April 15, 2018 – Easter 3B
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
“The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God…” We say those words at the end of the service as part of the blessing that is pronounced before we all go out into the world. They are beautiful words, comforting words, powerful words. Some preachers like to make up their own words to accompany the blessing, but I’ve always found the words in the prayer book to be more than sufficient. But I’ve also found them a little confusing—at least the order of those words.
Have you ever noticed the sequence of nouns in the blessing: “…keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God?” Notice the order: hearts and minds…knowledge and love. I remember when I was a newly ordained priest, trying to commit those words to memory, and I remember struggling because those pairs of words seemed to be out of order: hearts and minds…knowledge and love. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t hearts and love go together while minds and knowledge get paired up? Or maybe they are all jumbled together on purpose, and the point of the blessing is that the peace of God is what holds together heart and mind and knowledge and love in a way that transcends simple grammar, simple parallelism, and simple logic. Maybe salvation is something we experience less like a linear progression and more like a multi-layered transformation of understanding and experience.
Today’s gospel lesson from Luke 24 shows us how jumbled together salvation can be. We have switched gospel accounts again, so let me remind you how Luke tells the story of Easter. On the first day of the week, the women went to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away and that Jesus’ body was gone. Two men in dazzling clothes appeared to them and reminded the women how Jesus had foretold his death and resurrection. Then, they left the tomb, found the eleven apostles, and told them what had happened. Simon Peter got up, went to the tomb, and saw it for himself. Later that same afternoon, two disciples were walking to Emmaus, and the risen Jesus came among them and opened the scriptures to them, explaining why the Messiah had to suffer, die, and be raised from the dead. Their eyes were kept from recognizing him until he sat down at the table with them, took bread, and blessed and broke it, and then he vanished. As soon as they realized who it had been, they raced back to Jerusalem to find the other disciples, who were also celebrating that, in an unrecorded encounter, Jesus had shown himself to Peter. Finally, in the midst of that celebration, we come to today’s gospel lesson. Jesus came and stood among all of the disciples and said, “Peace be with you,” and they were…terrified.
Actually, Luke tells us that they were “startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” Empty tomb, men dressed in dazzling white, walk to Emmaus, appearance to Simon, and the disciples still thought that they were seeing a ghost? We might expect Jesus to be frustrated, if not exasperated, by their reluctance to believe, but, instead, he patiently offered reassurance to his scared and bewildered followers. “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” he asked them. “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” If they needed proof, Jesus would give them proof.
My favorite line in this story is what Luke tells us next: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’” What a beautiful collision of conflicting thoughts and emotions! Full of joy yet still in a state of disbelief and, at the same time, wondering with hope, the disciples stared at their risen master and tried to comprehend what it was that had happened, how it could be that the crucified one was standing before them. That’s what salvation feels like: a messy, beautiful jumble of joy and confusion, of faith and doubt, until finally everything comes together. Into that moment of hopeful uncertainty, Jesus offered yet another confirmation of his bodily resurrection, saying to them, “I’m hungry. Do y’all have any fish?” Dead men and ghosts, after all, don’t eat fish.
As they caught their breath and their heartrates began to return to normal, the disciples listened to Jesus explain yet again how his death and resurrection were the fulfillment of God’s long-promised plan of salvation. Citing the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms, Jesus opened the disciples’ minds to understand what they had seen with their eyes and felt in their hearts, linking their experience of the risen Jesus with the ancestral story of their people.
Isn’t that how salvation really works? Isn’t that how we come to understand who God is and what God is doing for us—not by reading the Bible or listening to a sermon or hearing a compelling testimony or even experiencing a moment of God’s power but by all of those things, coming together? We can’t grasp the fullness of salvation in a tiny glimpse. Even an encounter with the risen Christ isn’t enough. We need to see and hear and touch and know how all of the pieces of God’s salvation come together in our lives. We need to discover for ourselves that our story is a part of God’s great story. And that is what Jesus gives us.
That’s what Jesus means when he says, “Peace be with you.” That’s what we mean by “the peace of God that passes all understanding.” In Hebrew, the word “peace” is “shalom,” which means more than the absence of hostility or a tranquility of the mind. It means wholeness, completeness, perfection. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word “peace” is “eirene,” which has its roots in a Greek verb that means “to join or tie together into a whole.” In other words, the peace that Jesus offers us, the peace that God wills for us, the peace that we pray will guard our hearts and minds, is God’s gift of wholeness. And that is where we find salvation.
Have you ever received a piece of news that was so good that you couldn’t believe it? Have you ever encountered a love so pure and selfless that you couldn’t accept that it was meant for you? Salvation is the teenager who never expected her parents to love her in the midst of a terrible crisis. Salvation is the spouse who never thought his wife could love him once his deepest faults came to light. Salvation is the disciple who never thought that God’s love could shine once the Author of life had been killed on the cross. Salvation is the sinner who never thought that God would make a place for her at God’s banquet table. Love like that can’t be read or heard or seen. It’s too big to grasp all at once. It takes time with Jesus, and that’s why we are here. God’s saving love finally becomes real to us when all the pieces God’s story and our story are brought together and made one beautiful whole through the peace of God. That’s what Jesus gave the disciples when he came and met them. And that’s what he offers us as he meets us here today.