To focus our thoughts, I’ll begin with a poem entitled, Spirit of Peace by Susan Hardwick:
‘Peace be with you!’
you said to your disciples when you came and stood among them –
locked as they were into their bewilderment and their fear.
Breathe your Spirit of Peace
into our troubled hearts, our full-of-fear world.
Enter into our turbulence, our disorder and our discord.
Bring your peace, your serenity and your harmony.
Calm us, still us, open us up,
in order that we may be channels of your peace
to those in need of your Life-giving love.
(Wisdom Is Calling, United Church Publishing House,
1999, pgs. 232-233, adapted)
This week’s reading from the Gospel of John picks up immediately where last week’s reading ended. Last week we heard the story of Mary Magdalene’s journey in the darkness to the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid to rest. Upon seeing that the tomb was empty, Mary quickly ran and brought Peter and another male disciple to bear witness to her discovery. The men took a look and immediately went back home. Mary stayed at the tomb weeping with grief and then she had an amazing encounter with the risen Christ. At the end of that account John writes, “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’ ”. (John 20:18)
Today’s reading begins, “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked…Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ ” (John 20:19) In this brief account from John’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples three times, “Peace be with you”. Jesus commissions them to go out into the world and proclaim the good news of God’s presence when he says, “As God has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20: 21b) Jesus also empowers his followers by reminding them that God’s spirit is within them. John tells us that Jesus, “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.”
Some scholars call this passage “John’s Pentecost” because, like the Pentecost story in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit breathes life into people and inspires the beginning of an organized and committed Christian community. John describes the Holy Spirit as being the very breath of human life that empowers the disciples to be courageous and unified in their mission as followers of Christ. The Hebrew understanding of spirit is encompassed in the same word that is used for breath. The life-giving breath of their lives was not only what kept them physically alive but is also what made them spiritually alive.
Jesus’ disciples, who were traumatized and grief-stricken because of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, were hiding in a locked room in fear for their own lives. I imagine them trembling and expecting that at any moment the Roman soldiers would knock down the door and come to take them away.
So what transformed them into courageous apostles who ventured into a dangerous world with conviction and commitment? John tells us they experienced the risen Christ and through this experience they believed and were emboldened to risk living in the Way of Christ. John ends by saying,
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)
The Seasons of the Spirit resource for this week offers a helpful explanation of the kind of belief necessary for this kind of transformative change:
“To believe something (in a religious sense) is not simply to hold an opinion; it is to let that something sink down into the marrow of your bones and form the structure of your life. To believe something is to let its affirmation become the inhalation and exhalation of your life’s breath. Belief does not exclude doubt or incredulity or intellectual curiosity. To believe something is to let it transform your life.” (The Vigil by Wendy M. Wright, 1992, Upper Room Books, quoted in Seasons of the Spirit, Lent/Easter 2015, pg. 129)
If the disciples had been simply repeating what they knew of someone else’s stories and experiences they would not have the power of their own conviction. Simply knowing information is not the same as understanding it in the core of your being. As I was thinking about this I remembered that when my granddaughter, Anika, was seven years old her father helped her memorize the elements of the Periodic Table. To be more accurate, she memorized 22 of the 118 elements. When prompted by her Dad she could, in little more than a breath, list: “Hydrogen; Helium; Lithium; Beryllium; Boron; Carbon; Nitrogen; Oxygen; Fluorine; Neon; Sodium; Magnesium; Aluminum; Silicone; Phosphorous; Sulphur; Chlorine; Argon; Potassium; Calcium; Scandium; Titanium”… Anika had no idea what she was saying and no understanding of what it meant other than it pleased her father and impressed his friends. This was just rote information that did not have any meaning or significance in her life. I phoned Anika the other day and asked her to tell me the elements of the Periodic Table. She remembered the first eight and then said, “There’s a lot more but I don’t know them”.
There’s a big difference between knowing information and knowing with one’s heart due to a transformative experience. Memory can fade and the facts that we have known can be lost but the knowing of one’s heart cannot be shaken by critics or fading memory. What we know in our hearts to be true becomes part of the very essence of our lives and of our faith. The only proof that is needed is the proof of the faith-filled actions of our lives.
I believe that Christ continues to appear to those who have opened the doors of their hearts to his presence. What I’ve come to realize, in my own life, is that when I become open to seeing Christ in ordinary experiences, and in the guise of the most unexpected people, then I feel clearly his presence and blessing.
A passage that I read in Feasting on the Word this week resonates with my own experience:
“It is good news…In the different seasons of our life, Jesus’ appearance is certain to change, and we will not always know him, particularly when hardships have given us many reasons to doubt. One moment he may come to us dressed in golden garb, calling us to celebrate joyously the richness of spirit faith promises. The next, however, he may come wearing beggar’s rags, reminding us that the love which saves is vulnerable and costly, and that the glory which awaits us is humble in texture and well worn in feel. At still other times, he may come to us wrapped in the wool shawl of the wise old grandmother who simply holds us as we weep. Whatever his appearance may be, though, we will know it is he if inside those golden garbs, street-faded rags, or warm knitted cape, we find not a logically argued response to our questioning faith but a surprising proclamation of peace and touching love that is stronger than …death itself. [In all of this]…we realize that we are not alone but have, in fact, been always, already found.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, pg. 404)
And so we pray,
Gracious and life-giving God,
You transform our lives with the power of your spirit.
In the breath of your spirit we believe we can be courageous.
In the touch of your love we learn how to love and care for others.
In the peace that Christ shows us
we know that we can make a difference in this world you so love.
With gratitude for the gift of life and the power of faith, we pray.