Scripture: Ecclesiastes 1:1-9; John 20:19-23
Background Scripture: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11; John 20:19-23
It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” John 20:19 CEB
People are searching for a purpose in life that brings them peace. How can we find the meaning and peace in life for which we search? The writer of Ecclesiastes, who tradition says was Solomon, implies that it is our nature to seek meaning and peace, but that we might not find this in our lifetime. John, on the other hand, affirms that we find meaning and peace in life when we receive the Spirit of Christ Jesus.
- to connect teachings in Ecclesiastes about the meaning, purpose, and peace for which we search with John’s account of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance.
- to identify places in our own lives where they need God’s peace.
- to recognize and affirm how Jesus provides purpose and peace in our lives.
hebel (heh’ bel)
Qoheleth (koh hel’ ith)
shalom (sha lom’)
Understanding the Scripture
Reading Ecclesiastes (especially the first Sunday after Easter) can startle people who expect the Scriptures to speak in a single tone of voice. The writer Qoheleth, usually translated “the teacher” or “the preacher”—the Hebrew word derives from the word for the assembly or congregation—takes getting used to. It is too easy to dismiss him as depressed or despondent, a cynic or nihilist or curmudgeon. He has written a dense, complicated, and sometimes contradictory document that does not shrink from the density, complications, and contradictions of living in our world. The apostle Paul reflected on his world in the light of what he witnessed God doing in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ and announced, “everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17); Qoheleth, no less a man of faith than Paul, looked upon his world and declared “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
“All things are hebel,” announces Qoheleth: The NRSV translates with the traditional “vanity”; the NIV translates “meaningless”; others translate “absurdity,” “emptiness,” “futility,” “useless.” All of these translations pick up pieces of Qoheleth’s truth, but no one translation fully captures all of the nuances. The Hebrew root meaning would be “vapor” or “breath,” that which is evanescent and ephemeral, but also that which we cannot grasp, hold, and master. All that seems so permanent, enduring, and significant in time blows away like smoke. Hebel is an important word for Qoheleth, occurring thirty-eight times in these twelve chapters.
Another characteristic usage is “under the sun,” repeated twenty-nine times. “Under the sun” refers to life among the living. The only life beyond death Qoheleth imagines is the life of succeeding generations and their remembrance, but finally even that fades like mist as one generation comes and goes and finally is forgotten. God may be praised from generation to generation (Psalm 79:13), but human endeavor slips into the forgetfulness of history.
What does anything matter, Qoheleth asks, and what is the significance of human “toil under the sun” (1:3)? The wisdom tradition of Israel honors the respectability of hard work: “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (Proverbs 14:23). One thing consistently frustrating Qoheleth in his attempts to find consistency in the world is the way that neither wisdom nor folly provides guarantees of success (2:12-16; 7:15). Although Qoheleth would not dispute the possible short-term benefits, this too is finally hebel, and who can finally know whether hard work finally leads to profit or poverty?
Human beings do not have a place of privilege from which they may make that sort of judgment; that belongs to God alone. From where we must live our lives in “toil under the sun,” the sun is predictably rising and setting to no purpose, and the rivers are flowing to the sea without ever filling the sea.
The unfilled sea mirrors the human condition of dissatisfied emptiness. Verse 8 states “all things are wearisome,” also translated, “all words are wearisome,” which would fit better with the next thought: Things are more tedious than Qoheleth can possibly say. One might almost translate colloquially, “but why am I telling you this?” Why bother with more unsatisfactory words? Why bother with anything at all? But Qoheleth does bother, and beyond the words incessantly announcing that nothing matters very much, we sense that everything is at stake in this writer’s words. The words may not fill us up and they may not satisfy us, but Qoheleth’s astringent honesty compels a hearing, even a grudging hearing.
The church calendar reckons time according to Luke’s calculation: Jesus is raised from death on Easter, then fifty days later at Pentecost the Spirit is given (Acts 2:1-13). The Gospel of John places both events on the same day. In the morning Mary Magdalene, Peter, and “the other disciple” (20:4) go to the tomb and find it empty. The two disciples return home, but Mary, remaining at the tomb with her tears, sees the risen Lord. The day passes and at evening Jesus comes to his disciples. The disciples huddle behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews” (20:19), one of the Gospel of John’s curious ways of speaking about Jesus’ opponents, as if Jesus and all the disciples were not Jews. That manner of speaking reflects the situation when the Gospel of John was written, probably sixty years or so after that first Easter, when Jews who followed the way of Jesus were no longer welcome in synagogues. The risen Christ’s words to the disciples are utterly Jewish, drawing on the deep hopes of the Scriptures: “Peace be with you,” he says, echoing the blessing given by God to Moses to give to the children of Aaron (Numbers 6:24-26). God’s promise of peace, shalom, is the heartbeat of Isaiah’s words of comfort and hope (Isaiah 52:7; 54:10). Shalom is not simply the absence of war or an interval between conflicts, but the healing of the creation into the harmony God has always intended. Christ’s blessing, “Peace be with you,” draws from the deep wells of God’s promise of peace, but who could believe such a promise could be coming true after everything that had happened that weekend? It is precisely the signs of Jesus suffering—“he showed them his hands and his side” (20:20)—that validate the blessing of peace. When the disciples see the wounds they rejoice as Isaiah expected people to rejoice in response to peace (Isaiah 55:12), and Jesus blesses them a second time and sends them out as emissaries of God’s peace. Those who have been disciples (followers of a master) become apostles (those who are sent). Jesus breathes the Spirit upon them (or in them), a daringly intimate picture of the giving of the Spirit. The Spirit in the Gospel of John is the Spirit of the crucified One: Until Jesus is simultaneously crucified and glorified there is no Spirit to give (John 7:39). The gift of forgiveness bears witness to God’s shalom: it is not merely a juridical transaction (“you are forgiven this deed or that neglect”), but a part of God’s healing of all that has been broken by sin.
Interpreting the Scripture
Raising the Tough Questions
It is good to have the book of Ecclesiastes in our Bible. It is good also that the contemplations and questions and critique of Ecclesiastes are bound up together along with the high praise of the Psalms, the confidence of the prophets, and the hope of the Gospels. Read by itself the book of Ecclesiastes is so astringent that we might shudder to hear our existence described in such terms, but reading Ecclesiastes as one more witness to our life lived in the presence of God can provide a strange comfort and an unexpected hope.
The voice we hear in Ecclesiastes is that of Qoheleth, a preacher or teacher, one who gathers a congregation for a time of learning. Qoheleth has seen a thing or two, he has engaged in experiments in living (Ecclesiastes 2:1), and he wants to raise questions with us. It is good to have someone in class who is not afraid to ask the hard questions and to raise the most unsettling concerns. Sometimes we are timid with our questions. We fear what others might think. We fear our own doubts. We fear the questions themselves. Some classes do not permit questions. They think religious faith is a matter only of answers. It is good to have Qoheleth to ask the questions, because his questions are our questions, and the voice we hear in Ecclesiastes is a voice we also hear in our own minds.
That our Scriptures include the book of Ecclesiastes confidently signals that questions are welcomed in our faith. Jesus included among his disciples Thomas, who on at least one occasion risked asking the question that all the disciples must have been thinking. “You know the way,” Jesus tells them (John 14:4), but Thomas blurts that they don’t know “the way” at all, and asks “how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). On this second Sunday of Easter many congregations read each year the story of Thomas questioning the resurrection. He was not present when Jesus appeared to the disciples; he has questions. Jesus does not rebuke his questions but welcomes his skepticism and invites him to experience his risen body firsthand (John 20:27).
Our Life Is a Breath
Qoheleth observes what we all see: the sun rising and setting, the wind blowing this way and that, the generations rising and falling. Nothing seems permanent except the unending repetition, and from what can be directly observed, there seems no point to it all. Everything is transient, insubstantial, and as evanescent as breath.
The meanings we would like to find in life slip away like fog. The success we thought would thrill us was wonderful, but did not entirely satisfy us, and so we look for something else even though we may not quite be certain what it is we seek. The tragedy we thought would destroy us didn’t, and so we live with loss and sadness even as other events appear to give us moments of joy and happiness we never expected. We meet the goals we set, but to what avail? Or we fall short of our best dreams for ourselves, and what does it matter? The world turns on and our triumphs and disappointments weigh no more than a breath on its turning. The phrase “toil under the sun” refers not only to the work human beings do to survive but also the very burden of our own living. How do we live out our brief interlude—our moments of breath—in the never-ceasing procession of the generations that come and go?
The wisdom tradition of Israel occupied itself with providing reliable instruction for life, but Qoheleth observes that those who are wise will die just as fools die (2:15-16). What is the point of wisdom? Still, Qoheleth speaks wisdom. He laments the vanity of more contemplations and more words (1:8), but still he gathers his congregation to teach what wisdom frail, limited human creatures may know.
Again and again the wisdom tradition entreats learners to seek wisdom as they would search for “hidden treasure” (Proverbs 2:4), promising that those who find wisdom will be happy (Proverbs 3:13), enticing students with the incomparable value of wisdom (Proverbs 3:15), and declaring of Woman Wisdom that “all her paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17). The wisdom tradition warns of distractions on this search (Proverbs 2:12-19), especially the temptation to believe that one is already wise or has sufficient wisdom (Proverbs 3:5). (In one sense Qoheleth’s acknowledgment of the limits of wisdom is nothing less than the epitome of wisdom. We can only know so much.) The end of our human searching is not simply that one finds wisdom (Proverbs 3:13) but one discovers that it is the gracious will of God to give wisdom to those who seek (Proverbs 2:3-6).
Nothing less than this grace is enacted in the resurrection story found in the Gospel of John. The first verses of John’s Gospel identify Jesus as the personified Wisdom of God. “The Word” had become a way of speaking of wisdom by the first century. At the beginning of John’s Gospel two disciples of John the Baptist begin following Jesus and he asks them, “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38 NRSV); or “What do you want?” (John 1:38 NIV). They respond, calling Jesus “Rabbi,” and John highlights the title translating it as “teacher.” They place themselves as learners before a teacher. In this case, their teacher is no one other than the very Wisdom of God. The two disciples do not answer Jesus’ question about what they are searching for; it may be as difficult to articulate a statement of what we are looking for as it is to find it. Perhaps they are looking for a way through life. “Ways” were a customary manner of speaking in the wisdom tradition. Perhaps they were seeking a depth of life and the truth about life. As we read John’s Gospel, Jesus—who we know to be the Wisdom of God—reveals himself saying, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6) and “I am the resurrection” (11:25). The disciples are learning wisdom.
Receiving Wisdom and Peace
At the conclusion of the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches his disciples no longer. They have learned what they need to know about who he is. They do not need lessons about him, they need life like his, and this Jesus gives them as he breathes upon them. The breath that for Qoheleth epitomizes the fearful futility of human existence conveys in this story the very gift of life. When Jesus gives his disciples his own breath he means for them to have a life filled with the breath/spirit that animated his own living. The Way of Jesus Christ—the Way that is Jesus Christ—is characterized by peace. With the gift of his peace and his Spirit, Jesus also gives the disciples a commission to share that peace and that Spirit by offering forgiveness. His is a gift—if we may dare say it—that keeps on giving, even from generation to generation.
The contrasts between Ecclesiastes and the Gospel of John are so many and so enormous that it may not be fair to compare them, but perhaps one ironic point is worth noting. Qoheleth’s acidic ruminations about human existence begin by asking the question about what do humans gain from their toil under the sun. Jesus sends his disciples out inviting them to imagine what they might give to a world badly in need of a word of peace.
Sharing the Scripture
Preparing Our Hearts
This week’s devotional reading is found in Luke 24:36-48, which records a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples. Jesus greets his startled followers with the words “Peace be with you.” For Jesus, peace, or in Hebrew shalom, is not simply the absence of conflict, but health and wholeness; in fact, it denotes the healing of all God’s creation. Where do you need peace in your own life? What steps can you take to move toward peace?
Pray that you and your group will do your utmost to bring about the peaceable kingdom that God intends for all creation.
Preparing Our Minds
Study the background from Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 and John 20:19-23. Our lesson will focus on Ecclesiastes 1:1-9 and John 20:19-23. As you prepare to teach, ponder what the Scriptures say about how we can find the meaning and peace in life for which we search.
Leading the Group
- Pray that the participants will recognize the relationship between meaning and peace in their lives.
- Read this anecdote quoted by Rick Warren in The Purpose-Driven Life: Andrei Bitov, a Russian novelist, grew up under an atheistic Communist regime. But God got his attention one dreary day. He recalls, “In my twenty-seventh year, while riding the metro in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) I was overcome with a despair so great that life seemed to stop at once, preempting the future entirely, let alone any meaning. Suddenly, all by itself, a phrase appeared: Without God life makes no sense. Repeating it in astonishment, I rode the phrase up like a moving staircase, got out of the metro and walked into God’s light.
- Challenge the group to discuss experiences in their own lives when they no longer felt in the dark about their purpose in life but realized that purpose in the light of God’s love.
- Read aloud today’s focus statement: People are searching for a purpose in life that brings them peace. How can we find the meaning and peace in life for which we search? The writer of Ecclesiastes, who tradition says was Solomon, implies that it is our nature to seek meaning and peace, but that we might not find this in our lifetime. John, on the other hand, affirms that we find meaning and peace in life when we receive the Spirit of Christ Jesus.
- Choose a volunteer to read Ecclesiastes 1:1-9.
- Point out the variety of meanings for hebel, translated as “vanity” in the NRSV, as found in the second paragraph of Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 in “Understanding the Scripture.”
- Talk about how the examples the Teacher gives in these verses seem to support his belief that all is hebel.
- Read “Our Life Is a Breath” from Interpreting the Scripture and ask these questions.
- Why do you agree or disagree with the Teacher?
- In what ways does a relationship with Christ change the Teacher’s perspective on life— or does it?
- Select one person to read the part of the narrator and one to read the words of Jesus in John 20:19-23. Note that this encounter takes place on the evening of Easter.
- Identify in a group discussion any changes that occur in this brief story:
- In verse 19, fear (based on the unwillingness of the disciples to believe Mary Magdalene’s report of her meeting with the risen Lord) is banished by Jesus’ words of peace.
- In verse 20, the sorrowing disciples now rejoice because they see proof that the one before them is the risen Lord.
- In verse 21, the disciples will no longer be barricaded behind closed doors but are being sent out to do Jesus’ work.
- In verse 22, the disciples will be transformed by the gift of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus had promised to them in John 14:26; 15:26-27; 16:7-11; and 16:12-15.
- In verse 23 the disciples receive the power to forgive sins. As The New Interpreter’s Study Bible explains, in John’s Gospel, “forgiveness of sins is the community’s Spirit-empowered mission to continue Jesus’ work of making God known in the world and through that work to bring the world to judgment and decision through its response to Jesus.”
- Conclude this section by reading the final paragraph of “Receiving Wisdom and Peace” in Interpreting the Scripture. Encourage the group to talk about the contrast between gaining and giving.
- Encourage the group to tell stories of how Jesus has provided purpose and peace in their own lives.
- Invite the group to make a commitment to share with others what they have learned about God’s purpose and peace from their own lives and from today’s Scripture study.
- Pray that the participants will experience God’s peace in their lives and share that peace with others.
- Read aloud the following three ideas. Challenge the group members to commit themselves to use these activities as a springboard to spiritual growth. (1) Read Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life. How does this book affirm or challenge understandings of your own life’s purpose? (2) Write in your spiritual journal about experiences in life that have given you a sense of peace and meaning. Do these experiences still touch your life? If not, how can you regain this sense of peace and meaning? (3) Identify experiences that disrupt your sense of peace. What steps can you take when such disruptions occur to regain your sense of shalom?
- Sing or read aloud “It Is Well with My Soul.”
- Lead this benediction to end today’s session: With all of your creatures, most majestic God, we sing your praises and pray that you would empower us to be wise people and faithful stewards of your creation, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Adapted from The New International Lesson Annual © 2005 Abingdon Press