I decided to do some digging on Jesus’ greeting, “Peace be with you.”
He repeats it three times in this lectionary reading from John, so clearly it is important. Recognizing that “Shalom be with you” would have been a common greeting, is Jesus just using the normative phrase in a commonplace way? Likely not, given his farewell address a few chapters back in John. “Peace” in John’s Gospel carried a lot of weight each time Jesus spoke of it. Keep in mind John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” And also remember John 16:33 as Jesus explains to the disciples the necessity of his departure and his relationship to the Father: “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”
Jesus’ statement “Peace be with you” is more than a common greeting in this context. It is a proclamation, performative language that, when coupled with “as the Father has sent me, so I send you,” brings (and soon breathes) into being the community of believers whose living of the resurrection life will bring life to the world. There is parity in this text between Jesus’ ministry and that of his disciples. That “just as” is important, but easily missed (especially because “just” is left out in the NRSV). In all the drama of Jesus appearing despite locked doors and showing them his hands and side, the two everyday words “just as” don’t stand out, but they should.
Consider for a moment that we are to go out into the world, sent by the Risen Christ, just as Jesus, the Son of God, was sent into the world by his Father. Whoa. That’s where a closer look at that thrice-repeated greeting becomes imperative. Here is the sequence:
“Peace be with you.”
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Then to the disciples, including Thomas, “Peace be with you.”
Our Risen Lord commissions us to go and continue the work of his earthly ministry, and that ministry is one of peace, shalom, healing, wholeness, well-being, reconciliation. When we pass the peace on any given Sunday, this is what we are affirming. “The peace of Christ be with you.” “And also with you.” The magnitude of this exchange is mind blowing if we stop for just a second and think about it. We are practicing within the crucible of worship what we are to be doing out in the world, every day, offering, extending, living in ways that further and foster shalom, the saving, healing wholeness, mercy, grace and love of Jesus Christ. “Just as the Father has sent me, I send you.”
A quick read through the entry on “peace” in “The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible” reminds us that the “co-terms in the New Testament” for peace are: Kingdom of God, justice/justification and righteousness, reconciliation, joy, faith and salvation, love, wholeness in body and spirit. Keep these things in mind the next time you turn to your neighbor in the pew and say, “The peace of Christ be with you.” Keep these things in mind as you live and move and have your being in the world as a disciple of the one who sends us there.
James Davison Hunter in his book, “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World,” contends that Christians’ “faithful presence from within” is the most powerful catalyst in making the world better for everyone. That faithful presence seeks shalom for all. He writes, “And so until God brings forth the new heaven and the new earth, [God] calls believers, individuals and as a community, to conform to Christ and embody within every part of their lives, the shalom of God. … In this Christians are to live toward the well-being of others, not just to those within the community of faith, but to all.” (Italics his) He notes earlier that Christ both models shalom “by forgiving the sinner, feeding the hungry, healing the sick and infirm, raising the dead, loving the outsider, and caring for all in need” and is our shalom. The peace of Christ be with you. And also with you. And also with everyone.
As I dug into this lesson for the second Sunday of Easter, I also learned about its liturgical significance in the early church. Even then it was known as a “low Sunday,” however it had a particular function I’d not previously known. Frank C. Senn writes about it in his book, “Christian Liturgy Catholic and Evangelical.” He notes, “On Low Sunday (the Second Sunday of Easter) the neophytes were allowed to remove their white garments and mingle with the faithful. Augustine the bishop admonished the neophytes for one last time that, lamentably, the great mass of Christians no longer form a distinguishable band of the elect in this world; the new Christians better decide whether they will be in the party of the sheep or the goats.”
In other words, just as Jesus went out and mingled with the masses, proclaiming and offering peace, so, too, even neophyte Christians are to do likewise, challenging as such a faithful, resurrection life may be in the midst of a culture committed to the ways of sin and death.
We do not, however, go out into the world alone. Jesus gives us his peace (Thomas included), and we are accompanied by the Holy Spirit. Like the breath of life in Genesis or the one to which Ezekiel prophesied in the midst of dry bones, the breath of the Holy Spirit brings a life-giving power that overcomes our fears, divisions, resentments, doubts and hostilities. The gift of the Holy Spirit takes our practiced Sunday morning peace passing, blows us out the church doors and makes flames out of the small embers of our faithful presence. Just as Jesus promised, we are not left orphaned, alone and afraid; we have the gift of his peace, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the love of the Father, and our fellow disciples, believers who rejoice, doubters who make bold declarations of faith, followers who attempt to forgive as they have been forgiven so that all will have shalom.
- Do a word study of peace and see how often it appears throughout Scripture. Make note of the many different aspects of shalom and eirene.
- Thomas declares, “My Lord and my God!” When have you made such a total and enthusiastic declaration of faith?
- Do you pass the peace in your congregation? If so, when does it occur in the service? What is the significance of this practice in your context?
- Of all the things the Risen Christ could have mentioned or instructed, he talks about the forgiveness of sins. Why? What are the implications of this particular statement about forgiveness or retaining?
- Look at where Thomas speaks in John’s Gospel in chapter 11:16. How does this glimpse of Thomas shape your understanding of his words and actions in John 20?
- Look up “peace” in the subject index of the hymnal you use and read through some of the hymns listed. How do they relate to or inform this text in John?
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