BIBLE READING: John 20:19-31
Jesus says “Peace be with you”
We live in a violent, unpredictable, vicious world where traffic accidents can happen in the wink of an eye; where spots can appear on x-rays, where unstable individuals can try to forcibly gain access to a building or home with nothing good on their minds.
Jesus was consumed by this world. At the beginning of the week of the Passion he was swept into Jerusalem on a wave of celebration and acclaim, only to be washed ashore at the end lifeless, cut up and abused, everything he had to offer taken away. He was a victim of the world and all that it has to offer on it blackest terms.
Jesus had nothing left on the night of Good Friday. A handful of faithful disciples, mostly women and a former Pharisee who’d dared to challenge him have lovingly placed his corpse in a tomb and watched as it was sealed tight. Their dreams for the future we gone. They were back where they began, worse even for some. They’d given up the lives they’d been leading, comfortable lives, and placed their bets on the man from Nazareth, and they’d lost. So now they’re in hiding, fearing for their safety and for their very lives. They’ve regrouped and are trying to develop a strategy to escape Jerusalem and all the dangers that lay in wait for them outside their locked door.
Then, without warning, through bolted doors, Jesus appears among them. He stands in their midst, shows them his injured hands and side and says “Peace be with you!” With that he breathes on them the gift of the Holy Spirit, John’s version of Pentecost, and they are empowered to do his mission in the world as the church. They are given what they need to unlock their doors and go out into the violent world that they believed had done away with Jesus for all time.
“Peace be with you” says Jesus to the disciples on the evening of that first Easter Day. At one level this greeting would have been exactly what they would have expected to hear.
“Peace be with you” was the standard greeting at the time, just as it still is today in the Middle East. It is “Shlama lokum” in Aramaic, the spoken language of Jesus and his disciples, “shalom aleichem” in Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament as well as of modern Israel, while Arabic speakers – Muslim and Christian – would bid you “Assalamu alyekum”.
The “shalom”, “salaam” or “shlama” of this greeting isn’t an emotional quality. It isn’t about tranquillity or relaxation or quiet. It isn’t even about the absence of war. It is that state in which everything is as it should be, when everything is healed, whole – bodies, minds, spirits. It isn’t just about individuals – it’s about communities, nations, the whole cosmos. In fact you can never have it fully while others lack it – how can you be fully at peace while others are in distress?
Seeking “shalom” was a major focus in the Old Testament. The prophets dreamed of a time when people would plant their crops and be able to harvest them too, not afraid of an attacking army. They dreamed of people sitting under their own vines and fig trees, with their families thriving around them, in harmony with their neighbours, in a world in which the poor were fed and rulers were just and wise.
This everyday greeting “Shalom Aleichem” - peace be with you - and all its Middle Eastern variants is a rich, deep thing then. But these languages aren’t alone in this richness.
Those of you who learnt Latin will probably remember greeting your teacher with the word “salve”. That’s linked to the Latin word “salus” – health. That’s why we call greetings “salutations”. Romans too, it seems, greeted one another with a wish for wholeness and healing, their equivalent of “shalom”. “Salus” also gives us the English “salve” – an ointment to make you well. It gives us safety too – the state in which you are healthy and whole. And it gives us “save” and “saviour” and “salvation” as well.
But my guess is that when many people hear those last few words, “saviour” and “salvation” – it isn’t healing and wholeness in the here and now that spring first into their minds. It isn’t sitting under your vine or fig tree, or living in harmony with others, or justice and equality. Those words have picked up some very specific theological associations for many Christians, associations which I think are often much narrower than they ought to be.
For many Christians salvation has come to mean no more than a guarantee of admission to heaven when you die. Christ’s work for us as saviour is a bit like getting us through security at an airport. You know how that is now – you’ve got to have all of the right documents and none of the wrong sort of baggage when you get to the gate if you want to end up on the plane. For many Christians salvation is the spiritual equivalent of this. It gives us what we need to get through the heavenly security guards so that we can have an eternity of bliss rather than damnation.
It is a shame that salvation has so often been so narrowly interpreted, because it seems to me that this is far removed from the ideas that Jesus expressed in his teaching and actions. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” That is what he said at the start of his ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth – his manifesto, if you like. His mission of salvation is to heal what is broken and restore the image of God in people, an image that has been twisted and marred by sin. It is about repairing relationships between people – bringing about that Old Testament vision of shalom – health, wholeness and justice - that was always God’s intention for the whole of his world. Of course it applies to what comes after death as well as what comes before it, but that unknown territory isn’t Jesus main focus, and we do his message a disservice if we concentrate solely on that.
That greeting “Peace be with you” would have been what the disciples would have expected to hear – the normal greeting of one person to another. But on another level it would have meant far more to them than that. When Jesus proclaims God’s “shalom”, his peace, to them, he is proclaiming salvation, using that word in its broadest, most accurate sense, a salvation that is already healing them and their relationships. Imagine what the last few days have been like for them. Hiding fearfully in an upper room they have been arguing among themselves, swamped in regret and shame after their desertion of Jesus. They have felt let down too – all their dreams shattered. They are confused – nothing has turned out as they expected, and they don’t know why. It is all wrong. They might just as well go home to Galilee and forget all about it. As they hear those words though – “peace be with you” - they begin to take in the truth they need to hear. God is healing his world. God is healing them. The apparent disaster of the cross is actually a sign of God’s indestructible love, which even death can’t defeat. Jesus, who they might have expected to rebuke them, actually forgives them. There is new birth, new life, a new beginning. Peace be with you – not a promise of admission to a heavenly city when they die, but real hope for them now and real healing.
And as Jesus proclaims God’s shalom to them, he also makes it clear that this gift is not just God’s to give. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. 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.”
These are words that are very familiar to anyone like me who has been ordained as a priest, because they are read at ordination services. One of the things priests are given authority to do by their ordination, alongside blessing and celebrating communion, is to declare God’s forgiveness of sins. But while I know that it is sometimes important to hear these words spoken by someone who has the authority and accountability that is given by ordination, I don’t think for one minute that it is only priests who do this work.
Jesus is speaking here to a bunch of fishermen, tax collectors, lay people of all sorts – neither trained nor ordained for ministry. The fact is that we all have this power to bind others or to set them free. We can all tie people to their past actions, stopping them moving forward to the new lives they need or we can release them to try again. We can all give or withhold the shalom – that healing peace - that they need. It’s not necessarily a matter of saying or refusing to say some words of formal absolution, but the way we act towards one another that does this.
Rev. Anne Le Bas recalls a man she knew who had grown up the youngest of a large, poor, mining family in the North East of England. When he was old enough to start at the local Sunday School his hard-pressed mother did her best to kit him out smartly for his first session. She carefully knitted him a new jumper – a rare treat – and proudly sent him off down the road to the church. Not long afterwards he was back, tearful and humiliated. The vicar had sent him away. “You can’t come to Sunday School,” he said, “unless you are wearing a jacket and tie.” His lovingly hand-knitted pullover, which had taken many hours of effort, and cash the family could ill afford, was not good enough. In fact the vicar seemed to take it as a deliberate act of disrespect.
Needless to say the little boy never went back, and sadly he never got over this rejection either. He was bitterly opposed to the church and to religion ever afterwards, and that bitterness spilt over into the rest of his life. I don’t know how many times that vicar had spoken the words of absolution in church but on that day his thoughtless words had denied that child the shalom, the healing peace, the salvation that he needed.
“Peace be with you.” It is not just a simple greeting, nor just soothing words. It is God’s proclamation of his saving power that heals us and all creation, power that sets us free from whatever it is that has bound us, and calls us into his new life. And as he declares his shalom to us, he reminds us that we all, priests and laypeople alike, have the power to pass on or to withhold that shalom– the true salvation that makes us whole and healthy – in our words and actions too. Amen.
Acknowledgements Rev. Anne Le Bas; Rev. Eric Muirhead