What's in a Word?

It seems like magic. As soon as Jesus says, "Peace be with you," the disciples calm down and everything starts to fall into place.

The Scripture

John 20:19-31
interpreted by Deborah

The evening of the day that Mary Magdalene saw the Risen Lord, the disciples were huddled together with the doors locked, afraid of being found out — and Jesus came into their midst.

“Peace be with you,” he said.

Then he showed them his hands and his side — and the disciples were thrilled to see the Lord for themselves.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus repeated, “As I was an apostle of the Father, so now I send you as apostles.” Then he breathed upon them, as God had breathed life to the clay at creation, as Spirit’s breath enlivened the dried bones in Elijah’s vision.

“Accept the Holy Spirit,” he said, “If you banish anyone’s guilt, it is gone; if you hold on to the guilt, it stays.”

But Thomas wasn’t there at the time, so, when the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord,” he shook his head, “Unless I see the wounds of the nails in his hands, and press my hand into his side, I can’t believe it.”

A week later the disciples were together again, and this time Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut tight, Jesus came into their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”

Then he said to Thomas, “Here: touch my hands and see; put your hand in my side. Don’t doubt — but have faith.”

In response Thomas cried out, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “You believe because you have seen me. Those who believe without having seen me have true joy.”

The disciples saw Jesus do a bunch of other miraculous things — too many to be included in this book. But I’ve written about these so that you will come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through that faith you will have life in him.

Photo of a flower

Reflection by Deborah Beach Giordano
April 24, 2017

The Situation

Mary and the GardenerPity the poor disciples, huddled together in terror: traumatized by the death of the Lord, scared out of their wits that they will be prosecuted for being his followers, and fearing for the sanity of several of their number. Peter and the other one are babbling about an empty tomb and claiming to have talked to an angel, Mary Magdalene is insisting that Jesus is alive and well and disguised as a gardener… it was a crazy time. No one knew what to do, what to think, or what to believe.

It must have seemed as if the whole group was going to pieces. Some of the disciples had already packed their bags and were getting ready to leave.

But then Jesus appeared in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” And everything was fine, ever after.

Seriously? That’s it? “Peace be with you”?? If it were me, I’d need a bit more reassurance than that — a lot more, in fact; a few encouraging words, maybe a short explanation of what the heck was going on….

And yet it seems, for Jesus’ disciples who were there, that was enough: “Peace be with you.” (Although he did have to say it twice.)

What Can It Mean?

To paraphrase Shakespeare: what’s in a word? What was it that brought calm to the previous chaos? The effect was almost magical, like “abracadabra”: those who doubted were convinced, those who were frightened were relieved, mourning was turned into gladness. Certainly the transformation was due in large part to the fact that the Risen Lord spoke those words — that the disciples saw him, face to face — and yet I am convinced there is more to the story.

batPeace is a nice idea, and to call for it the midst of a stressful or distressing experience is a standard practice in the helping professions: “Imagine being at peace; take a deep breath and think of yourself sitting beside a gently flowing stream….” Yes, but. If you’re anything like me, it’s not terribly effective or long-lasting; worry repeatedly swoops in like a bat, carrying fearsome shadows on its wings.

That kind of peace is transient, likely to break in an instant, as fragile as ice on a frozen lake. And who can truly envision “peace”? Who has known what that is — now or ever — in a world of warring tribes and nations; when violence stalks our cities and streets and even our homes; when our nerves are on edge, and our hearts are angry? We cry, “Peace! Peace!” but there is no peace.

We don’t even know what the word means.

Shalom

Jesus’ greeting to his disciples was almost certainly “shalom.” The word served as both welcome and farewell, like ciao for Italians, or aloha for Hawaiians. As with so many commonplace phrases, its meaning may have come to be trivialized; as inconsequential as “How are you?” in modern America — to which nobody expects an honest reply.

On the other hand, the very first words spoken by the Risen Lord weren’t said by accident. They were fraught with meaning and power; and they were remembered, repeated, and immortalized (!) by the Christ-followers then, and in the centuries to follow.

Shalom was associated with the idea of perfection, similar to the Greek teleos: the completion of God’s will for the world. For individuals it was health, comfort, tranquility of mind and spirit; for communities it was peace and prosperity, harmony among people and between nations. Most powerfully, it signified a “blessed harmony” between the people and their God.

Shalom meant “all is well, and all is well, and all things shall be well.”

The Peace of the Lord

Christ's peaceIn the midst of the worst experience of their lives; when they were grief-stricken, frightened, and confused, the Lord appeared to his disciples with words of assurance. Despite the ferocity of the worldly powers, no matter what plots evil-doers devised, whatever destruction they tried to inflict, their successes were short-lived and hollow, their victories mere illusions. Always and in all things God’s word was the last word — and that Word was Jesus the Christ: the embodiment and exemplar of love, light, and life.

“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you — not as the world gives. Don’t let your heart be troubled, and do not be afraid.” ~ John 14:27

Christ’s peace surpasses understanding; it is not the mere cessation of hostilities, but the active presence of comfort and joy. Christ’s peace is not limited or fragile; it is lasting and resilient, life-giving and hopeful, whatever may come. It is a fearless, joyful confidence; a faith-filled conviction that God’s love is greater than all our sins and shortcomings, all of our hatred and resentments, all of our hurts and woundings. Christ’s peace is our assurance and assertion that the path of love is the holy, life-redeeming Way.

Results and Responsibilities

The Risen Lord’s first — and repeated — message to his followers was a blessing and a consecration: Shalom: Peace be with you and within you. Jesus had been God’s apostle, carrying the Gospel wherever he went, in all that he did and said, and now he was sending them forth as apostles: envoys who did not merely talk about peace, but lived it.

Circle of love

Perhaps the Gospel is another word for shalom: the Good News of God’s great plan and desire and endless working toward the redemption of all people; for a world ruled by kindness and compassion, where goodness and mercy hold sway over all that was evil. Shalom — like the Good News, or the Gospel — isn’t a magical incantation like “abracadabra”; it holds no power in itself. It is only in the faithful living of that concept, in our daily efforts to be people of the Way — that that glorious Reality can fully come into being in our world.

Jesus the Christ showed us the Way; now it is up to us to follow it. May we be inspired and guided to follow that Way in all that we do and say, all that we hope for, pray for, and believe.

Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,

Deborah 

Suggested Spiritual Exercise

Shalom! Let peace abide with you and within you. Believe in the Good News of God and be a faithful apostle of the holy Gospel. Be peace: be kind and caring, gentle and joyful, compassionate and courageous.