30 March 2008

WARNING: "Peace be with you!"

2nd Sunday of Easter: Acts 2.42-47; 1 Peter 1.3-9; John 20.19-31
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul
and Church of the Incarnation

In this you rejoice: “Peace be with you!”

On this second Sunday of Easter, celebrating the Divine Mercy of God, we are asked to brave a closer look at fear, an eyes-wide-open stare at what it means for a follower of Christ to live dreadfully, panicked. Just look at the disciples who lock themselves away, afraid of the Jewish leaders. Look at the Jewish leaders who chase and threaten, afraid of the disciples and their teacher. Look at Thomas, fearful of disappointment and despair, he denies the resurrected Christ, “I will not believe.” Look at us. . .are we afraid? Are you afraid? The Psalmist this morning-evening sings, “I was hard pressed and was falling. . .” Peter must remind his brothers and sisters, in the midst of their “various trials,” that their inheritance in Christ is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading…” Jesus appears among his friends, with them behind their locked door, and he must say to them, “Peace be with you.” He breathes the Holy Spirit on them, charging his friends to go out and preach. He shows them that security is not the Christian answer to fear. It is his peace that trumps our fear, and our commission from Jesus himself—“I send you as the Father has sent me”—this commission is the source of our peace.

So, what is peace for a Christian? We might have this idea that Christian peace is pacifist; that is, we might tend to conflate “peace” with “being passive” and call “pacifism” the only proper attitude for a Christian to take in the face of violence, persecution, or trial. And why not? Surely, it is the case that when faced with the ire of the Jewish leaders, the disciples run home and lock their doors. Surely, it is case that in the early church one soul after another drops out when the way gets to be too much to handle. Surely, it is better to live another day to preach than it is to die inopportunely? Surely, Thomas is right to deny the bizarre claims of his brothers that the dead and buried Jesus has appeared to them. With both the temple and the state chasing you for being a heretic and a traitor, surely, it is best to shut up, run away, hide, and wait. Surely, surely, this cannot be true for the peaceful Christian! Thanks be to God, it is not.

Our peace as a risen Church is not rooted in pacifism, a passive lounging about in the face of opposition. Our peace as a risen Church is rooted in what Peter calls our “new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. . .” Our peace is “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” gifted to us by our Father, we “who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith…,” we who are ordered by the Spirit to rejoice “so that the genuineness of [our] faith, more precious than gold…even though tested by fire, may prove to be for the praise, glory, and honor” of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our peace as the risen Body of Christ is our “indescribable and glorious joy. . .” We do not live with hope. We do not live in hope. We are Hope—embodied, living, growing, spreading; we are attaining “the goal of [our] faith, the salvation of [our] souls.”

It is not enough that I achieve the goals of faith for myself. We, all of us, the whole Church, we are charged with “going out,” with “being sent” and with sending others out. To live as if the single end of our living hope is my personal salvation in is to live fearfully, dreadfully, passively; to live against the hard, bare witness of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. To believe that I alone am saved by the Cross and the Empty Tomb, to believe that my salvation is sufficient and that now all I need do is wait—this is another betrayal, another act of Judas, another discount on the ministry of Christ. Luke tells us in his Acts that “awe came upon everyone. . .All who believed were together and had all things in common. . .Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together. . .They ate their meals. . .praising God and enjoying favor with all the people.” We defeat fear together as Hope, or we live in dread. . .alone.

Look at Thomas. The disciples, locked behind their fearful door, witness the risen Christ—his wounds, his peace—they witness Christ as they have never seen him before. Thomas is not there. And when his brothers testify to Christ’s visit, he says, “Unless I see the marks. . .I will not believe.” One week passes and we can only imagine what happens in that single week. Do the disciples plead with Thomas to believe? Do they challenge his lack of faith? Do they argue with his skepticism, his need for physical evidence? Why do they need for Thomas to believe? Maybe Thomas regrets his willful rejection of his brothers’ witness. Or, maybe he becomes more and more obstinate in the face of their cajoling. Maybe Thomas, exhausted from the pressure, resolves to live alone, outside the witness of his friends. In just one week, maybe everything he learned from his Master sours, and he grows in fear. Who knows? We don’t. What we do know is that one week later, our Lord appears to them again and he gives Thomas what Thomas believes he needs to believe: physical proof. But lest Thomas or any of us begin to think that this faithless demand for evidence is ordinary, Jesus teaches them and us: “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” Let’s say here that Thomas’ sin is not unbelief per se, but a failure to be “a living hope” with his brothers. Rather than hope with his friends, Thomas demands a demonstration for his security; he needs to know before he believes. And so his peace, freely given through God’s hope, is ruined. Fortunately for him, our Lord decides to restore his peace and teach him a lesson.

In this you rejoice: “Peace be with you!” And what a peace it is! First, Jesus says to the frightened disciples: Peace be with you. Then he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Let’s see. . .where did the Father send Jesus? A three year teaching and preaching trek across the home country with angry Jewish leaders and Romans soldiers on his heels with little more than twelve guys who sometimes got it but most of the time didn’t, one of whom will eventually sell him as a criminal to the authorities, and the others will run like whipped puppies into the night right before his trial and execution! Peace be with you. . .here’s your suffering and death, have fun with it. Obviously, Christian peace is not a form of pacifism but a radical means of being the living hope of God for others…despite the risks, despite the trials, despite the costs. And despite the risks, the trials and the costs, we have this truth from Peter: the Lord our God and Father in his great mercy has given us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. That living hope has been given to US not to you or to me but to US and nothing can stand against it, nothing, if we but take the peace of Christ, our living hope for eternal life, and spread it thick like spring seed. We have seen the Lord! Now, peace be with you. . .

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