By Rev. Jason Barnhart
“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” John 20:19-23, NIV
We recently celebrated Resurrection Sunday. That day where we remember when history pivoted in a new direction. Christ is not dead – resurrection has happened. As the late Yale University historian, Jaroslov Pelikan, wrote: “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen – nothing else matters.”
Luke Keefer would have agreed with Pelikan but may have adapted the quote just a tad. “If Christ is risen, the church has a job to do. If Christ is not risen, the church can go about its usual business.” Such was Luke’s prophetic call to the church. As an historian who surveyed the entire history of the church, he never gave up hope for its witness.
Spurred by his Anabaptist upbringing, Luke always sought to jolt the church out of pious niceties into a community that really matters to the world. With this ecclesial fervor, he led students through centuries of church history and helped them see the mission of God in relevant ways to their respective faith journeys.
With the resurrection of Jesus, the early Christians believed not only that God had begun the long awaited new creation, but that he had enlisted them as helpers with that project. The cross, then, was not merely a symbol but a way of life for Christ followers. Thus, from the beginning, Christ’s peace comes with a price.
Luke’s challenge with peace was that we think too universal (like world peace) and it becomes merely an idea or theory. For peace to really make sense it must be embodied by a people who stick together long enough to realize that they’re not the center of the universe. Our gospel story is one of violent betrayal and a Lord still responding, “Peace be with you.”
Peace needs a community to help that peace become tangible and real. Peace enables the church to be the church and to be an alternative to the world. Jesus’ language is direct – “peace be with you.”
But peace is not the absence of conflict. This text is a very real conflict between the Beloved and the ones who abandoned him and are in hiding, “Peace be with you” is not merely a pious greeting, but a profound blessing over the life of the community itself.
Peace, then and now, is the quality of the life and practices of a community that knows itself as a forgiven people. Such a community cannot afford to overlook sins because the underlying truth is that we no longer regard our lives as our own. There is no such thing as a private life for a Christ follower. A community of peace cannot afford to let us relish our sense of being wrong – it must expose that wrong in the hopes of reconciliation. The disciples rejected and Jesus confronts them in the name of peace. Confrontation like this is hard because it makes us as vulnerable as the one we confront. We could even be mistaken about our alleged offense. Or [gasp], we will be forced to forgive, reconcile, and lose our hatred. Such is the life of a forgiven and forgiving community.
We call this community the church. To this community, Jesus doesn’t bring a peace of rest (where all violence and conflict are gone) but a peace of truth (where we must face down violent tendencies in peaceful ways). A community where even God can reconcile with those who abandoned him on a cross!
Jesus’ peace to those early disciples was a realization that they had abandoned hope and worshiped fear. Jesus’ peace always comes with a confrontation of our attempts to run the world. Church is a people who share a common history of being forgiven. Church is a people who fall woefully short and look at the other and say, “peace be with you.” This community then models this peace to the watching world.
If we’re going to be a community of true peace in a world at war, we will confront the false peace of the world that is built more on power than truth. We confront through our witness together of truly confronting and reconciling. The cross becomes our way of life.
The cross was Rome’s peacemaker. The resurrection is Jesus’ peacemaker.
The peace of Jesus acknowledges that our differences (not uniformity) shape us to be a truthful people who can confront one another and celebrate our differences. The only way the world will know we are children of God is by the bonds of peace we show in times of conflict and confrontation. The only way the world will truly be confronted by its worldliness is if the church manifests a credible alternative.
The power of Luke Keefer and his prophetic vision for the church was that he could survey centuries of Church history, the ups and the downs, and still look out over a classroom of kingdom leaders and say, “Peace be with you!”
Jason Barnhart, an alumn of Ashland Theological Seminary is Executive Director of Religious Life and Chaplain at Ashland University.
Wonderful article, Jason. Thank you!