19 April 2015

Unlocking the Doors of Fear

John 20: 19-31

Third Sunday of Easter
19th April 2015

Two Sundays ago, on Easter, we read from John 20 and heard the story of Jesus near the tomb, disguised as the gardener. Jesus reached out to Mary Magdalene in her grief saying, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" (John 20:15). Jesus told her not to hold on to him because he was about to ascend to the Father.

Then, later that same day, “the evening on that day,” John tells us, “the first day of the week” (Jn. 20:19), which we call Sunday, we find the disciples behind locked doors. They are back in the house where they gathered 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’” (Jn. 20:19).

This, too, is a remarkable scene that we have in John’s gospel: Jesus’ astonishing 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 toward the Jewish people. Scholars have identified John’s gospel as one of the major sources of anti-Semitism. In fact, we Christians need to remember our role in the propagation of anti-Semitism across the centuries. We need to remember that the Nazis, for example, did not invent the concept of the Jewish ghetto. (Think of the Warsaw ghetto.) The Nazis got the idea from Christians. I was surprised to discover years ago that Venice, Italy, was the site of the first Jewish ghetto, in 1516.  It was the only place Jews were allowed to live in the city.  And I was surprised to discover there was also a Jewish ghetto in Rome (the Ghetto di Roma), built in 1555, surrounded by walls, with three gates and a Vatican guard that made sure no Jew left the area after dark.[1]

John’s attitude toward “the Jews” of Jesus’ time has been used to justify Christian pogroms against all Jews across the centuries.  However, biblical scholars now suspect that John’s use of “the Jews” throughout the gospel is really a code word for the Jewish religious establishment. He’s not referring to everyone who is Jewish (which would include both John and Jesus, who were, of course, both Jewish).

The second reason for omitting “the Jews” here allows us, we who are not necessarily 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 certainly 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 wasn’t alive, then they would be attacked for being associated with the blasphemer who claimed to be God’s Son and stirred up the city and annoyed the Roman authorities. We can imagine them trying to find a way to get out of Jerusalem, to flee to safety in Galilee.

No doubt news was spreading about what happened at the garden tomb. But, why would this invoke fear?  Think about it.  If it’s true, if resurrection is true then it’s kind of difficult to return to life as “normal” after that. Resurrection changes everything. If Jesus is alive, then their commitment to him would be even stronger than it was when he was alive (which wasn’t all the strong).  And so, 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 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 was probably the appropriate and natural reaction to all that they experienced. If they weren’t fearful, then they probably weren’t paying attention to what was going on around them that weekend in Jerusalem. Fear is 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, which have allowed humans to survive for millennia. Fear can be a good defense mechanism against all kinds of predators. There’s something primal about the way fear can be used as a way to keep us safe. When we’re fearful we 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 considerable concern. That’s when fear can become the prison of the heart.

Fear—throughout scripture—never has 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 text I’ve ever read that states explicitly that the opposite of love is not hate, 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 ruling 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.  At first, I was a little suspicious, thinking that it’s not that simple.  But she was right. It might sound overly simplistic, but I think it’s true. Just look over your life. Consider the countless decisions you make on any given day or week or over a lifetime—are they, 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 your life? Which governs your life?

The truth is there are so many places in our lives, in the church, in the world that are not governed by love, but 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 (1924-2005) wrote a poem that became well-known, “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 had a copy of this poem, the 1969 version, on the wall of the bedroom that I shared with my brother Craig. I remember reading those lines over and over again as boy.

Children are growing up and maturing in a world overwhelmed by the presence of fear. The world can be a fearful place for a child. It’s probably always been the case. But earlier generations were raised in communities that shared a common religious perspective, one that provided considerable resources for children. There was a time when family and community, religious communities in particular, helped provide a secure, safe place for growth.  This is completely missing for many today.

The source of so much hatred in our society is rooted in fear. The specter of racism raising its ugly head again in the United States is rooted in fear of the other. 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 this is bad, a lot of it is very, very good), but too much change too fast produces anxiety. Sometimes our resistance to change is simply rooted in fear. The rise of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic fundamentalisms over the last century, especially over the last decade, each have one thing in common: fear. Christian fundamentalism emerged as a movement in the early 1900s, here in the United States, as a fearful reaction to advances made in science and learning. We then gave this fear to the world.[2]

God doesn’t want our lives governed by fear. Again, fear might have an evolutionary function that allows us to survive; however, theologically and psychologically-speaking, we know that fear 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 living behind locked doors—then we cut ourselves off from life itself. The Swiss psychiatrist, Carl G. Jung (1875-1961), observed “negation of the life force by fear” is “the spirit of evil.” 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, builds on this point, “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 no 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] This is a remarkable insight: life governed by fear as an impiety, an expression of being faithless.

It’s precisely in such a context that we 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 within the locked room and stands among them there; 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 try to 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,” as 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.”  Sent to be agents of peace, agents of his presence, offering assurance in every other fearful place we find in the world. Then Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn. 20:22).

In that place where you hide, locked away in fear, Jesus still says,
“Peace be with you.”

In 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 be 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 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, and subjected them to various restrictions on their personal freedoms such as limits to allowed professions and compulsory hearing of Catholic sermons on the Jewish Shabbat.
[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, Collected Works of C. G. Jung (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), par. 551.
[4] James Hollis, What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life (New York: Gotham Books, 2009), 15.

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