The Peaceable Presence

27 Apr

IMAG1587(a sermon for April 26, 2014, the Second Sunday of Easter, based on John 20:19-31)

It is very interesting indeed – and more than a little ironic – that on that very first Easter evening, at the end of the day of Jesus’ resurrection, this unprecedented event in which death was wholly defeated and the world changed forever, that Jesus’ disciples should be found essentially hiding out in the Upper Room; windows shut, doors locked and bolted, and still cowering in fear for their very lives!

I don’t know about you, but familiar as I am with the Easter story and as many times as I’ve heard it and read it aloud, I have to say that this is still not the scene I’m expecting!

After all, last Sunday weren’t we left with that powerful image of the women breathlessly running from the tomb to get to the men as quickly as they could to give them this incredible good news that Jesus had risen?  Given this, you might have expected a bit more enthusiasm on the part of the disciples; or at the very least, some measure of curiosity about this incredible thing that the women had just told them!  But not really; even taking into account the other gospels that do record how John and Peter did, in fact, run to the tomb to see it for themselves, at the end of the day we really don’t get much of any sense of victory or rejoicing from the disciples; just that, as John’s gospel puts it, “they did not yet understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead,” and that they “returned to their homes;”  (20:9-10) and now, given that night has fallen, that they’re all holed up together in likely the same room where they’d shared their “last supper” with him a few nights before; seeking solace, refuge and security behind locked doors.

Of course, to be fair, I’m not sure if I’d have reacted any differently.  To be sure, so much had happened in the past three days; far too much for them to even begin to process as of yet.  This man that they’d been following for the better part of the last three years, this one who’d taught them and led them and empowered them; who’d not only been their master and teacher, but also their friend: he’s dead, and it wasn’t a hero’s death, either.  He’d been crucified; branded a criminal, convicted and put to death by the state. As Lee Koontz has put it, this “was not the death of royalty.  It was the death of an outlaw… a death horrific, terrible and unforgettable.”

So I suppose it just sort of made sense that after the arrest, after the trial, after the gruesome events leading up to and encompassing the crucifixion, they’d come together to try to make sense of it all. But as if their own grief and fear wasn’t enough for them to deal with, now there’s also this “ridiculous hope” that the women had brought to them earlier that morning: their claims that the tomb was empty, that they’d seen angels, and then that they’d seen Jesus himself: alive!

Now, I have to imagine, friends, that this had to have been the tipping point for the disciples: for as much as they might have wanted to entertain the notion that some miracle had happened and Jesus was alive, their reaction here could only be one of disbelief: and not because they didn’t understand what the women were telling them or that, as Luke tells it, that they’d dismissed their claims as an “idle tale” (24:11); and it wasn’t even because they themselves hadn’t allowed themselves that glimmer of hope: because they had remembered something that Jesus had said to them before about being raised on the third day.  No; they weren’t going to believe all this because it was just too hard; the grief, the anguish, the hopelessness they were feeling; to say nothing of their fear over the very real possibility that the same thing that happened to Jesus could also happen to them… to even consider anything different was all too much, and the very thought of it paralyzed them.

And that we can understand, can’t we?

I think one of the things that we’re never really prepared for in this life, or at least that we don’t really fully understand until it happens to us is just how exhausting a thing grief truly is; physically, emotionally and spiritually.  I remember how after my father died, very soon thereafter we had to leave Maine and go back to Ohio, and I had to go back to work at the church; and of course, as is so often the case in ministry, immediately I was called to do about three funerals in the course of the next couple of weeks, one of which was the very tragic loss of a young husband and father.  I don’t mind telling you that it was hard; not only because of what that poor family was going through but also because how their tragedy had kind of brought my own grief to the forefront; quite honestly, every day I felt like I was getting the wind knocked out of me and I can tell you now that if I’d had my druthers, I’d have just have soon gone back to camp, shut the door and hid myself from the world indefinitely!

My point here is that I get why the first response of those disciples was to just go and hide!  They were quite literally living in the shadow of the cross, and so on that evening of the first day of the week, it simply hurt too much for them to hope; and indeed, there are so many times in the midst of our lives that you and I will say the exact same thing; so many situations we face where the only thing we’ve got strength left to do is to go away and simply dwell in the midst of our despair!

But thanks be to God, beloved it’s precisely in that place of despair that Easter comes; for it’s there in that Upper Room where the disciples had hidden themselves away that “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”

Peace: in the Greek language of the New Testament eirene, but referring to the familiar Hebrew greeting of shalom.  Peace… God’s peace, which is not merely peace in the sense of feeling good or calm, nor peace as simply the absence of war or strife, but peace in the sense of true wholeness, health and harmony; the fulfillment of God’s own promise to bring all of life’s blessings together for a common good: shalom!

It was, at least in one sense, a common greeting; shalom was something these men had heard nearly every day of their lives; and yet this was different, and they knew it: different, certainly, in that it was Jesus bringing the greeting; Jesus himself, risen from the dead and standing there before them; but also different because he was greeting them in just the same manner that the God of their ancestors would bring peace to a trembling, fearful people; bringing comfort, assurance, and sure and certain hope for the future.  Peace, he said. Peace be with you, and then he breathed upon them his own Holy Spirit; bringing to them true shalom – God’s own peace – giving them a new life and changing everything forever.

It’s also interesting to note here that not only does the risen Christ break into this “secure” hiding place these disciples had fashioned for themselves, he also breaks in upon all their fears, their grieving and even their guilt and regret!  “In that moment,” writes Lee Koontz, “Jesus reclaims them.  Despite the fact that they had abandoned him, he trusts them.  Despite the fact that they denied him, he calls them.  Despite the fact that they had run away from him, he draws them near and breathes upon them.  That breath is a sign of life,” in much the same way as God, at the time of creation, breathed upon the waters and gave it life! It was their proof, most assuredly; it was their sure and certain affirmation that Christ had risen, indeed; this “peaceable presence” which was their sign of new life, life abundant and eternal!

Friends, the glorious truth of the resurrection is that nothing will stop the love of God: nothing in life, nothing in death, nothing in all creation; and that includes the sum total of all of our fears and every bit of our despair!  That is why Jesus came, to give his life so that in all times and in all circumstances we would know God’s all enveloping peace.

And what was true for those disciples in the Upper Room is true for us today; even now, beloved, our Lord comes as a “peaceable presence,” driving out all our fears, calming our anxieties and easing our weariness over the burdens of this life.  Understand, to receive that kind of peace does not mean that all of our problems are going to immediately disappear: nor will it mean that the course of our lives will be free of uncertainty and confusion from this point on!  But it does mean that even amidst the uncertainty, we are given the “breath of life” we need to sustain us for the way; and that will make all the difference.

What we’re talking about here is sort of like what Frederick Beuchner says is the difference between “believing in God” and “believing God.”  Believing in God, he says, “is an intellectual position.  It need have no more effect on your life than believing in Freud’s method of interpreting dreams or the theory that Sir Francis Bacon wrote Romeo and Juliet.

“[But] Believing God is something else again,” he continues.  “It is less a position than a journey, less a realization than a relationship.  It doesn’t leave you cold like believing the world is round.  It stirs your blood like believing the world is a miracle.  It affects who you are and what you do with your life like believing your house is on fire or somebody loves you.  We believe God when somehow we run into God in a way that by and large leaves us no choice but to do otherwise.”

Of course, there are those who are not so easily convinced, those who need a little bit… well, more… in order to truly believe, and that’s where good ol’ “Doubting Thomas” comes in, insisting that he see Jesus with his own eyes and touch Jesus with his own hands before making any commitment!  But even given that hardness of heart, it’s striking that Jesus does not condemn Thomas for his doubt, rather giving Thomas exactly what he needs to believe, so to be convinced and thus empowered.  It is no wonder that Thomas does not even have to touch Jesus before he can proclaim with every fiber of his being, “My Lord and my God!”

And that’s the thing, you see; that’s our good news on this Sunday in Eastertide… that though we weren’t there with the disciples that night, we have known what it is, in the midst of overwhelming grief and fear to have felt the inflowing of God’s own peace; to know the inexplicable assurance that’ll come over you in moments of utter despair when all of a sudden you’ll just feel like maybe everything will be alright after all. Most of us here, I suspect, can tell of some time and situation where we knew we needed something to see us through – even when we weren’t at all sure what that something was – but amazingly it came to us.

That, beloved, is the peaceable presence that is the risen Christ.

During those weeks following my father’s passing, it happened that I was also committed to delivering words of welcome and an invocation at the anniversary celebration of a local nursing facility. And it was a big celebration; complete with a huge buffet, jugglers and magicians — and an appearance by the Guy Lombardo Orchestra, which was actually led by a couple of Guy Lombardo’s grandsons!  And they’re playing all these wonderful big band classics; and since that was my father’s music of choice, not to mention the songs that we’d play together over the years, it had the effect of bringing every bit of grief and sadness I was feeling up front and center!  As I got up to the podium to speak, I was teary-eyed and very definitely what’s referred to in Yiddish as Verklempt!  

But this time, the feelings were different.  It wasn’t exhaustion; it wasn’t despair; it was peace, the kind of joyful peace that comes in good memories.  I even laughed to think how thrilled my father would have been to say that his son had “fronted” the Guy Lombardo Orchestra (albeit prayerfully!).  And I actually told the audience all of this as I led into prayer: in fact, I think it had a profound effect on the musicians; as I was leaving, the bandleader ran to catch up with me so he could give me a handful of Guy Lombardo CD’s!   “This is for you, in memory of your Dad,” he said with something of a tear in his own eye!

In a very unique way, you see; I’d felt a “peaceable presence.”

Wherever we are in this life, and whatever we’re facing – physically, emotionally, spiritually – the good news is that these are the places where Jesus comes to give us his peace. Jesus comes to us in the serenity and fellowship of our worship; Jesus enters into the sanctity and depth of our prayer, both individually and as his church; Jesus will break into the solitude of our self-imposed hiding places, even the ones we build deep inside of ourselves.  Jesus comes to us, this one whom even death could not destroy; he comes to you and to me so that we might truly know his peaceable presence now and forevermore.

For the blessedness that comes in believing, thanks be to God!


c.2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on April 27, 2014 in Easter, Faith, Holy Spirit, Jesus, Ministry, Sermon


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