…the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of [the religious authorities]…
(John 20:19)

I have a new appreciation for the phrase “It is with mixed emotions that we inform you…” After being elected bishop yesterday in the Diocese of Maryland—which is a great honor and joy—I also already feel the pangs of sadness and separation anxiety when I think of leaving this wonderful cathedral. Perhaps not surprisingly I want to talk with you this morning about fear!

Now, there are some really good things about being afraids…it can protect you from harm, and from harming others. Fear keeps you from acting impulsively, or recklessly…allows you to take stock of a situation. Fear keeps you humble…you quickly realize that you are not in control!

But for all the positive things that fear can do for you, there is one significant thing that it cannot do: help you to move on.

In the gospel lesson today, the disciples were afraid. This was not a new emotion for them…this was their old friend.

  • in the calming of the storm, Jesus said to them, “Why are you afraid?”
  • in the sermon on the mount: “Do not be afraid [when you have to stand before the authorities].”
  • when sending the disciples out for a mission: “Do not be afraid…”
  • after the disciples “drowning” in fear on seeing Jesus walking on water: “It is I, do not be afraid.”
  • on their way to Jerusalem with Jesus to meet his final destiny, he told them, “Don’t be afraid.”
  • after his resurrection, to the women at the tomb: “Don’t be afraid, go tell the others.”

The most constant admonition that Jesus said to his followers in the Scriptures was not, “Stop sinning” or “Shape up or you’re going to hell” or “You’re going to have to get a lot better before God can use you!”. Rather, the phrase Jesus used most to motivate his disciples was “Do not be afraid…Do not fear…Fear not!

Right now, in our nation, sobered from five years of the war in Iraq with no good way out, buffeted by an economy whose giddy bubble of debt-ridden consumption has burst, and deep in the throes of a seemingly endless campaign for the presidency with its mudslinging, race-baiting, and the politics of “Gotcha!”, the American public is drowning in fear. What’s going to happen to us? What has become of us? Aren’t we better than this? Will the social fabric hold? Can we see a happier future for ourselves than the present…can we get out of being “stuck”?

And what can the Church say to us? Have the followers of Christ in the institutional church been able to give us examples of another way of being together? Sadly, in too many instances, “No!” One wing of the church accuses another wing unfit to be invited to the Lord’s Table; one faction seizes property while another takes them to court; every day another denomination gets formed, another grouping, another breakaway, and then another, and then another, and so it goes. How can we look to the church to get us out of fear, when the church itself all too often seems to thrive on it?

Well, disciples today are just like the disciples 2,000 years ago, locked in a room because the outside world is just too scary. In today’s gospel lesson, once again they are gathered in fear. But it becomes apparent that the fear wasn’t just of the religious and political authorities. Another object of their fear came into the room that day, appearing right there in their midst: Jesus himself. That’s right…they were afraid of Jesus.

The disciples were afraid of Jesus because by coming into that room he destroyed what we all have come to know about death. They, like us, know that as long as the death rate still hovers around 100%—(a few of us still hoping to be the exception to the rule)—we can readily accept that death pretty much trumps life. In a crazy, unpredictable world where you can’t count on much with certainty, you can at least depend on the finality of death, and thus make your peace with it. To put it starkly, despite the grief and regret that surrounds the inevitability of dying, there is also a kind of comfort in it—the comfort of knowing that there are some things you really can be certain of in this life, and one of those certainties is that death is final.

That is, as long as the dead stay dead. If a person can come to life again after having died, then the world becomes unglued, and all bets are off. Once people start defying the finality of death, then that becomes a threat to every closed and absolute form of belief. If death can be overcome, then every force related to death is equally shaky: fear, bigotry, hatred, violence and war. If resurrection were to become more powerful than death, then the whole world becomes one of infinite possibility…an endless incubator of new life. In such a world, death cannot have the last word…what a scary thought!

That is why in today’s reading Jesus accompanies his surprise appearance with these words: “Peace be with you…peace be with you…peace be with you”…no less than three times, with each new appearance. Jesus knew that his resurrection wouldn’t immediately be grasped with settled joy. It rarely is, even today. For once you become aware that you live in a world where anything can happen, where the possibilities of life become stupendous, where even dead people take up life again—then the first thing you’re going to have to deal with is fear!

The good news is this: there is something available to us that is more powerful than fear. The world calls it courage. We are all afraid sometimes—and we ought to be! But courage is that amazing ability to act with integrity and conviction in the face of fear, and even when one cannot see the horizon ahead of them. In this Cathedral, in the West Narthex, you will see a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the great inspirational figures of the 20th century, who once said:

“Courage is more exhilarating than fear, and in the long run, it’s easier.”

Yes, it is more exhilarating, more uplifting, than fear because in the long run fear takes so much out of us. It takes so much energy to live out our lives when we are afraid. We are afraid for our children, our lives, and our nation; we are afraid of what the winds of change will bring for our churches. But the Scriptures teach us that in these moments our Lord comes to us, just as he did to his disciples of old, saying, “Peace be with you…be calm…do not be afraid…do not fear…I am with you always.”

In the Church, we have another word for it; we call it faith. God doesn’t require that we have a lot of it, just that we put the amount of it that we do have to good use. Faith the size of a mustard seed will do just fine, Jesus said. I believe that there is enough faith in this congregation this morning to change the entire world. Do you think you have that kind of faith? Great…but you’re going to have to unlock its doors. And when you do this, just remember: DO NOT FEAR! Amen.