12 April 2010
Unlocking the Prison of Fear
John 20: 19-31
Second Sunday of Easter/ 11th April 2010
Last Sunday, we focused on Mark’s gospel account of Easter morning. Last week, we saw that the text is actually missing a resurrection account. There’s no sighting of the resurrected Jesus. By contrast, in John’s gospel the resurrection shows up all over the place. We find Jesus at the tomb disguised as the gardener, who reaches out to Mary Magdalene in her grief saying, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for (John 20:15)?” Jesus tells her not to hold on to him because he is about to ascend to the Father.
Then later that same evening, “the evening on that day,” John tells us, “the first day of the week,” which we call Sunday, the disciples are behind locked doors. They are back in the house where they met before Jesus’ death; perhaps the site of their last supper together. John tells us, “and 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.” The narrative continues with the famous exchange between Jesus and Thomas the so-called Doubter. The Doubting Thomas passage is probably the most preached text on the Sunday after Easter. In churches with more than one pastor, it’s usually the lectionary text for countless associate pastors. I know that Dorothy Boulton has preached many a Doubting Thomas sermon over the years. This year I get to the give the sermon, giving Dorothy a break.
I’m not interested in Thomas today. Instead, to Jesus’ remarkable exchange with the disciples locked away in fear. “The doors of the house…were locked for fear.” That’s such an evocative phrase and image. In phrasing it this way, I’m intentionally omitting the object of their fear – the Jews. I’m doing this for two reasons.
First, the reference to “the Jews” in John’s gospel has inflicted considerable damage and violence by Christians toward the Jewish people. Scholars have identified John’s gospel as one of the major sources of anti-Semitism. Indeed, Christians need to remember its role in the prevalence of anti-Semitism throughout the centuries. We need to remember that the Nazis, for example, did not invent the concept of a Jewish ghetto, in Warsaw, for example. They got the idea from Christians. I was surprised to discover years ago in Venice, Italy, that there was a Jewish quarter, the only place Jews were allowed to live in the city; or to discover in Rome that there was a Jewish ghetto (the Ghetto di Roma) that had walls around it and Vatican guards who make sure no left the area after dark. (1) John’s attitude toward “the Jews” has been used to justify Christian pogroms against all the Jews. Such abuse is warranted, it was claimed, because of that “they” did to Christ. However, the Jews didn’t crucify Jesus; the Romans did, with the aid of Jewish collaborators, the Jewish religious establishment. Biblical scholars have come to see in the way John refers to “the Jews” a kind of code word for the religious establishment. He’s not referring to everyone who is Jewish (which would include John and Jesus). If you want to blame someone, however, just blame humanity.
The second reason for omitting “the Jews” here allows we who are not fearful of “the Jews” to access the depth of meaning of a text like this. While we might not be afraid of “the Jews,” we are people who know what it’s like to live with fear. “The doors of the house…were locked for fear.”
The disciples are hiding; scared for their lives. Why? The text doesn’t say, but it’s not difficult to imagine multiple scenarios. They’re afraid of being persecuted for following the “criminal” Jesus. They are marked men. Perhaps they’re fearful of retaliation. If Jesus isn’t alive, then they will be attacked for being associated with the blasphemer who claimed to be God’s Son and stirred up the city and annoyed the Romans. It’s easy to imagine them trying to find a way to get out of Jerusalem in order to disperse in safety in Galilee.
No doubt news is spreading about what happened at the garden tomb. Why would this invoke fear? If it’s true, if resurrection is true then it’s kind of difficult to return to life as “normal” after that. It changes everything. If Jesus is alive, then their commitment to him will now be even stronger than it was when he was alive (which wasn’t all the strong). Their whole encounter with Jesus doesn’t end with a cross and sealed tomb. They can’t just set aside the whole experience with Jesus as a kind of bad dream and then go back to life as normal; they can’t go home again. There’s no going back. There’s no going back to “normal.” If Jesus is alive, then this really does change everything. And in the face of such radical change, it is easy to imagine the disciples huddled together in fear behind locked doors – that’s probably where I would have been.
We can’t blame them for being fearful. On the one hand, fear is probably the appropriate natural reaction to all that they experienced. If they weren’t fearful, then they probably weren’t paying attention to what what going on around them that weekend in Jerusalem. It’s the normal, rational response when one feels threatened, attacked, unsure, confused.
Fear is such a powerful emotion, with both positive and negative dimensions to it. There’s a lot about fear that is good. There are rational fears that serve an evolutionary function, that have allowed us to survive for millennia. Fear can be a good defense mechanism against all kinds of predators. There’s almost something primal about the way fear can be used as a way to keep us safe. When we’re fearful, we then respond with whatever it takes to keep us safe; it motivates us toward security. Feeling safe and secure are good things, obviously. It’s impossible to live and thrive without security, without a feeling of being safe. Sometimes fear is a perfectly rational response – but if we get stuck there, stuck in the fear, then that becomes a source of concern. That’s when fear can become “the prison of the heart.”
Fear – throughout scripture – is never allowed to have the final word in any scenario. It’s never lifted up as being the permanent state of being for God’s children. We are not called to live in fear, but in freedom, including freedom from fear. Whenever the disciples are afraid, the voice of the angels or the voice of Jesus himself – the voice of God – is always consistent: “Fear not.” “Do not be afraid.” Over and over again, the good news of the kingdom is “Fear not.” Don’t live your lives in fear. Instead live your lives with love. And the New Testament is the only place I have read where the opposite of love is defined not as hate, for the opposite of love is fear. As we read in 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” And it’s when we fear that we then — hate, and attack, and persecute, and destroy, and murder, and kill.
Years ago, a wise elder said to me, “Ken, we act either in love or fear.” We have two choices. We can choose to act either in love or fear. She’s right. It might sound overly simplistic, but I think it’s true. Just look over your life – the countless decisions you make on any given day or week or over a lifetime – were they done in fear or in love? Think of the major decisions you have made in your life or decisions that need to be made. Love or fear? Which will dictate our lives? Which governs our lives?
The truth is there are so many places in our lives, in the church, in the world that are not governed by love, but by fear. The truth is there are so many places in our lives, in the church, in the world today being destroyed by fear. The more you become aware of it, the more you see it everywhere. In addition to fear, there’s the related emotion of anxiety. We all know the price we pay when children are raised to be fearful and anxious, they tend to be apprehensive. If children are raised in environments that are fearful, they become defensive. Back in 1959, Dorothy Law Nolte wrote a poem that became well-known, entitled, “Children Learn What They Live.” It begins with these lines, “If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn…/ If a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight…/ If a child lives with fear, he learns to be apprehensive…” The poem continues with a description of what is learned when a child lives with acceptance, tolerance, justice, approval. My mother put a copy of this poem, the 1969 version, in the bedroom I shared with my brother, Craig. I remember reading those lines over and over again. Children are growing up and maturing in a world overwhelmed by the presence of fear. The world can be a fearful place for child. It’s probably always been the case. But earlier generations were raised within a context of a shared religious perspective that provided considerable resources. This is completely missing for most today.
The source of so much hatred in our society is rooted in fear. The specter of racism is raising its ugly head again in the United States is rooted in fear. The rising intolerance for anyone or anything that doesn’t fit the “norm” is rooted in fear. Society is changing, the church is changing (and not all of it is bad, a lot of it is very, very good), but sometimes our resistance to it is rooted in fear. The rise of fundamentalisms over the last century – Christian, Jewish, and Islamic – all have one thing in common: fear. Christian fundamentalism emerged as a movement in the early 1900’s, here in the United States, in fear of advances made in science. We then gave it to the world. (2)
God doesn’t want our lives to be governed by fear. Again, fear might have an evolutionary function in that it allows us to survive; however, theologically-speaking it can suck the life out of us and actually hinder our ability to thrive. When fear generates an obsession with safety and security – when we’re always trying to live behind locked doors – then we run the risk of being cut off from life. The Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl G. Jung (1875-1961), observed “the spirit of evil is negation of the life force by fear. Only boldness can deliver us from fear, and if the risk is not taken, the meaning of life is violated. (3) James Hollis, a contemporary Jungian analyst, whom I spent some time with on my sabbatical two years ago, wrote in a recent book, “The meaning of our life will be found precisely in our capacity to achieve as much of it as possible beyond those bounds fear would set for us. There is not blame in being fearful; it is our common lot, our common susceptibility. But it may be a crime, an impiety…, when our individual summons, our destiny, is diverted or destroyed by fear.” (4) That’s an interesting turn insight, to think of a life governed by fear, as an impiety, as an expression of being faithless.
It’s precisely in such a context that I hear Jesus’ words to his disciples. God will not allow fear to have the last word. In fear the disciples try to hide themselves from a world that resists all the implications of the life-changing, liberating power of resurrection. But fear can’t hinder the new life Jesus extends to us. Resurrection life acknowledges the fear, but does not allow the fear to divert or destroy what God is doing through Jesus and through us. We’re given a truly remarkable image here. I love the way the resurrected Jesus appears and stands among them, he stands within the confines of their fear, he appears and stands in their place of greatest fear and says, “Peace be with you.” Even locked doors can’t keep him out. Christ’s boldness overcomes every barrier we erect in fear. We’re not meant to live behind locked doors. Within the confines of all our fears, Jesus continues to stand among us, unlocking our prisons of fear, and saying “Peace be with you.”
The place of fear can become the place of presence, the place of peace, the place of resurrection. The text tells us that their fear was replaced with rejoicing at the sight of his presence. That’s what resurrection can do. That’s what the resurrected Lord continues to do.
And, did you notice how these verses contain John’s version of Pentecost? There are no “tongues of fire,” like we find in Acts. What we have here is Jesus saying, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” – to be agents of peace, agents of his presence, offering assurance in the face of all the fear we might find in the world. Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
In the confines of all that instills fear in you, Jesus still says, “Peace be with you.”
In the prison of the heart bound by fear, Jesus still says, “Peace be with you.”
In the lives of people we know who are overwhelmed by fear, the Lord sends us to say in his name, “Peace be with you.”
In a world ensnared by fear, the Lord sends the church out to offer a different voice to the world, saying, “Peace with with you.”
Every place where we are tempted to act in fear over love, may we remember the words of the Risen Lord who said and who continues to say to us: “Peace be with you.” “Peace be with you.” “Peace be with you.”
1. Papal bull Cum nimis absurdum, promulgated by Pope Paul IV in 1555 segregated the Jews, who had lived freely in Rome since Antiquity, in a walled quarter with three gates that were locked at night, and subjected them to various restrictions on their personal freedoms such as limits to allowed professions and compulsory Catholic sermons on the Jewish shabbat. (www.wikipedia.org)
2.See George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism: 1870-1925 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).
3. C. G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation, CW 5, Para. 551, cited in James Hollis, What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life (New York: Gotham Books, 2009), 11.