“Afraid Of What?”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
April 3, 2016: The Second Sunday of Easter
Joshua 1:1-9 & John 20:19-31
Even though it has been a full week since our celebration of Easter, John’s gospel reading today marks the place and time as the night of Easter, in a room where the disciples have gathered. Some speculate that this room is the place where the disciples had dinner with Jesus the night before he was arrested; others imagine that the disciples dared not go back to that room, so they found another place to meet. Either way, the disciples have gathered on the night of Christ’s resurrection, and they are afraid. What a stark difference from our celebration of Easter, right? I left here last Sunday just floating on a cloud—Easter this year was by far the most beautiful, the most joyful, the most meaningful that I have celebrated in Enid yet. We lit the new fire of Christ’s light that no darkness can overcome; we welcomed new members into our community of faith; we listened to and made beautiful music. We heard once again the good news of the Gospel that no sin, no darkness, no power on earth or any power from hell can separate us from God’s love. Christ is risen! Christ is risen from the dead and he is moving in and through all things, lifting the dead to life, speaking peace into discord, offering redemption and forgiveness to all who believe in him.
But the disciples are afraid. They are afraid—not joyful, not awed by beauty, not struck by wonder and amazement. They’ve heard the news that Jesus walked out of the tomb, and some of them even ran to the tomb to see if it was really empty. They are afraid: the disciples that saw the empty tomb are afraid; the disciples that heard the news secondhand are afraid; the disciples who hadn't heard anything about it are afraid. Afraid of what? John says the disciples locked themselves away for fear of the Jews. Where the Jews beating down the door to get to the disciples? Was there a bounty on the heads of the disciples? Where the Jews curious to hear the news of Jesus’ resurrection? We don’t know. John’s is the only gospel that mentions this detail.
Before we dig further into the story, I think it is important that we step aside and think about what John means by ‘the Jews.’
In 1999 the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago released a statement that says, “As we remember and observe the passion and death of Jesus, we must remember that no single ethnic or religious group is responsible for his death.” As the new millennium approached, and the world began to shrink because of technological advances, there was a steep rise in negative sentiments towards Jewish people, especially from people of Christian faith. Pope John Paul II brought Christian and Jewish relations to the world’s attention when he established full ties between the Vatican and Israel in 1994, and again in 1998 when he published a Christian reflection on the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust. In spite of all the reconciliation and healing that was taking place between Christians and Jews, there was still a powerful undercurrent among some Christians that pinned the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus squarely on the Jewish people.
The statement from the Archdiocese of Chicago was one of many that tried to stop this anti-Jewish tide from rising any further. It goes on to point out that whenever Jewish people are mentioned in the gospels, it is entirely unclear if they are ethnic Jews, religious Jews, both, or neither. In the first century world there were two majority groups of people: Jews and Gentiles. If you were not a part of one group, you were labeled as the other. If you were not a Gentile, you were a Jew; if you were not a Jew, you were a Gentile. Your label had nothing to do with your religious or ethnic background. Unfortunately, these broad labels are still being used today. It is unlikely that the Gospel writers had any sense of anthropology, and they certainly did not go around asking everyone about their family origin. So they fell back on something they knew. When they looked at the crowd that came to arrest Jesus, at the crowds that watched his mock trial, and at the crowds that cried for his death, the gospel writers called them Jews.
Now, it is possible that some or many of the people in those crowds were actually Jewish, ethnically and religiously. But that is still dangerous territory. To think that the gospels mean that the Jewish people—then and now—are responsible for the death of Jesus, and are still to be blamed for it today, is wrong. This is a wrongful and arrogant interpretation of Scripture, and it has produced and is still producing anti-Jewish sentiments throughout the world of Christianity. It is a sin to twist the beautiful message of Scripture into something that leads to hate, bigotry, or prejudice against anyone. And to do so is to completely abandon the foundational Christian belief that God created the entire human race in love, with equal dignity, equal worth, equally deserving of respect and love.
So when we read today that the disciples locked themselves in a room for fear of the Jews, we must rely on the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds to understanding that goes beyond the surface. If the disciples were afraid, and the source of their fear was not one ethnic or religious group, but anyone who was in Jerusalem that night, what is really going on here? If we can't pin their fear on this person or that, we must think deeper about their fear. What are they afraid of?
I think they were afraid because the resurrection of Jesus meant that everything he had taught them, everything he had commanded them to do, every uncomfortable or messy or unpleasant act of love they were called to—everything that Jesus said and did, now it was up to them. I think they were afraid because while Jesus was with them, they just followed. Now that he had risen from the grave and had gone ahead to Galilee, it was up to them.
You see, the gospel writers have one word they use for fear, phobos, which is the root of the English word ‘phobia.’ But while there is only one word for fear in the New Testament, the word itself has two very different meanings.
The first is the fear you feel when you reach the top of a roller coaster’s highest hill and you know that in a matter of seconds you will be careening towards the ground. It is scary; it takes your breath away; it makes your heart race. But it goes away when you reach the bottom safely. This is the type of fear that Joseph, Mary, and Zechariah felt when the angel appeared to each of them and told them the good news of Christmas. It was scary; it took their breath away; it made their heart race, but the fear went away when the angel ascended back to heaven.
The second is the fear you feel just by simply looking at a roller coaster. This type of fear makes you turn tail and run even before you get in line to ride. This is a phobia…a fear that prevents you from doing something. Phobias are sometimes irrational and sometimes not. Some phobias center on an animal or an insect or a reptile, for no other reason than they’re gross. Other phobias, say of water or fire or natural disasters, can arise because you almost drowned, or were burned, or watched a tornado wipe your house away. Irrational or not, phobias are paralyzing.
The second type of fear, phobia, is what the disciples were feeling as they huddled together in a room with a door locked. Beyond that door was something so terrifying, something so scary to them, they decided to lock themselves away on the most joyful day of their journey with Jesus. It was not the people as much as it was the situations they would face. Their phobia, I believe, was that they now had to step up and do and live as Christ did because he was no longer leading the, around. They were afraid because now it was up to them.
And honestly, I get that. I compare my years in seminary to the years the disciples followed Jesus. In those years I was challenged and made to think about things I had never thought of before, but it was also a time of building relationships and meeting people I had been waiting to meet my entire life—it was the same for the disciples. It was a time of great beauty, of soaking in the knowledge of centuries in a place that could not have been anymore peaceful—again, the same for the disciples. Then came the night of Easter, which for me was entry into the world of ministry. In my first week in Enid I knew the fear the disciples felt, the phobos, and it was as shocking to my system as it is to a baby when they leave the womb and enter into the world.
I was afraid because it turned out that not a whole lot of my seminary education prepared me to do the real work of pastoring. I had the ability to argue a theological point, write a well-researched and concise paper, and explain the doctrines of election and predestination, but I had very little knowledge of how to care for a widow whose husband of 55 years had just died. I was afraid because I could write a sermon, dripping with good Biblical scholarship, but I had no idea how to make that relevant to the people sitting in front of me. I knew by the book how to handle disagreements with church leaders, but I had no idea what to do when no one else in the disagreement had ever read that book. I was afraid because sometimes you people are hard to get along with, and the same is true about me. I had those years where I was just following, and fear set in when I was no longer just following, when it was up to me, when I was being asked to lead and do what I had been taught.
And, thank God, these fears never made me turn tail and run, and they never made me lock myself away at home or in the office. But they had the potential to do so. I know that you’ve felt this type of fear before. Whether it was at work, at home, in school, or in a situation that was new to you, you have felt fear that doesn't really make your heart race, but does makes you look for the nearest exit just in case. I know you’ve felt fear in such a way that it seemed better to stay locked in, your home or your room, instead of stepping out into the world. As disciples of Christ, I know that you’ve felt the fear of actually having to do everything he asks you to—I know this because I’m a disciples of Jesus and I’ve felt that fear, too.
It is scary that without him we will have to feed the hungry and give clean water to the thirsty. It is scary that without him we will have to bandage the wounds of the injured, work creatively to heal the sick, and open the eyes of the blind and unstop the ears of the deaf. It is is scary that without him we will have to keep company with the lowly, with the poor, with people that the majority of society turns their backs on. It is scary that without him we will actually have to forgive people when they hurt us, when they break our trust, when they gossip or speak ill of us. It is scary that without him we might have to turn the other cheek or be our brother or sister’s keeper or rejoice when we are persecuted.
It is particularly scary that our call as Christians is to embody and give out the same merciful and powerful love that Christ embodied and gave to us. This is really a phobos moment because people are hard to love, because love is sometimes seen as weakness, because love has been warped and twisted into something that is about ‘me’ instead of being something about ‘us’. How do we love someone who has squandered their talents and gifts in bad living? How do we love a child when they run away from home and come back needing more than ever before? How do we love a parent who never really grew up, whose selfishness and greed deprived a child of a childhood? How do we love a partner, a spouse, a friend who has been unfaithful? How do we love someone who has done nothing but cross boundaries, injure others, or take the life of another of God’s children?
We turn to Jesus and we don’t lock ourselves away, that is how. There is nothing more opposed to the will of God than for us to be locked away, in fear, when we have all this good news, all this hope, all this love to give out. God created us to be free, not locked down. In our moments of paralyzing fear, I believe Jesus appears to us—sometimes subtly and sometimes as boldly as just appearing out of nowhere—and he speaks of one thing: peace. Peace be with you. In our moments of fear, that would otherwise keep us from doing what we have been called to do, Jesus comes to us and breathes into our lungs the life-giving wind of the Holy Spirit. In our moments of fear, Jesus comes and shows us his hands and his feet and side, and he asks us to believe. In our moments of fear, Jesus peacefully and gently speaks to us that he has been there, and he will be with us.
We do not have to be afraid. We do not have to be afraid of what is outside those doors, the people or the situations. There is nothing that we will encounter that Jesus has not encountered before us. Even though Jesus is going ahead of us, and is relying on us to carry his movement forward, he has already walked the road that we walk. So no matter who we meet, no matter what we experience, no matter how and when fear rears it’s ugly head, Jesus has been there. Just as God sent him into the world, now he sends us. We do not have to be afraid. Yes, fear will still take hold of us, but it will never keep us locked down, and it will certainly never have the final world. The final word belongs to Jesus, and he blew down the stone door of a tomb and walked out alive. We do have to be afraid!
The African-American theologian, educator, and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman once wrote, “When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.”
Now that the stone door has been rolled away, now that Christ is risen and has given life to all people, the real work of Easter begins: to heal the sick, to shelter the widow and orphan, to love the unlovable, to forgive the unforgivable, to carry on the movement of Jesus, to not be locked away, to not be afraid. People of God, fear not! The Lord is risen! Amen.