Sermon: Beyond The World of Fires

After the resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples, gives them the “peace of God” and sends them on the mission of God.

Beyond The World of Fires
John 20:19-31

19On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
24Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

30Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

After The Resurrection

You might imagine that the day after the disciples knew that Jesus was alive, they would be running around Jerusalem shouting the news we repeated last week in our Easter worship celebration — “He is risen. He is risen indeed.”

Instead, John paints a picture of an entirely different scene for the disciples. Rather than shouting to the housetops that Jesus is alive, that God has raised him from the dead, John tells us that the disciples are together in a house where they have locked the doors because they are afraid of the “Jews.”

Of course, the disciples themselves are Jews, too, all of them. So, what’s the problem? Why are “these Jews” afraid of “the Jews?”

The answer is that “the Jews” are “the Jews in power” — the religious leaders. These Jews include the chief priest, his henchmen, the Pharisees, and those connected politically to the Roman governor, Pilate.

“The Jews” whom the disciples fear are the same ones who had Jesus arrested and brought to trial. These are the same Jews who, when Pilate seemed reluctant to punish Jesus, rallied the crowd to demand that Pilate release a known terrorist, Barabbas, instead of Jesus. They also demanded that Jesus be crucified for blasphemy.

“The Jews” the disciples feared had the power of the Roman occupation on their side. And while Jesus’ resurrection was a wonderful thing, and had given the disciples some hope, it was now nighttime and fear is growing.

But in the midst of their fear, Jesus appears. Despite the locked doors, intended to keep others out, Jesus appears right there among his disciples.

And the first thing Jesus says to these dear friends is, “Peace be with you.”

Then, just to assure them he’s not a ghost or a figment of their fearful imaginations, Jesus shows the disciples his hands where the nails were driven, and his side the Roman spear had pierced. John reports that the disciples are “overjoyed.”

The Gift of Peace

Okay, let’s stop right here for just a minute because if we don’t we’re going to miss something really important. We might think that when Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” that he is just greeting the disciples. After all, I’m sure when Jesus appeared in the middle of their locked-door meeting, they were speechless.

We might think that Jesus is just interrupting the awkward silence with a very biblical sounding greeting — “Peace be with you.”

If you have participated in an Anglican or Episcopal liturgy, you remember that at a specific point in the service, there is the call-and-response where the priest says, “The Lord be with you.” And, the congregation responds, “And also with you.”

We might think that Jesus is doing something like that — a kind of spiritual greeting. But if that’s what we think we are missing a whole lot here.

First, we need to remember that the word “peace” occurs over 250 times in the Old Testament, and over 350 times if you its count verb forms and other variations. “Peace” is “shalom” in Hebrew or “shlam” in Aramaic which Jesus spoke, and it appears in every Old Testament book. Every one.

The Old Testament would have been the only scripture that either Jesus or the disciples knew. If the word “peace” appears over 350 times, the concept of “peace” must be pretty important, you say. And, you’re right.

In the Hebrew scripture that we call the Old Testament, shalom — peace — plays an important role. Here are some of the ways “shalom” is used:

  • Shalom means well-being, and material well-being especially. So the prosperous are said to be blessed with peace, or shalom.
  • Shalom can also refer to the entire nation of Israel enjoying prosperity. Shalom means an abundance, more than enough for everyone.
  • Shalom also means a stable relationship. Our friendship is a type of peace because we are true to one another. Jesus talks about the “shalom” of relationships when he calls the disciples his friends, and says “Greater love has no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Shalom is a rock-solid relationship.
  • Shalom also means a peace that depends on the goodwill of those who engage in an agreement together. Business could be conducted on a handshake because of the “shalom” that existed between two men of impeccable trust and character.

The prophets talked of God’s peace in relationship to God’s people.  Shalom — true peace — was a gift from God, a state of faithful relationship between God and God’s people, resulting in God’s blessing and abundance.

Shalom was seldom used to refer to the absence of war. Only the Greeks understood “peace” to be the time between wars. For Jews, peace — shalom — was much more than a cessation of aggression.

Peace was God’s gift. Peace was relationship with God. Peace was a present to the people of God. Peace was assurance of God’s steadfastness, and the community’s response. Peace was to be considered the “normal” state of things, according to God’s people.

The great rabbi Hillel said, “Love peace and pursue it.”

According to ancient Hebrew sources, “Peace is the ultimate purpose of the Torah” or God’s law.

When Jesus greets the disciples with the greeting “Peace be with you,” he is giving them the gift of God’s presence, of God’s power, and of God’s provision.

Fear is replaced, not with confidence or struggle or victory; fear is replaced with peace.

Jesus does not tell them “Fear not” as in most other startling appearances of angels in the New Testament. Jesus gives them peace. For peace implies the presence of God, and in God’s presence there is no fear of evil.

The peace that Jesus brings becomes for the disciples both reassurance and salvation. God is present in their midst, and nothing can harm them now.

False Peace and True Peace

John is also contrasting the alleged peace of the Roman empire with the peace Jesus brings. The Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, was a world-wide phenomenon in the first century. Until the Roman empire conquered most of the civilized world, at least the part around the Mediterranean Sea, regional warrior kings waged continuing battles with adjoining kingdoms.

But when the mighty Roman juggernaut rolled over kingdom after kingdom, there was a period of relative peacefulness. Of course, this political peace came at the point of the sword. If you saw the movie, Gladiator, you got a sense of the might and power of a Roman legion.

So overwhelming was the Roman army, that Rome had no need to negotiate peace with its enemies. The Roman empire was very much like Don Corleone, the mob boss in Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel, which became a box office hit movie, The Godfather. The Don was famous for making his enemies “an offer they couldn’t refuse.”

The Roman empire acted in the same way. “Make peace with Rome, or suffer the consequences,” nations were told. And the consequences included having your army wiped out, your country overrun, your treasury sacked, and your citizens killed. Peace with Rome usually seemed like a good idea under those circumstances.

But peace under the Pax Romana was an illusion. It was not peace at all, but an uneasy truce administered by an occupying army of Roman legions, and enforced by a local governor appointed by Rome. Pilate was the prefect, or governor, of Judea from 26 AD to 36 AD.

Klaus Wengst, former professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, wrote of the Pax Romana —

“Despite all assertions to the contrary, the Pax Romana was not really a world of peace.” — Pax Romana, p. 17, quoted by Willard Swartley in Covenant of Peace, p. 39.

Tacitus, historian of the Roman empire until his death in 117 AD, describes the Pax Romana this way —

“To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname empire; they make a desolation and call it peace.” — Swartley, p. 39.

The Pax Romana should have protected the disciples against the vigilante actions of those Jewish leaders that were instrumental in Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifxion. But, the Roman Empire had bigger fish to fry than the local squabble between Jews, and so it seems Pilate gave the Jewish leaders great latitude in dealing with what he considered their own internal conflict.

But, Jesus’ peace, God’s shalom, was true peace. John says the disciples were “overjoyed” to see Jesus. Not fearful, not even relieved. They were overjoyed, ecstatic, and no longer afraid. God’s peace drives out fear.

We live in a world that has been set afire by fear and like the Roman Empire, most of the time we are seeking the false peace that is the result of conflict and conquest,  instead of the true peace of God’s presence.

Osama bin Laden has stated that it is the fear that Western decadence will infiltrate Islamic countries that initially drove him to attack the West, and the United States in particular.

It is fear that drives groups like the “skinheads” — neo-Nazi gangs of primarily poor, young, and uneducated white males, to see people of color as a threat to their way of life, and the purity of their race. They seek to solve the “race problem” through violence.

It is fear that has divided Americans, regardless of which side of the political aisle you choose. Fear of either losing freedoms, or fear of never attaining them. And even in America, there are those who use violence, or the threat of violence, to gain the peace they are seeking. This week two men were arrested for threatening a United States Senator and the Speaker of the House.

Fear expresses itself often, not just in the paralysis of inaction, as in the case of the disciples, but in aggressive anger that strikes out at those thought to be threatening that which is precious.

We need God’s shalom today, in our own lives and in the corporate life of our community, state and nation. We need God’s peace of presence, power, and provision for all that drives out fear.

The Second Peace is a Sending Peace

But if we think that Jesus was just there to calm the disciples’ jittery nerves, or ours, we miss the purpose and importance of God’s peace.

Because after their initial joy dies down, Jesus again says, “Peace be with you.”

Maybe the disciples were so overjoyed to see Jesus that they interrupted him the first time. Maybe they didn’t let him finish what he wanted to say. Or maybe Jesus wanted to reassure the disciples of his presence first, before he showed them the purpose of God’s peace.

For in the second greeting, Jesus says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”

This peace has a purpose in other words. The peace of God for the people of God is to be shared with the world.

Remember it is John who tells us in that famous verse that children learn —

“For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes on Him might not perish but have everlasting life.” –John 3:16

God sent Jesus into the world, and now Jesus is telling the disciples that he is sending them into the world, just like the Father sent him.

What does that mean, “As the Father has sent me…?”

Obviously, it doesn’t mean that God is sending the disciples into the world in the same manner God sent Jesus. No, Jesus was the only One who would be conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. It wasn’t the manner in which Jesus was sent that he was sending the disciples.

Rather, Jesus was sending the disciples on the same mission — to bring peace to God’s world.

Jesus is sending the disciples into the world, just as God had sent Jesus into the world. The passage we looked at a few Sundays ago from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth says it this way —

18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” — 2 Cor 5:18-20

And if you substitute the word “peace” for “reconciliation,” you get the idea. In the New Testament, the word “peace” is used over 100 times, and “reconciled or reconciliation” only a handful. The terms are interchangeable. The message is — God is making peace with humankind through Christ, and we are being sent by Christ to continue that work.

Paul could have just as easily said, “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: make peace with God.” Billy Graham’s famous tract, Steps to Peace with God, picks up this same idea.

We are given peace to make peace.  Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” If you want to exhibit the characteristics of your heavenly father, you can do so by making peace.

We Are Not Called To Be Peacemakers Alone

But Jesus does not call us to the task of peacemaking alone. As he gives the gift of God’s peace to the disciples, and sends them to share God’s shalom with a violent world, he does something very strange.

Jesus breathes on the disciples, and says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

They have already received the gift of God’s shalom, God’s peace, and now they receive the gift of God’s power. Many biblical scholars believe that by breathing on the disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is re-enacting the creation of mankind, when God breathed into man the breath of life, and man became a living being.

Whatever the theological significance of Jesus’ action, the practical result was that the disciples now have the other gift Jesus has promised to them — the Paraclete. In John 14, Jesus promises his disciples —

“26But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” –John 14:26-27

In their book, Reconciling All Things: A Christian View of Justice, Peace, and Healing, Immanuel Kantongole and Chris Rice of Duke University’s Center for Reconciliation, tell the following story:

They were in a conversation with a colleague of theirs about the need to step back from the fires of conflict raging in the world today, and as Christians seek to see where God is at work in the ministry of peace and reconciliation.

Their colleague impatiently replied: “The fire out there is raging. What we need is water to put it out, not empty and distracting theological discussions.”

But the authors go on to say —

“Simply put, Christians contend there is a world beyond the fires…If Christians are to reconnect the world of fires and firefighting to the story of God, stepping back is crucial.”

They quote the late Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who said —

“It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision….We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”

The goal, Kantongole and Rice contend, is for “Christians to see rightly what is going on in the world and to imagine new possibilities for living out a vision that comes from beyond the world of fires.”

That vision is the Kingdom of God. The gift is God’s shalom, God’s peace, to a world on fire. Our mission, first,  is to receive the gift, and then to live lives of God’s peace to others.

Peace comes to God’s people, to the community of faith first. But it cannot stop there. Paul said, “We are ambassadors for Christ as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God.”

2 thoughts on “Sermon: Beyond The World of Fires”

  1. I’d like to now how you know that the Aramaic word shlam is equivalent to the Hebrew word shalom?

Comments are closed.