: “The peace of Christ be with you.” It’s more than wishing someone a nice day! It’s an expression of a commitment to Christ.

Thomas was deeply committed to Jesus. Now, for some reason he wasn’t with his friends on the night Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into their midst. And in his shock and grief he found it hard to believe his friends had seen their teacher. But he was with them when Jesus appeared again. And Jesus was prepared to meet his need for tangible evidence. We don’t know that Thomas actually touched him, but we do know that Thomas goes on to make the most powerful confession of who Jesus is in John’s gospel: “My Lord and my God!” he exclaims.

We definitely live in a “Thomas” world, not so much a world of doubters—and I really think that’s an unfair snipe at Thomas—but a world of science and fact and intellect that looks down at faith and wants its proof. But there is an adage from the Talmud, that vast collection of Jewish traditions and wise sayings: “We do not see things as they are. We see them as we are.” Even a scientific person, even a person who depends on logic, views the world through the unique lens of his own experience. Thomas saw things as he was, and so do we. It’s scary to be part of something outside the obvious physical reality we can touch taste smell hear see. To be a person of faith today can feel out of touch with reality. It requires a leap; it means taking a chance on things we cannot see. Christ said it: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe!”

That’s where we are, all these years later, all these Easters later. Thomas had his needs and the disciples had their fears, and so have we. There are many things we may fear when we consider seriously living as Christ’s disciples in the world of 2004. And even though discipleship is not likely to be literally life-threatening, as it was for some of the first disciples, it will certainly be life-altering.

It’s life-altering because in this world of lawsuits and recriminations, to be disciples we are asked to forgive others and to aid in their reconciliation to God. We’re asked to show them that God cares for them. We’re asked to overcome our fears, our frustrations, our irritation—each of us has our own set of difficulties—in order to live in Christ’s peace. We might be afraid of rejection; if we invite our friends to church, will they think we are pushy? We might be afraid of seeming odd; I’ve run into people with Bernese Mountain Dogs, and if I want to leave open the possibility of getting together with the dogs, I sometimes give them my business card, because it’s so easy. When I don’t hear from them I wonder if they fear I’m going to try to convert them! But it hasn’t stopped me…

I think the biggest fear I deal with is judgment. I have an acute sense of distress when I am found wanting by others. And even when I know they’re wrong, I still feel defensive and irritated. Last Sunday afternoon, my daughter went down the street to play with some friends. They invited her inside, and their dad read the Easter story to them from John’s gospel. She was puzzled that there were two angels in the story and said she hadn’t heard it that way before. Now, of course, the four gospels each tell the story of the Resurrection in a slightly different way, and perhaps having listened to Luke’s gospel at the Sunrise service, she wasn’t listening as closely to John’s gospel last Sunday at 10! The mom down the street pointed out, as I am, that the details vary. And then she asked the question that flabbergasted us. Leaning over toward my daughter, she inquired, “Do you have a Bible at home?” How in the world does the minister’s child answer that?

The incident irritated me. I wanted to go down the street and straighten that mom out! I wanted to ask her, “Just what kind of Christian do you think I am?” Obviously the non-Bible-reading kind!! We began to free-associate funny answers to the Bible question, and we began to laugh and laugh and laugh. And now it’s just the funniest thing to us: “Do you have a Bible at home?” Yes, we do. And it tells us to forgive. It tells us to reconcile ourselves and others with God. And as much as I would like to respond with the irritation I felt and defend myself and my child, doing so would not make me a better, a fuller, a deeper disciple of Jesus. It certainly wouldn’t be passing Christ’s peace. And so I continue to struggle with my own nature.

We all struggle. Even the disciples needed to hear the news twice and to see the risen Jesus in order to believe. And he made himself available to them, and to Thomas. He gave himself to them again. They learned and went out into the world, at great risk to themselves, in order to make him available to people who had never known him, to help them believe and be forgiven for their alienation from God. And that is our job now. We can make Christ available to the people around us by passing his peace to them, not through formulaic words or arcane practices, but through kindness and compassion, accessibility and availability. But we will say the words to each other before we leave today, the words of peace being shared and the acknowledgement that Jesus sends us to continue his ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation. He calls on us to pass his peace, and we must decide how we will answer. Are we brave enough and intentional enough and good enough to be his disciples? Not by ourselves; no one would be. But with God, all things are possible. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe!” Amen.