Breathing Peace Together

Preacher: Marilyn Stahl

  • Psalm 118
  • Revelation 1:4-8
  • John 20:19-31

The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord . . .
Jesus breathed on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Prayer

Prince of peace,
You have called us to be members of one body.
Renew your church.
Join us with those who,
in all times and places,
have been sent out in your name—
a visible sign that, in Christ,
the world is being reconciled.
Amen.

Opening Story

Last Sunday after our Easter communion service, one of you called my attention to a provocative editorial in the most recent issue of The Mennonite. Others of you may have seen it, too. It is entitled, “At Peace with War.” The editorial clearly intends to “disturb our peace” about how lukewarm the Mennonite peace witness has become today across our national denomination.

Since the beginning of the first Gulf War twenty years ago, and up through the current war in Afghanistan, the U.S. has been in a nearly continuous state of war. Yet, the article contends, Mennonite congregations rarely resist these wars or protest military spending. In fact, in some congregations, pastors even risk loosing their jobs if they advocate for peace. Why?

The editorial offers several reasons:

1.  We are comfortably middle class; we do not want to rock the boat that provides our wealth and security;

2.  We do not know how to protest a technological war. It was easier to protest when the bodies of our young men were drafted;

3.  Postmodern influences have shaken our confidence in any absolute truth, including the belief that all violence is wrong;

4.  We have become assimilated and accept the rationales for war provided by political parties;

5.  We see war as appropriate “police actions.”

These points reflect observations about dynamics in MC USAas a whole. To a great extent, they do not describe the ideas or perspectives of people in this congregation. Perhaps in our own congregation, rather than feeling assimilated, some of us are so deeply discouraged about American cultural slavery to violence that we see little hope for peace.

Of course, we are looking forward to our Peace Lecture with John Paul Lederach in October. Yet, I think that the article was given to me because of a perceived sense that there is something more that we are called to be and do here at SMC to overcome violence and war in the wider world. So, while recognizing the editorial’s limitations, it was asked whether the editorial might nevertheless be a catalyst for beginning our own conversation about what it means to be a peace church today. Someone from my generation wondered especially how the 20-30 year olds in our congregation would respond to that question.

The editorial called attention to the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (Article 22), which provides:

God created the world in peace, and God’s peace is most fully revealed in Jesus Christ, who is our peace and the peace of the whole world. Led by the Holy Spirit, we follow Christ in the way of peace, doing justice, bringing reconciliation . . .

What does faithfulness to the ministry of peace and reconciliation look like for SMC? How do we find a balance between local and international ministries? In what concrete ways do we express love of enemy? Where do we find hope?

Reflection on the Gospel

In the gospel today, the disciples are desperately in need of a word of peace and encouragement. It is the evening of Easter Day, but unfortunately, apart from Mary Magdalene, they have not yet experienced any resurrection joy or new life. As night falls, a deadly atmosphere of fear grips them. Because, whether they are ready to acknowledge it consciously or not, deep down, they all know that what happened to Jesus could happen to them. They are his followers, after all. And it makes them terribly afraid. So they keep the doors locked.

In Jesus’ hour of greatest need, the disciples had denied him and betrayed him. Many had simply fled. Exactly who remained to gather that first Easter evening we cannot know for sure. It is possible that the group consisted of just a few of the women. Yet even they, apparently, could not believe Mary Magdalene’s testimony that Jesus had appeared to her in the garden early that morning. That Jesus was truly alive!

The verb “to believe” is used almost 100 times in the Gospel of John. Indeed, the entire purpose for writing the gospel was for us to receive life through believing. “These signs are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of God, and through believing, you may have life in his name.” But believing did not come easily to the disciples who were gathered that night.

Then, all of a sudden, there he was. Jesus was standing among them. His first words to the disciples were: “Peace be with you!”

After receiving the gift of peace, the disciples were ready to look at the wounds on Jesus’ body. He showed them his hands – with the mark of nails. His side – pierced by the soldier’s spear. Amazingly, seeing Jesus’ wounds did not throw them into greater fear and despair. Instead, the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord!  Jesus again offered them the gift of peace. “Peace be with you!”

Then the disciples were ready for the next big step. Jesus breathed his life-giving Spirit on them. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” According to commentaries, this is the only place in the entire New Testament where the word that we translate as “to breathe” occurs. When this word is used in the Hebrew Scriptures, it always refers to God’s gift of life. In Genesis, God breathes the breath of life into the first human beings. (2:7) It is also used in Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones, where God asks: “Mortal, can these bones live?” “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” (37:9) After Ezekiel’s vision, God declares that God will make with Israel an everlasting covenant of peace.

Here in the Gospel of John, it signifies the breath of the disciples’ new life – not just as individuals – but as a community of faith. The gift of the Spirit empowers the community to continue Jesus’ work of peace and reconciliation. In John’s gospel, there is no 50-day delay before receiving the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. It happens here and now, on the evening of that first Easter Day.

I gained a new perspective on the metaphor of breathing from a book of poetry called Women in Praise of the Sacred. The book spans 43 centuries of spiritual poetry by women from many different cultures and traditions. In the preface, the editor, Jane Hirshfield, looks for a thread that ties all of the women writers’ diverse experiences together. And the common theme she finds stems from breathing.

There is a connection, she asserts, between spiritual experience and having “spirit” (in the sense of an animating courage). Both words come from the Latin word for breathing. Then she points out how our breath is “the part of the self that is most tangibly at the same time ours and not-ours.” Think about it.

Our life is practically synonymous with our breath. Yet the air that we inhale is not ours. We do not posses it. We share the air we breathe with each other. It connects us – intimately – to each other. The air that is inside me right now, a moment ago was in one of you. What an amazing way to describe our oneness in Christ!

Even plants breathe. Our respiration of air is totally dependent on the oxygen released by the transpiration of plants. It reveals God’s gift of life throughout creation.

One of the early church fathers, Clement of Alexandria, writing in the second century, recognized the connection between breathing and the church. “Breathing together is properly said of the church. For the gift of the church is the Word breathing as incense from holy souls.” The Word of God has a bodily and communal character.

Spiritual gifts from God are given for the building of community. We learn to listen to God and then, like the Quakers, let our lives speak in mission to the world.

The gospel story concludes with Thomas, who had been absent earlier, and did not believe the testimony of the others, finally touching Jesus’ wounds and offering the great confession:  “My Lord and my God.”   Wes’ scholarship has shown how this confession is politically subversive, giving the allegiance that the emperor demanded to God alone.   We are invited to join with the blessed ones throughout history who have “not seen and yet have come to believe.”

What might the gospel text open up for us as we begin a conversation about what it means to be a peace church today? I will offer just a few thoughts on the underlying foundation supporting this conversation. First, we can live with the confidence that Christ is present in our gathered community. He has breathed his spirit of peace on us and will raise us to new life.

Second, the church’s ministry always is connected to being willing to touch the wounds of Christ in the world today in some way – through war, poverty, homelessness, physical or mental illness, broken relationships, injustice or many other types of suffering.

Third, just as the disciples rejoiced when they saw Jesus, the Spirit of God brings courage, strength, joy, and peace, even in the face of persecution and opposition. It leads to freedom and life.  “The wind blows where it will.”  Grace breaks forth in surprising and unexpected places, like the first blossoms of Spring.

And finally, sometimes what we think we need to let go of – just as the disciples thought that they had lost their relationship to Jesus – is what we are most profoundly called to become.

In the words of our next hymn:

Christ is alive, and goes before us
To show and share what love can do.
This is a day of new beginnings –
Our God is making all things new.

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