a sermon on Psalm 85 and Luke 24:28-43
It’s hard to believe that ten years ago I was in my final interviews and negotiations to become your pastor—I’m actually pretty sure that exactly ten years ago today we met with the presbytery’s Committee on Ministry—and it is maybe even harder to believe that I remember anything at all about that whirlwind experience! Still, I recall very clearly talking with the pastor nominating committee about worship—what was important to you, what you might be open to doing differently, and especially what was distinctive in worship here.
One thing that the committee talked about at length was the passing of the peace. They told me with great enthusiasm about who it involved everyone greeting everyone else with the warmth of God’s love and how the service would just not be the same without it. Over ten years, I have discovered that the committee was very much correct: the passing of the peace is a very important part of our worship here. Still, I must break some difficult news to you, and after ten years I hope you are able to hear it with the honesty and love that I intend: passing the peace is a very important part of worship for a lot of small churches, not just this one!
We do something right here in making the passing of the peace an important part of the service. As you know so well, this is not just a perfunctory greeting—it is the embodiment of God’s love and peace and hope that we are privileged to share with one another. This time of greeting one another is not about saying hello to the people we haven’t seen since last Sunday but rather about extending God’s welcome to all who join us for worship. This time of sharing peace assures us of God’s peace with each one of us in a way that opens us to live out that peace in and with our world.
All these things are embodied in our scripture readings today that give us a deeper perspective of God’s peace and so inform this practice of our worship. Each text brings a different perspective on what this peace is and how it spreads in the world, but both make it very clear that the peace that we share in this weekly ritual comes from God.
First, Psalm 85 describes how God’s peace is offered to us in words so that it can be lived out. Amid the brokenness and pain of our world, with the memory of past salvation and reconciliation close at hand, the psalmist describes how God’s people await a word of peace that will show God’s salvation and glory for the whole earth. But this peace is not just some wonderful and hopeful concept, offered only in beautiful flowing words. This peace actually gets lived out as “steadfast love and faithfulness… meet” and “righteousness and peace… kiss each other.”
This strange and wonderful imagery of peace had to stand out in the world of its first hearers. As contentious and fractured as our world so often seems to be, ancient Israel was touched even more regularly by war. I suspect that peace was far more often a dream than a reality in that day and age, for Israel stood at the crossroads of world culture and commerce and was always under attack by some outside culture or empire. So to hear a proclamation of peace like this had to be quite startling.
If that wasn’t enough, the meaning of the word used for peace here, shalom, went far beyond a description of the absence of conflict. This shalom points to not just the absence of conflict but also the presence of wholeness, completeness, and safety—the deeper elements of peace that come from God and are offered to us to share. Shalom is a transformative way of life that makes the world a different place, emerging from the ashes of human conflict to bring hope, stepping out of changed relationships so that we can live differently, in harmony with one another and all creation. And so each week we are invited to share this peace, not just a peace of greeting one another in the usual way at the usual time but a transformative peace that breaks down the barriers that divide us and demonstrates how we can live and share God’s peace in the world.
One of the best examples of sharing God’s peace in this way is on display in our New testament reading for today from the gospel according to Luke. This story of Easter evening presents us with a situation filled with fear and excitement as Jesus appeared to his disciples on the night of his resurrection. Jesus had been revealed to several of them earlier in the day, including to two of them who had walked with him on the road and not recognized him until they sat down to share a meal. But when he showed up as all eleven of the disciples were gathering on that Easter Sunday evening, they were “startled and terrified.” They didn’t quite know what to do—they “thought they were seeing a ghost” because they just had not figured out how their beloved teacher who had been executed and buried just three days earlier was now alive again. So Jesus’ first words to them set the stage for our sharing each Sunday: “Peace be with you.” These were not magical words to automatically fix everything, for Luke reports that “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering,” but in sharing this peace, Jesus invited them to take comfort in the gift of his presence so that they might share it with others.
The peace Jesus shared with his disciples continues to be shared in these days. When we pass the peace each Sunday, we bear this kind of wholeness and new life into our lives and our world. In worship, we pass the peace following the confession and pardon so that we can celebrate the ways our forgiveness enables us to walk in newness of life. But when we pass the peace in worship, it is not so much about receiving something to bring us comfort for our own lives but rather about sharing this confidence of new life so that we can live in new and different relationship with one another and the world. What good is God’s peace, after all, if it does not transform how we live with one another? Why is this peace worth passing and sharing if we do not try to make it real with others and our world? How can we expect to be reconciled with God if we do not find reconciliation with one another?
Our world needs this kind of peace now more than ever. We have not had to look far in our news this week to see the need for changed relationships of wholeness and peace to take hold. When months of diplomacy resulted in a new agreement with Iran around limits on nuclear and conventional weapons and an end to extensive sanctions, some people said that continued conflict and even potential war was preferable to a pathway towards peace. When the nation of Greece found themselves in the midst of deep economic depression and went to their neighbors and partners in the European Union for assistance, some people labeled Greeks as lazy and incompetent, demanding deeper suffering and continued austerity without any real help to open up new possibilities for wholeness and redevelopment. And when a young Muslim shot and killed five people at two military recruiting stations in Chattanooga, some people immediately labeled him a terrorist, even in the absence of conclusive evidence for such, and Franklin Graham, a minister and son of the beloved evangelist Billy Graham, even called for an end to all Muslim immigration to the United States, continuing a history of xenophobia and racism against our faithful Muslim friends just as their holy month of Ramadan came to an end.
Amid all these seeds and sprouts and full-grown conflicts, God calls us to live out the peace that we pass and share each Sunday in our worship. The psalmist calls us to listen for the peace that God speaks to us so that we might be a part of what is sure and certain to be ahead:
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
And Jesus calls us to set aside our fears and live in reconciliation and peace with one another, recognizing how his resurrection brings new life into being here and now for all the world. If this peace is good enough to share among one another, then it is good enough to share with all the world. It is good enough to inspire us to live in a new way with those who are different from us. And it is good enough to offer to the world as even a glimpse of God’s steadfast love, faithfulness, and righteousness in our actions and beyond.
So may God continue to inspire our worship as we share the peace with one another and give us strength to share that peace with all the world so that we might stand as a witness to new life and hope in our broken and fearful world until all things are made new in the peace and joy of Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God! Amen.