Sermon, preached by Dr. Gerald O. Pedersen, April 6, l997,
based on the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter, John 20:19-31
Immediately following graduation from High School in l943, I volunteered for service as a young 17-year-old in the U.S. Marine Corp during WW II. I wanted to do my part for peace. On August 6, l945, I was serving aboard the battleship USS Missouri when it was announced that we had dropped a special new kind of bomb, an atomic bomb, on Hiroshima, destroying the city and killing several hundred thousand Japanese civilians. Wild cheering broke out, celebration followed, with exclamations of “why didn’t we drop it on Tokyo and kill a million of them” and similar thoughts. There seemed to be no sadness, no remorse, no regret, no compassion evident among the 3000 men on that ship.
That evening, alone in the darkness at the bow of the ship, I began reflecting sadly about the events of the day. Why had concern for persons been lost in the passions of war? Can peace be achieved by violent means? By adopting the tactics of our so-called evil enemies, did we become evil ourselves, perhaps even worse than they? How can I find personal peace? What is the best way to promote peace? Would becoming a pastor be a good way to promote peace?
Even now my reflection continues. It seems that war and violence tend to bring out the worst in people. It seems “there is no way to peace, peace is the way” as A.J. Muste said. Upon ending that one war, we started a “cold war” that locked our national priorities into a “permanent state of war” for nearly 50 years.
The “cold war” having ended, we are still locked into the same priorities. We demonize our enemies. We set no limits on military spending, continuing to spend billions of dollars each year for warfare and the tools of violence. At the same time we limit what we spend for educating our children, and for overcoming poverty, all the while continuing to destroy our resources and environment. We must keep asking: Where is the source of peace? How can we find sufficient motivation to keep us working for a more non-violent world? How can we find the power to achieve our hopes for a dynamic peace?
In our Gospel today, the disciples too had witnessed violence, the violence of the authorities, the system, the crowd, and even that within their own hearts. And they too gathered in the darkness of the evening, the evening of that first day, the day we call Easter.
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the authorities, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
The disciples were alone in that room, the doors shut, they were afraid, for fear of the authorities. They knew failure; three years devoted to following Jesus and the reign of God he proclaimed, and then he had been killed. They felt they deserved to be rejected: Peter, who had denied him, not once but three times; James and John, who only days before squabbled selfishly over who would be the greatest; and probably all of them had remained silent when the cries went up “crucify him”. They felt cut off, from Jesus, from God, from hope, from peace.
And then Jesus came and stood among them and said “Peace be with you!” What no one else could give, what they felt they didn’t deserve, they received: the gift of peace! Acceptance in spite of failure, a new relationship in spite of being cut off, peace instead of condemnation.
Have you heard this “peace be to you”?. Do you know God’s peace? It is a gift! It is a gift of grace. It was the first conversion for the disciples that night, as it must be for each of us; the gift of Peace!
But don’t stop there! All of us, even as those disciples, have sometimes felt unacceptable, unwanted, and unneeded and then heard and felt and believed God’s Peace. God loves us. We’re accepted. Nothing can separate us from God….yes….but there is more! Listen.
JOHN 20:21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the father has sent me, even so I send you.”
This gift isn’t only for just you. It’s for everyone, and you are sent to them, exactly as Jesus was sent. The Master throws a party, a banquet, and everyone is invited; the rich and the poor (especially the poor), slave and free, gentile and Jew, insider and outsider, rebel and conformist, heterosexual and homosexual, healthy and sick — they are all wanted, all invited, and you and I are challenged to go to them, even as he did. Indeed, peace is not an individual gift, a private gift, but a relational gift, the gift of a new community.
Have you heard this “you are sent”? To hear this challenge is to experience what Richard Shaull calls the second conversion — a challenge not only to go and tell others of this Gift of Peace, but a conversion to live in solidarity with the poor, the suffering, the exploited. Having heard Scripture’s passionate cry for justice, we are sent to live as Jesus lived. Even today, having received the gift of peace, our hearts touched by Jesus’s vision of the reign of God, we are still challenged to vigorously engage in social and political movements that work toward a more just society.
But, you say, “I’m just one person” (forgetting we’re part of a new community), or “I’ve tried, but it’s too difficult”(forgetting we’re challenged to “go”, not necessarily to “be successful”) or “I’m not well enough informed”, or “I feel powerless”. Then listen!
And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit”
You say you are powerless! But how can you honestly say this? You’re part of a new community and we all have been formed with the same gift and sent with the same challenge, and we have all been empowered with the Holy Spirit! We may not be capable, but God is, and with God all things are possible.
Marcus Borg, in his book, Jesus: A New Vision, says that Jesus had not only his own powerful communion with God, but also relied upon a deeply personal and vivid relationship with the world of the Spirit. He expected the same for his disciples. In our modern secularized ‘one dimensional world,’ most of us need a fresh understanding and experience of trusting in the realm of the Spirit, with its presence and empowerment in our lives.
Our first conversion, receiving from Jesus and trusting in his gift of Peace, is our foundation. We receive this as individuals, but always in relationship with others and with God in a new community. Our second conversion, having been challenged by being sent, even as Jesus knew himself sent, to be Peacemakers, to seek and give the biblical shalom of peace with justice, and to live in solidarity with the poor, is our calling as individuals sharing in a new community following Jesus.
Our third conversion, rediscovering the power of the Spirit, and living in communion with the Spirit, is not only the source of our own personal transformation, but our hope for the transformation of our world.
That which the disciples experienced on the evening of that first day, Easter, was not a one time event. That Gift, Challenge, and Power was the continuing characteristic of that first community of faith. It should be the ever-continuing ongoing experience of the Resurrection Life for all of us.
We ordinary people living in community, having received the Gift of Peace, having been challenged and sent out to live the Shalom Life of Peace with Justice, and having been empowered by the presence of the Spirit in our lives to joyously live the life of Active Non-Violence, continue to say “yes” to God’s Gift, Challenge, and Power.
We are all invited to share in saying “yes” to God’s Gift, Challenge, and Power of Peace!
Rev. Dr. Gerald Pedersen (retired) is a long-time member of Lutheran Peace Fellowship. He will serve as chaplain at Stanford University this fall. This sermon received second place honors in Lutheran Peace Fellowship’s “Preaching for Peace” sermon contest.