A woman went to the doctors’ office. She was seen by one of the new doctors, but after about 4 minutes in the examination room, she burst out, screaming as she ran down the hall. An older doctor stopped and asked her what the problem was, and somewhat hysterically she explained. He had her sit down and relax in another room. The older doctor marched back to the first doctor and demanded, “What’s the matter with you? Mrs. Terry is 63 years old, she has four grown children and seven grandchildren, and you told her she was pregnant?” The new doctor smiled as he continued to write on his clipboard; he looked up and said, “Yes, yes, but I cured her hiccups, didn’t I?”
What are you afraid of? Some people are afraid of heights. Some are afraid of closed spaces. Some people are afraid of flying; or of Alzheimer’s, or cancer, or pain, and almost everyone is afraid of death. Most particularly people fear a painful and lingering death. Afraid of the dark, afraid of unknown, afraid of rats, or bats, or mice, or spiders—people have fears about many things. What makes your heart fearful? Is it possible to overcome your fears?
In our Scripture reading we see the disciples in a house with the doors locked because they were afraid of the Jews. The disciples themselves were Jews—so what does it mean they were afraid of the Jews? John, the gospel writer, has been using the term ‘the Jews’ to refer to the Jewish religious leaders throughout this gospel. In the context of our gospel reading these leaders had arrested Jesus three nights ago in Gethsemane, you see the time in our Scripture reading is Easter evening, Sunday night, anyway these religious leaders had beaten, whipped and then crucified Jesus as the leader and instigator of an insurrection; they said that he was claiming to be the king of the Jews. Furthermore typically what happened in an insurrection was the leader and the followers were killed. And since their leader Jesus had been crucified, these disciples could expect no less. So they were afraid of being rounded up by the temple police and then handed over to the Romans and being tortured and killed. It was a logical fear. They were not jumping at shadows when they locked the doors.
At the same time, there were strange reports going on. It was reported that the tomb of Jesus was empty. And some of the women reported that they had seen angels, and some even said that they had seen Jesus himself. Simon Peter and John had checked it out and they had also seen that the tomb was empty. Although this account doesn’t tell us, Jesus by this time has appeared to Mary Magdalene, to Simon Peter, to James his brother and he has appeared to those two disciples walking to Emmaus. We don’t know who all else has seen him; perhaps more. But the news of these appearances has electrified the disciples and a bunch of them are meeting together in this room. Was Jesus dead or wasn’t he? Were people seeing visions, or were they really seeing a person who was alive? The fact is they were not sure. They all wanted Jesus to be alive, but everyone knew that dead people don’t live after they have died. They knew when a body had been beaten and tortured as much as the body of Jesus had; that that body dies. They were familiar with violent deaths because of the frequent bloody clashes their people had with the Romans.
And then, Jesus appeared among them. Yes, but the doors were locked, so how did that happen? We don’t know! Apparently Jesus’s new resurrection body can do things that his old one could not. But Jesus is in the room and notice what he tells his disciples, he says, “Peace be with you.” What did the disciples not have at that time? They did not have peace. They had anxiety; they had grief; they had confusion. Jesus says peace to you! And then, as if to give them that peace, he shows them his hands and his side. How does showing his hands and side help them have peace? Isn’t he just reminding them of the horrible tortures that the Romans and Jewish authorities can inflict upon them? No, he was assuring them that it really was he, Jesus who was standing there in their midst. And then he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” He breathed on them and said to receive the Holy Spirit. One of the things that happened is that when they felt the breath of Jesus it was a sudden ‘aha’ moment for them. When they felt and smelled his breath, they knew that this ‘thing’ they saw in front of them was not just a vision, a ghost, or a hallucination. When Jesus breathed on them there was the sudden understanding that Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead. He had died and then he had been raised back to life. The disciples rejoiced; they were happy—Jesus was really alive. Thomas hadn’t been there but a week later he has his ‘aha’ moment as well.
Now remember with me the passage of Scripture from Acts. What was going on? We see Peter and the rest of the disciples standing out there in an open area probably close to the temple, speaking loudly to a crowd no less, identifying with Jesus. Identifying himself with the one who had been tortured and crucified. He said, “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, and freed him from death.” So what happened to the fear? Why aren’t the disciples still afraid of being arrested and killed?
What is the key to why Peter and the rest are able to overcome their fears? What has changed from Sunday night that first Easter day and this day some 50 days later? Certainly the circumstances had not changed. The Jewish religious leadership still hated and wanted to stamp out any vestige of the religious movement Jesus had begun. The disciples were certainly endangering their lives by speaking so publicly in Jerusalem. Yet, they clearly are fearless in their speech.
The outward circumstances had not changed. What had changed was inside the disciples. Peter told the crowd, “This Jesus God raised up from the dead and of that all of us are witnesses.” You see THIS is the key; now Peter and the rest of the apostles are witnesses to something monumental, something much bigger than themselves; bigger than their own self-preservation, bigger than their own fears. What is really important is to get this message out. The message is more important than not being killed. It is more important than not being hurt. What is the message that is so important? The message is that there is a way to God. Now there is a true path. Now we have a way to peace with God, now there is a way to have repentance and forgiveness with God. Now there is a way to knowing we have eternal life and there is realization that this life is only the first chapter, the introduction even. That’s the message they needed to get out. They needed to get out the message of this WAY! And the way is Jesus! Did you know that early Christians were called followers of the way? It’s true. This way was what the disciples were so excited about; this way was what they wanted everyone to hear about.
So again, what are you and I afraid of? Perhaps just like the disciples did, we need to see something bigger than ourselves; perhaps we see something monumental; something bigger than our own self-preservation, bigger than our own worries, our own problems, bigger than our own fears; perhaps we need to see something that the world out there desperately needs to hear. Do you and I see it? Do we truly see Jesus as the way to God? Do we truly see how much God loves us through the life and sacrifice of Jesus? Do we see and really understand that this life is only the beginning, the introduction? Because when we see do it, when we see it like the disciples did we will be changed and God will use us to change the world around us.