(Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31)
The Gospel According to John scripture passage read today contains no less than three times when Jesus says to his disciples, “Peace be with you.” He says this after he miraculously appears among them despite the locked door (19); after he shows them his hands and side, where the wounds from the crucifixion and stabbing are, and they rejoice that it is truly him (21); and, a week later, when they are again gathered behind closed doors and he appears miraculously among them so that he can show Thomas what the other disciples have seen (26). In the space of 12 verses of scripture, Jesus says to his disciples, “Peace be with you,” three times. That’s a lot of peace being given to them!
The first time Jesus gave his disciples peace was at the last supper. In John 14:27, he states, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
In both John 14 and John 20, the peace that Jesus gives is linked to the Holy Spirit. In John 14, before he gives his peace to the disciples, he tells them, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (16). And in John 20, after he gives them his peace, he gives them the Holy Spirit, breathing on them and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (22).
Peace goes hand in hand with discipleship. When we become disciples of Jesus, we receive his peace through the Holy Spirit. It is his gift to us. The thing is, however, we often have to grow into the peace he gives. We may not be able to experience it fully and at all times, particularly when we are new disciples. The seed of peace is planted in us, but it has to be nurtured, watered, and fed in order to grow into a mature plant that blossoms in our hearts and minds.
When Jesus first gave his peace to his disciples, he told them that he gives to them not as the world gives. The world gives that which is temporary, fleeting, and corruptible. It gives, and then it takes away. It gives, and then what it gives decays. Because of the nature of what the world gives, we feel anxious, worried, and troubled. We may have enough money today, but will we have enough tomorrow? We may have enough food today, but will we have enough tomorrow? We may be alive today, but will we be alive tomorrow? We may be healthy today, but will we be healthy tomorrow? Today is a good day, but will tomorrow be a bad day? You get the idea.
But Jesus doesn’t give as the world gives. Jesus gives as God gives, and God is the opposite of the world: unchanging, eternal, and timeless. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End (Rev. 22:13), and it is to him that we belong. We live in the world, but are not of the world – but we don’t know that, at first. When we’re one year old, we’re not thinking that we are in the world but not of the world! We’re thinking that our hunger feels like all there is, our thirst feels like all there is, our fatigue feels like all there is, and, if someone doesn’t change our diaper soon, we’re going to completely lose it! The world feels like all there is for a long time after we’re born into it! It’s only after we become disciples and listen to and learn from Jesus, guided and inspired by the Holy Spirit, that we begin to understand that beyond, below, behind, beside, above, and – even – in this world, there is God. And God’s reality is the only eternal reality. All else will pass away.
Our challenge, then, is that we live in the midst of change, tension, decay, corruption, and imperfection, but we don’t want to let those things define our existence because they aren’t the ultimate truth. They are of the world and will pass away. They are not God and we don’t belong to them! We belong to God. Despite whatever else is going on, we know that God and His love are real, and it is that reality we can choose to experience, even while in the world, through a leap of faith. We can see, hear, read, and experience the chaos in the world and, still, choose peace through a leap of faith in God and God’s reality. Over time, the discipline of choosing to have faith in God and God’s reality, and the daily and weekly disciplines of Bible study, prayer, fellowship, and worship, nurture the seed of peace we were given when we became disciples so that it grows and blossoms in our hearts and minds.
I was the pastor of the United Church of Stonington when 9/11 happened. As a matter of fact, the grandson of a member of the church had just begun a job at the World Trade Center and was killed during the attack. It was, of course, a shocking and deeply upsetting time in our country. Over the next few months, many people said to me that I must be having to do a lot of extra pastoral care due to the anxiety and fear caused by the attack on the World Trade Center. The truth is, however, that I didn’t have to do a lot of extra pastoral care. I thought about that and came to the conclusion that the faith of the people I served enabled them to handle the anxiety and fear caused by the terrorist attack with faithfulness. They had received the gift of Jesus’ peace and were able to access it despite what was going on in the world.
The same thing happened during this past election year: People assumed I was having to do a lot of extra pastoral care related to anxiety and fear around the election process. While there was tension around the election process, and a lot of feelings, I felt like the members of our church took things in stride, for the most part. Again, I chalked that up to faith. We have received the gift of Jesus’ peace and are able to access it despite what is going on in the world.
After Jesus’ was crucified and buried, the disciples escaped to the upper room and locked the doors. They were afraid. They were anxious. They were worried. While together behind those locked doors, however – minus Thomas – Jesus came to them and gave them peace. Not sin, not evil, not even death could defeat him. He had conquered everything that could separate them from God. Even though living in this world, they would go home to God one day. If it were not so, would Jesus go to prepare a place for them (Jn 14:2)? And so, he said – not once, but two times – “Peace be with you.”
Thomas, who had missed the miraculous appearance of Jesus and the reassurance it brought, was not peaceful. He proclaimed, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe" (20:25). Jesus, ever the faithful shepherd, gave Thomas what he needed. He appeared again among the disciples while Thomas was present. Thomas received Jesus’ gift of peace and was able to proclaim, “My Lord and my God” (28)!
We who follow Jesus have received an incredible gift: The gift of the peace that passes understanding. While the world rages around us, we can be at peace, knowing that all this will pass away, but God and his realm will remain, and we will be at home in it.
While I was thinking about the topic of peace in preparation for writing this sermon (a lot of the preparation happens in my head and heart during the week), I read the following devotional on April 20, written by Sarah Young as if Jesus were speaking:
"Do not be afraid, for I am with you. Hear Me saying, 'Peace, be still,' to your restless heart. No matter what happens, I will never leave you or forsake you. Let this assurance soak into your mind and heart until you overflow with Joy. Though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, you need not fear!
The media relentlessly proclaim bad news: for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A steady diet of their fare will sicken you. Instead of focusing on fickle, ever-changing news broadcasts, tune in to the living Word – the One who is always the same. Let Scripture saturate your mind and heart, and you will walk steadily along the path of Life. Even though you don’t know what will happen tomorrow, you can be absolutely sure of your ultimate destination. I hold you by your right hand, and afterward I will take you into Glory."
And, with that, I will say, “Peace be with you,” because it is and always will be. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, on Sunday, April 23, 2017, the Second Sunday of Easter.
Image is from