Holy One, may these words be your words. And if they are not; may these clever people hear in them what you need them to hear. Amen.
The doors of the house were locked. They had shut themselves away for fear of the authorities. Both the Romans and the Temple authorities might be after them. Even though miraculous things were rumored to have happened, they were shut away because of fear. Fear. The Australian cartoonist and poet Michael Leunig wrote this poem that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury is fond of quoting. It begins like this:
There are only two feelings.
Love and fear.
There are only two languages.
Love and fear.
There are only two activities.
Love and fear.
There are only two motives, two procedures, two frameworks,
Love and fear.
The most miraculous event in human history had just happened. Jesus Christ had been raised from the dead. Mary, Johanna and Magdalene had seen the Risen Christ, but the disciples in their wisdom, colored by their fear, judged the witness of the women to be wishful thinking. And so the disciples were hidden away, afraid of what might happen to them.
There are only two feelings: love and fear.
As today’s gospel reading begins, fear was winning! But as the Easter hymn says, “love will come again, like wheat that springeth green.” And love did come. Love came unbidden. Love came in the most astounding of ways…the risen Christ miraculously appeared, materialized like Star Trek characters being “beamed up” by Scottie! And in the midst of all that fear, He offers peace. Love conquers fear. Christ’s love is shown powerfully, in the most intimate way. He breathes on them…leans over them and breathes his breath into them, the breath of God, The RUACH in Hebrew which can mean the wind, or human breath or the spirit of God. Ahhh, the sweetness of this moment for them. They who had thought all was lost, even when they were told by the women disciples that Jesus had, in fact, appeared to them. But how hard that must have been to believe. What power fear has over us. It stops up our ears and muddles our minds.
There are only two languages: love and fear.
And how hard it is for us today, to believe in the miracle of conquering love in the fact of the resurrection. Aren’t we all, most days, like doubting Thomas? I know that I am. And you know what? I’m not so sure that doubt is all that bad. When I was in the parish I had a wonderful retired college music professor who was our 7 am Tuesday Bible Study’s resident Doubting Thomas. Lew questioned everything. He questioned the virgin birth which he thought undermined the full humanity of Jesus. He questioned the bodily resurrection of Jesus because it took away the need for some to make Kirkegaard’s famous “leap of faith.” Lew became, at age 92, the oldest person I ever presented for confirmation. He came to believe that his questioning was not a lack of faith, only a deep and abiding desire to know God more fully, to be known by God more personally.
Why would questioning be important in every other area of life except in our life of faith? “The earth is flat. The earth is 4,976 years, 2 months and 12 days old. The sun and planets revolve around the earth. The automobile will never catch on. These computers are a passing fad and for heaven’s sake don’t buy stock in Microsoft. It is a fly by night company run by some geek that will never find a way to break Apple’s hold on the software market!” All conventional wisdom turns out, eventually, to be untrue. But when it comes to matters of faith, doubt is deemed a huge failure.
There are only two activities: love and fear.
We just had Bishop John Shelby Spong here. His stock and trade is to challenge the conventional theological wisdom, not to destroy faith, but to get us, like Thomas, to ask the questions. Every one of us has had teachers who said “There are no dumb questions.” We all remember sitting in 8th grade geography class hoping that someone, anyone but us, would ask “is Istanbul the same as Constantinople?” But the fundamentalist Christians among us would say “oh ye of little faith” in response to the questions. I often begin sermons with the prayer “Holy One, keep me always in the company of those who fearlessly seek the truth. And hide me under the shadow of Thy wings from those who think they have found it.”
I say, “Way to go Thomas!” Our God is not so small as to be diminished by our questions. Our God is an awesome God who conquers fear with love, who conquers darkness with light and who conquers death with life! My bishop when I was in Minnesota once preached a sermon about how God keeps getting bigger. You know, our God is unafraid to be found by us as we stumble and trip and fall and reach out to know more about who God is. The Anglican priest and prize winning English physicist, John Polkinghorne has said that in science, in the very act of questioning, we learn ever more about the God who created all things.
The Risen Christ knew this. He knew we humans had a hard time accepting much by faith. He knew that even his closest friends might have doubts. Immediately after greeting them he calms their obvious shock (and perhaps embarrassment that they hadn’t believed the women. “Peace be with you,” he says, as love quiets fear. Then he voluntarily showed them his hands, his feet, his side. Thomas only did what any one of us would do. He wanted confirmation of what he so fervently hoped was true. That life was more powerful than death. That love conquered fear.
There are only two motives: love and fear.
In our world today, with all its poverty, hatred, violence and war, many people, maybe the majority of the people, wonder about what sort of God there is. Our times, our challenges as a human species are no worse or better than the times in which Jesus lived. War, oppression, poverty—all were rampant. And yet the early church grew rapidly. It grew because people could see how the followers of Jesus loved one another. As the lesson from Acts tells us, “now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and one soul and they owned everything in common so that there was not a needy person among them.” No wonder people came to believe the liberating message of Jesus. As Acts points out, “the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection not only in words, but in actions.” Oh boy can you get a congregation riled up by suggesting that it is literally true that everyone ought to sell all they have and give all the proceeds to the church for the care of those in need! Even those most invested in Biblical literalism tend to slide around the edges of this one. Oh, the piety commandments—the thou-shalt-nots—are spoken of regularly, but not this part of Acts. This is one of the lessons at which most Americans say “Now the preacher has stopped preachin’ and started meddlin’!” But this lesson tells us graphically what one of the responses to the resurrection needs to be—generosity which in a small way gives thanks for the gift of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and even the more powerful gift of life which does not lie frightened in the shadow of death.
There are only two procedures: love and fear.
I knew an Episcopal priest who was a missionary to the Navajo people tell this story about his first teaching sermon to the people. He had gotten a Navajo man who was a convert to Christianity and who spoke excellent English to translate for him and gather a crowd of curious Navajos together to hear the story of Jesus. Things went well and there were, as the translation would be done, lots of heads nodding in the affirmative. But the priest told the translator that he was nervous about telling the people that it was required of them to give 10% of all they had to God through the Church.
There didn’t seem to be much consternation even about the resurrection, and this was a big thing, given that the Navajo’s traditional beliefs about the spirits of the dead kept them even from touching the bodies of those who had died. That being so, he forged ahead and talked about the tithe. But there was a great shaking of heads in the negative about that. He anxiously asked the translator what was going on and saying “I knew the tithe would be too much for them.” An old man stood and spoke for the entire group, most of whom had gotten up and were leaving. He said “we liked most of what you said, about this Jesus, and the way he came back from the dead, and how his father loves everyone. But we can’t worship any God who only asks for 10% of what a person has. Our god gave everything to us and so all we have belongs to God.”
What are we to do with all of this? With this doubt, with this resurrection, with the issue of how to react and live our lives in the shadow of the most amazing event in all of history? I think the hymn we sang just prior to this sermon gives us a response. “This joyful Eastertide, away with sin and sadness.” The theologian Phil Yancey who wrote The Jesus I Never Knew, asks the question why, when we look at history, do we always start with the fearful things like the wars, natural disasters, the squalor and pain and death? He suggests that there is another way to look at the world. Let us take Easter as the starting point, for Jesus in his resurrection does make all things new. All bets are off. We are free from the power of fear and death.
The predominant fact is that God’s love conquers death and pain and squalor and fear. You can see that in today’s lessons. The disciples went from abject fear and sadness to a joy that was to infect the entire world—to change behaviors (such as the sharing of wealth seen in the Acts lesson)—and these few, frightened doubting people did go out and change the world. From a few hundred strong, the Christian Church has grown to nearly 2 billion strong. Love, the breath of the Holy Spirit empowered them to do all things.
There are only two frameworks: love and fear.
Cost? Oh, never doubt it. Note that Jesus offered them peace, not safety. The English theologian Dorothy Sayers said “God did not abolish the fact of evil: He transformed it. God did not stop the crucifixion: He rose from the dead.” All but one of these frightened men in that upper room ended up being martyred for their faith. But the risen Christ gave them all the power they needed, his unconditional love, to allow them to change the world forever. And we, too, have that power. But like the early church we must act in love and not fear.
The Good News in today’s gospel of John is that fear and death did not have the last word. Love did.
There are only two results: Love and Fear. Choose love!