(If you would like to watch our online Worship service in its entirety, click HERE)

Rebekah Hutto
(John 20: 19-31)

The last couple of years Kate Bowler has become one of my favorite authors and theologians. As her website says, “Life isn’t always bright and shiny.” She knows this because at age 35, Kate, a young mother, writer, and professor at Duke Divinity School was suddenly diagnosed with Stage IV cancer.[1] In 2018 she published her memoir Everything Happens For A Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved about living with a terminal illness in a world that insists that everything happens for a reason. Kate is her full self in this memoir and in her writings. Her book, her podcasts, and her interviews are honest, funny, dark, and wise.

If you’re someone who has known pain and wondered if it would ever go away, Kate is your author. She’s real, and she never dismisses how painful life can be and how bad it can hurt. Although her podcast episodes can be heavy, whenever I listen to one of them I’m moved by her candor and wisdom. Well, at the end of March, as most of us were already weeks into social isolation, she released a new episode on fear called “The Emergency Button.”[2] The title refers to when fear and anxiety become overwhelming and she needs to push her speed dial, her “emergency button,” a call to her friends for help. In the episode, she pushes the button and calls in four of “her people” to offer various perspectives on fear and its power in our lives right now.

Kate says that fear is like a wilderness landscape, wild and unmapped. And in this episode she turns to these four people—a writer, a comedian, a preacher, and her own, anxious mother—for help in finding the way through this wilderness season. Each offers her guidance on how to handle fear and on how it can eventually transform into something else. The writer, who knows a lot about pain herself, says that fear can wake us up to others’ pain and therefore to our responsibility to seek out those most in need. The comedian, through his humor and his honesty, calms Kate down, helps her laugh and put things into perspective. Kate’s anxious mother reminds her that her own fear makes her pay attention to the dangers of the world, but then she encourages Kate to narrow the focus to what she’s able to manage—in other words, to take one day at a time. And the preacher reminds Kate that God is right there with each one of us: that we matter to God, and that we are never alone in our fear. The preacher also adds that, while God doesn’t cause the pain, in time God will make it matter. God will work in ways to bring healing.

Well, at first glance, our text today seems to be focused on fear. In this Gospel lesson post-Easter, we find the disciples locked up in a room, guarded and hiding out of fear. Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John have heard the news of the resurrection, but I’m sure they’re still swimming in confusion. Now we find the rest of the disciples cowering in fear. They’ve been through incredible trauma, after witnessing their teacher and mentor suffer through trial, humiliation, and death. But they’re also drowning in their own pain, because they know they abandoned Jesus when he needed them the most. Fear, awe, confusion, guilt—these are just some of the emotions that are locked up in that room with the disciples.

In normal times it might seem strange that the Easter stories of Jesus’ resurrection are filled with fear. But we aren’t in normal times, are we? Fear seems to be a common experience during these days of quarantine. While we’re not hiding from authorities, we are separated from one another, wondering how long this scary reality will last. And fear too easily creeps in. The news is difficult to watch as we see the effects of this virus on millions of people, and it’s hard not to let fear dominate our emotions. “The extent of the economic fallout is yet to be determined, but we know it will be extreme. The grief of dashed dreams, hopes and expectations reverberates throughout our collective consciousness.”[3] As the numbers rise and concerns about the future linger, worry and anxiety crowd out any other emotion. Like the disciples, peace is the last thing we would normally feel right now.  

But here’s where we take a second glance at this morning’s story, because Jesus comes in the room with Good News. In the story today, three separate times, Jesus says to his followers, “Peace be with you.” Fear is what’s led them to lock the door, but Jesus pronounces peace. Fear is what’s kept them hiding from the authorities, but Jesus speaks peace. Fear may have led them to stock up on weapons—Peter’s sword from the night Jesus was arrested, for example—but Jesus comes and speaks peace. Fear is dominating the room…until Jesus steps in and says, “Peace be with you.” In fact, in the Greek, there’s no verb in the sentence, so it’s literally, “Peace to you.” Jesus walks in that dark and scary room and declares that God’s peace is already among them.[4]

So if we were to add a fifth voice to Kate Bowler’s emergency button, perhaps it should come from Jesus’ words in this Gospel lesson. Although fear seems to dominate the room, Jesus offers peace—a peace that comes from him, he himself having just come out of the depths. This peace is, of course, not just after Easter Sunday but also Good Friday. After his resurrection from the dead, Jesus enters into his disciples’ fear, never ignoring it, never dismissing it, but speaking truth to it: Peace be with you.  Jesus declares that peace, not fear, is what is most powerful.

This story from John, alongside the greetings of ‘peace’ in Paul’s letters,[5] is what led to the Church’s ancient liturgical act of passing the peace of Christ. It’s not something we’re able to do in person right now, but as our videos and pictures demonstrated, it is a necessary reminder of the peace that Christ offers. It’s a reminder of the peace we are called to extend to each other. This ancient ritual dates back in Christian worship to at least the second or third century, and it traditionally involved a kiss, frequently called a “holy kiss.” This peace was one of the primary ways Christians greeted each other. Still today, we greet each other with words from Jesus that he spoke to his disciples in their most terrifying moment. Friends, from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, greetings of peace were one of the ways to combat the power of fear. This greeting, to quote our own Presbyterian Book of Order, is one of the ways we welcome one another, extend Christian hospitality, offer forgiveness, and “respond to God’s act of reconciliation.”[6]

This Easter, more than any other, we can’t take for granted how much we need Christ’s gift of peace in our lives and in our world. Fear isn’t just crippling, it’s paralyzing. It wants to take control, but we can’t let it. Christ’s peace is what will give us the strength to see this through to the other side, because Christ’s peace is what promises us that there isanother side. His peace is truth and beauty and goodness, and it will help us expand our imagination about how to be church now and in the future.

So here’s the Easter question: what glimpses of this peace have you been able to find in this time of fear?

I found peace this past week by singing along with Disney’s Family Singalong with my children. Many of us find peace by taking a walk outside and listening to the birds and admiring the beautiful spring flowers. Maybe peace is in your children playing together, nicely, for 30 minutes without your intervention. Or maybe peace is in the sense of accomplishment of being able to finish your email before something interrupts you. Peace can be found in creating something—painting, coloring, woodcarving, doing yard work, making music. You might also find it by enjoying the beautiful art of others. Peace is also found in taking good deep breaths and taking things one day at a time.  Although we can’t all be together, peace could be Facetiming with your grandkids and reading them a book. Peace could also be tucking your own children in at night, watching them sleep, praying they’re safe. Peace is singing along in worship from home or studying scripture outside, enjoying the sunshine.

Or maybe, like Kate, in order to find peace, you need to push the emergency button and call others to help you let go of your fear. I see peace when our Prayer Team gathers weekly over Zoom to pray for our community. I see peace when we study scripture and come together virtually for Bible study. On Easter Sunday, I felt deep peace listening to Michael play the organ. And I feel peace when I watch all of you making phone calls, writing cards, connecting with one another, and checking in on your neighbors. Friends, at Easter Jesus offers us peace: peace for ourselves, peace for all those who need it.

Easter is more than a day, it’s a season—fifty days long—and this morning the theme is peace. The good news of Easter is that Jesus enters every locked room, every dark space, every moment of confusion, and every unexpected turn that we find ourselves in and says “Peace be with you.” Christ’s peace, in this anxious season, is seeing the world in the light of Easter—the goodness, beauty, and truth that come from Jesus. Let’s learn together how to accept the gift of Christ’s peace, and then share it with one another.

Peace be with you. (sign language)

Amen.

[1] https://katebowler.com
[2] https://katebowler.com/podcasts/the-emergency-button/
[3] Jill Duffield, https://pres-outlook.org/2020/04/2nd-sunday-of-easter-april-19-2020/
[4] Daniel Harrington, Editor, “The Gospel of John” from Sacra Pagina, page 534.
[5] Romans 1:7 and 16:16, I Corinthians 1:3 and 16:20, II Corinthians 1:2 and 13:12, I Thessalonians 5:26, and I Peter 5:14
[6] Book of Order, W-2.6001a and W-2.6001b.