Today is May 1st. For many people around the world, today is not only the second Sunday of Easter, but also a day of less joyful remembrances. For many people today is also Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the day that forces us to remember the murder of six million people in Europe by the Nazis.1 Attempts by one group to exterminate another group are not new in the grand scheme of world history, but it is only since the 1950s that we have learned to call such events “genocide.” A term that goes well beyond the Holocaust, genocide refers to the attempt to systematically destroy entire ethnic, religious, political, and cultural groups. So on this day we remember the six million Jews, gays, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian prisoners, and disabled people who were murdered by the Nazis. But we also remember the Armenians who lost their lives to the Turks, Stalin’s mass murder of the Ukrainians, the Cambodians murdered by the Khmer Rouge, the Kurds murdered by Saddam Hussain, the “ethnic cleansing” in Croatia, the Tutsis murdered by extremist Hutus, the tribal groups decimated in Darfur, and the millions of victims of the nearly invisible civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to one scholar, nearly two-thirds of the world’s people have been effected in one way or another by attempted genocide. Nor is our world at peace now. On this very day, Libyans are fighting for the overthrow of Muammar Gadhafi, Syrians remain trapped in their homes for fear of government-supported snipers, and American soldiers are still dying in Afghanistan. May 1st poignantly reminds us that we live in a world of no peace, in which whole populations are still threatened with destruction.
In this context of a world of no peace, our Gospel for this morning sounds a very different note. Here were the disciples huddled in fear in a locked room. They were no doubt sure that, when the authorities realized that they had been followers of the rabbi who had just been executed, they would be next on the Cross. Worse, they were no doubt also ashamed that they had betrayed Jesus, they had lied about knowing him, they had hidden when he was arrested, and many of them had run away when he was dying. But their fear and shame couldn’t keep Jesus away. Into that locked room walked Jesus himself! And what did he do? As Laurel Dykstra points out,2 here’s what he didn’t do: he didn’t say, “What happened,” or “Where were you?” He didn’t accuse them, he didn’t say “You betrayed me,” or “You screwed up,” or even “I expected better of my friends.” He didn’t accuse them of anything. He said, “Peace be with you.” And after the disciples were joyfully convinced that, yes, it really was Jesus, he said it again: “Peace be with you.”
And after Jesus said “Peace be with you” a second time, he invited them. He invited them to participate more deeply in his own risen life. In his farewell speech to them on that last fateful night – was it only just last Thursday? – he had promised them a special gift. Do you remember it? He had talked about peace then too. He had said, “Peace I leave with you; my own peace I give to you.” And he had promised that, “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” He had also said, “When the Advocate comes … the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.” And then, in that locked room, Jesus made good on his promise. Just as the disciples were bubbling over with happiness, Jesus reminded them of his earlier instruction. He told them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And then came the gift of the promised Spirit. Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Be wise, discerning, and empowered to proclaim my truth in the world.” In the face of chaos, loss, destruction, and despair in the world around them, Jesus truly empowered his disciples, giving them the reassurance, hope, and conviction that they needed to leave the self-imposed prison of that locked room and go out into the world to be Christ for those around them.
Because of what happened that Easter evening, we too can hear Jesus’ promise of the Spirit and his command to go out into the world. Peter’s eloquent sermons, parts of which we hear throughout Easter tide, testify to the power given the disciples by the Spirit. And by God’s grace, we too, as people baptized into Christ’s Body, we too have also received that same Spirit. And to us too does Jesus therefore say, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Into this troubled, chaotic, no-peace world in which you live, I send you to bring to others the peace that I have brought to you, the reconciliation and the welcome that I have extended to you.”
How do we do that? The short answer is that we say Jesus’ “Peace be with you” wherever and to whomever we can. You know the song, “Let there be peace on earth. And let it begin with me.” We begin by seeking peace within our own families. Are you estranged from a family member? Is there a family member with whom you constantly fight? Can you say to that person, “Peace be with you. Please be welcome in my heart?” As a Christian community, we seek peace by being a welcoming community – for all. Laurel Dykstra reminds us that we do not say to the poor and the marginalized, “You are not good enough. You are not welcome. The food bank is around the corner.” Rather she tells of worshipping in a street church and telling the people gathered around that Jesus said, “You are not accused, you are invited.” She tells us that the first time she used these words, a heroin addict and occasional prostitute whispered to her, “That was the first time in so many years that I felt like I was good enough to be part of this.” We also seek peace in the wider community. Who are the people in our town who are at odds with each other? Is there anything we can do to bring them to the same table? We can fight capital punishment, remembering that it is a violent and often unjust solution to the problem of human sin. And, most importantly, we can seek peace in our nation and in the world. We can actively hope for peace. We can urge our president to bring the troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq. As we rejoice in our Lord’s glorious resurrection, we can support such organizations as Churches for Middle East Peace, which works for peace, justice, and security for all in the Holy Land and beyond. And when the Lord calls us to put our own bodies on the line in the cause of peace, we can go – without hesitation.
I want to tell you the story of a man named Art Gish. Art was a farmer in Athens County, who died tragically last July at the age of 70 when his tractor rolled over him. Art was a deeply devoted member of the Church of the Brethren and, with his wife Peggy, he was a tireless, life-long worker for peace. An inspiration to many, Art worked in the Civil Right movement in the 1960s and protested against war in the 1970s. Beginning in 1995, he was a frequent member of Christian Peacemaker teams in the West Bank city of Hebron and in the Palestinian village of At-Tuwani. Art believed that his Brethren forebears were the radicals of their day, that they understood that “a Christian stands over against the world and is in conflict with the world.” “To be at peace with God,” Art said, “means that one is in conflict with the world.” His wife Peggy was in Iraq before and after the US invasion, and Art led nonviolence seminars as part of the Christian Peace Witness. Of his death, Rose Marie Berger, herself a Christian advocate for peace, wrote that Art was an “honorable man who literally lived ‘neath his vine and fig tree in peace and unafraid’ while always standing with those whose vines and fig trees were uprooted by men with guns and for whom peace and safety were fleeting ideals.”3
You may not be ready to do what Art and Peggy Gish have done. You may not even feel ready to welcome those who might come to street church. But, as we remember all those who died, simply because there were of the wrong color, religion, ethnicity, or nationality, as we hear again Jesus’ command to let ourselves be sent into the world as he was sent, and as we ponder where our resources might make a difference in this warring world, if we do nothing else, we can pray for peace. We can and do pray for those in the military. Perhaps we can also pray for diplomats and governments, for refugees from civil strife, for Afghans and Libyans, for Palestinians and Syrians, as well as for Americans. Perhaps we can make the prayer attributed to St. Francis our own prayer, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” Amen.
1. Thanks to Daniel B. Clendinin for reminding me of the significance of this date in his reflections on Journey with Jesus, http://www.journeywithjesus.net, accessed on April 25, 2011.
2. Laurel A. Dykstra in Sojourners Magazine (March 2008), quoted in Synthesis, May 1, 2011.
3. “World-Renowned Peacemaker Art Gish Dies,” Sojourners e-newletter, July 29, 2010, accessed on April 28, 2011.