So here we are, in the middle of the Easter season, which, by the way, is seven Sundays long, so that it is a full week of Easter. And Jesus comes to the disciples and says, “Peace be with you.” But to be honest, after hearing our reading from Acts, I’m not feeling very peaceful.
As you’ve seen, I get pretty uncomfortable with texts in our New Testament that bash “the Jews,” seeing as how Jesus was one of them, along with Paul and Peter and all the first disciples and founders of the church. We heard a number of them in the Gospel of John during Lent and Holy Week, leading up to Easter, and now we have another one in Acts, which particularly troubles me: We have the apostle Peter, seemingly out of nowhere, launching into an aggressive accusation against those who are at the Temple the same day as he: “But you [meaning the Jews standing there] rejected the Holy and Righteous One, ... and you killed the Author of life.” And it’s not the first time he says this. Just one chapter earlier, he says to the Jews, talking about Jesus, “this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.” Peter lashes out at them, accusing them not just of killing Jesus, but of using Roman hands––unclean hands––to get away with it. He accuses them not just of murder, but of being complete hypocrites as they do so.
Now this is all bad enough, particularly because it oversimplifies what happened, and because it has led to Christian pogroms against the Jews throughout history. But what really bothers me about it is that this is Peter making these accusations. Peter, Jesus’ lead disciple, who took out a sword and cut off a soldier’s ear in the Garden of Gethsemane, who denied Jesus three times after Jesus was arrested in order to save his own skin, who didn’t believe that Jesus was risen when the women told him that they had seen the risen Christ. Peter was no saint, so to speak. He was violently impulsive, he abandoned his leader in a crisis, and he was so full of himself that he wouldn’t take anyone else’s word until he saw it himself. (Hey, isn’t there another disciple like that?) If there’s anyone who should be judged for the way they acted towards Jesus, it really ought to be Peter. It’s one thing to act that way towards your enemy, but towards your friend? And this after Jesus tells them to love their neighbour as themselves.
But maybe that’s what’s going on here. Maybe Peter doesn’t love himself. Maybe Peter is quite aware of what he’s done. Maybe Peter lies awake at night agonizing over his abandonment of Jesus, replaying in his mind that whole evening and the next day, imagining that if he had it to do all over again how he would have declared his loyalty to Jesus over Rome and been up there on that cross instead of Jesus. Maybe Peter is so consumed with his own guilt and hypocrisy that he is unable to forgive himself and so he lashes out at others for theirs.
It’s not that I want to psychologize Peter, it’s just that it’s a fairly common experience in life that we tend to accuse people of what we ourselves feel guilt or shame over. This is especially true for things we’ve done that we’re ashamed of––the whole nature of shame is that it affects us so deeply that we can’t even directly explore the things that cause us to feel shame. Guilt is feeling bad about what we’ve done, while shame is feeling bad about who we are. Internalized guilt becomes shame, and that’s when we stop being able to think about it. We become unable to think about the terrible things we’ve done because they seem to us proof of the terrible person we are. But shame persists, and it surfaces in our criticisms of others. We deal with our shame by focusing it on someone else. We judge others the way we are secretly judging ourselves. We handle our disappointment and judgment and hatred of ourselves by moving it to a disappointment with and judgement and hatred of others.
Which I think is what Peter is doing. His deeds of denial and abandonment were awful and he seems to have felt that deeply. We know that after the resurrection, Jesus had to tell Peter three times to take care of Jesus’ sheep, because Peter seemed unable to believe that Jesus would want him to do such a thing. And so this, combined with Peter’s lashing out in our readings from Acts, makes me wonder if Peter was unable to forgive himself for his denial and betrayal of Jesus, if he felt a deep and abiding sense of shame over his behaviour. And it makes sense to me that if he was unable to forgive himself, and was ashamed of betraying Jesus, that he would externalize that and be unable to forgive anyone else, either. That he would transfer his own shame to other Jews around him, and accuse them of rejecting the Holy and Righteous One and killing the Author of life when indeed, it was he himself he was really accusing. In one context or another, we all do this.
But Jesus offers us an alternative to this interplay of shame of one’s self and accusation of another. In place of the spiritual and emotional and psychological death that feeling shame brings to us, Jesus offers us new life that is rooted not in ourselves, or in our actions or inactions, but in Christ. Specifically, in Christ’s death and resurrection for our sake. Because of Christ, we are forgiven and healed. Because of Christ, guilt and shame no longer determine who we are. Instead, the righteousness and holiness and goodness of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, determine who we are, and determine that we are children of God.
And this disrupts shame and accusation because once we accept that we ourselves are forgiven, we can forgive others. Once we consider ourselves loved and accepted, instead of guilty and shameful, we can then move onto to loving and accepting others, even with all their guilt. When Jesus says that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves, it is very clear that this is rooted in loving ourselves. This is not a call to become selfish, but rather a call to accept what God in Christ has done for us. To believe, actually, in Easter. To build our entire lives and our entire self-image and all of our relationships on the central claim of our faith, that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God forgives us all our sins and redeems us and that there is nothing we can do that is stronger than that forgiveness and redemption. To refuse to forgive ourselves, to be ashamed of ourselves, to fail to love ourselves becomes, then, a denial of what Christ as accomplished in Easter. It is putting the power of our sinfulness above the power of God.
But God’s power, shown to us in Easter, is the true power. And God’s power removes our guilt and our shame and forgives us and makes us God’s beloved children. And this is the peace that Jesus brings. This is why Jesus appears to the disciples in our Gospel reading, which, remember, is still taking place on the same day that the tomb was discovered empty. This is less than three days after the disciples of Jesus all fled and left him to die, and the shame of their actions would no doubt have been incredibly high. And Jesus appears amongst them and the first thing he says is, “Peace be with you.” Be at peace. The disciples are not to be troubled by what they have done or left undone. They are not to be troubled, or feel ashamed, by who they have been up to this point. Be at peace.
Jesus says the same thing to you. “Peace be with you.” Jesus wishes you to be at peace, to experience the peace of being forgiven and of believing that, because of the cross, you truly no longer have anything to be ashamed of. Jesus Christ is not ashamed of you. He does not wish you to live in the anxiety and trouble of guilt and shame. He wishes you to live in peace, believing that he has forgiven you and died for you.
Now Matthew 5:24 tells us that before we “leave [our] gift at the altar,” we need to first be reconciled with our brothers and sisters. It leaves us with the impression that we must forgive and be forgiven by those around us, to be at peace with them, before we can come forward and receive God’s forgiveness. This Bible Verse is the reason we share the peace of Christ with one another before the offering. (See, all of our liturgy is actually rooted in Scripture.)
But there’s an important thing that happens right before you all share the peace with one another. And that’s that I share Christ’s peace with you. I tell you first, in person, that Christ has come to you and forgives you and wishes peace for you, so that you can then do the same for your neighbour. You are reminded that you are forgiven, and in the peace of that forgiveness can then extend forgiveness and peace to one another. You are freed from self-accusation so that you can be freed from accusing others. You are reconciled with God through Christ first, and then to one another.
I wonder what the church’s relationship with others would have been like if Peter had truly forgiven himself for what he had done. If he had been able to offer compassion and forgiveness to others instead of accusations. But more than that, I wonder what our relationship with others might be like if we truly forgive ourselves for what we have done in our own lives. If we accept that Christ really means for us to be at peace with ourselves and if, out of that, we then extend that peace to others. I suspect it would be Easter resurrection for the entire world. And so my prayer for you, today and always, is that you truly feel that, through Christ, you are forgiven, and that the peace of Christ be with you, always. Thanks be to God. Amen.