12 December 2019
“Peace be with you” says Jesus to the disciples as he appears before the frightened bunch in the locked room. The ordinary daily greeting. “Peace be with you” is still the standard greeting today in the Middle East. It is “Shlama lokum” in Aramaic, “shalom aleichem” in Hebrew, while Arabic speakers – Muslim and Christian – would bid you “Assalamu alyekum”.
The “shalom”, of this greeting isn’t an emotional quality. It isn’t about tranquillity or relaxation or quiet. It isn’t even about the absence of war. It is far more positive. It is that state in which everything is as it should be, when everything is healed, whole – bodies, minds, spirits. It isn’t just about individuals – it’s about communities, nations, the whole cosmos. In fact you can never have it fully while others lack it – how can you be fully at peace while others are in distress?
Seeking “shalom” was important in the Old Testament. The prophets dreamed of a time when people would plant their crops and be able to harvest them too, not afraid of an attacking army. Of people sitting under their own vines and fig trees, with their families thriving around them, in harmony with their neighbours, in a world in which the poor were fed and rulers were just and wise.
That everyday greeting is a rich, deep thing then. But its the same in. English “hello” is a contraction of “hail to you” , and that word “hail” comes from the same root as health, heal, and whole. Whether we know it or not, when we greet people we are praying for their well-being too.
Romans greeted one another with a wish for wholeness and healing, their equivalent of “shalom”. “Salus” also gives us the English “salve” – an ointment to make you well. It gives us safety too – the state in which you are healthy and whole. And it gives us “save” and “saviour” and “salvation” as well.
But my guess is that when many people hear those last few words, “saviour” and “salvation” – it isn’t healing and wholeness in the here and now that spring first into their minds. It isn’t sitting under your vine or fig tree, or living in harmony with others, or justice and equality. Those words have picked up some specific theological associations for many Christians. For many Christians salvation and resurrection has come to be narrowly interpreted to mean no more than the spiritual equivalent of booking a time-share apartment in heaven when you die.
This is not what Jesus expressed as his mission. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Salvation is to heal what is broken and restore the knowledge of God in people, an image that has been twisted and marred by sin. Sin is john's gospel is about not having the light, walking in darkness. It is about repairing relationships between people – bringing about that Old Testament vision of shalom – health, wholeness and justice . So Jesus not only appeared to the disciples he breathed his spirit into them, and sent them out to the world. And he started with this little group, hiding behind their closed doors and sent them out. Size and state of the people is irrelevant when they are sent by God.
And what a church!. Hiding fearfully in a room they have been arguing among themselves, swamped in regret and shame after their desertion of Jesus. They have felt let down too – all their dreams shattered. They are confused – nothing has turned out as they expected, and they don’t know why. It is all wrong. They might just as well go home to Galilee and forget all about it. As they hear those words though – “peace be with you” - they begin to take in the truth they need to hear. God is healing his world. God is healing them. The apparent disaster of the cross is actually a sign of God’s indestructible love, which even death can’t defeat. Jesus, who they might have expected to rebuke them, actually forgives them. There is new birth, new life, a new beginning. Peace be with you – not a promise of admission to a heavenly city when they die, but real hope for them now and real healing.
And as Jesus proclaims God’s shalom to them, he also makes it clear that this gift is not just God’s to give. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. 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.” They are to be bearers of God's good news of forgiveness. If they stay huddled in the locked room they will be retaining the sin of the world, not living and spreading and telling the good news which turns the separation from God into the light of new life.
Easter is not just coming to an inspiring worship service, it is being sent back into the (hostile) world, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to bear witness to the identity of God as revealed in Jesus. Beyond that, if we take 3:17 seriously: "Indeed, God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him," then our job and the church's job is not to condemn the world but to offer salvation to it. To offer the resurrection life. The disciples find as do we here and now that Jesus' spirit continued to work its works in and through them.
The reality is that we all have this power to bind others or to set them free. We can all tie people to their past actions, stopping them moving forward to the new lives they need or we can release them to try again. We can all give or withhold the shalom – that healing peace - that they need. It’s not necessarily a matter of saying or refusing to say some words of formal absolution, but the way we act towards one another that does this.
One of my colleagues told a story about a man who had grown up the youngest of a large, poor, mining family in North East England. When he was old enough to start at the local Sunday School his hard-pressed mother did her best to kit him out smartly for his first session. She carefully knitted him a new jumper – a rare treat – and proudly sent him off down the road to the church. Not long afterwards he was back, tearful and humiliated. The vicar had sent him away. “You can’t come to Sunday School,” he said, “unless you are wearing a jacket and tie.” His lovingly hand-knitted pullover, which had taken many hours of effort, and cash the family could ill afford, was not good enough. In fact the vicar seemed to take it as a deliberate act of disrespect. Needless to say the little boy never went back, and sadly he never got over this rejection either. He was bitterly opposed to the church and to religion ever afterwards, and that bitterness spilt over into the rest of his life. I don’t know how many times that vicar had spoken the words of absolution in church but on that day his thoughtless words had denied that child the shalom, the healing peace, the salvation that he needed.
“Peace be with you.” It is not just a simple greeting, nor just soothing words. It is God’s proclamation of God's own saving power that heals us and all creation, power that sets us free from whatever it is that has bound us, and calls us into his new life.
And as Jesus declares his shalom, we are reminded that all of us, as the community of Easter life, have the power to pass on or to withhold that shalom
Last week I was asked to be the Christian presence at Papatoetoe Race relations day on your behalf. - An interfaith meeting run by Manukau City council to celebrate diversity and find common ground. I have to confess that I didn't realise until I arrived that it was truly interfaith. Each group, Muslim. Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist [they are opening three new temples in the next month, and myself for the Christians of the area, talked about our faith and gave a prayer.
I told briefly the story of the good Samaritan of course using the words of the lawyer who quoted the ten commandments, "You shall love the lord your God with all your heart..and your neighbour as yourself" and then questioned " who is my neighbour?" and I gave Jesus' answer as the story of the good Samaritan- opening up the meaning of neighbour beyond our own groups and interest. Much to my surprise I saw the Muslim Imam listening carefully and when he came to talk he referred to my sister's giving Jesus interpretation of the ten commandments. My prayer was for the shalom of this city and all the people in it and i prayer "in the name of Jesus".
The Spirit of God was there as the music played and we enjoyed each other's company. This was not a place for a narrow insistence of dogma but a place to share the shalom, the resurrection life of Jesus in its reality and hope and that is what I did.
May God bless us and send us out in peace. Amen
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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