Psychologist, Wayne Dyer, author of many self-help books, tells of attending his twenty-year high school reunion. At that reunion he met a former classmate with whom he’d had a secret crush. You see, she was bright, beautiful, and popular, and he could never get up the courage to ask her out. To his surprise, at the reunion this woman whom he had longed to date confessed that she would have been thrilled to go out with him if only he had asked. His adolescent fear of rejection had denied him the opportunity to get to know the girl he so admired.
It is a frivolous example, maybe, but that’s what fear does to us sometimes, doesn’t it? It shuts the door on great opportunities. Fear is the opposite of the faith to which Christ has called us. Today’s lesson from John’s gospel tells us that “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.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”
We can identify with these anxious, fearful disciples of Jesus. This had been a traumatic time for these disciples. Can we blame them for hovering nervously in the upper room? The doors were shut, because of fear.
Our world, too, has been turned upside down. We too are doing some nervous hovering in our quarantined houses behind locked doors. Rumors fly around. Fear escalates. Reason is suspended.
This kind of thinking can result in repercussions. Believe it or not, in 1973, late-night talk show Johnny Carson repeated a rumor that that had been making the rounds in local newspapers, that local stores were running out of supplies of toilet paper. Guess what happened? Yep, the same thing that happened recently when shoppers ran out and bought out the local supplies of toilet paper.
Sadly, we can identify with the fears of those early disciples. Yes, there is much to fear in what has come to be called “the new normal.”
Fear is the enemy of faith. The disciples were hovering behind closed doors because they had temporarily misplaced their faith. They still were people who believed in God. Though not all highly educated, they believed in God and had some familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures. They probably grew up reciting “The Lord is my Shepherd” in their synagogues. They were familiar with the heroes of the Old Testament. What happened to their faith? They had been with Jesus, some of them for three years. How many times had Jesus told them not to be afraid? Scholars counted that Jesus said, “Fear not” 366 times. Hadn’t any of that rubbed off on them? A time of crisis came and they went back to acting as they did before Jesus ever called them to follow him.
Where was their faith?
Psychologists who study the brain can help us understand what happens to the brain when we are afraid. “In times of crisis,” writes Jungian scholar, Brother Don Bisson, “the reptilian part of our brain automatically awakens with alarm and our first response is fight or flight. The survival of the fittest is tested. Take no one with you. Fear, panic, anger, anxiety, and hoarding set in, as well as seeing the other as the enemy. We freeze before our choices, and toilet paper becomes a symbol of our needs not being met. Guns are selling at 300% of normal, as if the virus can be fought by a militia in arms. Our primitive and ancient conditioning is raised to a higher level. But we are people of faith. God loves us. We are called to truly remember our core beliefs, especially in these times.
However, under stress, what happened to the disciples often happens to us. We temporarily misplace our faith and go back to acting as if we never heard the Gospel. We do this even though we know that faith is our greatest ally. Those who trust in a good and just God should never lose hope. That faith not only makes us easier to live with, but also is of great benefit in dealing with some of our greatest fears.
Harriet Ward Beecher once said, “Every day has two handles; we can take hold of the handle of anxiety or the handle of faith.” The disciples had hold of the handle of anxiety. They were hiding behind closed doors because of fear and because they had temporarily misplaced their faith. Mainly, however, they were hiding behind closed doors because they felt abandoned.
There was something about the presence of the Master that had given them a sense of calm even in the presence of imminent danger: There was the time that he calmed the storm and walked out to the boat where they were huddled. The first words he spoke were these: “Fear not. It is I.”
But where was he now? Crucified. Body stolen from the tomb. Absent from them in flesh and spirit. There they were, like sheep without a shepherd, like children whose parents had abandoned them and left them to face the cold cruel world on their own. Psychologists tell us that this is one of the greatest childhood fears, the fear of abandonment.
The disciples huddled behind closed doors because they felt abandoned. But here’s the good news for us today. Christ can penetrate the closed doors of our hearts and our lives. This is the best antidote I know to the fear that has beset us. Moving from fear to faith is to experience the presence of the risen Christ, to see the evidence of his love for us and to hear him say, “Peace, be with you.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Let us pray for our transition from fear to faith. Amen.