Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” (John 20)
As we did the Stations of the Cross each day this week here in the church, one word has leaped out at me, over and over again: “bitter.” It’s a very sharp word, hard even to hear said. Like many words, it has multiple layers of meaning. It can refer to the emotion someone feels who has been hurt or wronged. But it can also refer to the nature of something that is done to us, as when the psalmist says, “God has dealt bitterly with me.”
If ever there was someone who had reason to be bitter, it was Jesus. Judas betrayed him. Peter denied him. The guards crucified him. The people mocked him. His disciples deserted him.
We just heard the story of Jesus’ first appearance to Mary early on Easter morning, and of her astonishing report to the disciples. But I want to push the story a bit further, to the next scene in John’s gospel, when the disciples are gathered together in a locked room later that same day. It’s not hard to imagine that the air in that room was heavy with their resentment toward one another, tense with fear of what might happen next, and redolent with the disappointment they felt in themselves.
And then suddenly … there Jesus is. It must have been a truly terrifying moment. What would he say or do, this man who had so much reason to reproach them bitterly for what they had done, and failed to do? And yet … the first words out of his mouth are … “Peace be with you.” Those words are so familiar (we hear them in church every Sunday after all!), it’s hard to register just how shocking they must have been in the tension of that moment. Where the disciples had reason to expect only an angry tirade, they get instead a gentle embrace.
So what’s going on? Well, whatever else one might say about Jesus, those words signify to us that one thing we cannot do is to change his mind about who we are: beloved creatures of God, endowed with the dignity and likeness of God. So Jesus is going to love and forgive us, whether we’re ready for it or not. And there is good news in that: the good news that we are powerless to make him stop loving us. He will always survive our mistakes and failures, always be there working to remake the relationships we break again and again. It is the freedom Jesus has as God’s chosen one: the freedom to love us without restraint, as God created us to be loved from the beginning.
But here’s the thing: there is a tendency to take that kind of statement about love and forgiveness, and to universalize it, as if it solves all our problems. “Well, okay, then,” we say: “God loves us, our sins are forgiven, and the world is set right.”
Except that it isn’t, is it? These dark days of a brutal war, symbolized by that pile of cold stones in front of the altar, painfully remind us that the world is still very much enthralled and held captive by violence, in all of its forms, resurrection or not. I find that even the hymns we sing today sound agonizingly out of sync with the reality of our times: “The strife is o’er, the battle done, the victory of life is won.” Really? Could you easily say those words today in Kyiv? In Mariupol? In Bucha? So what, then, are we to make of Jesus’ words, “Peace be with you”? Are they ultimately powerless? Just wishful thinking?
Speaking for myself, I have to say that there comes into play here something I have learned from being pastor of this congregation. You have helped to teach me a more restrained—or perhaps the word is, a more modest—way of Christian life, than what I once had. This is a congregation that lives in the world with a very realistic sense of the challenges human life brings, whether it is overcoming prejudice, or caring for the stranger, or wrestling with the pains and griefs of old age. We don’t live by clichés here: we live by the hard work of doing our best to address human suffering and need as we find it.
And in turn, I think that lesson is very much related to Jesus’ words of peace. We just have to accept that as long as we human beings have anything to do with it, the world is not going to be set right, not even by God. The kingdom of God is not absolute, but partial. Yet that doesn’t mean that as followers of Jesus, we are not empowered to live in hope as peaceably as we can for the sake of the world, even while knowing that we are surrounded by a world that is inherently violent and ultimately indifferent. Jesus calls us to do what we can, even though it is never enough. The only thing worse, would be to do nothing.
Brother Roger was the founder of the Taizé religious community in eastern France during the Second World War, a community that dedicated itself to peace and reconciliation even in the darkest days of that conflict. It was said about him that in his own person he made the possibility of peace seem real, just by the way he carried himself, by the way he spoke, by the way he prayed. Yet one day he himself was violently murdered, right in the community’s chapel, just as evening prayer was beginning.
But in his own sphere, Brother Roger found a way to live peaceably. Gently. Lovingly. Compassionately. Unassumingly. His example has had ripple effects around the globe.
On the afternoon before he died, Brother Roger asked one of the other brothers to take a dictation, saying, “Note down these words carefully!” He began, “’I leave you peace; I give you my peace.’ What is this peace that God gives? It is,” he said, “first of all an inner peace, a peace of the heart. This peace enables us to look at the world with hope, even though it is often torn apart by violence and conflicts. This peace from God,” he continued, “also supports us so that we can contribute, quite humbly, to building peace in those places where it is jeopardized.”
The dictation ended with the words, “To the extent that our community creates possibilities in the human family to widen …” And there he left off, too tired to continue. He went to the chapel to pray, and it was there that his life was ended.
But those last words now read as if they are a great invitation: “To the extent that our community creates possibilities in the human family to widen …” Widen what? The circle? Relationships of communion? The possibility of peace? The dignity of every human person? How we choose to answer that question, is the place where each of us is given the choice, and the ability, to make a difference. What is it of God’s compassion and peace that our life will widen, in the sphere of our own being?
As I prepare to step aside from pastoring this church, I want to leave you with Brother Roger’s unfinished letter as something to ponder as you move into the future: “To the extent that this community creates possibilities in the human family to widen [dot, dot, dot]” It will be for you to fill in the dots, but knowing the depth of commitment and spiritual integrity of this church, I am confident that you will find creative and inspired ways of completing that, as yet, unfinished letter of peace. For it was Jesus himself, appearing to his disciples on Easter Day, who blessed them with the most unanticipated yet most longed-for words ever spoken: “Peace be with you.” Amen.