Peace Be With You

Claire George-Drumheller
(John 20: 19-23)

I’ve been noticing walls lately. In the things I’m seeing, the things I’m reading, the things I’m watching, I’ve noticed an abundance of walls, fences, borders – structures that human beings put up to separate one thing from another. Not long ago I read a novel about a young girl in East Berlin who dug a tunnel under the Berlin Wall. She was trying to join her father and brother in West Germany.1 I’ve been listening to archived episodes of one of my favorite podcasts; one entire episode was about walls. They featured the argument whether or not there is a boundary wall at the DMZ and North Korea and told about the short 650-feet border wall between Norway and Russia.2 At Davidson College Presbyterian Church, we’ve been having difficult conversations about safety and security and how to keep those discussions centered on our faith. One question that’s been asked: do we need a bigger, taller wall around our preschool playground? A new season of Game of Thrones has begun. So I don’t run the risk of spoiling anything, I’ll just say there’s a wall involved; there are things on one side of that wall and other things on the other side.

I’ve been noticing an abundance of walls lately. I think I’m tuned in to these boundaries, walls, dividers, barriers, because of recent trips I have taken to the US-Mexico border. My role on staff at Davidson College Presbyterian Church is to serve as the Presbyterian Campus Minister at Davidson College. For the second year in a row, my Methodist colleague and I have taken a group of students to our southern border. We called our experience a journey of discipleship; we went to this part of God’s creation to see where God was already at work and to learn from Christ’s disciples living and working there. This year in 2019, we journeyed to Agua Prieta, Sonora, and to Douglas, Arizona. In 2018, we travelled to San Diego and Tijuana. So much of life in these border communities is defined by a physical wall—a barrier that separates the US from Mexico.

In twelve months, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to our country’s southern border three times. I’ve learned a lot—largely that I have a lot left to learn. I have also begun to notice wall—barriers and boundaries that human beings build up to separate, divide, and distance one from another. And wouldn’t you know, in today’s gospel passage, I noticed a wall; this wall was put up by the disciples.

Jesus had been crucified on Friday. Early Sunday morning, according to John’s account, Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, and the beloved disciple encounter the empty tomb, but they don’t quite know what it means. Mary Magdalene sees the risen Lord and tells the disciples, but they still don’t understand. They go on home, and scripture says they locked the doors to their house “for fear of the Jews” (v. 19). They do see the empty tomb, but they go on home and lock the doors. The disciples have every right to be afraid; their fear is realistic. They had just witnessed their religious authorities and the Roman Empire work together to execute Jesus3; the disciples have every reason to suspect that they are next on the execution list. They see the empty tomb, they are a bit confused, and they go home and lock the doors. They create a sort of wall—a barrier; their locked door separates the disciples and the outside world. They lock the doors, hoping this wall will keep the vulnerable disciples safe. They hope the locked door will separate these leaderless disciples and the religious powers that killed their leader; they hope these locked doors will keep the ones on the inside protected from harm.

The disciples put up a wall to protect themselves. And it is through this wall—through the door locked out of fear and security—it is through this wall that Jesus enters. Locked doors cannot keep out the resurrected Christ. Walls are not barriers to our Savior. A locked door is no obstacle to the risen Lord.

Jesus enters the room where the disciples gather, somehow entering a house that is locked up tight. Jesus enters into a room filled tension, fear, and anxiety. The risen Lord, in his earthly body with physical wounds, somehow passes through a locked door—through a sort of wall—and then offers these words to the disciples: “Peace be with you” (v. 19). Jesus shows them the wounds on his body, proves that it really is him, and then speaks for a second time: “Peace be with you” (v. 21). The first thing the risen Christ says to his disciples is a word of peace; the second thing the risen Christ says to his disciples is to repeat that same word of peace.

The Greek word for peace is a common greeting—a way of saying “hello.” But when Jesus utters the word peace, it carries the connotation of shalom.4 We translate the word shalom into “peace” in English, but we miss some of the meaning in translation. In English, the word peace may make us think of the hand gesture or the peace sign or Lennon’s song “Give Peace a Chance.” Peace is commonly understood as the absence of something—the absence of conflict, the absence of war— when everyone agrees and gets along. This Western, American concept of peace is not what Jesus said when he greeted his disciples.5

Jesus offers them peace, shows the disciples his wounds, and then offers peace once more.

The shalom being offered comes from the risen Lord; peace is offered by someone who was killed for his peacemaking efforts.6 Shalom is offered by someone who knew violence personally; he still carries the wounds on his resurrected body. The shalom Jesus offers has nothing to do with tranquility, harmony, or affability.7 Jesus doesn’t offer our American concept of peace, but Jewish shalom. The Hebrew root of shalom means wholeness or well-being. Shalom in the Hebrew Bible is found in parallel with righteousness (e.g., Ps. 85:10, Zech. 8:16, 19; Isa. 32:17); there can be no peace without right-living.8 Shalom is not a negative concept; shalom is not the absence of violence or the absence of war. Rather, shalom is a positive notion; shalom is the presence of wholeness, the presence of health, the presence of completeness.9

The peace that Jesus offers is shalom—a notion of wholeness offered to terrified disciples. Jesus offers shalom—a gift of health—to followers who have seen their leader killed and fear for their own lives. Jesus offers shalom—a blessing of completeness—to a people who have locked the doors, shutting out the outside world. However, the disciples learn that even a locked door cannot keep out the peace of Christ. 

In 2018, on our border journey to San Diego, we visited Friendship Park. The structure that distinguishes the United States from Mexico at San Diego is made up of two parallel walls—a primary wall and a secondary fence. Friendship Park is a small portion between these two walls. The park is open for 4 hours on Saturday and 4 hours on Sunday. Ten people are allowed in the park at a time, and the US Border Patrol allowed our group to enter, three people at a time, for a few minutes. There, I witnessed a peace that cannot be restricted by a wall; I experienced shalom that is not hindered by a barricade or a fence or a locked door. Family members will travel hundreds miles from either side of the border to meet at this park on the weekends. The only openings on the primary wall are about as big as an adult pinky; the openings are so small, I had to put my eye right up to it to see the other side. There’s a practice at Friendship Park called the beso de meñique, or “pinky kiss.” People on either side of the border wall place their pinkies up to the openings in the metal for a pinky kiss. Families and friends reunite here and strangers become friends. The unions and the reunions are sealed with this pinky kiss—a kind of accommodating embrace at a structure that prevents intimacy. Even before we went on first trip, the border group ended our weekly meetings by passing the peace of Christ. We made our way around the room and hugged each other with the traditional words, “May the peace of Christ be with you.” After our experience at Friendship Park in San Diego, it became our practice to pass the peace of Christ with the beso de meñique—with a pinky kiss. It reminds us that the walls we build and the doors we lock cannot keep out the shalom of Christ.

We human beings are consistent in our desire to separate “us” from “them.” It appears to be a universal human impulse—a practice that spans history: to put up distinctions and divisions. Sometimes those dividers are physical walls: the Great Wall of China and the walled city of Jerusalem; gated neighborhoods and fenced in private parks. Sometimes those dividers are metaphorical, policy-based or societal norms: the forced relocation of Native Americans; Jews mandated to wear the star of David; Jim Crow and segregation laws.

We human beings seem to have some innate desire to put barricades in place. And yet, at the same time, Jesus Christ modeled a ministry of radical inclusion (maybe even offensive inclusion). Jesus Christ, time and time again, breaks down walls that we have put up, readjusting our focus away from our dividers and towards the Kingdom of God. The peace God offers in Christ is not about “us” vs. “them.” The peace God offers in Jesus Christ transcends all the physical and metaphorical walls we can dream up. The peace God offers us in Christ exposes our sinful barriers. The peace God offers us in Christ tells us that there is no longer Jew nor Greek, no longer slave nor free, no longer male nor female. The peace God offers us makes us one, united in Christ Jesus.

Our risen Lord offered shalompeace—to a room full of bewildered, doubting, fearful followers. “Peace be with you,” he said. He showed the disciples the wounds on his resurrected body and said again, “Peace be with you.” Jesus is resurrected proof that is not easy to be a peacemaker in the world—not then, not today, not ever. It is easier to lock ourselves away; it is easier to lock the door for fear of the world’s dangers. It is easier to hide from the injustices of the world; it is easier not to say anything for fear of offending a neighbor or a family member; it is easier to live as if Jesus has been crucified—as if his body is still in the tomb—as if that’s the end of the story. But we are Easter people; we know the tomb is never the end of the story, and we know the easy way is not the mission of the Church.

The second time Jesus offers peace, he says this: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (v. 21). The peace that Christ offers cannot be stopped by locked doors, but then it cannot be selfishly locked away either. The peace Christ offers his disciples also pushes us from behind the closed door and into the world. The peace of Christ and the commissioning of disciples go hand-in-hand.

Jesus’ work for peace and reconciliation got him killed. Jesus had a radical vision of the kingdom of God here on earth—a vision where walls are torn down: walls between Jews and Samaritans and walls between prostitutes and Pharisees. Jesus’ radical vision of the Kingdom of God put him in conflict with the powers that be. Jesus comes to offer his disciples peace, but then to send them out, with the gift of the Holy Spirit, to continue his work of shalom—peace, reconciliation, and renewal.10

We human beings are consistent in our desire to put up barriers. But if we pay attention, the human story is also filled with the brave and faithful who work for God’s shalom—who work to break down walls and to unlock doors. Susan B. Anthony worked for shalom and worked against human-imposed barriers. Grounded in her Quaker faith, she collected anti-slavery petitions as a teenager and went on to be a major figure in the suffragette movement. Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr., worked to dismantle human barriers. He had a radical vision—a dream that his four children would one day live in a nation where they were judged by their character, not by their skin color. In 2013, the then-newly elected Pope Francis tore down walls at the annual Maundy Thursday Mass. Traditionally the Mass was held at the cathedral church in Rome; the pope would wash the feet of twelve selected men, all priests in the Catholic church. Pope Francis broke that tradition—he broke down that wall; he traveled to a juvenile detention center outside of Rome, and he washed and kissed the feet of twelve prisoners, including two women and two Muslims. 11 My late seminary professor spent her life shining spotlights on the injustices of locked doors and social barriers. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon was the first African-American woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church at the late date of 1974. She was a ground-breaking scholar; perhaps I should say a wall-breaking scholar. She worked to elevate the value and experiences of black women in the academic fields of religion, theology, and ethics.

Tearing down walls is not easy; peacemaking is not easy—not then, not today, not ever. Jesus breaks through a locked door—Jesus breaks through a kind of wall to offer peace and then sends the disciples out to break down more walls—walls between the first and last, walls between blessed and cursed, walls between rich and poor. Jesus comes to us just as he came to those first disciples, right in the midst of our fear, our pain, our doubt, our confusion.12 Jesus comes offering us peace—shalom—and sends us out to continue God’s work—to tear down walls, to build up God’s kingdom. May we have the courage and the faith to do so. 

1 Nielsen, Jennifer A. A Night Divided. Scholastic Press (2015).
2 Glass, Ira. “Walls.” This American Life. Podcast audio, March 16, 2018. https://www.thisamericanlife.org/641/the-walls
3 Johnson, E. Elizabeth, “Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, Vol. 2, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press (2015), 320-325.
4 Ibid.
5 Largen, Kristin Johnston, “Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, Vol. 2, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press (2015), 320-325.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid. cgd | 5
8 Dewey, Joanna, “Peace” in Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, ed. Paul J. Achtemeier. San Francisco: Harper (1996), 823-824.
9 “Peace” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 5, ed. David Noel Freedman. New York City: Doubleday (1992), 206-212.
10 Largen, Kristin Johnston, “Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, Vol. 2, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press (2015), 320-325.
11 Evans, Rachel Held. Searching for Sunday (Nelson Books: 2015), 115.
12 Johnson, Elisabeth. “Commentary on John 20:19-31,” Working Preacher. April 2014.