First things first, let’s correct the misunderstanding about fear of the Jews in this Gospel reading (v. 19). Scholars note that this likely refers to how the Jesus movement, a new sect of Judaism that was forming at the time this Gospel was being written, was causing strife and disagreement within the corners of that religion. “Fear of the Jews” was a reference from Jewish Christ followers about an internal disagreement. This was not meant to mark an entire people group as responsible for violence or as recipients of violence.
With this in mind, we understand how visionary Jesus’ message is: “Peace be with you” (v. 19). In the midst of their palpable fear of the unknown, Jesus gives them the authority and power to reframe their fears. Instead of feeling helpless in relationship to the powers that be, Jesus gives them the power of the Spirit that has raised him from the dead! What could they possibly be afraid of now?
Over the centuries people have misunderstood this story, as if it grants broad permission to hate, harm, and discriminate against an entire group of people via anti-Semitism. As history has borne out, we often misidentify our true fears by equating them with entire groups of people. Instead of honestly confronting our fear of the unknown, of uncertain danger, of lost jobs, of lost traditions, of lost decency, we foist our unprocessed and unnamed anxieties onto people or parties or nations and cause them harm.
Jesus ends this passage saying that if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. In other words, when we mischaracterize entire people groups or beliefs, we are being dishonest. When we cling to our fears and prejudices, we retain our sins and have no room for peace.
When have fears and prejudice kept you from experiencing the peace of Christ?
God, surprise us with the rich joy that comes from knowing your peace and discovering your image in the faces of those we don’t know. Amen.