What is Salvation?…Peace
John 20: 19-23
19 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.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
When I lived in Northern Ireland, we didn’t see a lot of sunny days. There’s a reason it is the green isle, and rain has a lot to do with it. But when the clouds parted and the rain stopped, the place was absolutely beautiful. Green hills, clear water, historic homes, flowers and trees and life springing forth. So on those sunny days, whenever and wherever I could, I would go for a short run.
I still didn’t know Belfast very well, so before I went running, I would always look up a map. And one day, I found a park I had never been to before called Alexandra Park. It was very close to my home, and it looked huge on the map, plenty of space to get in a couple miles (I was in better shape back then).
As I got to that park that day, I put in my headphones, turned on music and was ready to go. But about two minutes into my run, I couldn’t go anymore. I wasn’t tired. My legs wanted to move. The road and path continued on. But right in front of me was a huge ten foot high green wall. The road continued, but I couldn’t get through.
This didn’t seem right. On the map, the park is so much bigger than this. It couldn’t be the end. So I doubled back , ran out of the park, down a side street, and found another entrance into the park. And soon I was looking face to face with the back of that same wall I saw earlier. And I realized, with great curiosity, that the city had built a huge wall in the middle of this beautiful park. One half of the park was completely divided from the other half.
After my run, I asked people about it: “Why is there a wall in the middle of this park?” And they told me, it is a “Peace Wall.” One half of the park is the Catholic side. The other half is the Protestant side. It was built to keep the two communities from fighting and attacking each other. After my run, I quickly started noticing Peace Walls all over the city, including in my neighborhood, and I realized why it took so long to walk everywhere in Belfast. So many of the roads were blocked by Peace Walls.
For Nothern Ireland, these walls were called Peace Walls because they limited violence and attack. But as I looked at them, I didn’t see real Peace. I saw segregation. I saw communities that still did not go to school with one another, talk with one another, worship with one another, play with one another, live with one another even walk in a park with one another. I saw the absence of violence, the limiting of attacks. But real peace, real peace in this city, in this community, in people’s lives, takes much more than putting up a wall in the road.
This Sunday is the first in a seven-week series at Stone House Presbyterian where we will look at the question, “What is Salvation?” So often in our culture we talk about who will be saved and who won’t that we completely skip over examining what does that even look like? What does salvation mean? Is it something for the future? Something for the present? Something good? Something scary? Is it actually something I really want? Or just something I am supposed to want? Over these seven weeks we won’t completely answer that question what salvation is. That probably will not happen until God’s Kingdom is here on earth. But over these works, I believe that the words and stories of Christ, prophets, and God’s beloved people will show us that salvation is more beautiful, crazier, more courageous, and more joyful than we have dared to dream.
And this week, I wanted to start with salvation as Peace. And I wanted to start with it because that is where Jesus starts. On Easter evening, after he has been raised from the dead, his first words to the disciples are “Peace be with you.” The first thing Jesus wanted to offer his disciples after he had just defeated hell and death and sin, and risen again, is peace.
For us today, we think of peace as the absence of war, as anytime there is not explicit violence. But for Jesus, peace meant much more than that. While this gospel is written in Greek, the word Jesus himself would have spoken was “Shalom,” in either Hebrew or Aramaic. Shalom means many things, including peace. But it also means Wholeness. Completeness. Reconciliation. Forgiveness. Right relationships, with others and with God.
Shalom is not simply avoiding problems or hiding away. It is confronting them and turning them into something far better, far greater, far more lovely and complete than what we know today. It is becoming the people God originally created us to be.
And while we translate Jesus’ words here as “Peace be with you,” because it fits well for English, Jesus’ words aren’t in the future tense. Instead of “Peace be with you,” a more accurate translation is “Peace is with you.” Peace is not just for the next life, not just for some far away future. Peace, wholeness, reconciliation, right relationships, they are for us here and now. Jesus doesn’t want us to wait to know this part of salvation. He wants us to be living it out with our lives.
And to see how that may look, I think we should first examine Jesus’ original disciples. On that Easter evening, they were seeking peace, but a very different peace than Jesus is offering. They were seeking the peace of survival, the peace of hiding away and avoiding violence, the peace of keeping away from trouble, doing what is safe. That’s the peace of the world.
But Jesus tells us, his peace is different than what the world can offer. Right before his death, at his last meal with his disciples, he says to them, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.’
That last phrase, “Do not let your hearts be afraid,” is the one that stands out to me. How hard that is to find. How rare in our world. Peace is not hiding away. It is not keeping safe, out of danger. It is not being afraid. Peace is not building a bigger wall to keep out those things that scare us. Peace is bravely going through that wall and proclaiming a hope and joy and way of living for all people together.
Before Jesus says, “Peace be with you” these disciples were living out of fear. They were hiding away. They were doing what was safe. True, they were keeping away from violence, but they weren’t seeking real Shalom. After Jesus says these words to them, these disciples do something crazy. They go out into the world. They speak to people different than them. They witness and live, serve, and sacrifice to tell people about God’s redeeming love in Christ Jesus. And far from avoiding danger, they risk it all, some of them even being killed for their work. Because it was worth it to tell people: “God loves you. God forgives you. God made us equal. God wants us to live a better way, a new way. You are a child of God, a part of Christ’s body, just like me.”
That was the real Shalom, the real peace these disciples knew. But for them to proclaim peace, to live out peace, they first had to know peace inside of themselves. In their hearts. In their spirits. And that’s the peace Christ freely gives to us. It is in seeing Christ alive. It is in being filled with the Holy Spirit. That Easter morning, they were filled with peace and not fear, because Jesus was telling them, “God loves you. God forgives you. God has already won the battle for you.” We live our lives unsure of so many things, but in those words “Peace be with you” Jesus is saying to us, “You don’t need to worry about the big things. I’ve already accomplished that for you. You’ve won. You’ve made it. Now live into that victory.
In Northern Ireland, I saw real peace, real Shalom, but it wasn’t in those peace walls. It wasn’t in security cameras or armored cars or local militias. It wasn’t in locked doors hiding away for fear. Instead, I saw it when the Presbyterian Church I was with worshiped together with the Catholic Church down the road. I saw it when one school was attacked, the community from the other side of the tracks came to rebuild. I saw it when children across denominations played rugby and basketball together. I saw it when people opened their homes to strangers like me and talked about how God forever changed their lives. I saw it in feet that fed homeless men and women from foreign countries on Tuesday nights. I saw it in songs and murals that spoke of one Belfast, not two.
At the end of our passage from John, Jesus says to his disciples, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” It is a strange phrase for Jesus to say right after he shows his friends that he is alive. But I think he says it because there is a challenge in it. Jesus has given us victory. He has given us forgiveness and reconciliation and eternal life with God. But now he is challenging us not to keep it to ourselves. That peace we know from Easter, don’t hide it away under a lamp. Share it with others. Reach across divides. Welcome strangers. Forgive those who hurt you. Believe in Shalom. And when you do, you will see real peace reign throughout world. Amen.