Peace be With You!

April 8, 2018

This is the transcript of my sermon given at Free Community Church on 8 April 2018. The Scripture passage is John 20:19-31The transcript is also available on Facebook and on Free Community Church’s website. The video may be watched on Vimeo.

Dear sisters- and brothers-in-Christ –

Peace be with you! It is the second Sunday of Easter, and this was the consistent greeting the resurrected Jesus brought to his followers: “Peace be with you!”

We know it in another form. In Islam, it is assalamu’alaikum, a standard greeting used by Muslims whenever they meet for worship or in casual encounters. What they are saying is exactly the same as the words of Jesus: “Peace be with you!”

In Hebrew, it is shalom aleichem, which continues to be spoken among Jews all around the world. The Jerusalem Talmud – which is a set of Rabbinic teachings and commentaries on the Jewish law from the second century – has this phrase 6 times. Its second-person pronoun, the “you”, interestingly takes the plural form even when one person is being addressed. Why? Because, for the Jews, the greeting goes to both the body and the soul.

So what a thoughtful exclamation Jesus had made although it may seem merely customary at first! What an extraordinary burst of words – shown to be even more extraordinary once we recognise the context in which Jesus proclaimed it.

1. The Greeting

First, despite its currency, this salutation is, biblically speaking, specific to Jesus. In the Bible, it was said by Jesus first, and, in fact, it was said only by him. The Apostle Paul would tell later the Roman Christians “The God of peace be with you all” (Romans 15.33), and the Corinthian Christians “And the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Corinthians 13.11). To the church in Philippi, he wished: “And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4.9).

But, standing before his small band of disciples traumatised by what was still a fresh horrific turn of events, Jesus did not wish them a presence. He did not wish them a God who could give them peace. Rather, he announced himself – and did so in a way that directly set himself as that giver of peace!

In other words, Jesus’s reappearance and his proclamation coincided. He greeted his followers upon returning from death, and yet, as victorious Prince of Peace, he also personified peace. He was really declaring: “Here I am with you – peace!

Second, upon his resurrection, Jesus gave this greeting not once or twice; he gave it repeatedly. He said it first on the evening of that first day of the week, that is, of Easter itself. He said it to 10 apostles sans Thomas (though Luke’s Gospel speaks of 11, but this may just refer to them as a group) huddling in fear in a locked room, and, according to John, at this meeting, he said it twice. The first was as a salutation as well as a proclamation – kind of like “It is I!” – while the second surely in part carried reassurance after the shock.

Luke’s Gospel testifies to Jesus’s use of the same greeting at this meeting too. It gives the further context of rumours of Jesus’s empty tomb spreading and having reached the ears of Cleopas and his friend on their way to Emmaus. The 2 disciples were sprung a surprise encounter with Jesus, and, excited but confused, they hurried back to tell the apostles in Jerusalem. By that time, Peter had also met the Lord, we learn. It was at this gathering that Jesus greeted them together.

A week later, there was a third salutation – at a second Apostolic gathering, this time with Thomas who was previously absent. This meeting was, significantly enough, held again behind locked doors.

For much of our Biblical learning, we have tended to focus on doubting Thomas and his imprudence while overlooking a wider communal feeling. Yet, if our impression is that most apostles were transformed into courageous believers after Jesus’s first group revelation, we cannot be more wrong. At this second group revelation, they were still living in paranoid fear for their lives – and, perhaps, also in doubt of the sighting they had experienced before!

2. Comparing Chapters

John’s Gospel records a third appearance to the disciples some more days later, and this episode had no mention of Jesus’s salutation. Maybe he used it; maybe he didn’t – it seems no longer relevant. Also, this third time, Jesus came to them in the open, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. He did not need to point to his physical wounds as well. After performing a grand miracle with fishes, Jesus instructed Peter to feed and take care of his flock.

Noting all these differences, we may choose to explain them away by highlighting a longer passage of time from the Easter event. But we also observe how textually, between the first 2 encounters and the third – that is, between Chapter 20 and Chapter 21 – John’s Gospel itself has inserted a division. Chapter 20 ends with words that sound as decisive and final as those rounding Chapter 21, the real conclusion!

So Chapter 20 ends: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Meanwhile, Chapter 21 has it this way: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

It is as though John wants to isolate the first 2 episodes from the third to make a particular point – and it is a point the last words of Chapter 20 already encourage. This is to highlight a challenge to the reader of John’s Gospel to be a believer more blessed than the apostles, as if it were possible, to believe through the mere Word of God as one who has witnessed personally the truth of Jesus.

Let us look more closely at John 20 then. Let us start by paying attention to the similarities in its 2 encounters where Jesus said “Peace be with you”. Here is what is common: one, Jesus appeared to the apostles as a group. Two, they were gathered in great fear, in a room behind locked doors. Three, at both meetings, Jesus felt it necessary to reassure them by showing them his wounds. Four, as we already know, he hailed them with “Peace be with you!”

In both these encounters, Jesus’s greeting was tied to an impossible reappearance. Jesus did not just come back from the dead; he further revealed himself – like one of today’s accomplished illusionists, a David Blaine or a Criss Angel – in a closed room, out of thin air. To materialise with “Peace be with you!” is thus like saying “Hey, Presto!” or “Abracadabra!” with a trick. The words and the wonder are one.

Given this understanding, the message presented by Jesus’s appearance is clear. He was doing what he announced and he was describing his performance. He was saying and showing: “In the midst of your fears, in your tight corner and your abject hopelessness, I am with you. In the midst of your suffering and all your anxieties, Lo! realise how even they can be overcome. I am proof of what is possible with God. I am your peace.”

3. First Meeting

This is the common general message between both encounters found in John 20. In other words, “Peace be with you!” is what linguists today call a speech act, an utterance that functions as an action with regard to either its intention or effect, or both.

Now let us attempt, within this message, to distinguish the 2 episodes; let us identify their specific messages. How do these differently expand on or explore Jesus’s arrival as peace?

In the first, we have, on Easter evening, the apostles cowering in a locked room. Of whom were they afraid? We are told the Jewish leaders. Note it was not the Roman authorities who were their primary fear because they understood well that those, in Jesus’s plight, were only functionaries. It was rather the religious leaders who had used politics to destroy Jesus for threatening their stranglehold on truth.

Thus, after the first “Peace be with you!”, Jesus would repeat his greeting with an all-too-familiar reminder to the apostles: “As the Father sent me, I am sending you.” He has said this or versions of it several times before. It was a reminder of their mission as Jesus’s disciples.

2 things followed: the Lord breathed the Holy Spirit on these, and then he gave them a radical promise. We traditionally understand that the Holy Spirit came to the believers at Pentecost – that is, 49 days later – and yet here Jesus was already giving it to the apostles. But, unlike Pentecost, except for the materialisation of the living Christ, there was no other sign or miracle.

We must indeed see this in immediate connection to what John’s Gospel has recorded expansively from Chapters 13 to 17, the words of Jesus in his last hours before his betrayal and crucifixion. Jesus had repeated then his theme of “I am going away, but I am coming back to you”. He gave his disciples the assurance, and reassurance, that “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14.18). But he also heralded the Holy Spirit, the so-called “Advocate” who must come upon his departure, who “will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14.26).

This promise led directly to one of Jesus’s most cited words of comfort: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14.27). Surely Jesus’s Easter evening imparting of the Holy Spirit was in fulfilment of these words! The Holy Spirit is God’s spirit of peace, of the certainty of Jesus’s care, as it is also God’s spirit of instruction, the authority in knowing God’s heart.

I say this in order to set the context with which I understand the controversial charge that followed. Jesus specifically said: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

How can we possibly interpret this later line? Indeed, the Christian Church has been divided for millennia over it; in one camp, Catholics see it as justifying its priesthood’s mandate to administer forgiveness to believers and to excommunicate others. In another camp, Protestants link this radical authority strictly to the proclamation of the Good News, through whose reception forgiveness comes or is denied.

Whichever theological perspective is invoked, what stands out is the remarkable trust Jesus had in conferring on his believers his authority. Simply nothing in the words appears to limit this authority – discounting an implicit understanding that it must be used in consistency with the life and teachings of Jesus.

You see, here is a moment in Scripture that we really need to talk more about. It is theologically uncomfortable, but it is also disruptively positive: Jesus was trusting his followers to know, after all they had heard and experienced with him, what would be pleasing to God and to do likewise. This was tied to Jesus’s direct imparting of his spirit of instruction to them, to be used inwardly from then on – literally as the Spirit led!

Humanly speaking, to be honest, I am not sure how well this procedure will pan out – see, even I don’t trust myself! – but Jesus chose it, and it is tough to qualify it away. He has plainly given us the keys to forgiveness, the principles and then the freedom to decide how large Heaven will be.

4. Second Meeting

What about the second episode in John 20, the one that involved notoriously Doubting Thomas? 2 points are to be highlighted here. First, as already raised, we do best to see Thomas not as distinct from, let alone less than, the other apostles but tied with them to the same climate of fear.

All of the followers were still meeting secretly, under heavy security! Furthermore, Jesus revealed the wounds in his hands and side not just to Thomas but also earlier to the other apostles. If Thomas would not believe until he saw with his eyes and touched with his hand, the rest had seen and conversed with Jesus and yet chose to remain wary.

In this light, Jesus’s words – “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” – must cut both ways. They rebuked not only those who needed to be convinced in order to believe but also those who, while already convinced, could not awake courage and direction in their faith.

The understanding exposes 2 principles of worldly certainty that must not be made mutually exclusive with faith: reason and self-preservation. Thomas had represented this cynical over-reliance on reason, to the detriment of faith, while the other apostles stood for a pessimistic recourse to self-preservation, to the detriment of faith.

 Two, from here, we can go on to express just how the peace Jesus gives is unlike the peace offered by the world. Worldly peace in John’s Gospel is often talked about in terms of Roman peace, the Pax Romana, sometimes called the Pax Augusta. This refers to the long period of socio-political stability and economic prosperity experienced throughout the Roman Empire for over 2 decades, from 27 BCE to 180 CE.

But even the Pax Romana, as a manifestation of worldly peace, adhered to and prospered under the principles of worldly certainty that is reason and self-preservation. The peace of Jesus is distinct from that which the world gives. Its converse principles are faith and selflessness, that is, love. The clarity of faith is found in believing how Christ has indeed risen, how he will never abandon his own, and how God can do the impossible and is always in control.

By turning ourselves from a quest for peace through the world to the peace of Jesus, we are fundamentally straddling between here and another plane of life, of confidence, and of hope. The present invariably becomes for us a contest of 2 modes of existence: in the present, in the flesh and its principles, and in not so much the future as eternity, in the Holy Spirit and its persuasions.

5. Jesus’s Peace

So what is finally the peace of Jesus? We come at last to this question only because we have thought previously that we knew what it could only meant.

First, of course, at its easiest, this is to be understood theologically – and I dare say even worldlily. Peace is a respite from war, and Jesus’s peace has made us no longer enemies of God. His peace is the peace from knowing that God has forgiven us utterly.

We are not condemned by the Almighty but are rather loved as His children now. This is still not to say that sin is no longer a problem, but, as believers, we struggle with sin as one already redeemed, one who seeks God freely with no longer fear of condemnation. The way is clear, and we are set on its route: we are getting home to God regardless of how often we fall and fail him in righteousness.

But, now from John 20, we are learning something more. We are learning that, second, Jesus’s peace is also the peace from knowing that the Lord cares for us. It is a psychic peace stabilising our being. We are assured that God is here with each of us amidst our fears, our confusion, our hopelessness, our suffering.

Third, the peace of Jesus is also the peace from knowing that God impossibly trusts us. How could He? Yet, Jesus’s peace is a confident, life-giving peace. Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, not to be idle in our living but to instruct us in our use of his authority. He gives us the excessive freedom truly to forgive as God Himself forgives, to widen the Gates of Heaven for others!

These I see as why Jesus’s peace is such a radical peace. It brokers, it releases, it heals, it promises. It nurtures, it enlivens, it protects, it instructs. It inspires, it acts, it surrenders, it expands.

Sisters- and brothers-in-Christ, there is an amazing large message contained in the resurrection’s greeting of peace, in Jesus’s assalamu’alaikum. It is about our well-being, and then it is also something more: it is about our enrichment to become God’s positive force in the suffering of the world.

6. Prayer

Now let us bow our heads:

This morning
Jesus still greets us
behind our locked doors,
in the dark places
where we hide
in our fears and
in our disappointments –
Peace be with you!

He appears magically,
out of nowhere, unwelcomed,
as the answer we don’t have
but need, the supreme surprise
to lift our spirits,
to broaden our worldviews,
to quell our longing.
Jesus comes as a gift
and he says to you
in each and every day
that you spend in darkness –
Peace be with you!

Lord God,
Father of our morning,
Beginning of our answers,
Author of our courage –
open us day by day,
faith by faith, to the truth of
Your undying, unshrinking love.
Help us in our faith in Your world
where love is the guiding light
and justice shines
with the sun’s consistency,
warm on our skin
and clear to our eyes.
Keep us in the knowing that
we are truly only always safe
within You.

In the name of
Your Son Jesus Christ
we pray,

Gwee Li Sui

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