Wednesday, April 30, 2014

“Why We Pass the Peace” (John 20:19-31)

One of my favorite cartoons making the rounds during Holy Week was this one:

Oh how the disciples struggled with Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem! Oh how they disappointed him!  One minute they were the closest friends Jesus had, enjoying the popularity of the teacher from Nazareth---a few days later they were caught off guard by the turn of events—his humiliation and theirs---doubting whether they had followed the right messiah.

In fact this is what might be what’s really troubling Thomas in our story today.  Thomas doesn’t so much doubt the resurrection of Christ.  He witnessed the resurrection of Lazarus. What he’s struggling with was whether God had raised the right man—was a person who had lost the battle with the oppressive Roman Empire truly the Messiah?  Was a man who chose not to fight back the “son in whom God was pleased”?  

Thinking back to Moses, the Israelites had experienced a great show of God’s power—the plagues and a dramatic escape through the Red Sea which resulted in the death of many Egyptians.  The Egyptians were brought down, the Israelites lifted up.  Shouldn’t this be how things were with Jesus, or even more so?   As God’s right arm the Messiah would be successful in ushering God’s new world order, a world filled with compassion and equality. The Roman Empire—a world of domination and judgment-- would be humiliated—the Israelites, God’s chosen people--redeemed.  God would reign supreme and justice and equality would bless the Israelites! 

In an amazing turn of events the Roman Empire toppled Jesus, the supposed man of God.  Where were the plagues, the humiliation of the enemy?  Thomas was confused.

I am reminded of a high school pep rally I attended YEARS ago.  Our team, the Paris Greyhounds, were in the state basketball tournament.  Our men’s coach, Coach Randolph, said “I don’t want to come back with the second place trophy.  Do you know what second place says?  It says ‘loser.’”

Round one and round two with the Roman Empire made Jesus look like a loser.  The resurrection of Jesus made Jesus God’s winner.  But was it true?  Did Thomas hear correctly?  God had raised Jesus from the dead? 
Talk about affirmation!

The proof of God’s affirmation OF JESUS was in the resurrection of Jesus.  “Show me the scars,” Thomas says in today’s story, “So that I can believe.”   

But believe what?  Believe that God did indeed affirm the whole life of Christ by raising Jesus from the dead—all that he taught—all that he lived—including love, always love, forever love, no matter what or who LOVE. 

Patiently, lovingly, Jesus encourages Thomas to explore his scars.  What will be the outcome?  Thomas’ confession of faith—not in God’s ability to raise the dead---but of Jesus as the son of God “to whom we should listen.”   To listen to Jesus is to let Jesus shape us. 

“I believe,” says Thomas as he puts his finger in the pitted hand of Jesus, “I believe that God exalted YOU as the Messiah.”  This means that the whole life and loves of Jesus were now Thomas’ life and loves.  He was and would continue to be Jesus’ disciple, or student—he would continue to learn from Jesus and live like Jesus.

What might amaze us this morning is Jesus’ patience with Thomas—with ALL of his Disciples—given their vulnerability and denial and fearful-ness.  In today’s story he finds his friends hiding behind closed doors—AFRAID!  That’s not how Jesus taught them to live with God. Jesus was courageous.  During Jesus’ trial and crucifixion the disciples would disperse; bewildered, distant, denying the relationship ever existed. That’s not how Jesus was with them, either.  He had never given up on them.

So we DO wonder, why wasn’t Jesus angry at the disciples?  Why didn’t he have questions about their behavior---or lectures?  Why wasn’t the first words out of his mouth, “Where were you?” or “Why did you abandon me?” or even “Why are you afraid?”  I certainly have confronted persons who abandoned me in my darkest hour—haven’t you?

Instead Jesus offers his friends holy words; God words.  “Peace to you.  Peace be WITH you.”  Instead of passing  anger and disappointment, the HOSTILITY, Jesus passes the peace, God’s HOSPITALITY.  He was AFTER the crucifixion who he had been BEFORE the resurrection—an instrument of God’s peace; of God’s affirming love.  “Peace be with you,” says Jesus to his friends, “I come to you in love.”

As disciples of Christ today we are invited into the same life as Jesus, God’s life.  We are the bearers of God’s peace, we are  instruments of  God’s love.  And so we say to the people near us in worship, “Peace be with you.”  I come to you, my neighbor in the sanctuary, in love.

And the neighbor then says in return, “And also with you,” meaning “I come to you in love as well, as an instrument of God’s peace.”

In God’s sanctuary we offer one another God’s holy words. 

In a recent issue of the “Christian Century”, a Christian publication, a man by the name of John M. Buchanan writes about how this wonderful, holy moment called “Passing the Peace” has been lost in many congregations. It’s not that it’s not in print in the bulletin, it’s just that many people spend two seconds offering holy words and ten minutes offering secular words, the words we’d exchange at the grocery store should we happen upon one another. 

“I’ve come to dread this part of the service (the Passing of the Peace)” he laments, “It’s become quite chaotic.  People leave their seats, walk around and greet nearly everyone else in the room.  Robust conversations ensue.  There is laughter, sometime raucous, as two members share an inside joke.  People discuss the results of a football game or yesterday’s storm.  It’s a tentative venture for a visitor—I’ve experienced the fear. I’m on my own and not sure what to do.  I feel as if I’ve intruded in someone else’s family reunion.”

Since no one wants to create another person undo pain, Buchanan suggests that congregations make the passing of the peace work better by adding some instruction, such as:  
“When we greet one another in church we do it differently from greetings in the world around us.  Instead of saying ‘Good morning,” or catching up with a friend, or learning your neighbor’s name, we take this opportunity to give to one another the extraordinary gift that Jesus gave to his disciples all those year ago.  These are the words we use:  ‘Peace be with you.’ ‘And also with you.’”

If you look in your Sunday bulletin you’ll notice these instructions before the Passing of the Peace.

Pastor Laurel Dykstra instructs her street church participants in the Passing of the Peace this way:
Whenever I can in a worship service, but especially in street churches, before we “share the peace” I say:

“When Jesus appeared to his disciples, they were hiding upstairs in a locked room—the friends who knew him best, who had betrayed him, who had pretended they didn’t know him, who had run away when he was dying, who hid when he was arrested, who were frightened and ashamed. He appeared among them and greeted them. He didn’t say, ‘What happened?’ ‘Where were you?’ ‘You screwed up.’ He greeted them saying, ‘Peace.’

“No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done or think you’ve done, whoever you have betrayed or let down, no matter how far you have gone from God, from Jesus, Jesus doesn’t say to you, ‘Where were you? You screwed up.’ Jesus greets you saying, ‘Peace.’ You are not accused, you are invited.”

The first time I used these words, a tiny woman who is addicted to heroin and an occasional prostitute whispered, “That was the first time in so many years that I felt like I was good enough to be part of this.” Over and over again, people shyly approach and let me know that I must keep saying this.

Whatever it is that churches are saying, what poor people and people who are marginalized hear from us is: You are not good enough, you are not welcome, the food bank entrance is around back.
Peace be with you. You are not accused, you are invited.

Another pastor instructs his church to turn to someone near them and ask, “Has anyone told you lately how beautiful you are?”

This is how God sees us, all of us, as “beautiful.” 

This is how God invites us to see each other.

To take this one step further, where we place the Passing of the Peace is just as important.  Over the past few months I’ve placed it where we used to “Greet our neighbor.”   I think this adds to our confusion, our temptation to leave our pews and visit.  Today I’ve moved it right before the Invitation to Communion.

Why?  In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus instructs his disciples this way, “

The Message (MSG)
23-24 “This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.”

By Passing the Peace before we gather at the Lord’s Table we enter God’s goodness offered to all.  We do what God asks us to—to make amends—to be reconciled with one another.

So Christian friends we are growing in our understanding of who we are in worship.  We are instruments of God’s peace—we are the source of God’s holy words—enabling those persons near us to remember that we are ALL beautiful because God says so. As the Apostle Paul says in the 10th chapter of Acts:  “I clearly see that God does not show favoritism.”

As it is with God…let it also be with us. Amen.  

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener on April 27, 2014 at Central Christian Church in Billings, MT.)

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