A Breathtaking Peace
A sermon based on John 20:19-31
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on April 3, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Once upon a time during a church service far, far away, there was a very long and boring sermon and as the congregation finally filed out past the pastor they politely avoiding saying anything about the service. Instead they said things like “Nice weather Pastor,” “Great baseball game last night,” “How’s your mom doing Rev. ?” Finally towards the end of the line an honest person who always commented on the sermons thought long and hard and finally said, “Pastor, today your sermon reminded me of the peace and love of God!” She tried to hurry on by but the pastor thrilled, gently grabbed her arm and said, “No-one has ever said anything like that about my preaching before.” He could not leave well enough alone and beamingly asked “What makes you say that?” The church member couldn’t lie so she struggled for this honest explanation “Well – ummm . . . it reminded me of the Peace of God . . . because it passeth all understanding and . . . um . . . the Love of God because it endureth forever!”
I’m guessing that virtually every sermon, long or short, boring or exciting, that has ever been preached has been intended by the person preaching to remind listeners about the peace of God and/or the love of God. Even angry fire and brimstone preaching is meant in the minds of the preacher to be about how they understand those two things. Granted there are sometimes questionable definitions of love and peace, but pastors stand in pulpits trying to get us to at least what they claim love or peace is. We may drastically disagree on theology or history or the meaning of Biblical texts or the definition of love and peace, but that’s the goal.
Somehow, some way preachers try to aim the congregation, the church or the community in that direction. Even if preachers do not use either one of those words – love or peace– they are usually always the purported aim. One of the reasons is that we need more of both. Another reason is others need more of both. And of course Jesus and the Bible are about God’s call for humanity, to love and peace. Even when we talk about justice, it’s about love and peace. Because justice means getting that which is due.
Here in this church generally speaking our understanding of God and Jesus, our theology, ultimately leads us to preach much conclude that, that which is due to everyone is well being. And love means the desire for well being, that which is due; and peace, peace, is the state of well being. In other words, that which is due becoming a reality.
That explanation I just gave may sound like my effort at having something ‘that passeth all understanding” in the sermon. So I am going to unpack it for a moment or two while trying to not make the sermon seem like it endureth forever.
Justice in the Bible basically means getting what is due, which to quote preeminent New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, is “when all God’s children have a fair, equitable, and just proportion of God’s world.” Dr. Crossan goes out of this way to point out that this is not to be mis-construed as liberalism or socialism or communism, he notes that if we need to label it with an “ism” it should be “enoughism.” 1 .
I am not up here to detail the mechanics of how this or any other culture must accomplish justice “enoughism,” whether through conservative, moderate or liberal means. But I will point out that despite the current very heated political season we are in, I believe that by-and-large in the ordinary spectrum of the secular political wings of our nation, the vast majority of people want to make our country work in a way so that each person has access to “enough.” I am unaware of anyone I personally know who does not think that the ideal world would be when there is enough food and care and respect and love for each human being.
Religiously speaking, which IS what I am up here to detail, my understanding of most American’s politics is that it generally matches up with Christ’s way to an an ideal world where ALL get Biblical justice . . . what is due. And I know that may sound naive, especially with all the acrimony going on in politics these days, but I think this nation’s fundamental tenets of equality and rights and justice and liberty for all are what the vast majority of Americans want.
And I think those national tenets dovetail with–and I think are derived from– Christ’s Way toward an ideal world where enoughism is the way of being. We may differ drastically on how to best or properly get there, but I don’t think we differ very much at all on the ideal goal.
Jesus did not lay out the specific details for a modern world political structure. But the Bible and Jesus do teach us that our world needs to be centered on love and peace which necessarily means liberty and justice of all.
Love in the Bible means the desire for well being, which is, if we think about it, wanting the object of that desire to have enough. Which is that they get justice. Which is that which is due. And peace, ultimately peace, is when we all have that– all have enough.
Shalom, peace, what God wants for all of creation, the time we are called to is when justice is universal because love, as the Way, has fulfilled the task of making Jesus and God’s type of peace reign. Which is why my theological dictionary defines peace as “more than the lack of war [pointing] to full societal and personal well being, coupled with righteousness . . .” 2. The dictionary notes that such peace is “possible only as a gift of God.” 3
The Gospel of John reports in Chapter 14 – just before Jesus is betrayed He told his followers
“the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 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.” (John 14:26-27 NRS)
Our lesson today from the Gospel of John Chapter 20 finds Jesus’ followers with troubled hearts – and very much afraid. Three days after his execution they are found hiding locked behind closed doors. It’s Easter, but they do not yet know it, until Jesus appears in the room and
stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “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.” (John 20:19-23)
Jesus declared he’s giving his followers the gift of peace and then gives peace to them by breathing on them the Holy Spirit with the instruction to forgive, and also with the instruction that they are being sent. Being sent is what being an apostle means.
The frightened disciples cowering behind closed doors encountered Jesus; rejoice that Jesus is risen; and then the very next thing they know Jesus is breathing peace on them and sending them out beyond the safety of the walls and instructing them to receive the Holy Spirit and forgive.
At the very start of the Old Testament in Genesis, we are told that in the begining the breath of God, “ruach,” is the very Spirit of God that creates the world. We are also told in Genesis that God’s breath gives life to humankind.
A few weeks ago I mentioned that the Gospel of John can be heard to claim at the start that Christ is this creating spirit that was with God at the beginning. John, Chapter 1:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. (Joh 1:1-4 NRS)
So the same Spirit – or Word from our still-speaking-God– that breathed creation into being can be understood to be in the resurrected Christ in our lesson today from the Gospel of John. Christ, giving breath, to the Jesus Followers can be understood as creating a new life in them, from cowering, giving up and hiding, to being sent out and sent forth full of the new breath of God and peace and a command to receive the Holy Spirit and forgive. They, we, are to in essence bring Christ’s unworldly peace – heavenly peace– out as a gift to ourselves and the rest of the world.
We need to hear this as God’s breath creating a new life for Jesus’ Followers and beginning the start of a whole new world. The Jesus followers, then and now, are to take the breath of God, that Holy Spirit, out beyond the safety of the walls of the rooms they, we, gather in, out into the world. Most of all, with the breath, the wind of God, they/we go taking the peace of Christ with us.
As Jesus points out in John 14 the peace He gives us is given not as the world gives. The world gives peace, like Rome did, through unforgiving war and violence, and threats of such war and violence . . . Troubling and fearful things. The disciples are hiding in fear with troubled hearts because of just such peace – the so-called Pax Roma, the peace of Rome which brutally crushed opposition, like other nations and rebels to Rome’s way. Jesus was such a rebel and by extension so were his followers.
So see they have reason to hide. Jesus’ arrest, torture and execution was supposed to crush Jesus and His Way and scare his followers. Rome kept peace with an unforgiving violence and threats of violence which beat or scared others into submission.
and sure enough we find the disciples scared and submissive. But Easter is about Jesus living on, defeating the Pax Roma and its violence and threats. And Jesus living on, in great part, is through His followers. He breathes on His followers new life. It is a life that continues on in us – an ever continuing resurrecting in each new generation.
And ultimately it has to do with world peace for sure, but it also has to do with our own well being. Peace begins with us personally taking in the breath of Christ, find inner peace and carrying it outward.
Let me shift gears for a minute. We are here because we find in Jesus, on his Way, a good measure of well being, inner peace, certainly more than we do without Jesus and his Way. As individuals we teach and learn and try to focus on Christ, God incarnate. We find more personal peace in that focus, because ultimately God is love and provides peace, and offers peace unlike the world’s version of so-called peace. God’s love offers a peace of non-violence and non-threat.
We can glimpse God almost anywhere if we focus on God, because Christ, God incarnate, soaks creation. This time of year in Ohio as spring unfurls we can sense it especially better. In places like Ariel Foundation Park, Schnormeier Gardens, Mohican State Park, along the Kokosing and even as we drive or walk about roads and paths through the hills and valleys of Knox County – especially in spring– they provide thin places where we can better sense well being, God’s presence and peace and breath of the Holy Spirit.
And here’s the thing, we are to take that peace, the Spirit, with us, but peace not of this world in the worldly power sense of things, but in the Godly, heavenly, sense of things. And that’s really what Christ is breathing on the Jesus followers from the first Easter onward.
That’s the notion we too are to take in and find God’s peace, for ourselves, yes! but we are most definitely take it out into the world, to teach and preach and help Christ lead all the world toward that peace. It’s a peace that requires focus on God– the Holy Spirit– and, let me shift gears a litel bit again, it requires forgiveness, because when sins are forgiven they are not retained, which leads to peace’s reign.
I’ve said this before: It is important that we keep in mind that forgiving is a not about forgetting or accepting a wrong. It’s about continuous efforts at love and reconciliation aim toward peace. It’s about moving as best we can toward repairing harm and seeing one another as fully human and worthy of God’s love.
Forgiveness does not mean we don’t try and stop wrongdoing or that wrongdoers don’t face consequences. It means we see wrongdoers as fully human– and allow the wrongdoer to experience the divine through forgiveness, through us. Moreover it lets peace settle inward and heal wounds instead of retaining the open wounds of sins.
The Book of Genesis (32:30) goes on to illustrate this well. After years of acrimony Jacob seeks and receives forgiveness from his brother Esau. After Esau forgives him Jacob says “truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor.”
Forgiving people brings God’s very presence. That is why it is no accident that we see the face of God, experience God in Jesus who taught us to forgive and breathed on us peace, a peace which requires, forgiveness. All acts of forgiveness are Godly. All acts of forgiveness lead to well being for us all, they lead to peace on earth.
Jesus is known as both Son of God and Son of Man. He lived life as best we can. He has taught his peace to us. He breathes it on us now. To be like him we need to love and forgive within these walls and well beyond them. We need to seek justice and love kindness. We need to take what Christ breathed, and breathes on us, into the world. Humbly . . . It is, you see, a breathtaking peace.
1. Crossan, John Dominc, The Greatest Prayer, p. 3
2. Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms
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