I Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31
I had thought that Lent would be an appropriate time to look at fear. But fear follows even the resurrection. And, very honestly, it is all around us. Six weeks of Lent barely scratch the surface of modern fears. We give fear a fancy name today – phobia. So I thought I would look up a list of phobias that we recognize today. Wikipedia had 17 phobias listed under the letter A. Some of them are familiar. Arachnophobia: fear of spiders. Acrophobia: fear of heights. Agoraphobia: fear of open places. Wikipedia also lists 27 phobias related to other human beings, phobias that are racist, xenophobic or prejudicial.
This morning’s gospel lesson is set in the evening of the day of resurrection. And the gospel writer tells us that “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” (Today that would be called Judeophobia.) So far, in John’s gospel, the disciples have only Mary’s word that Jesus had been raised from the dead. We don’t know if they believed her. Yet, they had gathered together, behind locked doors.
I came back to the theme of fear when I read Anna Carter Florence’s reflections on this gospel lesson. She focused on “locked doors.” Those locked doors are a means of survival when the world threatens. They are the way we hide ourselves from the world – putting on a brave face while experiencing death, grief, and despair. Vulnerability is the last thing we want to share. We know the world doesn’t feel comfortable with weakness – so we lock ourselves away. My dad died in May of 1995. About a month later one of our nephews on Mark’s side of the family was struck by a car and killed. About a month after that, my great aunt died. About two months later, in September, I was at a board meeting for a denominational center – a spiritual life center. We had a time of quiet reflection and prayer – and I began to cry – to allow my grief to come to the surface. One of the national staff members, also serving the center, critiqued my grief. “You should be over it by now!” he told me curtly. I decided, during my drive home, that if the people from the denomination who were running that center couldn’t understand or make room for grief and pain, I wanted no part of it. So, I resigned – locked myself away from those who would condemn my mourning. Prince Harry has just begun to speak about the danger of “locking away” one’s grief – of putting forth a brave face while dying inside. For almost 20 years, he did not face his own grief. And that approach almost killed him – whereas it seemed that locking it all away was the only way to survive.
I had just read Florence’s reflections when I heard a wonderful interview on the NPR Program “Fresh Air.” David Greene interviewed Moshin Hamid, a Pakistani novelist. Hamid was asked about his response to the growing polarization in our world. Hamid talked, primarily, about the tensions that arise with migration. He has experienced those tensions. His family moved to the United States when he was about ten. As an adult, he lived in the US and in London. Now, he has chosen to raise his own children back in Pakistan. He noted that migration is nothing new. Human beings have been migrating since the beginning of human existence. So, those who want to go back to a “purer” time, a time before a particular culture was tainted by migration, are going to find that no such pure time existed. Migration is inevitable. And migration, the influx of strangers and their ideas creates anxiety. Yet, he noted, cultures have always been changing, adapting – influenced by numerous things, including migration.
Later in the week, on another program, a scientist reflected on the anxiety people are experiencing as they see jobs disappear as automation replaces human beings, as technology advances. NPR also had an entire series that asked the question, “What jobs are safe from robots?” One fast food owner has suggested that no human beings are needed in the fast food business. Already, in many places, we place orders through computer touch screens. He suggested the entire cooking process (and distribution process) would be more efficient, sanitary and cost effective if human beings were eliminated. Certain industries are disappearing because of changes in technology or climate or changes in the wants and needs of the public. Hamid says we are at a hinge point because the rate of change is faster. And that contributes to sates of high anxiety.
Greene asked what Hamid thought our response ought to be. Hamid said we need to reduce levels of anxiety. He noted that often we are terrified of what we think reality is instead of seeking to know what really threatens us. He spoke of our fears of terrorism and said, (this from a man living in Pakistan), that such a fear is blown out of proportion. Terrorism is not as much of a threat to our everyday living as we make it out to be. He suggested that a bigger danger is global warming. So, in the face of terrorism we need courage – courage that allows us to see the limitedness of terror’s power. The more we refuse to let the fears terrorists strive to engender prevail, the more weakened their power is. I was reminded of the days after 9/11 when President Bush said we were to go about our daily lives so that the terrorists would not win.
For me, the most powerful part of the interview with Hamid was his response to Greene’s observation that he did not seem to blame those who are afraid – those who fear the changes and those who see terrorists around every corner. Hamid said that no, he didn’t blame them. Their fears are understandable.
“The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” There is no condemnation here. Jesus came to their locked away gathering. He did not come to condemn, to judge them for abandoning him. He came to show and articulate the good news of God's love. He came to invite them to move out of fear into trust – into proclamation – into service. This story takes us beyond the resurrection to remind us that God chooses to meet us where we are – not only in the incarnation, but through the ongoing presence of the Risen Christ – who comes to us, who abides with us, who does not judge, but invites us to live in and into the new reality of God’s death conquering love. We have John’s Pentecost story here. “Jesus breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” The disciples are empowered to move beyond their fears and offer God’s transforming presence to the world.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” That’s an interesting statement. Maybe it is, in some ways, a warning. They are empowered – yet that empowerment can be used in ways that are healing and in ways that harm. How often has the church taken as its role the “retaining of sins”? How often has the church been unwilling to “forgive”? I read an article reposted about Mark’s parents’ church which is celebrating 200 years. A history compiled by church members lists these items of interest:
• In 1825, church elders tried a member for intemperance and intoxication. He was suspended from attending church services for a period of time. The elders also tried a member for falsehood and another for gambling.
• In 1836, elders tried another member for theft of tea.
• In 1868, elders tried another for intoxication.
• In 1873, women were invited to participate in the election of a new pastor, and the elders tried a member for stealing a ring.
• In 1886, a member was tried for the sale of whiskey and for stealing a dress. (from Finger Lakes Times)
The church, throughout its existence, has been very willing to “retain the sins” of those deemed unacceptable. Scholars suggest that this is Jesus’ proclamation that the church is to continue his work – and his work was focused on forgiveness and inclusion, not judgment and exclusion or even seclusion. The empowered church is not locked away, keeping the world at bay, judging and fearing outsiders. The empowered church remembers the Christ who meets us in the midst of our own fears and sends us out to seek those who are locked away by their fears.
I love the way the story unfolds. We’re told that they gathered again, a week later. However, this time the doors were merely shut – not locked! They had begun to move beyond the fear. They still gathered – as God’s people always have, as we should, as they always will. However, they gathered not to retreat, but to support one another, to strengthen faith. Thomas was with them. And Jesus, again, came to be in their midst. Jesus came to Thomas who feared that the good news of the resurrection was not true. He invited him to faith – and in that invitation there is an implied message that he and all the disciples are to take the good news into the world.
Hamid suggested that we could combat the fears that are crippling people and societies by doing a better job of articulating what the world could be. I was humbled by his grace in understanding and not condemning. Is that not what Jesus did when he came to those frightened disciples, gathered behind locked doors? He understood their fear. He did not condemn. Instead, he offered a way forward.
Florence wondered if the doors were locked because the disciples were afraid, not only of the Jews, but also of the resurrection. The resurrection changed, changes, everything! She wrote, “If our worst suspicions are confirmed, if the dead will not even stay dead…then what could God have in store for us in this post-Easter world? What does God intend to do with our locked-tight selves?...The thing is, the disciples had been praying for this resurrection. They had heard tell of it from Jesus himself. Yet none of these predictions, none of this wisdom, prepared them for how absolutely terrified they would be when it actually happened. And isn’t that comforting, a a twisted sort of way? – to know that even when we hope and pray for it, resurrection never feels safe?!”
“The resurrection never feels safe!” She suggests God’s divine intervention is never predictable. Yet, it is trustworthy. In this age of fear, we can start with our own locked doors, our own desire to flee and seek some sort of safety that we think will protect us from the world’s evils. We can start there and recognize that God has declared again and again, God has shown us again and again, that God loves us and this world, God will not abandon us or the world. “Do not be afraid,” is the message of angels and the Christ. If we cannot unlock our doors, God’s meets us behind them, inviting us to emerge and trust. The resurrection is not a long ago event, it is a current reality and an ongoing reality. Every moment is a hinge moment – and God invites us to recognize our own fears and know God’s grace in the midst of them. Then, as God’s beloved and forgiven and empowered people, we can and should articulate God’s love and forgiveness and transformation for the people who are crippled by fear. Amen.