Like the Hawaiian greeting “Aloha,” or the Hebrew “Shalom,” the greeting “Peace be with you” is a common way that Christians introduce themselves into a common situation as well as depart from it. I began to think of this phrase the other day when I left the hospital and out of habit, said “Peace be with you” to someone who was unconscious. Like many things we do, saying “Peace be with you” is something that I was taught to say but never really gave a great deal of thought to, until I decided to look it up in the Bible.
“Peace be with you” is a quintessentially New Testament phrase, with the only close relation in the Old Testament found in Job, which, loosely translated, says, “May you find peace in the fact that God is with you.” This is not too far off from what the writers Luke and John point to in their use of “Peace be with you.” In each occurrence, it is in the voice of Christ, and is often linked to a deeper revelation of Christ. In John 20, in each of three appearances the risen Lord greets the disciples with “Peace be with you.” In each instance, they are behind closed doors, in the dark. Obviously the disciples were not at peace, even though the revelation had come to fruition, so we can see the spark of irony or even humor that is found here.
Most of the other places in the New Testament where we find this phrase are in the midst of the Pauline epistles. In Greek, the word “peace” is eivrh,nh. The Friburg Lexicon says:
eivrh,nh means peace or literally, a state of peace, that is the opposite of po,lemoj(armed conflict, war); figuratively, as an agreement between persons, in contrast to diamerismo,j (division, dissension); It is used as a greeting or farewell corresponding to the Hebrew word shalom: health, welfare, peace (to you), or as a religious disposition characterized by inner rest and harmony, peace, freedom from anxiety; or as a state of reconciliation with God of an end-time condition, as the salvation of mankind brought about through Christ's reign.
Peace can be difficult to achieve, especially when we place ourselves in the middle of controversy or distress. If there is anything that we learn from Job or the Gospel of John, it is that peace is a function that can only be a result of our allowing God to work his peace in this world.
Some might counter, “I do work for peace,” but here is the real kicker: in order for peace to grab hold, we need to let ourselves be given over to God, no strings attached. Granted, this is virtually impossible in the midst of our society. We operate, myself included, in the reality and complexity of our social structure, which causes us to choose safety, security, and sometimes personal comfort in lieu of peace.
In discussing grace, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of costly grace and cheap grace. He argues that the grace God offers is a costly one that ultimately calls us to give everything over to God, rather than a cheap grace which requires nothing. Here is where peace and grace become similar, in that true peace will come only when the whole of the earth accepts and welcomes that peace. Until then, we can only work for peace in our little corner of the world.
Answering God’s call for us to work for justice and equal voice among all the residents of our community is one way to bring peace among us. Among the many other ways to bring peace to our part of the world is to reach out to others and reconcile estrangements. Opening our ears and eyes to see and hear how God is calling us, and changing to meet other people’s needs are two more ways.
So when we turn to each other on Sunday morning and offer the peace, I hope you remember this note. I hope that you see that when we say, “Peace be with you,” we are making a pledge to work together as a community. Furthermore, we are calling each other to step out of our “box” and let the spirit of God guide us in which ever way God chooses. In this spirit, I say: Peace be with you!
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen