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Before we look at this post-Easter story, I want to remind us all of a pre-Easter story. Let’s go back to the Sea of Galilee, way back in chapter 8 of Luke’s Gospel. There we find the disciples and Jesus on a boat headed out into the waves, when a storm comes up and everyone is terrified. They wake an exhausted Jesus up, who is sleeping through the whole thing, and he says, “Have you no faith at all?” In Mark’s gospel, he calms the storm by saying, “Be quiet!”, which is sometimes translated as him shouting to the clouds, “Peace!” and everything gets still. It’s what we often think peace is, especially those of us who have kids, though the word in Greek in that calming the sea section of Mark is the word for “quiet” or “stillness”, and not the word eirene (ear-eh-ne), which is the word for peace. Translators have just taken some liberty with the word usage, perhaps because for a long time, we have thought that peace means calm, or the lack of conflict, or passiveness. But this is not the peace that Jesus leaves with us.
Many of us have been longing for a little quiet, a little stillness so we can rest after a long two weeks of perpetual outrage and moral indignation, which is NOT is short supply these days. The teacher walkout is over. Only it’s not. The unions may have called it off, the districts may have called it off, but the teachers, I’m telling you right now, have not called it off…and they’re the ones who called it on in the first place. The teachers I talk to aren’t really sure what they’re going to do now but I suspect this will be a very interesting week to come, as frustration and anger find new targets and we find out just how destructive and divisive a good rally can become.
I’ve been reminded a lot recently in this time of resistance and organization, and lack of organized resistance, of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – particularly near the 50th anniversary of his assassination. I think it’s important for us to remember the details of the last portion of his life. King had come to Memphis not for voting rights, but for the rights of sanitation workers to receive living wages, to strike if the need was there and to speak out against a system that was dependent on their work but kept them powerless and poor…just like slavery. He gave a now famous speech to the gathered workers, where he says, “I have looked down from the mountain and I have seen the promised land…” before the haunting line, a harbinger of the next morning, “I may not get there with you.” That is seared into our memories. But before that speech, there was a march. It was a march of sanitation workers into downtown Memphis that exploded into violence and chaos, causing Dr. King and his allies to flee the march and damaging his claim of non-violent protest as well as his dedication to the cause. But he returned. He came back to Memphis because he had seen the promised land, and it was a land where what happens to you, happens to me…where we are interconnected…tied together, as he wrote, in a single garment of destiny.
Dr. King meant something else by peace, too. He meant peace as a way of life, rooted in the practice of non-violence, and he had to spend a lot of time explaining the tactics of that non-violence, both to his own people and to the world outside that circle. Non-violent resistance asserts, first and foremost, that one can resist evil without resorting to violence. It seeks understanding and opposes evil itself, rather than scapegoating the person committing the evil act. It believes that suffering itself can be redemptive, so it does not turn away from sacrificial work. While it most certainly avoids physical violence, it also avoids the internal violence of spirit, resisting the urge to hate those who hate, for instance. And nonviolent resistance, in the way that Dr. King practiced it, must have a “deep faith in the future,” stemming from the conviction that “the universe is on the side of justice”.
This is a mighty task on the best of days, made infinitely more difficult when the chips are down and the feelings of disappointment and dissatisfaction rule the day. This is the challenge of the next few weeks, to reshape a walkout into a movement, to find the energy and drive to move past the moment and continue to ask ourselves, after victory or defeat, what now?
This is precisely where the disciples found themselves on the road to Emmaus, broken and distraught over the murder of Jesus, they talk. The text says, “about all the things that had happened”, but we don’t really know what that means. They had heard the news of the tomb, but what details did they have? Facebook would have come in really handy for them – snap a selfie next to the rolled away stone and list the details…#he’sback. But, alas, that’s not how it worked then. So they were left to wonder as they wandered, talking to this “stranger”, amazed at how uninformed he is.
The “what now” of the situation is pretty lost on them, other than to get to the next town and regroup. When the hidden Jesus explains everything to them, they don’t get it. When he details the scriptural connections, emphasizes to them how “slow of heart” they are, they don’t budge. It is not until they stop for the night and, seeing that he plans to walk on alone into the darkness, they welcome him in, they share their food, they are hospitable, engaging in some basic humanity to this stranger….and when the bread is broken, then they recognize Jesus…and he vanishes.
Only they did recognize something they now realize. Their hearts were burning, they recall, as he spoke to them about the connections, as he explained things to them. I don’t really know what that means – their hearts were burning. Maybe some Tums would help? Or maybe it is something more like the feeling I’ve had over the past couple of weeks as I witnessed strangers linking arms and chanting for support, as I’ve seen and helped my colleagues trying hard to make their church a stand-in for all that TPS does on a daily basis, as I’ve stood with teachers who all know what it means to care for other people’s kids as if they were their own. In those moments we really knew what it meant to be together, how community ought to work. Maybe that’s what the disciples were feeling, like the words of their rabbi were actually real, and they could trust in them even when it looked like failure…that there will still another chapter to come, even after Rome thought they had eliminated the problem.
This is what I think some people in power have in mind now. The walkout is over. Therefore that little effort is dead. Back to business as usual. Only they had 600 people file to run for office – a record. And the conversations are still happening. And parents and students and, yes, even some teachers will still be at the Capitol on Monday morning. And we know what community looks and sounds and feels like, we know what it is like to have a table where we pull up extra chairs and we’re not going back to business as usual.
The disciples regroup with the others as our story continues, and they recount this experience with the risen Christ, all of whom have had similar encounters. And suddenly Jesus appears among them and says – Peace be with you. It is the single most repeated phrase from the resurrected Christ. Peace be with you. And though he comes each time with the greeting of peace, it is not quiet or stillness that he offers. The word, in Greek is eirene, which comes from the root verb eiro, meaning to join or bind together that which has been separated. The peace of the risen Christ is the ability to bind together that which has been separated. It stands in direct contrast to a violence which, as Dr. King wrote, “is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all.” It is not simply the absence of war, as the Greek implies, but rather more like the Hebrew shalom that Jesus almost certainly had in mind when he gave this greeting…a shalom that comes from being in right relationship with God and one another.
So when the risen Christ says, “Peace be with you”, it is not a state of blessed euphoria or the granting of happiness, prosperity and personal well being. No, it is his peace that he leaves with them, a peace that Jesus taught them was based in trust and hope and the active living of it – there is no way to peace, peace is the way. This is not a statement of passivity or retirement into apathy. No, when we as Christians, as followers of the risen Christ say, “peace is the way”, just as surely as when we say, “peace be with you”, we ought to mean what Jesus meant – we are inviting one another to a new reality, a way to be in the world, and it isn’t everyone for themselves. It is the way of community, the way of shalom – of right relationship with God and one another, the way that gathers together what has been separated and seeks to create systems and laws with the same goal. This is why I say that when we, as Christians, seek things to support in the world, we could scarcely find better things than public education and a strong social safety net. We seek these things not as partisan platform, but because we believe that this is what leads us to wholeness, this kind of common good and love for neighbor is part of the abundant life that Jesus has promised…the peace he leaves with us.
I can tell you that we have some foundation already, some leverage for our own hearts in the memories of the past days, where a community came together to respond to one another’s needs…where perfect strangers looked after one another’s children and we filled tables with food and drink for anyone who would come to the table. It was a secular metaphor for our Christian metaphor – the table where all are welcome for no other reason than they are a human being. And I’ll tell you, I wasn’t sure that still existed out there in the numbers that I saw over the past two weeks. A BIG takeaway for me, one that helps soften the blow of an uncooperative legislature, is that we gathered…we set a table for one another…we bound together people who have felt separated, me included, and we felt our numbers and saw that what we hold in our own hearts, something we thought was “just us”, or maybe “just my church”, could actually be bigger than we imagined.
In these times of great turmoil and separation we must remember to take every chance to gather together, to come to the various tables around which we live. For we all know that there are things separated which must be bound back together…like our social fabric, our sense of common good, like our commitment to the simple and radical idea that either all of us matter or none of us do. For Christ will not be known to us in the loudest praise, or in the correctness of our theology. Christ will not be known to us in our righteous anger or our vengeful retaliation, no matter how justified. Christ will be known to us in the breaking of the bread…in the invitation…in the hope of a table set for everyone, where either all of us matter or none of us do. That’s when we’ll recognize Christ…who’s been standing beside us the whole time.