What is peace? Is it the silence after the guns have finished firing? Is it the so-called security of knowing that my bombs are bigger and more powerful and more numerous than yours? Is it secured by guards and sentries? Must we always patrol our boundaries and build the walls higher? Will it only ever be a truce, a kind of half peace as we catch breath, pausing between volleys of fire? Must it always be defended? And must we always get our retaliation in first?
Or is there something else? Something beyond just a lull in hostilities? Can we ever dream of a day when swords become ploughshares and spears are turned to pruning hooks? Or will the brutal logic of the mutually assured destruction of fear always prevail?
And what happens to all that fear? It infects us. Suspicious eyes are turned on every stranger. No more might they conceal the risen Christ or, as at Mamre, veil the call of God. No one entertains angels any more. We turn our homes into bunkers. We install cameras. We bury our treasure deeper and build our walls higher. We prefer the shelter of captivity to the risky freedom of peace. For that is what it is. Now it dawns; even in the fast-approaching night, peace is transformation. It is the dismantling of barriers, the removal of barricades, the destruction of walls. Indeed, it is the endless
building of bridges: from me to God and from God to everyone. Even a bridge into my own heart, casting fear and suspicion away. For this is revealed: he is a tombstone-rolling, barricade-busting God.
There is a shudder in the universe. As if something were awakening. Like pieces slotting into place, stones rolling away. Cleopas and his friend have hardly finished blurting out the same crazy tale that Mary had been spouting in the morning, and no one is quite sure what it means or whether to believe it, and suddenly he is there, standing among them, more walls
ignored, appearing within the tomb of their own self-protection. And he speaks of peace. He looks around the room at each of them. ‘Peace be with you,’ he says.
And they understand what he is saying just as instantly as they see him. It confronts them. They are startled. It is as frightening as it is liberating. Something is beginning, and if it is good for them, it must also be offered to all. They know they are part of it. Not just part of its receiving, but part of its giving. It is peace for all the world: for those who are far off as well as those who are near. And this will be costly. It is a peace that is far beyond the half-kept treaties of the world. It is a peace that others will try to destroy, for it threatens their own power to exclude and control. A stone is rolled away and a rejected stone is now the centrepiece of a new building, a new city; and this sends tremors round the world, and in their wake the mighty tremble on their thrones. And because this new peace promises everything, it will require everything. The world must be reconfigured around it. The peace of Christ is reconciliation painfully embraced, a new beginning.
And each has to work out what it means for them, as we also have to work out what it means for us. For what is offered is the very peace that Jesus spoke about on the night before he died: a peace that the world cannot give, a legacy of love. And it starts where reconciliation must always start: with
Peter winces at the thought of it, remembering broken promises and suppressed dreams. Must he forgive and be forgiven so many times?
So of course they are frightened. They know they need to be forgiven. They also sense what they may be asked to do next.
They thought it was all over. It was only just beginning.
And in case you’re thinking that only the one who has been wronged has the power to forgive, then now you know some more about why he had to suffer, why he had to become the smallest of all, why he had to be a victim. For only the victims of the most terrible outrages of sin and hate have the power to forgive. I can forgive the person who has wronged me, but I have no power to forgive the person who has wronged my neighbour. So that is what he did: he became the victim, the suffering one, bearing the sins of everyone, and carried on forgiving, carried on loving. So now he stands among them and is able to offer peace, forgiveness, the chance to start again, to put life back together differently. And that is why, in that instant, seeing him standing among them, fearing he was a ghost, but at the same time knowing that what was before them changed everything, they were afraid.
And he spoke to them again: ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?’ He spoke into their fear. He said things that cast fears away. His words were themselves a presence. They enfleshed him in the same way that he himself was the enfleshing of God’s word. ‘Look at my
hands and my feet; see that it is me,’ he said. ‘Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. So they looked upon the wounds of his suffering. They touched him. They held him. They saw the future, and at the same time found the present transformed. Now it was shot through with the stuff of eternity.
This was when fear turned to rejoicing; when they saw and touched the reality of it all. It was strange – knowing without knowing, understanding without understanding. But they could not deny what their eyes saw, what their hands touched. And this would remain. Even when the crowds bayed for their blood, when gallows were erected and debts collected. They could never go back from the truth of this moment.
He even asked for food. It was the evening of the first day of the new beginning: a new Exodus and a new Passover. It was the evening of the eternal day. And they gathered, and the Lord was in their midst, and they ate and drank. And that is what they would carry on doing until the table of their fellowship on earth became the banquet of heaven.
The last piece slots into place. The final turning of the lens. The evening of the first day draws to a close. Darkness falls. But its demons are cast out. Its fears vanquished. It can no more envelop the world. Its terrors are spent. ‘Peace be with you,’ he says again. And then words of dreadful, and at the same time joyful, intent: a commission; the beginning of the beginning; a story to be told to the ends of the earth; a story with a thousand parts to play: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’
It was what they were half expecting. He always stretched them: not to breaking, to perfection. There was always a point.
But he never forced them. His command was also an invitation.
He helped them understand the Scriptures in a new way. The things he said opened their minds. It illuminated the path that was forming before them. ‘The Messiah had to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day; and repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’ They began to understand it.
Now the invitation. For here they were, the infant Church, in Jerusalem and yet at the same time in themselves a new Jerusalem. For he was a Temple. That is what God has established in his rising. Standing in their presence, a new place of worship and a new access to God. It was in him and through him that we can know God differently and live life differently. Their job was to tell the story. ‘You are witnesses of these things,’ he said.
This was their role: to speak and tell of all they had seen and heard. To tell a truth wrapped up in a story, to proclaim a message wrapped up in a person. And now it was inscribed on the stuff of their own lifetimes, so that the story and the message, and the person and the people, could never be separated. The invitation to others would never be to sign on a dotted line, but to enter the story, to join them around the table. And they would tell this story to anyone and everyone. They would take it to the ends of the earth and embody the transformation and forgiveness that it held. But standing there in that upper room, even though their fears were now
replaced with joy, even though they could see it and believe it, they also knew it had to be taken to those who would never see as they saw, never touch as they touched. And it must have seemed impossible. How could they, a simple band of peasant fishermen, dreamers and misfits, a rudderless boat, steer such a course? How could such a story be written on their flesh in such a way that others could read and hear and hold?
And now there is another shuddering in the universe. Not an earthquake, nor a rolled-away stone, but the still, small voice of a whispered breath: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit,’ he says.
Then he breathes upon them. Breathes into them. The very breath of life itself, only it is a different life, his risen life.
It is upon them. It is within them. It is like a cleansing fire and at the same time an overflowing stream. It burns and refreshes. New truths are seared onto them. Reservoirs of compassion are poured into them. And that truth will always be apparent, even when they themselves get everything else
wrong. And these living waters will always flow out of them, even when they themselves are feeling dry and parched. The things he said were now going to be said through them. There was a continuity. ‘If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.’ The authority that he had received from God he passed to them.
From now on they would be his hands and feet and eyes and heart. It was as though they were his body and he their head.
The Church, which of course only means those who are gathered, was born out of the impact of his presence with them in that upper room. It was how it would always be born: people coming together, and from the dark depths of their searching and their aching, discovering the disturbing presence of his light. But it must always be sent. What they knew so well, standing there, being gathered and dispersed, is what we have forgotten. ‘As the Father has loved me,’ said Jesus, ‘so I have loved you. Abide in my love.’ There will always be a place for you here. ‘As the Father has sent me, so
I am sending you. You are my witnesses.’ You tell the story of which you are a part so that others may find their place and be sent out in turn. Everyone must be gathered in, no fragment lost. Everyone must be sent out.
They sensed it stretching out before them, this great story they would tell and the many hearts that would be changed. His Spirit would do it in them. His words would be spoken through them. It would propel them further than they could ever imagine going, further than he had been able to go
himself, for to this point his presence had, inevitably, been limited to them. But through them, by the impulse of the Spirit, it would be available to everyone. The sins of the world could be forgiven.
And even if this mission failed, even if no one ever responded, even if a thousand backs were turned, a million invitations to the banquet spurned, they would go on telling as he had gone on loving. The things he said demanded it. For his words were Spirit and they were life. And they stood
there, bathed in the light of his presence, and breathing the fresh cool air of eternity.
Outside, it was night again. But the light they beheld dispelled the darkness. He was the radiant morning star. In him was life, and this life was the light of all people. A light that shines in the darkness. A light the darkness cannot overcome.
Peter also stood there with the others. He was a man who had got it wrong many times, a man who was keenly aware of his own need for forgiveness. He no longer imagined he could do anything very much by his own strength, and certainly not this. But with this Spirit in him he was also starting to breathe again, starting to dream again. But this time it was not about what he could achieve, nor about the plaudits he would receive: it was about what God could do within him, about how he could point to Jesus, and about God’s words enfleshed in him, waiting on his lips, ready to do their work, unleashed into a barren world and slaking thirsty
And he knew it wouldn’t be easy. He was still the same person, prone to get it wrong, fearful of the cost. But there was resolve in him, a new determination. He remembered another time when he had also stood with the Lord. Like now, there had only been a few of them and the task ahead had seemed impossible. Many had left. They wanted the pyrotechnics of his signs, not the revolution of his words. ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ he had said to them. And somewhere deep inside him, Peter knew he did want to run, did want to flee, that he always longed for a simpler, more straightforward life, but at the same time there was no choice. What he had seen in Jesus could never be denied, and especially not now. It had changed him and there was no turning back: ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’
The gift of the resurrection is peace. The challenge of the resurrection is to live it and share it.
In pairs or as a small group:
Read John 20:19-23.