Don’t Miss Universe It

I have a friend, let’s call her Joan, who has been having a hard time for almost a decade. This includes legally, relationally, and with parenting issues, although professionally she has done very well. Easter did not give her any uplift. In fact, she shared that she has been praying for a Win lately. “I tell God every morning, I just need a Win, God. A big Win. A Win so I can feel like a Winner again.” It left me speechless, which if you know me is quite astounding. I was stuck thinking about my own life experience, which included more losses than wins, and certainly never really feeling like a “Winner.” I thought of the feeling of disappointment and lostness, after the Win not the invincibility or Winnerness I wanted to feel. It set me up for searching for the secret to Winning. In my life, it has been losing that has released me from the tyranny of the illusion of Winning. With my friend, I couldn’t find the words to explain how the Win she was seeking would be like all the other Wins she had set her heart on.

Dave Zahl, my colleague in preaching here, addresses this in his new book Seculousity, which I couldn’t stop reading this weekend. He writes, “Victory doesn’t usher in contentment or peace so much as fear, paranoia, and the pressure to maintain…Performancism turns life into a competition to be won or a problem to be solved, as opposed to, say, a series of moments to be experienced or an adventure to relish…this lies at the root of much of the skyrocketing anxiety, loneliness, and fatigue that saddle so many hearts and minds today.” (8)

I did not come to this on my own—in fact I was a mid-life inductee into the clergy, after the heartbreak of Winning all the things that I thought would make my life feel like a success. I had the great job, the successful husband, the 2 kids and the dog. A house that didn’t even need a picket fence—all the trimmings, and all the heartbreak, of the successful life. I even had Religion- had it all of my life. But I felt hallowed out—not like a Winner. More like an imposter. A loser who created the illusion of a winner. What had I done wrong? Where did I miss the memo?

This is where I connect with the scripture today from John. The disciples are locked in a room, feeling like failures, wondering why their charismatic leader had been killed in a crowd fueled lynching. What had they done wrong? What were they going to do now? What a week before looked like a big Win on Palm Sunday, looked like a big scary failure after Good Friday. They were afraid that they would be next. They were not even looking for a resurrection because they were stuck in the death of their leader and the death of their ideas of what winning looked like. And they believe they have lost the person they loved and who loved them. Jesus comes right through the locked doors and walls and tells them, “Peace be with you.”

I have to admit, when I hear the word Peace, I am not impressed. I think of it as the customary response to any question asked of Miss America or Miss Universe, (you know it), “World Peace.” I call it, Miss Universing it. We all say we want peace and yet our actions never reflect anything but self. What we really mean by World Peace is, “People should do as I say do and then I will feel peaceful.”

In this scripture today, Jesus says Peace three times. Peace be with you. Peace be with you. Peace be with you. He is not Miss Universing it, He is bringing it.

Context is important here. Christ has died, a very ugly, bloody death and is now standing in the with the disciples and his first words are, “Peace be with you.” What are we most afraid of? We are like the disciples, we fear death. We lock ourselves in rooms that we think keep us safe from death—rooms like worry, perfectionism, intellectualism, medical and nutritional dedication, among other ways we think we will beat the odds—and yet death finds us anyway. Jesus is answering this fear of ceasing to exist by telling us he has been there for us and all is well. He has come through the doors of death to tell us that the coast is clear, the surrender flag is up, the war is over. We don’t need to be afraid any more.

After this first Peace, Jesus shows the disciples his hands and his side, his wounds from his crucifixion. His resurrection did not erase his wounds and by his wounds, the disciples, even Thomas, recognize Him. We know Christ by His wounds as He knows us by our wounds. As Rev. Fleming Rutledge reminds us, “The resurrection is not just the appearance of a dead person. It is the mighty act of God…[that] negated the powers that nailed him to the cross.” The powers that nailed Christ to the Cross were the powers of darkness—of fear and death. This is the Pentecost of the book of John, where Christ breathes the Holy Spirit’s peace on them. Christ brings the Peace, he does not tell the disciples to be peaceful or to quit being afraid and get it together. He doesn’t accuse them of leaving him and betraying him. He is the Peace. What brings the most peace into your thoughts and emotions? Love. We can think of Christ saying, “My love be with you.” Jesus Christ is the human revelation of God’s love. God is standing in the midst of the disciples, showing the wounds he suffered for them, and us, and breathing love on them.

David Lose makes this clearer for me as he writes, “I’ve usually thought of peace as the absence of something negative — the absence of war, or strife, or fear, or anger. And, indeed, the first definition in the dictionary corroborates this view: “peace: freedom from disturbance.” But it occurs to me on reading and re-reading Jesus’ words to the disciples that maybe I’ve got it wrong. Maybe peace isn’t an absence of something, but instead is its own presence. Maybe peace is something, all on it’s own. Maybe it creates something positive, makes something wonderful possible, not just curtails something negative. Maybe this is what Jesus means by saying, “My peace I give to you.”

Dave Zahl tells us that this peace is “a respite from the noise of daily demand to achieve rather than receive.” The disciples receive Christ’s peace; they don’t achieve it. They have done the opposite, in fact. They are afraid because they know that they have betrayed Christ and don’t deserve the love and peace he is offering them. What does it take for us to receive? The white flag. Like my friend Joan, we might need to stop fighting everything and everyone so that we can win and be the top of the heap. The heap is just piled higher and deeper every time we try to capture the flag at the top. We can let go of control and receive the peace that passes all understanding, the peace that is the kiss of grace.  

One last story as experienced by Timothy Paul Jones. He and his wife adopted a little girl when she was 8 years old. It was her second adoption and the first one had not gone well. The first family always treated her differently than their biological children and when they went on vacation to Disney World every year, they left her with a friend. Once Tim found out this history, he and his wife decided that they needed to go to Disney World. Tim says, “I thought I had mastered the Disney World drill. I knew from previous experiences that the prospect of seeing cast members in freakishly oversized mouse and duck costumes somehow turns children into squirming bundles of emotional instability. What I didn’t expect was that the prospect of visiting this dream world would produce a stream of downright devilish behavior in our newest daughter.” He describes how she amped up the stealing, the insults and other mutinies that an eight-year-old can manufacture. When he called her on it, she said she knew he was going to say she couldn’t go to Disney World. She was going to force his hand before she got disappointed in the end. He says, “She knew she couldn’t earn her way into the Magic Kingdom—she had tried and failed that test several times before—so she was living in a way that placed her as far as possible from the most magical place on earth.” He could have easily have said, “That’s right. You don’t deserve to go!” But he didn’t. He told her, “Is this trip something we’re doing as a family? Are you part of the family? Then you are going. We’re not leaving you behind.”

It would be nice to say that she had no bad behavior after that but we all know that she still didn’t believe she would go until the night after she had experienced all the lines, bad food and overpriced tickets that Disney World can offer. That night, when she was going to bed, she told Tim, “Daddy, I finally got to go to Disney World. But it wasn’t because I was good; it’s because I’m yours.”

Grace isn’t a peace you can achieve by being good; it’s a gift you receive by being God’s. It’s God’s goodness that comes looking for you when you have nothing to offer except being afraid in your locked room. This is the ineffable and indescribable mystery of the peace that passes all understanding that is grace.

Peace be with you. Amen