Peace which passes understanding

Collect: O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 3:12-19, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36-48

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

“Peace be with you.” Jesus’ first greeting to the disciples after his resurrection is the same greeting we’ll share with one another in a few moments. But for many, it’s one of the most painful ironies and even shortfalls of the Christian faith. How can peace be so closely associated with the central mysteries of our faith, when the world we live in is anything but peaceful? When our own lives are anything but peaceful?

I’ve been enjoying these “Coffee & Conversation” gatherings very much, but one of the more challenging themes that’s come up is how difficult it is to own our Christian identities in public spaces. Part of the reason for that is the way other Christians — and if we’re honest we ourselves — have sometimes pursued peace at the cost of global and personal well being. And part of the reason for that is that a lot of us just aren’t sure we’re very good Christians in the first place. Our lives are full of chaos and confusion, competing loyalties, and feelings in tensions with one another. We do not feel the peace that Christ gives, and we do not hear it in the Christian voices which dominate the public square.

A woman came up to me recently who said, “You know I only really felt peace once. I don’t understand why it was then and not otherwise, my life was in shambles at the time and I was making a mess of things: my marriage was on the line, along with my job and my relationships with my relatives. One Sunday I was in church singing some random hymn, a little distracted because I was going over it all in my head again for the umpteenth time. And then suddenly I felt this peace arrive, so profoundly and so unmistakably present that it was almost tangible. I stopped my anxious catalogue and I spent the rest of the hymn transfixed; somehow I knew I was going to be okay, that I was being held in a way I didn’t know possible. I’ve never felt that way before or since but it’s a moment I return to sometimes when I’m feeling down. Why can’t there be more of that kind of peace in the world? And why did it happen when my life was such a mess?”

The only thing I could think of to say was that perhaps she needed it just then. God knows we need the peace Jesus gives all the time, but more than ever when we’re in trouble. Still that kind of profound feeling is a gift, an exception, not the rule. What is this peace that passes understanding, if it appears so rarely in a person’s life? And what is it worth if it makes Christians so reluctant to own the faith which promises such peace?

Part of the problem I think comes from misunderstanding the very beginning, this moment in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus says, peace be with you. Yes he gives them his peace, but it’s more than a comfort blanket or a placebo. Remember, it might only have been Judas who betrayed him, and Peter alone who denied him, but they all forsook him and fled when he was taken away in the Garden. When Jesus says, peace be with you, it’s a moment of forgiveness, of reconciliation, when the deeds and events which broke their fellowship are forgiven and their unity restored. Jesus’ gift, “Peace be with you” is fundamentally a moment of reconciliation. We who wish we had more of that peace ourselves could do worse than to set about reconciling with one other, forgiving both the great wrongs and little slights we’ve suffered, without expecting anything in return.

But there’s also an element of humor here, or at least I think so. “Peace be with you.” Jesus is risen from the dead, and he takes his disciples by surprise where they’re gathered in a locked upper room. “Peace be with you,” he says. It’s sort of formal and a little stilted, but then what else is he supposed to say? Imagine Jesus making his way from the tomb to the upper room, trying to figure out just what he’s going to say to these people, like the hapless bachelor practicing his charm in front of the mirror in a romantic comedy. “Peace be with you.” It’s a variation on the angelic greeting, “Fear Not,” Because the strangeness of the scenario would be too much for them to bear otherwise. He even escalates the whole scenario by insisting he eat with them right then and there, just to prove he’s not a ghost.

There’s humor here, no mistaking it. And the humor breaks the power of the intense seriousness which had prevailed among them from the moment of his arrest through the ensuing days. It puts them at ease, and they can be themselves again, together. On top of forgiving them, Jesus’ peace and particularly his humor restores them to themselves, breaking the power of anxiety and calling them to participate in the joy of his resurrected life.

As anyone who has struggled with depression can tell you, there can be something marvelous and healing about just being part of a group where everyone is laughing and having a good time, sharing old memories and making new ones; something restorative about simply feeling a part of things, a part of life again, with people who understand you and can tease you good-naturedly. The humor of Jesus’ peace accomplishes this for his disciples.

But this element of humor is more than simple lightheartedness. It reveals a deeper confidence about the world and all the crazy going on outside. For the resurrected Jesus and his disciples to laugh together despite all the challenges they face and the systemic injustice of the world they live in, injustice which condemned Jesus to death among other things, is to suggest that their confidence goes deeper than all the crazy surrounding them.

Jesus has come through death itself, and none of its minions no matter how great can have any power over him any longer, and no power over those with whom he shares his peace. They laugh and rejoice, and all the crazy is revealed to be powerless.

But what about the crazy that still besets us, and the sabotage and subterfuge that Christians continue to work against one another? What about the complete apathy and downright antipathy the rest of the world shows to people of faith? What about the mother who just watched her daughter, a twenty-year-old university athlete, fall twenty feet from the climbing wall to break both legs and now face the possibility she’ll never walk again? What is Jesus’ peace in the face of all this?

We tend to think of it as a fragile thing, small and easily broken; this is partly why we receive it as such a precious gift. But the Peace of Christ is not a small thing subtly given and easily lost. It is not a fragile vase for us to dust and polish, keep safe in a cabinet and protect from thieves. It is stronger than the pillars of the earth, and larger, more spacious than the whole created order. The Peace of Christ is that love in which we live and move and have our being, which has swallowed up death and hell and destroyed them forever. That peace continues to break into our world today like it did that first Easter Day in the Upper Room, making windows onto that larger reality which contains us more than we contain it; which keeps us more than we can keep it; that larger peace which holds us and sustains us in every uncertainty and injury, and is not threatened or diminished by them.

From now on, wherever we find death and hell we can be sure that peace is nearby: above, below, and all around. Christ’s Peace is large enough for us and all our misery, gentle enough to be kind with our confusion and fear long-suffering enough to bear all our anger and resentment and scorn. We have only to be still, to look up, to be aware that this peace is everywhere, and all that’s left for us is to notice, and to bear witness.

Nothing will make it easier for us to be faithful in the midst of challenge and pain. Nothing will make it easier for us to face challenge and pain period, faith or no faith. But if we find we lack peace, let’s take it as a cue to look up, out of our own limited range of vision, and behold Jesus offering forgiveness, humor, confidence, and an invitation further into his resurrected life.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.