Peace be with you

From the Rev. Joe Hensley, rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Third Sunday of Easter Year B, April 19, 2015

handshakePeace be with you. These are the risen Jesus’ first words to his disciples as he appears to them late on that Easter Day. These are the words we share with one another each week in our worship service before we share the Holy Eucharist together. These words are really a resurrection greeting. They are an invitation to wholeness, fulfillment, and new life. Peace be with you.

So often when we think of peace, we think of the absence of conflict. We think of peacefulness, serenity, calm. So when we say, “The Peace of the Lord be always with you,” we might be thinking: “Jesus was such a peaceful person…may you also be peaceful like Jesus.” When we share the peace, though, we are sharing so much more than just a feeling of calm. The word that Jesus and the Hebrews used for peace, “Shalom,” carries with it a sense of being whole and complete. Peace means the fulfillment of all that God has called us to be. We are not merely without conflict. We are at peace, because all the pieces are in place. We are no longer at war with ourselves and each other, because we have all we need.

It was customary in Jesus’ time to greet someone with the words, “Peace be with you.” The words did not necessarily carry a lot of symbolism. It could have been that Jesus was just greeting his disciples in the customary way. But I choose to believe that he also really meant what he said. He really wanted them to know true fulfillment. Jesus wants us to know true fulfillment also, wholeness and completeness that can endure suffering and even death and still live and breathe, touch and taste, just like the risen Christ.

I am reminded of an old story which takes place hundreds if not thousands of years ago. In these ancient times, if you were traveling alone, you had to be on your guard. Deserted trails and roads were rarely protected. If you met someone along the way, they might be a bandit or a thief. One day, a man was traveling in a wild and lonesome place where the path was quite narrow because of the rocks on either side. He sees another man coming along the path towards him. He does not recognize the man as anyone he knows he can trust. He will not be able to step aside to let the other man pass. So they meet, unable to easily pass one another in this narrow spot, and are looking at each other, trying to decide what to do. Then the first man does something completely unexpected and unconventional. He extends his empty right hand to the other man. Now to extend your empty dominant hand, the hand you would normally use to pull out your sword or knife…to put that hand, empty, out in front of you…was a risky thing to do. It meant being vulnerable. The second man was so taken aback by this gesture that he wasn’t sure how to respond at first. He had never seen anyone do this. Was it some kind of trick? He looks the first man in the eye and thinks maybe he will try it too. He extends his empty right hand. The two hands get closer and closer until they touch and the two men squeeze hands. It was the very first handshake.

Of course, we don’t know for certain when or where the first handshake occurred. But somewhere, sometime, there must have been someone who was willing to take that risk to extend the empty hand as a gesture of peace. The open hand was a sign that you could trust.

The risen Jesus extends his empty and wounded hands to his disciples with the words “Peace be with you.” His resurrected body is a sign to us that God is ready to make peace with us. Jesus is God’s handshake to us. God wants us to trust and believe in the gifts of repentance and forgiveness. God is ready to help us change our lives and release us from all our spiritual debts. Even though we continue to put our hands on our swords. Even though we continue to look with suspicion at the good things of this world. Even though we doubt that we are loveable or that we can love…God extends the vulnerable, empty hand of the Easter Jesus to us and says “Peace be with you.”

Our Easter gift to ourselves and one another is to put aside our fears and reach out that empty hand to God and to a neighbor. There will be moments when we encounter another, and we will be tempted to reach for our defenses. What are our defenses? What words, thoughts, actions do we use to protect ourselves from others? What is our go to response when we meet a stranger along the way? The stranger in ourselves, the stranger on the street, the stranger who may be Christ in disguise? I admit, I am an idealist, but I also know that sometimes we have to defend ourselves. The world can truly be a dangerous place. The murder of a University of Mary Washington student this past week is a horrible reminder. Today is the twentieth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. This week, our Diocese has called upon us to remember the 100th anniversary of the genocide of Armenians in what is now Turkey. Over 1 million Armenians were systematically killed by the Ottoman Empire. But even in a world where such awful things can and do occur, the risen Christ comes and says “peace is possible.” The resurrection witness of Christ is to suggest that we can have the grace to open our hand, open our heart, take a risk to know another, to know ourselves, to know God and God’s peace.

It is no accident that many of us pray with open hands. The Roman Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen, once wrote a book about prayer with that very title. He talks about opening the hand that we often form into a fist. When our hands are tightly clenched around the things we cling to, we cannot be whole. We cannot know peace. We know the peace of God when we come with those open hands, ready to accept the gift only God can give.

Peace be with you, my brothers and sisters. May the peace of Christ, the wounded and vulnerable Christ, be with you. May his shalom, his wholeness and completeness show us where we are clinging too tightly, holding on to our defenses, where we are unwilling to open ourselves. May the peace of the risen Christ help us know that peace which we can share with the world, an open-handed, open-hearted, repenting and forgiving peace that passes all understanding. Alleluia.

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