Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sermon for II Easter

St John the Baptist, Mt Carmel--John 20:19-31

“Holy and gracious Father, in your infinite love, you made us for yourself…”.  Those words are probably familiar to you. They are from the beginning of one of the prayers which we use to consecrate the bread and wine in the Eucharist. In it, we acknowledge to God that, not only has God made us, he has made us for a particular purpose—fe has made us for himself. He has made us to be in relationship with him. The Presbyterians have a document called the Westminster Catechism. The first question in the catechism is, “What is the chief end of Man?” And the answer is, “The chief end of Man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” To be fully human, to be fully alive, is to know and glorify and enjoy God.

God also made us to be in relationship with our fellow human beings. Yes, there are introverts and there are hermits and there are misanthropes—but the fact remains, people need people. Without human contact, we shrivel up inside. We become smaller than ourselves. To be fully human, to be fully alive, is to be in harmonious, life-giving relationship with others.                 

So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, on both counts—in our relationship with God and in our relationship with other people—it’s an ideal that we fall consistently short of. We are, in fact, highly conflicted. We are conflicted vertically—toward God—and we are conflicted horizontally —toward one another. We are conflicted globally; nations take up arms against nations, as we have concretely discovered once again only in the last couple of weeks. We are conflicted locally; witness the pervasively negative tone of election campaigning in recent years, not just nationally, but locally. We are conflicted internally; depression and anxiety are epidemic in the “developed world” of the industrialized west. “World peace”—whether we think of it globally, locally, or internally—is such an elusive ideal that we laugh and the cliché of the beauty pageant contestant who is asked by the official interviewer what her main goal in life is, and she answers, “World peace.”

Living, then, as we do, in the midst of such widespread and profound conflict, there is no escaping its impact on our lives. In fact, conflict regularly reaches crisis proportions. If the truth were known, just about every household—even when there is a sincere desire and effort to love one another—just about every household is at least frequently, if not chronically, dysfunctional. There is a great deal of pain and woundedness that is concealed behind the public smiles of apparently happy families.  The effects of substance abuse—drugs, alcohol, tobacco—inflict fresh damage on precious human lives on a daily basis. Suicide is a sign of how difficult it is to hide the crippling mental and emotional pain that so many people live with all the time. And we haven’t even mentioned litigation—people suing each other at the drop of a hat—or street crime, organized crime, civil strife, terrorism, or war.

We are like the disciples of Jesus on the evening of that first Easter day—hunkered down together in an upper room, paralyzed by fear that they would be presumed guilty by association, that the same powers that had crucified Jesus were now going to come after them. You and I are too often paralyzed by fear of the powers that remind us of our conflicted state, and we create our own versions of that upper room. For at least the last twenty years, I have had in my home a place that I can literally use to escape to—sometimes it’s actually been an “upper room.” We’re talking about a desk, a TV, a phone, a recliner, and a book table, everything I need to be quite happy in that room for an extended period. But our “upper room” can be a lot of things; it’s wherever we go to escape our fears. It can be work, it can be recreation, it can be exercise, it can be drinking, or any one of a number of more overtly destructive activities. Where is your “upper room”?

Wherever it is, I hope you’re ready for some company. Because just when the disciples are at a low emotional ebb, hiding in their upper room, Jesus shows up. I think the expression, “shocked but not surprised” applies here. They’d heard some reports of the empty tomb and the risen Christ, but they weren’t really from a source that would be considered absolutely reliable. Now they’re looking at him, very much in the flesh, the same flesh they had watched die on the cross barely 48 hours earlier, but yet, it’s now a different kind of flesh—the kind that can enter a locked room without the burden of opening the door. The risen Christ enters the room where the disciples are hidden, and the first thing he says is not, “Hey, look at me, I’m back!” It’s “Peace be with you.” Peace be with you.

This is one of those instances when the English language is not quite up to the task. The Hebrew word that is behind the Aramaic word that Jesus would have actually spoken, which is rendered in Greek when St John writes his gospel, and is then translated into English as “peace” —that word is shalom. And shalom has much broader connotations than the mere absence of hostility. Shalom is deep peace, deep harmony, a convergence and a congruence at a cellular level. It’s an alignment of energy and resources in the same direction. Shalom is peace within, and peace without; peace that is global, peace that is local, and peace that is internal. This is the peace that the risen Jesus brings into the upper room where his followers are huddled in fear. And he doesn’t just wish peace on them, or invite them to have peace; he supplies the peace, he is the peace.

That same Jesus wants to enter our “upper room” as well, and bring us peace, bring us shalom. He wants to be our peace—peace that integrates us internally and reconciles us externally, peace that is local and peace that is global. Wishing for “world peace” may be a beauty pageant cliché, but sometimes clichés make a valuable point. One such cliché is found on more than a few automobile bumper stickers. It’s a pun—it says “No [spelled n-o]…no Jesus, no peace—and then, just underneath that phrase, “Know [spelled k-n-o-w]…know Jesus, know peace.” Despite the fact that it appears on bumper stickers, there is great truth here. Jesus isn’t called the “Prince of Peace” for nothing. He is the bringer of shalom, the rich, multi-level Hebraic notion of peace.

The peace that Jesus brings doesn’t—in the near term, at any rate—eliminate all conflict. It’s not going to make wars go away or cure all the ills of society. It brings about the cessation of struggle, but the struggle that ends is our struggle against God. In God’s will is our peace; in God’s service is our perfect freedom. Shalom brings us rest, the way St Augustine meant it when he said that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.

It is profoundly and tragically ironic—in the light of one conflict that catches headlines every day—that our Lord’s disciples were gathered, filled with fear, in Jerusalem. The very name “Jerusalem” means “city of shalom”—city of peace. Yet, Jerusalem has always been the site of conflict. We are bidden in Psalm 122 to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” Nonetheless, at every stage in its conflicted history, there have been those in Jerusalem who have known the peace of God, the peace of Christ, who have experienced authentic shalom. Even in the midst of strife and violence, shalom has been present in that city, shalom has been present in the upper room. Those who have experienced this peace have been able to bear witness to it, and continue to live in Jerusalem even while hostility and violence appear to reign. Wherever our “Jerusalem” is, wherever our “upper room” is, wherever we are hidden for fear of those who would be our undoing, today Jesus enters that room in the glory of his resurrected life, and says “Peace be with you.” Alleluia and Amen.

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