Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Many of us enjoyed a fun celebration of Easter last week. Our Greek and Russian Orthodox friends celebrate Easter today. And the nice thing about either church calendar is that we remain in the seasonof Easter for several weeks, until Pentecost Sunday. In this season the gospels offer us not just one resurrection story – the one we told last week about the women discovering the empty tomb – but several of them. So in any given year we might hear about the two disciples walking along the road to Emmaus, for instance. Jesus walks right along with them, but they don’t know it’s him until later that evening when he breaks bread with them. Or we might hear about the disciple Thomas, and his inability to believe it’s really Jesus, alive again, until he touches the scars in his hands and his side, wounds from his crucifixion.
This year I found myself gravitating to the episode that comes just before Thomas’ encounter, in these earlier verses from the same chapter. We’re still on Easter Sunday, at this point. When we read “it was evening on that day, the first day of the week,” that’s the very same day that Jesus had appeared in the morning to Mary at the empty tomb. While Mary has seen Jesus for herself, remember that the other disciples have not. He’d been executed a couple of days earlier, and clearly they’re afraid the same guys that got him will come for them next, because as our story begins they’re hiding away behind locked doors.
But locked doors or not, Jesus appears and stands among them, saying “Peace be with you.” Notice he shows them his hands and his side, and a few verses later we’ll learn Thomas wasn’t with the rest of the group at this point, so it’s not really fair for us to pick on him for wanting to see what everyone else had already seen. At any rate, Jesus then says to them a second time “Peace be with you.” And then he breaths on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
“Peace be with you.” Because Jesus was a Jew, it’s likely he was offering the Hebrew greetingshalom aleichem(aleichembeing the “with you” or “with y’all” part of “peace be with you”), or perhaps its Aramaic equivalent, which would be quite similar. As is the Arabic, incidentally, which is why our Muslim friends greet one another with the phrase salaam 'alaykum. Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic are all related, Semitic languages –they’re similar the way that French, Spanish, and Italian are similar - so it’s the very same greeting whichever of those languages you choose: shalom aleichem in Hebrew. salaam 'alaykum in Arabic. Peace be with you or peace be upon you.
Who among us doesn’t welcome being greeted in peace, or given a blessing of peace, which is really what that greeting is about. May you find peace, may you have peace. That’s what we’re saying to each other during the passing of the peace here at church too. There’s more going on there than the fun of walking around and shaking hands or exchanging hugs. It matters what we are saying to each other. Nothing wrong with “hello,” or “good to see you,” or “welcome, I’m glad you’re here.” Those are all perfectly appropriate; I sometimes add those greetings too. But there’s something special about saying “peace be upon you” or “the peace of Christ be with you” – or even using that rich Hebrew word shalom, which a couple of you regularly exchange with me on Sunday mornings, shalombeing a word that holds within it not just peace but wholeness, wellness of body and spirit. It’s a blessing we’re saying. A prayer, of sorts, for that person’s well-being. It’s not at all uncommon for me to catch someone’s eye on a Sunday morning and get a sense of how much they needthe gift of shalom, or peace, in that very moment. We’ll take all the peace we can get even on a normal day, right? Bring it on! And there are times we need it even more.
The week after Easter lastyear had me at my mother’s graveside. There are so many details to be handled immediately following a death that Dad felt it would be ok to hold off on burying her ashes for a while, and the rest of us in the family agreed. The challenge, in upstate NY, is that once you wait until late fall, you’re really waiting until the whole winter is past. So we planned for spring, once the ground had thawed, to take care of those final arrangements. Mom would be buried in the family plot in the old rural cemetery in our hometown. And having done the larger memorial service several months earlier, we decided we wanted to keep the committal of her ashes quite small and simple. Just the three of us– my dad, my sister, and myself. Just a handful of early daffodils cut from their garden that morning, for each of us to lay on the gravestone. We picked the week after Easter for purely logistical reasons at first, because of my work schedule as a pastor here on the opposite coast, but I also found it quite meaningful to be headed to her grave in that season of resurrection. After all, we are Easter people – as someone or other said from this pulpit last week – which means we are people of hope, people who know God can bring new life even from the heartbreak of death.
The question came up – if we don’t want a full burial service with extended family, or even Mom and Dad’s pastors, what should we do instead? We decided I’d just pull together a couple of simple prayers, and one of her favorite psalms, and read those, and that would suffice.All of which was fine. There was only one problem. As we got ready to drive down to the cemetery that morning, I remembered that just trying to play pastor wasn’t going to cut it, when I was also a grieving daughter. I needed to be on the receivingend of comforting words too.
So at the last minute I leaned on technology, and downloaded a favorite piece of music onto my phone, so that once I’d read the psalm and the prayers, I could play it for all threeof us to hear. The song was “A Gaelic Blessing” by John Rutter. Here are the lyrics:
Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the gentle night to you.
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
Deep peace of Christ,
of Christ the light of the world to you.
Deep peace of Christ to you.
The song came to mind because I’d played it for mom a number of times in her final days, when she most needed the gift of peace. And now we were the ones who needed it. What a blessing it was for me to simply be quiet and listen to that song in that moment. Celtic spirituality often uses images from the natural world, knowing our Creator can connect with us, and bring us peace, through waves lapping on the seashore or wind in the trees. So it seemed only fitting that standing there at Mom’s graveside we heard the song under a cluster of pine trees, surrounded by rolling hills, with the gentle sounds of cows and sheep in nearby fields adding their voices to the soundtrack. On the way home in the car, we enjoyed adding our own lyrics:
Deep peace of the rustling pines to you,
Deep peace of the lowing cows to you,
Deep peace of the wooly sheep to you…
Mom would have loved it. And even as we prayed for her peace, it felt like she was praying for ours. For God’speace in that hard time, a peace that passes all human understanding.
Shalom aleichem. Salaam 'alaykum. Peace be with you. We’ll take all the peace we can get even on a normal day, right? Bring it on! And there are times we need it even more.
While it may not be preached as often as the story of so-called Doubting Thomas or the story of Jesus hanging out incognito with those two disciples on the road to Emmaus, I have to say this morning’s text from John has become one of my favorite resurrection stories. It’s so simple, but so powerful. A small group of Jesus’ followershuddled together, frightened and hurting. And while they are gathered, Jesus himself arrives, to bring them peace.
A small group of Jesusfollowers gathered together, frightened and hurting, overwhelmed by a violent death and worried about dangerous people in positions of great power. While they are gathered, they receive God’s peace.
Here we sit today, a small group of Jesus followers gathered together. Some of us frightened or hurting. Some of us deeply concerned about violent deaths or worried about dangerous people in positions of great power. But whenever we are gathered, we can also receive the gift of God’s peace. We can look in each other’s eyes, take each other’s hands and say: shalomor “peace” or “the peace of Christ be with you.” We’ll take all the peace we can get even on a normal day, right? And there are times we need it even more. So what a blessing to be able to offer it to one another every single Sunday.
Returning to our text, it’s important we don’t overlook the other gift Jesus gave those frightened disciples on Easter evening. The story ended with Jesus breathing on them and saying, “receive the Holy Spirit.” We can have all kinds of Greek and Hebrew fun here too. John wrote his gospel in Greek, and the Greek word pneuma(spirit) is related to breath and air (think: pneumatic or pneumonia in English). In Hebrew too, the word for “spirit” (ruach) can also mean “breath,” so Jesus is intentionally playing with words here, in whatever language he’s speaking.
Since he was a Jew speaking to Jewish friends, I like to imagine the scene unfolding in Hebrew. Jesus sees how dis-spirited his disciples are (a conspicuous lack of ruach), he knows they need to be re-in-spired (just add ruach), so he breathson them (ruach!)… and in so doing gives them their spiritsback, even as he also gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit. He performs a bit of holy CPR, you might say, on this frightened bunch. It’s an object lesson. It’s one of those marvelous word pictures Jesus is always using. Breathingon them as he says: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Opening his mouth and sending out in their direction the very thing they needed most. His spirit. His breath. His life.
Those Greek and Hebrew words for spirit or breath share verbal roots with the respective words for wind, too. The wind of God will make a memorable appearance next month on Pentecost Sunday, when the book of Acts tells of the Holy Spirit whooshing through the early church with tremendous force, as a mighty wind.
It’s the very same Spirit, the same breath or wind of God here in today’s story, just in a gentler form. A quiet breeze, if you will, instead of a rushing wind. In each form, the Spirit can give us courage, in fearful times. Sometimes we’ll need it in a big dramatic burst. And sometimes we’ll need God’s courage and comfort to come to us as a gentle breath.
“Don’t forget to breathe.” I’ve often said this to people who are hurting or fearful, anxious or overwhelmed. I’ve been known to say it to myself in tough moments too. “Don’t forget to breathe.”
Next time I say it, I want to remember that the breath most needed in that moment, the breath that’s promised us, is the breath of the Holy Spirit. Exhaled by the mouth of God, inhaled by fearful children of God needing courage, by hurting children of God needing healing, by disheartened, dis-spirited children of God needing inspiration, and energy, and Easter hope.
Friends, no matter what this week, or this year, may hold for you or for the crazy world around you, don’t forget to breathe. As you breathe, picture yourselves inhaling the same gift of God’s Spirit that Jesus shared with those fearful disciples on Easter evening. As you breathe in God’s Spirit, you’ll also be receiving the gift of God’s peace.
Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you…
Deep peace of Christ, the light of the world to you.
Deep peace of Christ to you.
Or as rabbi Jesus himself would say, shalom aleichem, “Peace be with you.”