Saturday, March 22, 2008

Peace Be With You

So there they were, all of them save one, huddled together in the same room where only a few days ago they had celebrated the Passover. It had been a raucous, chaotic, and tragic three days. One of their own, for reasons no one fully understood, had sold them all out. He was now dead, a body found hanging in a tree. Thirty pieces of silver scattered on the ground beneath the dead corpse.

Some of them had seen what had happened to Jesus. Others, too afraid, remained in hiding, only hearing of the scourging... the nails pounded in his hands and feet... the crown of thorns... the mocking he received from the Jewish priests and Roman soldiers. They were ashamed. Terrified for their lives, none of them stuck around to claim the body. Only a rich believer and a Pharisee who believed him to be the messiah dared show their faces to claim him from the tomb. They had the clout with those in charge to get away with affiliating themselves with the now disgraced "King of the Jews".

The eleven hiding in the Upper Room didn't have that kind of luxury. They knew now they were wanted men, eleven more examples of what you'd get if you crossed authority, and dare challenge the status quo. The Bible doesn't tell us what was going on that room that weekend in the aftermath of the bloodbath that had been Jesus Christ's demise.

Maybe they were pondering how to slip out of the city, and back to the quiet of their previous lives.

Maybe they were beating themselves up for having given him the last three years of their lives.

Maybe they listened in fear as others, believers but not believers that were so high profile as to be targeted as "the next to get it", came to them with news, and rumors, of temple guards or Roman soldiers searching for them.

Maybe they just wept, grieving the loss of the first person who ever gave their life meaning. Who accepted them when others would not. Who ushered them into the presence of God's grace for the first time.

Maybe they were trying to figure out what in the world would make Mary Magdalene say that he was now alive, risen from the dead. Was it grief so great that it was forcing a denial of reality. Was it simply hope against hope that the words he had said to them, over and over, were now true. Was she just crazy. All they knew was that the news of the empty tomb was spreading across Jerusalem, and that they had stolen the body... securing their fate.

The Bible doesn't tell us what was going on in that room on that very first Easter. John only tells us that the disciples were "meeting behind closed door because they were afraid of Jewish leaders". But you really don't need to know much more than that to speculate where their heads were at the first time they saw him for themselves.

It was that moment, that everything changed.

Well, not everything. They were still in hiding, on the lam, from those willing to go to just about any lengths to stomp out this fledging religious movement led by a carpenter's son from Galilee. The uncertainty of that reality hadn't abated or disappeared. As a matter of fact, if legend can be trusted, ten of the remaining eleven would end up losing their lives violently in the cause of Christ, while the eleventh died in exile, alone, imprisoned. In worldly terms, their death warrants, and whatever that now meant for those who loved them, had already been signed. The troubles this life brings - suffering, death, hunger, the constant pressure to provide for those dependent upon you, all the complexities of living in relationship with other people - none of that changed. Life was just as difficult now as it was yesterday.

But then again, now nothing was the same. Like their savior, they would bear the scars etched by life onto body and soul, but they would not be borne as they were before.

Or as Paul put it, "Where, oh death, is now your victory? Where is your sting?"

There he was, in the flesh. Living. Breathing. Breathing upon them. Not a ghost or a zombie or a spirit from beyond. But a person with warm, moist breath that you felt when he leaned over to kiss your forehead, and to dry your tears. A living example that might doesn't make right. That "blessed are those who desire peace for they will be called God's children" actually meant something. In that living, breathing man cynicism and broken promises and unfulfilled expectations ceased to be, and mourning now could now be turned, eventually at least, into dancing.

Christ's rising from the dead didn't smooth out the bumps of life. We're still jarred, sometimes to the core, as we travel cross its dusty, beaten path. But in him now we find a promise: that all the suffering, self-denial, the foolishness that comes with being optimistic about the future even as during moments you are leaving in a time or place that hope goes to die... that in the aftermath of your own failure to live up to what you say you believe... that something greater trumps the darkness.

Trumps the sin. Trumps the failure... even our own failure.

Those disciples went into that Upper Room terrified of what was coming, but they left the Upper Room with a new sense of purpose and assurance that no matter what life through at them, it would not be for naught. And somehow, fear was transformed into peace.

Fear was transformed into peace. He said, "Peace be with you", and it was.

How badly do we need to hear those four little words again today. As wars wage. As horrible atrocities are committed. As our 401k's become worth only 1k's. As we pass empty building and houses, markers of how the economic landscape is changing. As we face addictions to all kinds of substances that can be found on street corners and medicine cabinets, in grocery aisles and via Fed Ex. As ruthless drug lords are armed to the teeth and people on every side of the law ponder where justice is in this world. As we face diseases we can't heal. As we put our child on a school bus, and he or she takes one step further away from the supposed security and safety of our home, and a step closer to facing the reality of how hard things can be... out there.

Surely we need to hear, "Peace be with you", and have it sink deep into hearts and souls where the balm can surely bring healing to open, painful sores.

For it was peace that ended up driving them from that dark, dank room, and into the streets. Peace that led them, in fact, into the Temple, into the presence of those who would take their lives to preserve the Roman version of peace - quiet kept at the end of a pike and sword. To preach boldly that the cross could not destroy him, nor the grave hold him.

It was peace that drove Peter to the pulpit in the middle of the Court of the Gentiles. Calling people to turn from a bitter, uncertain life geared toward survival, to a life where friendship was so deep that the group where people shared what they had with one another, broke bread together, and lifted one another up in prayer. 3000 that first day heard him and were baptized.

In the movie Field of Dreams, Thomas Mann, the writer played by James Earl Jones, in response to threats made by a banker that the family farm would be lost because a man dared follow a still, small voice that told him that if he built it, they would come, reassures the title character, Ran Cansella, that people will come. That they'll pay $20 a person without thinking about it to come watch ballgames played by old ballplayers on a baseball field in rural Iowa.

"For it's money they have, and peace they lack."

Peace be with you.

If there was anything I could give you this Easter morning. If there was anything I'd want you to take away this day from the Shawnee United Methodist Church. It would be peace.

Peace with the living God who made you.

Peace with what you have, and peace with that you don't have.

Peace in your heart when you think of your loved ones and your enemies.

Peace as you realize that doing that right thing, the right way, every day, the best that you can, matters.

Peace that you have a place in eternity.

Peace, with you, everywhere you go.

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