Highlands Presbyterian Church
April 7, 2013
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, 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.” John 20:19-31
One evening in 1995, I was in Guatemala City. I was a member of a delegation of North and South American lawyers there to investigate human rights abuses. The Guatemalan military was notorious for its abuse and torture of political prisoners, thousands of whom were incarcerated without charges or evidence. It was not uncommon that people who opposed the government to simply disappear. And thousands did.
One evening our small group-there was a lawyer from Argentina, one from Canada, and me…the three of us walked a few blocks from our hotel to find a restaurant for dinner. After dinner, as we walked out the front door we saw the bleeding body of a man lying in the gutter. I started to move toward the man wondering whether he was dead or alive.
As I did…the leader of our group, a man who had spent much time in Guatemala cried out for me to stop. He said that if we helped the man, those who hurt him would retaliate against us.
We hurried away to the nearest police station and reported the matter.
Every time I think about that night…I wonder…I ask myself whether I failed to act out of wisdom or fear. Fear and courage and wisdom are all related. Aristotle thought that actually feeling fear was integral to courage. Many philosophers view courage as arising from fear.
However, I am guessing that those who equate fear with cowardice are not alone. I probably wouldn’t still think about that night in Guatemala City if I didn’t. Indeed, the dictionary defines courage as "the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear" and lists fearlessness as a synonym of courage.
If courage is defined to exclude fearfulness, what then is courage? To find out what courage is, researchers asked a group of cadets at the United States Air Force Academy to list its characteristics. They came up with two categories or types of courage:
1. Self-focused response to an external circumstance. This category included 'enduring a tough situation', 'remaining focused in a high-stress environment' without giving in to fear when making decisions'.
2. Non-physical/social oriented acts, includes 'stands up to unjust social practices because of what one thinks right', 'maintains honesty no matter others' opinions' and 'demonstrates integrity'.
It is interesting that neither of these definitions fails to integrate fear with acts of courage…as a part of acting courageously, the cadets believed fear was where we begin…but that we are able to overcome it, must overcome it…if we are to act with courage…maintaining our beliefs in the face of ridicule and rejection. People ridicule and reject for a purpose. To instill doubt and fear and these cadets said that courage is what happens when we stand up for what’s right in the face of all of that. Truthfully, we cannot be courageous or strong in situations in which we have no fear or anxiety whatsoever.
Which brings us back to the disciples. The end of a long few days…three days ago their leader was assassinated, murdered, buried for dead…this morning they had found an empty tomb and learned Jesus had been resurrected. And now instead of great joy and celebration…they are huddled in a small room behind a locked door fearing that those who did that to Jesus would do the same to them.
Fear is a something we all deal with. Not many of us are ever given reason to fear for our lives but we have all been given a reason to fear for our reputations, our standing in the community, maybe our jobs, certainly friendships. How we handle fear determines what kind of life we'll lead -- whether we will be shackled by anxiety and dread, or empowered to conquer new challenges.
But oftentimes we don’t even get to the place where fear arises, where we have to make a choice to overcome it. We spend most of our time making sure we avoid the intersection of fear and courage, taking an early detour to a safer route where there will be no confrontation…so we muddle along, never knowing either fear or courage.
What are we to do with that? Does it matter in our faith lives. I guess I have concluded that it’s awfully hard to follow Jesus if we spend our lives avoiding fear. The story of Jesus’ life is the story of overcoming fear. As he made his way back to Jerusalem and the torture and death he knew awaited him…he didn’t flinch…he said what God wanted him to say, standing up for God’s new vision for a world of justice and fairness…speaking out against those with power and position, those he knew could kill him.
But as it comes near Jesus must overcome his fear one last time…he asks the father to take the cup from him…the prospect of being nailed to the cross loomed closer and the image made Jesus fearful…but for only as moment, a moment when he realized that to do the will of God demanded he put the fear behind him.
Jesus could have avoided the intersection of fear and courage…he could have preached a bland message, he could have avoided a direct challenge to Rome…at the last, all he needed to do was assure Pontius Pilate that he was no threat to the government and the elite. Pilate didn’t want to order Jesus to death, tried everything to avoid it, pleaded with Jesus, expecting that like most other human beings, Jesus too would be looking for a way out.
You see…those who profit and benefit from injustice rely on the wont of most people to avoid situations where they must act with either cowardice or courage. MLK…letter from the Birmingham jail…
…MLK knew fear…he received hundreds of death threat and he knew that eventually one of them would carry through. The night before he was killed in Memphis, he spoke about facing fear…the kind of fear known only to those who know others intend to kill him.
"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
The next day, he was shot and killed. What gave him the strength to push on when he knew it was only a matter of time until someone killed him, that what he was saying made that inevitable? What strengthened the will of the huddled disciples to leave through those locked doors and go back out into the world and preach what Jesus taught? The doors that were locked in fear were opened by faith.
Jesus came and stood among them as he stand in front of us and said, “Peace be with you.” After this he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. He was saying, see they took their best shot…and it hurt but no amount of pain, no amount of fear is worth giving up on God’s vision for the world. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
So we are sent. Not to do the easy things but to do the hard things…the things that get us in trouble with people who don’t want to be told to love their neighbor, to turn the other cheek, people who don’t want the meek to inherit anything, much less the earth.
You and I get the chance everyday…and if you don’t, you should manufacture an opportunity. When someone tells a racist or homophobic joke, when someone offers up an unflattering stereotype of the poor or those who are different, when you suspect a child or an elderly person is being abused or harmed, when someone is taking advantage of a weaker person…enjoy that momentary sense of fear you’ll feel as you decide whether to stand up…that momentary sense of fear is God calling you to be courageous. Fear gives birth to courage…its Jesus’ way of standing beside you and saying “Peace be with you.” AMEN