I don’t know about you, but I am struck over and over again how rushed and hurried and stressful life in New Jersey can be. I had occasion on Friday and Saturday to be driving on Route 18 and Route 1 in East Brunswick. While the traffic was not at a standstill, it was very heavy, it moved at about forty miles per hour, and there were cars continually darting in and out between lanes, and entering and exiting from the stores and businesses that crowd the sides of the road.
Now it could have been any number of roads – Route 22; 287 can get very backed up; lots of people would say that 78 was their least favorite road, or maybe the Parkway. And then for those who commute by train there are all the headaches of making connections and allowing for travel time from home to the station, and from Penn Station or Hoboken to your place of work.
And if you have school age children, those after school and weekend hours can be one long slog in the car from school to sports, to dance or music, to a play date, to a dentist appointment to Shop Rite, to Scouts and that’s all before you even get home.
Just from our physical surroundings and the activities we all have to go through every day, most of us live lives that are very stressful – not to mention personal, family or work-related stress.
Dealing with all that stress – and what I’ve mentioned is only a small portion of the stress-load we carry – dealing with all that stress can be a burden, and a worry, and create a joyless turmoil within us, and sometimes between us and other people. And certainly doctors have been saying for a while now that too much stress is not good for us; we have to find a way to let it go.
So what happens when Jesus shows up in the middle of all that stress?
We heard in John’s Gospel this morning the story of the disciples who were gathered together on the evening of Easter day, still in fear and confusion about what had actually happened to Jesus and to them. They had heard from Mary Magdalene, and Peter, and John about the empty tomb, and Mary then reported her encounter with the Risen Lord, but it was hard to know what to do with all this new information – how to process it, how to make sense out of what they were hearing. Did they even dare hope that the news what true? And if it was true, what did it mean? The disciples even had the doors locked in case the Judean officials should try to arrest them, Jesus’ followers.
Into the middle of this fear and confusion, Jesus comes. The first thing he does is to bid the disciples to be calm, to be at peace. “Peace be with you” Jesus says. He then identifies himself to them by showing them the wounds in his hands and feet – this is Jesus, the One who was crucified. He is not a vision, and not a ghost, but Jesus - their teacher and rabbi and master - on the far side of death with a resurrection body that is recognizable, and yet different from our own.
Jesus comes to the disciples, bids them to be at peace, breathes the Holy Spirit upon them, and gives them a ministry and a responsibility to forgive sins – the disciples, and (by extension) us as we live and work in the world.
But their numbers are not complete; Thomas is not there, and so because he was not present for Jesus’ appearance, he won’t believe it. In fact, Thomas gets himself all worked up over what he will and will not believe and what kind of proof he says he needs.
Sure enough, a week later, Jesus comes to the disciples again as they are gathered in the same room, locked away against intruders and the authorities. Thomas gets all the proof he needs, and again Jesus greets them with Peace.
The Peace that Jesus brings is the “peace of God which passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). It’s not a peace that comes from getting things all sorted out and organized, or that comes from having all our questions answered – as good as it is to have those things happen. The Peace of God comes to us when we are willing to be open to the presence of Christ, sometimes when we stop insisting on God showing up or taking care of life on our time table, according to our priorities.
Often times our hearts are restless, or our minds churn, and our stress level rises. We think that we should be able to control our surroundings, our events, or the reactions of others – but that is not the case most of the time – and so our stress level increases even more.
Of course there are many physical things we can do to help ourselves as we face stressful lives. We can take a walk, or listen to music, or talk to a friend or spouse, enjoy a good laugh with someone we trust. We can sit quietly and breathe slowly, lowering our heart rate – and hopefully our racing minds.
But none of these are, in and of themselves, the Peace that Jesus gives. That Peace comes from knowing that God is in charge, that we don’t have to manage the whole world or even the whole neighborhood or even anyone else’s life. The Peace of God comes from knowing that we are beloved children of God, valued so highly that Christ gave his life for us. God’s Peace also comes through knowing that there is nothing we can do or say to drive God away, unless we retreat into our own hearts, and lock the door from the inside. The Peace of God is an extension of God’s forgiveness and mercy and grace – it is a gift and a blessing to us. And it is a gift that can accompany us wherever we go, whatever our circumstances are. The Peace of Christ can dwell in our hearts and lives, even when circumstances are challenging, even when we face questions of ultimate meaning.
The Risen Christ brought Peace with him to the disciples on the evening of Easter Day, and on the next week – eight days later – and they continued to live in his peace, day by day. The Risen Christ brings Peace to us, as well. It is the Peace that comes from having lived through death and hell doing their worst, and God still triumphing. The Peace of God is a gift of the Resurrection, a blessing that begins at this central fact of our faith, and then continues to surround us, envelope us, serves as the foundation beneath our feet.
“May the Peace of our Lord Jesus Christ bless you and keep you this day, now and always.” Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday of Easter
April 7, 2013