I’ll admit it. When I tell someone “goodbye,” I’m not really thinking, “God be with you,” even if that’s the origin of the word.
When someone sneezes and I say “Bless you!” I’m not actually praying for their health.
Some of our most common phrases have their origins in a world in which people took it for granted that God was somehow involved in even the most mundane aspects of human existence. In a modern (or postmodern!) secular age, we don’t think that way quite as easily.
But even in the ancient world, the significance and meaning of words could fade with familiarity and overuse. To say “Peace be with you” could mean, “I pray that God would bless you with the fullness of his shalom, of his prosperity and peace.”
Or it could mean, “Later, dude.” And everything in between.
I’m guessing that with Jesus, it was more the first meaning than the second.
We saw in the previous post that the resurrected Jesus appeared to his startled disciples and wished them peace; he showed them the wounds in his hands and side to convince them that it was really him, in the flesh (John 20:19-20).
Then he wished them peace a second time:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.” (John 20:21-23, CEB)
John’s telling seems to emphasize the repetition of the blessing. But it’s not as if Jesus felt the need to say “Hi” twice.
As discussed in an earlier post, the biblical concept of peace — or in the Hebrew, shalom — suggests a blessed state of affairs in which everything is as God would have it be. Jesus’ first shalom was spoken into the context of the disciples’ fear: fear of persecution, fear of the unknown, fear of…ghosts. He wished them peace when peace was the furthest thing from their minds.
The second shalom, however, came after their fear had turned to joy. The context is a commission to mission (I know — nice, right?). Throughout the gospel, Jesus spoke repeatedly of being sent by the Father, and the message he gave the disciples through Mary Magdalene was that it was time for him to ascend back to the Father (John 20:17). It was therefore time for them to become the ones who would be sent out with the gospel of life.
One could, of course, take the second shalom as a matter of further reassurance: I’m sending you out into a hostile world with an important mission, so peace be with you — you’re going to need all the help you can get!
But I prefer to read it as signalling that the mission itself was one of peacemaking, of working to bring about manifestations of divine shalom in a lost and broken world. The peace Jesus gave to the disciples was not for their private, personal benefit, but a gift to be shared.
As the Father had sent the Son, so the Son sent the disciples. And as Jesus had been empowered by the Holy Spirit, so too would the disciples need to be empowered to do the work they were commissioned to do. We’ll take that up in Sunday’s post.