When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ (John 20: 19)
In our gospel reading today Jesus turns up twice somewhat unexpectedly. Unexpectedly of course because he got killed and they all saw it. So his turning up was… unexpected.
More unexpected than a happy storyline in Eastenders, a complex storyline on Hollyoaks, or a pizza with ham and pineapple on it. Who puts fruit on a pizza? It’s wrong! You wouldn’t put bacon bits in ice cream so why would you put pineapple on a pizza?!
Actually bacon bits on ice cream. Unexpected but…
And not to labour the point. But none of these things were anything like as unexpected as Jesus rocking up in your front room after having well and truly tortured and executed by the imperial authorities of Rome.
So it makes sense, I suppose that he doesn’t open with, “Hey,” or “Morning,” or “What on earth are you doing putting ham and pineapple on a pizza?!”
He opens instead with the words, “Peace be with you.” One might assume that the reason he says this is that they are freaking out at his appearance. They are very unpeaceful and so it makes sense for him to make it clear that he doesn’t want any trouble; he’s not come back to avenge himself on anyone. “Peace be with you,” he says.
It’s interesting that John’s Jesus doesn’t use this greeting before the resurrection. He promises them peace at his farewell speech as a I think they will get later on. But John only records him as using it as a greeting and blessing after the resurrection.
And the standard etiquette for angels who scare the living daylights out of people is not “Peace be with you” but the more obvious, “Do not be afraid.”
So this blessing-greeting is not simply polite reassurance. As always with John there is something symbolic and theological going on behind the actions and the words on the page. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that John waits until the very end of his biography of Jesus to use this word that is so at the heart of Jewish faith and, in its aberrant form, at the shadowy heart of the Roman empire.
The Meaning of Peace
This whole drama of John’s gospel has been a contest between good and evil, light and shadow. Good peace and evil peace. But I’m going to mess with John a bit because I want to talk about not two but three types of peace. Pacification, Passivity, and Post-resurrection peace. Three kinds of peace that in each moment we have to choose between. Three kinds of peace that shape our outlook, habits, and character.
First there is Pacification. This is the Pax Romana or what the British empire called the Pax Britannica. When I was a kid at school there was a certain history teacher who commanded our obedience through fear of punishment. This was an incredibly effect way of teaching and we produce huge quantities of written work, memories vast amounts of historical evidence, and got pretty good results. We did not learn how to learn though: we learned how to obey.
Pacification is the quick-fix of peace. It is peace through threat of punishment. If you are the more powerful one then it is fast, effective, and … maybe even fun!
But it is not a real peace and it is often deeply unjust and silences the kind of dissent that leads to creativity, joy and real relationships. Like the victorian father whose children called him ‘sir’ those who experience this kind of peace may never fight or cry but they are not free or loving agents either.
Then there is Passivity. This is the usual response to pacification: keep your head down, anything for a quiet life, don’t rock the boat don’t.
Just eat your strawberry and spicy chicken pizza and don’t make a fuss.
I mean why not just eat a ham pizza. And then. When you’ve finished your pizza: have pineapple for pudding? Where’s the hurry?!
So often we are into this kind of doormat pacification. Interrupted by occasional tantrums because the anger we hold deep down suddenly explodes out into our polite and pacified lives. We lose our cool and briefly feel better but nothing changes.
This is the peace of being neutral in an argument. It’s the peace of seeing someone being bullied and refusing to take sides. It’s the peace we often see displayed in leaders who don’t like getting their hands dirty and in followers who are too afraid to stand up and be counted. It’s also the peace of people who’ve been knocked over or pushed around so many times that they’ve learned not to fight back, not to resist.
Then there is post-resurrection peace. But in order to illustrate that I want to tell you Jason’s story.
Jason was an Iraq war veteran living in Mansfield. Like many of our war veterans he had ended up jobless and living rough on the streets.
Eventually he found himself in managed accommodation with a company called Haven Homes and finally shared private digs – which is when I met him. He had not left Haven Homes long and the experience and anger were fresh as he told his story and introduced us to other people who lived in the Haven flats.
Haven Homes were notorious for their poor treatment of tenants. They would open people’s post, confiscate property, and neglect repairs to a dangerous extent.
When a tenant moved into a flat where the previous one had killed himself he found blood stains on the wall and the mattress. When he complained he was told to turn the mattress over.
And this was an outfit who took local authority money to both house and support rough sleepers but no one was challenging this injustice because it was easier not to bother. There was a kind of peacefulness that came with no one rocking the boat because the mayor and councillor leaders were busy with other things and the homeless people had learned they had no power.
But Jason was having none of it. He was angry and would not settle for the peace the world gives. It was then that he came across his local methodist church through their charity shop and cafe where he volunteered.
The churches and schools in the area had formed a local civic alliance called Maun Valley Citizens and through that alliance Jason built a small team to research and act on the nastiness at Haven Homes. They wanted Haven Homes to clean up their act.
The team did a great job. They got the executive mayor to commit to an inquiry at a public meeting of over 300 people from local schools and churches. Then, to try and make sure she was accountable they organised a public action.
Seventy people, mostly from local churches but with a handful of concerned local councillors decide to get creative and have a really strong visual statement that Haven Homes needed to clean up their act.
One Saturday morning 70 people togged up in white hazzards suits – and carried a banner with the words: Haven Homes is toxic: Clean up your act’. In truth they mostly looked like an army nudist wombles to me but it was great fun and a bold statement.
But as they got to the entrance of the Haven Homes offices the Managing Director had a surprise of his own in store. Unbeknown to us he had bussed in around thirty of his tenants, given them free cider, sandwiches and money of their next weeks charges and told them to organise a counter-protest against us. They had been told we were threatening to close down Haven Homes and make them homeless again.
The counter-protestors spilled out into the empty car park effing and blinding at the now jittery and bewildered wombles churchgoers. Not feeling quite so wombly now.
Fortunately we had an ace up our hand. Theology!
I took the microphone and reminded everyone, including the counter-protestors – why we were there. I said that, despite being called ‘Haven’ there was no peace in houses that treated people unjustly and that we believed in a very different kind of peace than haven homes offered.
‘The peace of the Lord be always with you.” I declared.
‘And also with you!’ replied the crowd.
“Let’s offer one another a sign of peace’
With that they all knew exactly what to do. Even the Baptists! 😉 The crowd shook hands, and hugged one another, declaring God’s peace and did the same thing with whoever among the counter-protestors were willing, which was almost all of them. All the tension disolved. As two women from opposite protests hugged the tenant leaned in to a woman from the church she knew well from a local lunch club and said, “I’m sorry I don’t know why we’re doing this but he threatened us with eviction if we didn’t”
I think it’s fair to say that sharing the peace in church was never the same again for those of us who were there that day.
God’s peace is no easy peace. It is what Jewish people call ‘Shalom’ and it’s requires, struggle, community in diversity, wholeness and healing, love and justice. It is a peace that we work at daily not one that comes at the end of sword or threat of incarceration.
Jesus was crucified to maintain one kind of peace – the Peace of Pacification through violence. But he rose again to proclaim the peace of God which passes all understanding and guards our hearts in the knowledge and love of God, through him.
When Jesus’ unexpectedly turned up what surprised them was not that he was there but that he had defeated peace of one kind and ushered in an era of a very different kind of peace.
The reign of God where there is neither Jew nor Greek, Man nor woman, Slave nor free… Ham or Pineapple. But all are one in Christ Jesus.