The Strong Peace of Christ

Jesus_BasilicaA sermon offered at Easter Day Evensong, April 12, 2020. Because our church is closed to the public during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, our worship services have been adjusted, streamed live, and recorded. The scriptures are Psalm 114, Isaiah 51:9-11, and John 20:19-23.

Watch the sermon HERE.

Many of you know the Washington National Cathedral, the Episcopal Cathedral for the Diocese of Washington. It’s a beautiful building. But there’s also another remarkable church building in Washington. Though it’s not the Roman Catholic cathedral, it is a basilica: The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It’s the largest Roman Catholic religious building in the country, and in addition to having a great gift shop and bookstore), it has breath-taking mosaics. The one that towers over the main altar in the central apse is called “Christ in Majesty.” Some have referred to it as “scary Jesus,” or “Superhero Jesus,” but I like it.

I like that image of Jesus because it is so counter to the fragile, gentle, youthful Jesuses so often shown to us. You know the type: Jesus with a lamb on his shoulder, the old-fashioned Jesus who’s almost blond and blue-eyed; or the newer icons of Jesus that show him as a kind of androgynous person of color, an image of the cosmic good. The kind of Jesus who is always meek and mild, who wouldn’t hurt a flea, doesn’t have much to say to a world that needs his power to stir things us, to turn things upside down, and to bring about a new creation.

Jesus IS all about peace, but his is a strong, forceful, full peace. When Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room, he says, “Peace be with you.” But it’s no wimpy peace. It’s the power of life over death.

Today’s Gospel anticipates next Sunday’s Gospel, but this doubling portion of peace is not a bad thing. The power of Christ’s peace is worth our time (I think) because so often, in our day the peace of Christ is portrayed as a weak thing, a watered-down gentleness, a depressed quiescence or some vaguely religious feeling of calm. Too often we pass the peace with air-kisses and limp handshakes, as though we might catch something.

But when Jesus bursts into the locked room, a room locked down by fear as much as by bolted doors, Jesus offers the full power of his peace. It is a peace that has burst forth from the grave, a peace that has been to hell and back, a peace that has laughed in the face of death.

We have seen evidence of this peace already through the season of Lent.

When Jesus was tempted in the desert, it was his peace that enabled him to face down the devil, to keep centered, to remain connected to God, to survive—and eventually to be fed by angels.

It is the peace of Christ that eases us through the narrow door. The peace of Christ sustains us in the face of calamity, helps us to repent when we have done wrong, and reminds us that like that poor, little fig tree in Luke—we are given a second chance.

Sometimes it is the peace of Christ that slaps us in the face and turns us around, and like the prodigal, we are led back into the loving embrace of God, God the parent-beyond-allparents.
The Jesus of the Resurrection is the one who went into the hell of the tomb, wrestled with the devil and death itself, and came out again, alive and renewed and powerful enough to carry us into eternal life, too. This is no wimpy Jesus. It is a peace that opens our eyes and causes our hearts to burn within us.

The peace of Christ makes the powerful nervous; and in response, builders reject the best stone, leaders reject the voice of wisdom, and rulers don’t know a true king when they see one coming, even if he is riding on a donkey.

But this peace of Christ—this strong, fierce, loving, vital peace rises up from the deepest heart of God and from the beginning of beginnings. Following Isaiah’s imagery (from the first reading this afternoon) we can say that it was God’s peace that stirred up and sang out in that first Passover, God’s peace that dried up the sea and made a way for salvation. It was God’s peace that wreaked havoc on the enemy and moved the chosen toward freedom.

The peace of Christ is no neutral thing. It is not benign or harmless. It is like fire, like the fire of Pentecost. Because it has to do with truth, it can kill. But it can also raise from the dead, enliven to strength beyond imagination, and breathe into us all life everlasting.

In our day there is sometimes the encouragement “to work” for peace or to “make peace” as though peace were something that you and I might accomplish, ourselves.

But I understand the peace of God to be more unruly, more unpredictable and less within my own control. If left to ourselves, what first appears as peace, before too long is usually uncovered to be one person’s agenda, the mess of one’s manipulation of the other. Egos are exposed and the peace is broken. But the peace of God is different.

Our former presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori used to speak about God’s shalom. In one sermon she explained some of what she means by this shalom:

[Shalom, she said] is “that rich and multihued vision of a world where no one goes hungry because everyone is invited to a seat at the groaning board, it’s a vision of a world where no one is sick or in prison because all sorts of disease have been healed, … a vision of a world where every human being has the capacity to use every good gift that God has given… where no one enjoys abundance at the expense of another… where all enjoy Sabbath rest in the conscious presence of God. Shalom [offers] … that vision of the lion lying down with the lamb and the small child playing over the den of the adder, where the specter of death no longer holds sway.”

This is no wimpy peace. This is no peace that we might “make.” It is not achieved by us, with or without armies, through government or structures of any kind. Rather, it is a peace that comes from God and that becomes possible when God rises within us.

This Easter, may we receive the peace of Christ– this strong, strange and surprising peace. May we know its power and its love, and may it rise so fully within us that we can offer the peace of Christ to a fearful and waiting world.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen, indeed, alleluia!

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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