From Our Fears and Sins Release Us

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
April 15, 2012 John 20:19-31

Some of you might remember it. All of us have studied it. It is surely one of the most important speeches in American history. The Second World War was yet to be, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover in 1932 in large part because of the Great Depression. Expectations were high for Roosevelt, and they were high for his first inaugural address. “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly,” FDR began. “Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So… let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. It was true politically. And – whether he intended it or not – it was, and is true, spiritually.

Let us take a step back and remember where we have been. Two weeks ago we paraded triumphantly into Jerusalem with Jesus, waving palm branches. Then things headed south quickly. Denial, betrayal, conviction, execution.

Then just a week ago – could it only have been a week ago? – women came to the tomb and found the stone rolled away. They were afraid, scared to death. They were in good company. Let us take a bigger step back and refresh our memory a bit in the ways that Jesus’ life story is framed. Do not be afraid, the angel Gabriel told Mary. Do not be afraid, the angels in the heavens told the shepherds. Do not be afraid. And now, the stone has been rolled away and the women discover an empty tomb. Do not be afraid, they are told. How could they be anything but afraid? And then that night.

Though we encounter the story this morning, imagine it a week ago, in the evening following Easter morning, when so much has happened. Mary had told the disciples of her experience – they didn’t know what to think, whether they could believe her or not. So they gathered in a house and locked the doors. We know this story primarily because it confers upon Thomas that most damning adjective, “doubting.” And that’s important. But we must pay attention to the context.

The doors were locked for fear, we are told, for fear of the Jews. The gospel of John uses that phrase – “the Jews” – throughout. It has been unfortunate and problematic, in that the Christian tradition over the centuries has used those words to condemn and persecute the whole of Judaism, blaming our Jewish friends for the death of Jesus.

Read the gospel of John carefully. "The Jews” is a particular term for the religious leadership, the authorities, who conspired with the Roman political leaders. Jesus’ followers were Jewish. Jesus was a Jew.

The point of the evening gathering – in a house behind locked doors – was fear. And rightly so. The disciples had placed a bet on Jesus’ leadership and it had failed miserably. Surely by sundown word had spread of the empty tomb. Surely people would be after them, the same people they avoided on the day of his death. They had reason to be afraid, didn’t they? And yet. Do not be afraid.

I do not know what your fear is. I am not even sure I know what my fears are much of the time. There are fears we all face as individuals, unique to our lives and circumstances. But I would imagine that even so, we share a great deal of commonality.

Our health or the health of those we love. Perhaps a relationship strained to a breaking point, or a job whose security is perilous. Perhaps a parental dynamic causes despair. Perhaps we fear taking a drink.

I do not know what your fear is. I am not even sure I know what my fears are much of the time. And communally – what we share and face together, what binds us and hinders us.

The economy – while not quite in depression – is tough, and do we not have the uneasy feeling that it will never fully bounce back. Our political discourse is coarse and common civility is rare. The earth itself shudders with mistreatment. Wars rage; violence is common currency. Technology makes us ever more disconnected.

Are those your fears – a general anxiety about the present and future? Or is it something different?

In Telling Secrets, Frederick Buechner writes: “What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are . . . because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing.”

Is that your fear? Do you fear knowing yourself fully and truly, or being fully and truly known? Do you fear being found out – by others, by yourself, even by God, the one who knows you best?

I wasn’t in that room, but I believe that was the disciples’ true fear. They were scared for their lives, to be sure. But were they even more scared for their souls. They had dropped their nets and followed him, gladly, it seems. But when push came to shove and the rubber met the road and all that, they had abandoned him. And now they found themselves in a room behind locked doors afraid, afraid that their faith would be discovered for what it truly was. And yet. Be not afraid.

Jesus appears. Again, our modern world seeks the explanation of how it all happens, but all the account says is that he came and stood among them. The locked doors were no hindrance to him, physically and otherwise, and their fear quickly was transformed into joy. Fear into joy. Joy that redeems anxiety. Hope that redeems our insecurity, so that when we do see ourselves fully and truly, we are no longer scared, but liberated. Resurrection that redeems fear.

I remember at the time of September 11. We read from Psalm 46 quite a bit. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear.”And we will not. Perhaps the psalmist is talking about things like natural disasters, events beyond our control – earthquakes, tornadoes, car accidents, diseases. We are not to fear those, the psalmist says, for God is our strength. To fear those would be to live a life of paralysis and dread. We are to live no such lives, and when bad things happen, and they will, we are to have the confidence to rely on God’s very present help.

“Do not fear,” God says through the voice of the prophet Isaiah. “Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you.” This moves, it seems, along the continuum of fear from an event, a moment, into God’s promised presence in all moments of fear and anxiety. That could be the broken and fearful world in which we live, or the broken and fearful lives in which we spend our days.

An unnamed blogger dedicated to the sobriety/recovery community writes this: “I have heard it said many many times that fear and faith cannot co-exist. (But) The fears kept returning...often with more and more vengeance…I thought I was doing something wrong or not doing something that caused the fear to recur over and over again. (Then)…I discovered another perspective...’Faith is the courage that allows us to walk through the fear…’”

We know that there are no promises, no guarantees, that bad and fearful things will happen to us, good people or otherwise. Faith does not inoculate us from fear. The Easter gift, therefore, the true promise of resurrection, is the hopeful confidence and the confident hope that God is with us, each moment, each step, each lifetime, so that we needn’t be paralyzed by fear or powerless in the face of deep anxiety.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes of what many of us have experienced, what theologians have called “the dark night of the soul.” We have faced them, and though few consider it this way, I believe that communities can face them as well, and nations, and moments of history. Depressions are not only economic; they can be spiritual. Still we are urged not to be afraid, for even then, Jesus is with us.

Williams speaks of fear as an emptiness. Perhaps you have experienced that. “People come to an awareness of this emptiness in different ways,” he writes. “For some…there is only nonsense and darkness, and a sense of utter lostness. For others it can be some personal crisis in which the pain and senselessness of human experience suddenly rings so true that the cheapness and falsity of glib religious patterns appear for what they really are.” (“The Dark Night,” in A Ray of Darkness, page 81)

I do not know what your fear is, even as we discern together what our fears are, as a faith community, this church, or as members of communities that gather beyond this church. But I do know that we resonate with those earliest disciples, who sought to follow and who came up short, sometimes dreadfully so. They – each one, and together – faced a dark night of lostness and crisis.

But rather than condemn them for their shortcomings, Jesus accepts them as they are.

And not just that. When they were gathered at their most critical, fearful time, he shows up and transforms their fear into comfort and joy, so that they can in turn leave the confines of that locked-up room and share news of new life, of love-stronger-than death, with the very fearful world from which they were hiding.

In her book Grace (Eventually), Anne Lamott writes of a young adulthood filled with bad choices. But even then, she says, she figured out “that almost everyone was struggling to wake up, to be loved, and not feel so afraid all the time.” (Page 2)

That is the crisis of Holy Week and the promise of Easter, happening not just once but over and over again, in each generation, in each life. Being awake. Being loved. Not feeling afraid.

FDR was right, politically and spiritually.

So whatever it is that is locked – a room, a church, a heart, a life, a community – whatever it is that is locked tight behind closed doors, for whatever reason, for each of us or for all of us together, Jesus appears, alive, to unbind and liberate and transform fear and anxiety into hope.

Hope is stronger than fear. Love is stronger than fear. Community is stronger than fear. Resurrection is stronger than fear. Easter is stronger than fear. Jesus is stronger than fear. Amen.


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