Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Peace Be With You”
Rev. Art Ritter
April 19, 2020
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 for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “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.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”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.
These are times in which some long forgotten memories of the past are brought to the surface again. A story I read about a hospital chaplain’s experience brought to my mind something I experienced during my Clinical Pastoral Education at Harper Hospital in Detroit in 1983. I had my first night on-call during my third week of the program. It was a very frightening thing. I was the only chaplain in the entire facility and I wore a beeper. Every time it went off I had to respond. I didn’t get any sleep waiting for the beeper to go off. And I was terrified, thinking only of the massive size of the hospital, the number of patients and their needs, and the doubts and inability of the chaplain on call that night to meet those needs.
About midnight I was summoned to a floor where a Code Blue had been issued. When I arrived a cardiac team was working urgently to revive a dying patient. I observed it all quietly, standing in the doorway, trying my best to stay out of the way. Soon the team retreated, resigned to the fact that unfortunately the patient had died. They loaded up their equipment and left the room. I was stunned at the reality of it all. It was the first death I had ever witnessed. I didn’t know if the cardiac team needed any pastoral care. I didn’t know if there was a family in a waiting room to whom I needed to speak. There I was in this very quiet hospital room, alone with the deceased. I didn’t have a textbook or instructions about how to minister. This was only my third week of chaplaincy training! I moved forward and placed my hand on the hand of the deceased and I prayed. I prayed for her and for her family. And I prayed for me, that what I was doing would be helpful to whomever needed God’s help at that moment. It felt a little selfish but it was what was coming from my heart.
I remember that at the end of the prayer, a floor nurse came back into the room and said that she was going to call the deceased’s family and wondered if I would be on that call. She was so kind and I was so glad to get any kind of help. I remember the nurse telling the family that there had been a change in their loved one’s condition and that they needed to come to the hospital. I remember meeting with them in the family waiting room later. I remember praying with them in the hospital room. But what I most remember about that night was the fear and the feeling of inadequacy in everything that was happening. At that point in my seminary study, I had learned a great deal about Biblical Study and preaching and constructive theology. But I certainly wasn’t prepared to find and offer the words that would heal someone’s brokenness or put someone life back together. I had this ill-conceived notion that my words and my actions were going to be responsible for putting these lives of mourning strangers back together. At that moment I struggled with whether or not I could be a minister.
This past week, the Executive Director of the National Association of Congregational Churches shared a sermon by Chuck Bugg, a retired professor of preaching from Southern Seminary in Louisville. The sermon was pointed to the feelings of clergy, and probably all of us, as we deal with the enormous issues and complicated feelings surrounding the COVID 19 crisis. Bugg quoted Frederick Buechner, a wonderful preacher and Christian writer. Buechner said that all of us who preach have just 26 letters in the English alphabet. Ministers try to craft words to say in each and every sermon, words that they hope will touch and change lives, but ultimately they have only 26 letters in which to work with.
These days I have felt the return of that feeling I had in the hospital room over 35 years ago. Perhaps you have experienced the same kind of feeling also. How can we say anything that brings hope and healing into a world that is in the midst of pandemic? What can we do to make a difference in anyone’s lives in the midst of such fear and anxiety? We want to make an important difference. We want to heal brokenness and offer release to those imprisoned by their circumstance. But we are afraid ourselves. We’ve never experienced this before. We are left helpless in our own inadequacies. How do we serve? How can we help? How do we make a difference?
This morning we hear more of the Easter story from the gospel of John. The 20th chapter of John is a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples. They were gathered in a locked room. They had heard rumors of Jesus’ resurrection. The women who went to the tomb told them that the tomb was empty and that Jesus’ body was gone. But the world hadn’t changed. They still weren’t certain of what to do. They were afraid as the circumstances of their lives and of their world overwhelmed them. Could they trust this news of resurrection? Could they deal with the darkness of fear and death? These disciples had locked the doors and rendered themselves powerless.
Jesus came to these disciples. It is interesting to me that he didn’t say or do much. He didn’t offer them a pep talk. He didn’t chastise them for their inaction. He didn’t pass out a written plan for the future. He came, he stood among them, and he said, “Peace be with you.” Peace be with you. In this brief post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, recorded in the gospel of John, Jesus says this three times. Peace be with you. It didn’t change the circumstance. If we read on we discover that the disciples were still too timid to venture out into the world. But it gave them some kind of assurance, some of reminder that he was present with them. And that assurance was peace, a peace in knowing that they could not change the circumstances of the situation, but they could offer Christ’s presence within that situation.
There are things to fear. We are in the midst of pandemic. We are locked up in houses in fear of a virus. We look ahead to an uncertain time in which we will have to try to live life within the threat of that virus. Today we remember that Jesus keeps popping up in the rooms of our fear and anxiety. He keep presenting us with evidence that somehow, some way, he will offer a life worth living. He reminds us that we may have the power to change the circumstances. Yet he brings us peace that helps us face troubling times without being swallowed up by our fear and worry. He gives us a quiet confidence to guide our hearts as we face challenging decision. In his sermon, Chuck Bugg tells us that in Jesus’ peace we can live simply, love generously, care deeply, speak kindly, listen respectfully, pray daily, and then leave the rest to God. He reminds us all that we have the equivalent of 26 letters but that those humble and faithful efforts, given in this time of crisis. God’s peace will come to us and to others.
In a time in which we don’t know what the future holds, in a time in which we can see each other’s faces or shake each other’s hands, Jesus comes among us and says, “Peace be with you.” Jesus’ peace is ours – a powerful lasting presence. Again – live simply. Love generously. Care deeply. Speak kindly. Listen reverently and respectfully. Pray daily. And leave the rest to God.