Peace the world cannot give – Sermon on John 20:19-31

This Sunday after Easter we always hear the account of Thomas, popularly referred to as “Doubting Thomas.” This is Sunday is an opportunity for us to step back a moment from the pompous celebration of Easter last week and ask ourselves, “Wait a minute. Did that really happen?” This Sunday is our opportunity to grapple with the reality of the resurrection in our day-to-day lives in a way that we might not like to admit—sometimes we struggle to believe. It’s incredible, that is, impossible to believe, not credible, that someone would come back from death to life once more, and what’s more, promises us that we too will do the same! That’s an incredible, impossible to believe, seemingly not credible thing to believe, yet it’s precisely what we celebrated last week, what we celebrate each week, hopefully what we celebrate every day and every moment of our lives as Christians. Christ is risen! Victor over death…and his victory is our like victory. And yet—it is hard to believe. This Sundayaffords us an opportunity to be honest about our doubt and wrestle with it, to recognize that difficulty in believing all this is part and parcel to life in relationship with God, and that’s okay. What’s not okay is not being honest about it, is not looking at it and tackling it. And so today, I invite you to be honest with yourself, allow yourself to sit with your questions, and wait for God to open your mind and heart to a deeper understanding of his love for you, even when you don’t fully understand.

Let us pray. May the Words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

I don’t have to tell you that the past three or so years have been chaotic with the COVID pandemic. It brought out the worst and the best in us as a people, the world over. In the face of a new, unknown disease that we didn’t understand, people adopted behaviors, such as wearing masks, that up until that point seemed crazy to us. We did it out of concern for ourselves, yes, but also for those around us. As time wore on, though, some of that initial compassion changed as we learned more about the disease. As is always the case, we divided ourselves into at least two “camps.” Everyone became an epidemiologist and knew everything about COVID and the coronavirus. The issue became politicized, as well. And when that happened, like everything else in our society it seems, there was no turning back.

The COVID pandemic has marked our times as of late. It’s a pall of death hanging over us right now, but it’s not the only pall of death that hangs large out there. Life is currently in a horrible state of unrest, the world over. The pandemic that some consider over and others still see as an imminent, dreadful threat. War in Ukraine. Threat of war between Taiwan and China. Market volatility. Uprisings in Israel, in France, just yesterday in Khartoum. In our own country, political polarization that some historians have classified as the worst since the time of the Civil War. Studies have shown that, both in the United States and around the world, there are far fewer people who hold moderate views—or in other words, are in the “middle”—than for the past several decades. And we continue to grow further and further apart. And the further and further apart we grow, the more unrest, upheaval, turmoil, disorder, and chaos ensue. Things are shaken up in our world—and not in a good way.

Last week, we heard the story of Jesus’ resurrection, and we heard how when the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, the earth shook. There was a great earthquake, we’re told. The effects of the Resurrection Earthquake some two thousand years ago were and still are felt all over, to this day and into eternity. It really shook things up, and continues to shake things up. But at the same time, that earthquake wasn’t the only thing that happened, and it’s not the most important thing that happened. The earthquake and its accompanying effects are themselves effects of what was going on—God was making all things new. And that brings us today, when Jesus appears to his disciples on the evening of the resurrection. He appears to them, closed up in a room, afraid—beset by fear of what this all means. They already know that this could spell bad news—unrest, upheaval, turmoil, disorder, and chaos. For themselves and for the whole world. And so Jesus appears to them, and what does he do? Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace to you.” Peace…Oh, how they needed that in that moment.

As many of you know, my mother died of COVID-19 on November 28, 2021. She didn’t do everything that many, myself included, would say she should’ve to prevent herself from catching it, and even when she had it, she didn’t follow all the directions of the medical experts. And while she and I may have disagreed on the pandemic and how to best live in light of COVID, she was still my mother and I still her son. We loved each other, even if we didn’t have the kind of relationship you’d look at and say is normal or even healthy for a mother and child.

Nevertheless, while she was in the hospital, she and I talked—as long as she could. Her oxygen treatments eventually made it so she couldn’t talk. And she was often so exhausted from not getting enough oxygen that she couldn’t really communicate well. But we did, and we talked about God’s love. She asked me twice to know that she was good with God during the 28 days she was in the hospital. She was beset by worry and anxiety about what she knew was likely coming. In a world that doesn’t offer peace in the face of chaos, disorder, turmoil, upheaval, and unrest, worrying about your impending death makes sense. And I have to admit, even though I knew that nothing could separate her from the love of God, I too was worried. Not for her or her relationship with God—but I worried because she was worried. She didn’t know the peace of God in the face of her death. And that made me, who knows God’s love is boundless and even goes beyond the grave to hold us tight—that made me wonder what I’d be like in the face of my own impending death, should I know it be near…Would I lose my peace?

The evening resurrection account doesn’t stop with Jesus simply speaking his peace to the disciples, though. He shows them his hands and his sides, and they believe the words of Mary Magdalene. For they too had come to see the Lord. Thomas, of course, we’re told, isn’t there, and so when he comes to his fellow disciples, and they tell him, he says he won’t believe unless he sees. No different than the rest who said the same thing to Mary.

A week later, Jesus shows up and this time, does the same thing, but with Thomas present. He speaks his peace, and shows his hands and sides to Thomas, and Thomas believes. Jesus came back, reached out, and did what was necessary to bring about the peace he gave. He met the disciples in the midst of their disbelief, in the midst of their doubts, if you will—in the midst of chaos, disorder, turmoil, upheaval, and unrest—and gave peace that the world cannot give. He gave the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. He gave the peace of his own presence in the face of things that don’t always make sense. He’s with us when things are all shaken up.

And what’s more, it’s him that holds us together in the midst of our divisions, our disagreements, our discords. Jesus breaks into the midst of our troubled lives, personally and collectively, and only in him does true peace come forth.

I was unable to be present at the hospital when my mother died. My whole family was there, but I couldn’t be there because I was too sick myself to travel—not COVID, but a horrible cold. Then when the time of her interment came, I had COVID myself and couldn’t be present. The rest of the family was there, and there were those who thought I was delinquent for not being there when she died or when we had her service. That bothered me, to be sure, but I was also bothered by the troubled relationship that my mother and I had as mother and son, even to the point her death. I didn’t feel turmoil about it, but I did feel uneasy about it. And how much of my troubled conscience over my mother’s death was borne out of my own concern about my own reaction to thinking about my own death? These are things that the world offers no peace for, especially in the face of our all our different opinions, vastly divergent and vehemently held by so many the world over.

But one night, I had a dream. The Holy Spirit, the same Spirit whom Jesus breathed on the disciples to bring about their peace, moved within me one night and I had a dream that I was the ER of the hospital where my mother died. I know that hospital well. I’ve been a patient there myself. I asked the receptionist about my mother, and as I turned around to head to my mother’s room, my mother came out of the hallway as I remembered her. Her hair, her chubby cheeks, her muumuu. She said something to me, but what I remember most was she hugged me. And in that moment, I woke up.

You’d think that dream would saddened me, but it did the exact opposite. I felt peace. I’m convinced that the Holy Spirit moved in my troubled conscience to give me the same experience of resurrection that she gave the disciples when Jesus breathed on them the evening of the resurrection, and then again the next week for Thomas. Like Mary Magdalene, like the disciples, like Thomas, I know the truth of God’s love to overcome everything that stands in the way of good relationship with him and others, including my mother, but I needed something more to move me to a place of peace. And God provided that—God provided that in the depths of my subconscious and showed me that, though death may physically separate me from my mother, the love that we shared, even if in the midst of a troubled relationship, was something that never will leave.

And that love, like all love, comes from God, for God is love. Ultimately, it’s this love that will unite our divisions, overcome our disagreements, and mend our discords. You see—when I talked about my dreams of my mother with some who knocked me for being absent when she died or when we had her service, they shared their own stories—some of them dreams too—since her death, and we’ve overcome those bad feelings because of it. That’s love at work, the love of God. It’s God’s love that will settle turmoil, upheaval, unrest, and chaos. It’s this love that gives us peace. Do we understand how it works? No. This is the peace of God, the love of God that surpasses understanding. But do we know that it works? Yes. God never, ever quits coming to us and reaching out to us with his love—we just have to keep looking so we see it.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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