“While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.'” — Luke 24:36 (NIV)
“A week later his disciples were in the house again and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” — John 20:26 (NIV)
Have you ever been reluctant to encounter a friend because you owe him money? Or has a friend avoided you for the same reason? If you have not experienced either case, you surely know someone who has. Something very much like that explains this fourth next word of Jesus.
When Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, no one knew that he had risen. The sight of him, and recognition of who it was, came as a shock. The men did not believe her testimony, but the two men who decided to walk to Emmaus at least decided to talk about it and puzzle about it.
When they, too, recognized Jesus, they returned to Jerusalem with their testimony.
Everyone was happy and joyful with this confirmation of the good news–until Jesus himself showed up. Why would that dampen the mood so much?
Luke says they thought they saw a ghost. We can understand that. It’s not every day that people stand around talking about a dead man who’s up walking again and then he suddenly shows up, despite locked doors, of all things. So he invited them to touch him and asked for something to eat. They still didn’t entirely believe.
There’s more going on that Luke does not say. Peter had denied Jesus three times. Everyone else but John had deserted him and not had courage enough to show up at the cross. For three years, they had experienced his occasional frustration at their lack of understanding. They had seen his anger.
But they had never failed him before as they did after his arrest. And now here he is. What do we do now? What if he’s given up on us? Guilt and shame must have clouded their joy.
John testifies that Thomas was not present on that occasion and that he did not believe their testimony. He declared that seeing Jesus would not be enough. He could not believe until he touched the wounds.
Thomas seems like a gloomy Gus every time we meet him, but let’s not be too critical. Pessimism often causes people to give up on whatever hopes and desires they have. Thomas kept doggedly wanting to believe, even though his own innate pessimism was the only barrier that kept him from it.
The week after Easter must have been much longer for Thomas than for the others. At least they believed their own experience.
Only on the following Sunday did Jesus turn up again. Again they had locked the doors. Whatever all but Thomas believed about Jesus, they did not yet have the courage to declare the risen Christ publicly. Jesus invited Thomas to touch his wounds.
Did Thomas do so? Imagine his shame not only for what he did when Jesus was betrayed, but for doubting his friends’ testimony all week! Yet also imagine his joy as evidence of what he most wanted to believe appeared before him.
John does not say that Thomas indeed touched Jesus. He may have, or he may have been ashamed to. John also does not say that Thomas knelt in worship, either, but how could he not? He called Jesus “My Lord and my God.”
Significantly, when Jesus appeared he did not simply say, “Hello,” or “Greetings,” or any number of possible perfunctory salutations. He said, “Peace be with you.” That may have been a common enough greeting, but surely everyone remembered that he had said, “Peace I leave with you” on the night he was betrayed.
He told them they would all fall away. They did. Then he told them about his peace. He met them with that peace the next time he saw them, right after their greatest failures. Over the coming month, he would say things that would make them uncomfortable. He would scold them later. But not now.
Martin Luther took his sin so much to heart that he tried to atone for it by strict religious devotion. Of course, he failed. As a result, he hated the very concept of the righteousness of Christ. Then he discovered in Romans that God did not intend for him to atone for his own sin. All he needed to do was confess failure, accept Jesus’ sacrifice for it, and he would receive the righteousness of Christ as a gift.
What Luther learned from Scripture, the disciples learned from this early encounter with the risen Lord. God chooses to deal with sin not by punishing it and rejecting the sinner, but by accepting the sinner and offering peace. Sin has consequences, but rejection by God is not among them.
Peace be with you