Date: April 16, 2023 (Second Sunday of Easter)
Scripture: John 20:19-31
Scripture Reader: Wendy Baker
Sermon Title: “Peace Be with You”
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I remember one of the churches I grew up when I was four or five years old. The church was in the countryside near the ocean. Our church, on the top of the hill, was literally our home since the parsonage was inside the church. After you enter the church, the door to the left is the sanctuary, and to the right is the parsonage. Just one room with a bathroom. We did not have much, but we had each other, including my brother who was just born. Since the town was near the ocean, from time to time, we had a hurricane. I still remember one night when the wind was so strong that the trees outside were shaking violently. I was filled with fear and completely sealed myself under a blanket, worried the roof would be blown away.
It might be due to different reasons. Have you ever been consumed by fear that you locked yourself in? Sometimes when we are going through grief, we do that. It is difficult to answer the question, “How are you doing?” We distance ourselves from others because they remind us of the memory of the ones we loved and lost. We just celebrated Easter last Sunday, but the next day there was a mass shooting at a bank in Louisville. The workers locked themselves inside the safe and called the police. It sounds very disturbing that it just happened the day after Easter, the day when Jesus was raised from death, but that is what our children are practicing at their school. Teachers lock the doors and students pull down all the drapes on the windows.
The Gospel of John tells us that the disciples of Jesus gathered in a house and locked the door because they were afraid of the religious authorities. You see that this happened on the evening of Easter. Mary Magdalene met the risen Christ early in the morning and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord. However, they could not believe her words. Maybe they thought that Mary’s grief had driven her mad. Besides, the reality did not change for these disciples. There were religious authorities and soldiers still out there trying to find anyone who associated with Jesus. If arrested, they might face the same fate as Jesus did – being brutally crucified on the cross. So, these disciples gathered and locked the doors behind them for fear.
But Jesus walked through the locked door and stood among these disciples and said, “Peace be with you.” Many of us take the words of Jesus for granted on Easter. But think about this. When Jesus was arrested, he saw all his disciples abandon him, trying to save their lives. Peter was the first disciple that Jesus called. He not only saw many miracles Jesus performed but also was promised that Jesus would build his church on him, the rock. But people recognized his face and said, “He is one of them!” Peter said, “I do not know this Jesus you are talking about.” Not just once, twice, but three times. Jesus loved his disciples, taught them, served them, and loved them. But he was betrayed and abandoned. But the first words Jesus says are not, “Traitors! Where were you?” but “Peace be with you.”
My son Joshua goes to Chelmsford Integrated School, which is the pre-k program. When he started the program last fall, he told me that he did not like this kid named Isaac. As soon as he hopped in the car after school, he would share with us, “Today Isaac took my toys away.” “Isaac beat my friend and me.” “Daddy, Isaac is too big for me. Is there any way I can outgrow him?” I answer, “Well, Joshua. If you eat all the vegetables, you will grow taller.” Anyway, recently, Joshua came back from school and said, “Daddy, I have no more problems with Isaac anymore.” I thought that Joshua finally became a good friend with Isaac. And he answered, “His family moved far away. He no longer comes to our school, yeah!”
Our world often tries to accomplish peace by eliminating enemies by using violence. We often dehumanize our neighbors and turn them into our enemies by stripping them of their human value, denying the image of God in them. This is what happened during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Upon taking political control, the Hutu, the majority, started spreading hatred against Tutsis by calling them “cockroaches,” or “enemies within.” Nations wage wars against other nations in the name of justice and peace. I do not believe that Jesus considered his disciples his enemies for denying him and abandoning him. But we can imagine the shame and guilt in them as Jesus, whom they thought died on the cross, now stood before them, and the first words he spoke were, “Peace be with you.”
And the declaration of peace from God becomes commissioning for us also to forgive others. Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “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.” We often say, “I prayed to God for my mistakes and wrongdoings against my family or friend. God has already forgiven me.” Of course, God always forgives us and is ready to embrace us as the merciful father who fixed his eyes on the hill, anxiously waiting for his prodigal son. But Jesus says that our process of forgiveness and healing is not complete until we forgive others, and are forgiven by them. Henri Nouwen says that peace is a gift of God that is “there for us to claim even in the midst of our moments of despair and turmoil.”
With racial tension arising in our society today, many of us still remember the shooting in Charleston, SC. On June 17, 2015, during a prayer service, Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist, walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and killed nine people. It is unimaginable how this young man was disillusioned to believe that his violence motivated by racial hatred would achieve anything. But the relatives of the people slain decided to face the shooter at his first court appearance. The sister of Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor said, “I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”
Some might blame the shooter’s mental illness as the cause of the tragedy. Some might wonder where God was in the middle of such tragedy and why God was not able to prevent it from happening. But God was surely there when these families and relatives tried to live out the love of God for our enemies which brings peace not only to the victimized but also to the aggressors. Bishop Desmond Tutu once said, “When I talk of forgiveness, I mean the belief that you can come out of the other side a better person. A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator. If you can find it in yourself to forgive, then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator. You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person too.”
As I shared with you my fear of the storm as a child, some of us might feel like we are constantly living in a world full of storms. Some of us are going through a storm in our personal life, storm with our family members, our self-esteem, our struggle with addiction, storm with depression and anxiety. As a society and world, we are living.in a storm of racial hatred, political division, mass shootings, religious extremism and terrorism. Boston Bombing took place ten years ago yesterday that left three deaths and 300 people injured. However, in the midst of such a storm, when we tend to lock the doors of our hearts, we encounter Christ, who comes through our locked doors and offers us peace saying, “Peace be with you, my friends.”
Years ago, an art gallery sponsored a competition for painters to submit a painting about peace. The best painting would be selected for the prize. If you were a painter, what would you draw to win this competition? Maybe the peaceful ocean? Children playing together hands in hand? Surprisingly, the painting that won seemed contradictory to what we imagine by peace. It portrayed a violent storm. The sky is dark, and the lightning splits the air. And the waters crashing into the rock walls of the cliffs by the shore. You might wonder, “Peace? Where is peace here?” if you look at it carefully, halfway down to the cliff, you see a bird nest tucked into the hollow in the rock. The mother bird is calming and tending to her babies sleeping soundly under their mother’s wings. That is peace.
As we gather as people of resurrection this morning, it is my prayer that we also encounter the risen Christ who walks through the locked doors of our heart and offers the peace from God. May the peace of God be with us, our families, our churches, our jobs, and this world.
 Elahe Izadi, “The Powerful Words of Forgiveness Delivered to Dylann Roof by Victims’ Relatives” in The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2015/06/19/hate-wont-win-the-powerful-words-delivered-to-dylann-roof-by-victims-relatives/ (accessed on April 15, 2023)