It is certainly work for which the world is hungry. We have only to look at the news coming out of Syria this week; or to contemplate the continued marginalisation and exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples in our own land; or to consider the relentless damage that we are causing to the Eco systems of our planet to know that there is much to be done. But where to start is the question.
Let’s start with the words and actions of the risen Jesus, never a bad beginning place. In our story today the disciples are still trying to digest the news. The women have told them that Jesus is risen, Peter and John have confirmed that the tomb is empty, and now Cleopas and his friend or partner have come rushing in, saying that they too have seen Jesus. It is all mayhem and confusion and into all of this comes Jesus himself and says, ‘peace be with you’.
Now notice what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, ‘hi everyone, it’s okay, it’s me, there’s nothing to worry about.’ He does not make the situation safe for them. Instead he offers peace, shalom. Now shalom is a very big word in Hebrew. It can just be a greeting, ‘g’day’, ‘hi’; but behind it are words in Hebrew that have to do with hospitality, and with being spacious and complete. As the writer Cornelius Plantinga has written,
“The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”
It does not mean safety or security - indeed it is used in the Old Testament of Jewish armies about to go to war. Transformative peace can be risky. Indeed as the liberation theologian Dorothy Soelle puts it, ‘change happens at the level of action that contains risk’. More about her in a little while. Let’s get back to Jesus.
He greets his disciples with this apparently simple, but indeed profound and complex word, Peace. This throws them into complete panic, ‘they were startled and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost’, not a good thing to be seeing especially in the ancient world which associated ghosts with evil spirits.
So Jesus encounters fear. This is often what we encounter, in ourselves and others, when we seek to change something (hence in our context homophobia, transphobia and so on). So notice how Jesus deals with this in two ways, firstly by establishing relationship, and only then, when the bond is made and fear allayed, by education. So relationship first; then education, because minds that are fearful cannot be opened.
Let’s dig into it a bit more. First of all he acknowledges but questions their fear, ‘why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts?’ But then he invites them first to look, and then to touch and finally asks for something to eat. By doing these things he grounds them in their senses - it’s a bit of mini mindfulness training really, tell me what you can see, touch, etc. Then he establishes that he is himself, in the sense of the one they are familiar with, and also that he is like them, he eats fish too. (Though honestly, he’s not eaten since the last supper and the best thing they can come up with is a bit of barbecued fish?! What happened to the left over lamb?) But again, he is establishing normality - this was a fishing community, the most common dish would be grilled fish. Indeed there is a good case to be made that the food of communion should be fish and wine rather than bread and wine, for this is the meal that Jesus prepares on the beach for the disciples in another resurrection story. However the difficulties of storing and preparing fish probably made for a wise liturgical choice!
All that aside, Jesus establishes normality, confidence and relationship. As any of you who have worked in situations of difference, whether of race, sexuality or gender would know very well, establishing relationship, the ability to recognise the other and indeed to eat with them is key. For this allays fear and then a conversation can begin.
And in our story, a conversation does begin. And what a conversation! Just as on the road to Emmaus Jesus ‘opens their minds to understand the scriptures’, helping them to reframe the tragedy they just experienced, and put it in the context of what was supposed to happen. Yes, the Messiah was to suffer, die and rise. This is not new information, but it is information they can now use, because they now need it. It is the same with all education. It is very difficult to learn something of you have no use for it. Now the disciples have a great deal of use for this teaching and are able to receive it. They are enabled to see that whereas before it was all about Jesus and what he would do, now it is all about them, and what they can do throughout the whole world.
What can they do? They can witness that they have seen in Christ the fulfilment of God’s plan for the world. And it is a plan based on love and forgiveness. This is the message that we need for ourselves and that the world needs so desperately. Of course love and forgiveness sound all very nice, but they only really have meaning in situations where forgiveness seems well nigh impossible.
The German theologian Dorothy Soelle, whom I mentioned earlier, was a teenager during the years of Nazi dominance. Not until after the war did she discover that her father was one quarter Jewish and that her family had kept quiet in the face of injustice because of this. She engaged with Christian theology for the rest of her life in the light of the realities of the death camps.
One week after the 9/11 attacks, and just a year or so before her death, she addressed the political night prayer at a church in Hamburg. She said:
‘We live in a cycle of violence and are caught in it. Our prison is the best furnished in world history. Still we are captive in the cycle of violence producing counter-violence. Terror demands counter-terror raising the first terror to another level. Is there no freedom any more to break through the circle? Must we remain spectators when violence increases daily and threatens the lives of the majority of people, fellow-creatures and our mother earth?’
She ended the address with this statement:
‘Rebelling for peace means today “Rebelling for justice.” Justice is the basic condition for peace. In 1983 I was in Vancouver for the World Council of Churches World Assembly. People from the South called our attention to the sequence. Justice and peace belong together but justice comes first.
Globalization from above is a barbaric system of impoverishment of the majority of humankind and destruction of the earth. We need a different economic globalization from below in the interest of the earth and the interest of the poorest.’
Her words give us a clue as to what is asked of us as witnesses to the resurrection, and co-workers with the risen Christ for the liberation of humanity. First we need to seek justice wherever we see injustice, for only then is peace, shalom, possible. Secondly we need to embrace the possibilities of forgiveness.
What might that look like. Well here is a story - it’s just one story, but it displays powerfully what can happen when injustice is recognised and forgiveness is proclaimed to all nations without exception. Susan Retik and Patti Quigley were both widowed on 9/11. Patti was eight months pregnant with her second child when her husband Patrick was killed while traveling on United Flight 175. Susan was seven months pregnant with her third child when her husband David was killed on American Flight 11. Both of them faced the challenges of widowhood and single parenting and after a time they met and supported each other. They also received wonderful support from the community around them. After a time Susan became aware of the plight of widows in Afghanistan, where losing your husband does not just result in th loss of a partner, but loss of status and often of the means of survival. The war has left more than a million widows in Afghanistan. Recognising the injustice of the situation and the need to end the cycle of violence,Susan, together with her friend Patti, founded in 2003 an organisation called Beyond the 11th, that seeks to bring not just relief, but also opportunities for education and grants to establish businesses to those widows. In 2006 Susan and Patti visited Afghanistan and established personal bonds with many of those they were seeking to help and their story became a documentary called Beyond Belief that some of you may have seen.
In the face of total devastation and desperate grief, these two women chose not to perpetuate the cycle of violence, but rather to do something positive to transform it. In the place of fear, they chose to do what Jesus did, to speak a word of peace, to look and touch the realities of the wounds of war on both sides; and ultimately to sit and eat with those whose lives were at once so different and so similar to their own. Then with fear overcome and relationship established, they have been able to establish the projects of education that are making a real difference to the lives of their supposed ‘enemies’.
To recap. Jesus overcame fear by establishing relationship, especially the kind of relationship where food is shared. Then he helped his disciples to understand that as his body in the world their task was to transform by the proclamation of forgiveness to ‘all nations’ , a kind of shorthand for all the most desperate situations where hatred and violence seem to have no sense and no end. So this is our task, to seek the ways of justice and forgiveness that ultimately lead to peace, shalom. We cannot choose how that will be for us, the opportunities that will come our way. But we can choose how we act when they arise, and we can prepare ourselves by prayer. For when we enter deeply into prayer, we learn to let go of our egos and our little wants, and to recognise our deep connection in the body of Christ with our brothers and sisters throughout the world. For that which unites us is so much greater than anything that divides us, and recognising this at the level of mystical prayer is in itself a form of resistance to every economic and political force that seeks to divide and crucify. Some final words from Dorothy Soelle
“One of the basic mystical insights in the diverse religions envisions the unity of all human beings, indeed, of all living beings. It is part of the oldest wisdom of religion that life is no individual and autonomous achievement. Life cannot be made, produced, or purchased, and is not the property of private owners. Instead, life is a mystery of being bound up with and belonging one to another. Gandhi believed that he could live a spiritual life only when he began to identify himself with the whole of humankind, and he could do that only by entering into politics. For him the entire range of all human activities is an indivisible whole. Social, economic, political, and religious concerns cannot be cultivated in sterile plots that are hermetically sealed off from one another. To bring those sterile, sealed-off plots together in a related whole is one of the aims of the mysticism whose name is resistance.”
So in the name of the risen Christ may we resist injustice and seek peace, and may we witness to all nations the power of forgiveness to transform and liberate. In the name of Christ our liberator. Amen