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The Four Key Words

Good morning, Grace, and welcome to low Sunday, although we have a pretty good crowd for the Sunday after Easter this year. No doubt in part to the promise of a Pancake Breakfast, but also, I think, as this morning’s Psalm says, “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!” Which is exactly what we do on Sunday, and what we strive to do on all the days in between Sundays.

 

Speaking of Sundays, there are only two Sundays each year where we read the exact same passage every year. Because of the way our Lectionary cycle is set up, it normally takes three years before we repeat a particular passage. But, like I say, there are actually two exceptions to this. One is Pentecost Sunday, which is May 19th this year—every Pentecost we read from the second chapter of Acts. The only other Sunday when we read the same passage as ever year is today, this Sunday, the Sunday after Easter, when we always read The Gospel of John’s account of Doubting Thomas.

 

This means that, at least for those who put together our Lectionary, there is something here important enough for us to read and preach on every single year. Now, most sermons you’ll hear preached on this passage will talk mostly about Thomas, and his doubt that Jesus is who he says he is, which has given him his famous nickname, Doubting Thomas. Which, by the way, I think it’s a little funny that Thomas would give him a nickname to call out this supposed weakness. There’s an old classic cartoon where Thomas and Peter are in heaven together, and Thomas turns to Peter and says, “No one ever calls you denying Peter.”

 

To be honest, this year, as I was reading the passage, I wasn’t thinking of Thomas that much at all. What kept jumping out at me was how many times Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” In the course of just twelve verses, Jesus says “Peace be with you” no less than three times. Is it possible that this is why it’s important for us to read this every year the Sunday after Easter?

 

As always, it’s good for us to remember where we are in today’s Gospel. We may read this passage the Sunday after Easter, but the events of this passage are still taking place on Easter, on Easter night. We are told in the text that the disciples are hiding “for fear of the Jews,” which you probably noticed I changed to “the Jewish authorities.” This is what the common English Bible and other future translations will say. As we are living in a moment of particularly heightened anti-Semitism, we need remember that it was a specific, small number of religious authorities who collaborated with the Romans—not the entire Jewish people—who called for Jesus’s death. Please keep that in mind.

 

So, here we are on Easter night, the disciples, who, by the way, are themselves Jews, are hiding from specific, small number of religious authorities who collaborated with the Romans, and they’re fearful and anxious. What we don’t read this morning and comes just before this passage, is that Mary Magdalene has had an encounter with Jesus and told the disciples about it, but they themselves haven’t had that direct encounter yet. And this is part of why they’re fearful and anxious—they don’t know what’s going on, they don’t know, like we do, what the end of the story is. I think it’s important that we really slow down and feel this moment of uncertainty and anxiety in order to understand just how the disciples felt, which may not be a whole lot different than you and I might have felt.

 

I think it’s also important to realize that they might have other reasons for feeling anxious, fearful, but even a little ashamed. What the disciples have done over the last twenty-four hours hasn’t been great. To be more specific, together they’ve done a lot worse than either denying and doubting. None of them showed up at Jesus’s trial, none of them defended Jesus against the Roman soldiers. After all of these years of staying close by his side, they abandoned Jesus when he needed them the most. To be perfectly blunt, they failed Jesus. They deserted him at the cross. Maybe another reason they’re feeling anxious and fearful is they’re not sure what Jesus is going to do if he really is alive.

 

And yes, Jesus predicted that all of these things, including his death, were going to happen to him, but as Robb McCoy puts it, Jesus didn’t say, “all of these things are going to happen, so you should abandon me in the hour of my greatest need.” That was not part of Jesus’s Passion Predictions. That’s all on the disciples. And so, even though they know Jesus has come to forgive their sins, perhaps they still wonder. As I think, many of us do when we think about our own failings, our own sins. Even though we know God forgives us all our sin, we still wonder about God’s judgment, and that judgment might make us fearful and anxious.

 

And it’s in this place, this place of fear and anxiety, that Jesus comes into the Upper Room and offers peace and reconciliation to those who all those present, all those who have denied, betrayed, and abandoned him. In these first few verses, we know Thomas isn’t there yet, but we’re not told Peter isn’t there. In fact, we have every reason to believe that Peter who denied him is there. What an amazing moment, what amazing words Jesus says, here and twice more, to all the disciples, all those who betrayed and abandoned him: Peace be with you.

 

They are such amazing and important words, and they are such an embodiment of Jesus’s reconciling love and forgiveness, that he says them again, and he breathes the Holy Spirit on them, in a sort of mini-Pentecost. Which is another thing we might think about—that in both of the two passages we read every year, the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples. I’m suggesting this morning that this is why it’s so profound and healing when we say “Peace be with you” at the passing of the Peace, which we’ll do together shortly. It’s why, even though we say it with warmth and love—and I really love how we’ve been moving around and passing the peace –it’s why we shouldn’t say it just as a casual greeting, not just a holy “what’s up.” It is perhaps the most symbolic act we perform of Jesus’s reconciliation and forgiveness. It’s so important that it acts as the hinge between the two parts of our service, the Liturgy of the Word and the Holy Eucharist. I might even go so far as to say it’s why we come to church.

 

There’s a lot of talk lately about why people do and don’t come to church anymore. Every major newspaper, magazine, and Web site has run extensive coverage on the subject. We are told that people are more spiritual than ever, but not as religious. We are told that the old reasons people used to come to church don’t hold true anymore, that people go to be “spiritually fed” in other places. (And if you’ve heard me preach lately, you know how I feel about that term; I don’t think we come here to be spiritually fed, but to give of ourselves.) In other words, we are told their private spirituality has dictated whether they come to this place, this house of worship. Now The Episcopal Church at large, and even our Diocese, can get kind of caught up in these discussions of why people are coming or not coming to church, and those discussions are going to heat up a lot this summer, when we choose a new Presiding Bishop for our denomination. Already, so much discussion is around, how is that new Presiding Bishop going to either get people to come back to church, or at least keep them from leaving.

 

Friends, I believe that one of the things that we’re put here to do, as Christians and as a church, and that may keep people coming, or at least to keep them from leaving, is to provide this rare place of reconciliation and forgiveness that Jesus gave us when he came back and said, three times in twelve verses, “Peace Be with You.” It might even be the most important thing! As our reading from Acts this morning says, the early Christians came together in one heart and one mind, and the basis of that unity was the peace they shared with each other.

 

Being of one heart and one mind doesn’t mean we’ll always think the same way and have the same beliefs about how we do everything. What it means is that we have committed to living in discipleship of Jesus, to come together as an assembly and a church we offer the reconciliation to each other, through the peace, over and over again, even when, and especially when we think we don’t deserve it. Peace be with you.

 

This Easter season reminds us of this reconciliation, but it also reminds us that reconciliation is a lifelong process. Just like the baptisms we performed at the Easter Vigil aren’t just a one and done event, Easter is an invitation into a life of renewal and resurrection, a life of loving God, loving each other, and loving ourselves. It’s a lifelong, constant process. That’s why we don’t say “Peace be with you” only once, and just let it go at that.

 

Grace, we go out from this church every week, and the world tries to tell us that our differences are too far apart—that our political differences or ideas of immigration or sexuality or whatever—for us to ever be reconciled. And we hear all that, constantly, from the culture at large and we, as followers of the risen Jesus, we respond by coming back here and, in a great counter-cultural gesture, we say, “Peace be with you.”

 

We go out from this church every week and are bombarded with what seems like hopeless news of war, and violence, and government dysfunction, and climate disasters, and yet we, as followers of the risen Jesus, respond by coming back here and, because we are people of hope, we say “Peace be with you.”

 

We go out from this church every week and we interface with the world of social media, with its clickbait and outrage machines, and algorithms meant to keep us addicted to hateful , and we pull ourselves away from our screens to come back here and we look each other in the eyes, and take each other’s hands and say, “Peace be with you.”

 

We go out from this place every week and sometimes in our quietest moments, we are only with ourselves, the parts of ourselves that we’re not proud of, maybe the parts of us that abandoned even the people we love. The parts of us that weren’t there when other people needed us. And then we come back into this place, and we come face to face with our brothers and sisters in Christ who have also done things they’re not proud of. Maybe we and those other brothers and sisters have hurt each other. And then, we come back to this place, as followers of the risen Jesus, and we forgive each other and say, “Peace be with you.”

 

It would be hard, Grace, to overstate how radical, and different, and important this is, to protect a place where people come together and choose to offer peace to each other in a time when peace is in short supply. How radical, and different, and important is it to say peace be with you? Well, according to our reading this morning, it’s the first thing Jesus says after he’s been resurrected. They are the first words out of his mouth to these disciples who betrayed, denied, abandoned, and yes, doubted him. And now, in our world of anxiety, and depression, and fear, and isolation, we have the opportunity to offer this peace, the peace that Jesus gave us, to each other, even those who betrayed, denied, abandoned each other. This peace may not take us all the way into the Beloved Community, that place of perfect trust, and community, and love that Jesus started and called us to finish, but it’s a powerful place to start.

 

Grace, this Sunday after Easter, and all the Sundays of this election year, we have the choice to commit to acting out Jesus’s words, which we’ll say together very shortly during that hinge moment of our service, “Peace be with you.” Jesus offers them to us. Inside these walls, we offer them to each other, and outside these walls we offer the to the world. Let us set aside our fear and anxiety, and let that great peace fall upon us, like it fell upon Thomas and all of the other disciple. Let the Holy Spirit come, just as it did when Jesus spoke peace be with us, and as it did on the Day of Pentecost. Let us say, again and again, peace be with you, and also with you. Amen.

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