Saturday, 28 April 2012


Sermon on John 20: 19 – 23, St Matthew's, Oxford, 15th April 2012

In my sermon today I want to talk about fear and its antidote love. This is the Sunday after Easter when we are still thinking about Jesus’ resurrection and why that is good news. I want to suggest that one small part of that good news is that it means that there is nothing we really need fear. Of course fear is sometimes appropriate. When we cross a road we should be a little afraid of the oncoming traffic. But I also want to suggest that we spend too much of our time being afraid –and why the news of Jesus’ resurrection should change all that.

In our gospel reading we find the disciples meeting in the evening of Easter Sunday – the very day of Jesus’ resurrection: which we celebrated last Sunday. We don’ really know why they were meeting. But surely it was to discuss what Mary Magdalene had told them that morning and what Peter and John had confirmed, that Jesus’ tomb was empty. Perhaps they had also heard that Mary, when she had returned to the tomb later that day, had met the risen Jesus in the Garden. But we really don’t know how much the disciples knew or understood at that point: John doesn’t tell us.

We also don’t know what sort of a gathering it was: whether one of the disciples – say Peter – had called a formal meeting of the group or whether it was a more informal gathering of a few friends. We don’t know who precisely was there. John doesn’t supply us with such details. But he does tell us that the door to the room was locked.

John is writing when parchment was expensive and every little detail of his story counts. His mentioning that the room was locked is surely important and symbolic of the disciples’ state of mind at that time. He also tells us that the reason why the door was locked. The disciples were afraid. And he tells us what they were afraid of: the Jews. John doesn't tell us why they were afraid of the Jews. But what we can be sure of is that the disciples were full of fear on the evening of Easter Sunday.

That the disciples were afraid that evening is rather confirmed by Jesus’ first words to them, which were, according to John: ‘Peace be with you’. He actually says this twice in his seemingly rather short appearance. That they were afraid that evening is also confirmed by Luke who also suggests that fear was a major ingredient in the main group of disciples' first encounter with the risen Jesus. Luke however doesn’t mention that the disciples were afraid of the Jews but suggests that they were afraid of the risen Jesus himself – they thought they were seeing a ghost. In Luke’s account Jesus doesn’t just give them his peace but asks then why they are frightened.

Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts of what happened on Easter Sunday also suggest that fear was a big factor in the first meetings between the disciples and the risen Jesus. According to Matthew, Jesus, when he first met them, told them explicitly not to be afraid. And one of the most ancient versions of Mark’s gospel finishes with Mary Magdalene and the other women discovering the empty tomb. It doesn’t actually describe any of the resurrection appearances of Jesus and ends with the words. ‘So they [the women ] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them and said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.

Now you might not have imagined that fear would have been the disciples’ over-riding emotion on discovering or hearing about the fact that Jesus’ tomb was empty and that he might therefore be alive. You might have thought they would have been excited at and indeed pleased by this news about their beloved leader. If nothing this else this surely suggested that – despite what they must have thought when their leader was crucified – the ‘Jesus project’ wasn't all over quite yet, that something more was going to happen. You might have even thought, that on speculating on the empty tomb, and perhaps having heard of Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus, they would be eagerly anticipating meeting him themselves. Luke tells us that that evening the disciples were discussing with Cleopas and another disciple their encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus.

And yet both John and Luke tell us that that first meeting between Jesus and the disciples on Easter Sunday began with them all being afraid. Afraid of what? Was is it just the Jews that they were afraid of? Might it not also - as Luke’s account of this meeting suggests – been fear of other things besides?

It was perhaps convenient for the disciples to explain their fears as ‘fear of the Jews’ particularly in retrospect. When it is hard for us to explain what we afraid of, it is often convenient to tell people we are afraid of some external agent or some uncertain future event. Were the Jew’s really out to get them? Surely the Jews would have thought that the Jesus movement was over now that they had disposed of its leader. Was there really any threat from the Jews at that point? OK once the early church got going the Jewish establishment posed a real threat – as did, of course, the Roman authorities who were equally if not more responsible for the death of Jesus - but on Easter Sunday? Surely not.

I would like to suggest that when John says that the room was locked for fear of the Jews that this was largely a case of transference. That the disciples were really afraid of what the empty tomb and the possibility of the risen Jesus meant for themselves rather than the Jews. The crucifixion of Jesus – the leader they loved must have been a ghastly and horrible business for them – which we can only just begin to imagine - but Jesus’ death brought all that to an end and a seeming conclusion.

The death of someone we love is dreadful but in another sense it ends all the bad bits of our relationship with them as well as, of course, all the good bits. It’s a resolution that we assume we just need to come to terms with. We can’t do anything about our relationship with that person anymore and that can be a form of relief. And we know - at least with that rational part of our mind - that with time we will come to grieve the loss of that person less.

We can see surely that the possibility of Jesus being alive was frightening for the disciples: possibly more frightening for some of them than others. They were grieving his departure but also trying to come to terms with it. His reappearance on the scene changes everything. What would he say to them? They had been his friends and yet they had failed him, they had deserted him and if not actively colluded in his arrest and execution, had done very little to stop it. What would Jesus say to Peter who had actively denied knowing his friend and master?

Who amongst us would not be afraid of meeting, really meeting the risen Jesus? It would mean, what it meant for those first disciples: confronting our own inadequacies and surely that is what we are really afraid of? We are particularly afraid that somehow our inadequacies will be exposed or that we will have to reveal them And yet Jesus marvellously tell them, and us, that there is nothing to fear.

‘Do not be afraid’ is according to Richard Rohr the most common instruction in the Bible. I did a quick search on the Bible Gateway website for the phrase ‘Do not be afraid’ and those exact words are found 16 times in the New Testament compared with say only nine times for ‘Love your neighbour’ or three times for ‘Love the Lord you God’ or ‘Love your enemy’. OK not very scientific but a fairly clear result.

The Christian church has however sometimes suggested that fear is not necessarily a bad thing. ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ is rather a favourite proverb of some – that exact rendering comes from the Psalms. Psalm 111: 10 to be precise. But you can find the same sentiment in Proverbs 1. I am sure I can remember the text, either engraved on a wooden plaque or embroidered onto some framed embroidery, hanging on a wall in one of my relatives’ houses that I visited as a child. But in fact the word fear in both Psalms and Proverbs is better translated as awe or reverence – as of someone we look up to and revere. ‘The reverence of God is the beginning of wisdom’ clearly has quite a different meaning to ‘the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.’

To live in fear is what Jesus expressly thinks we shouldn’t do He tells us that we shouldn't even be anxious about tomorrow, or where our food is going to come from. So we certainly shouldn't be afraid of him or indeed of God.

And yet there is a lot of fear around. Our consumer society generates fear: fear of losing our incomes, our jobs, our houses and other possessions if we lose our income, our health and our self-image. The advertising we see on tv fosters some of those fears. If you don’t have this particularly deodorant you won’t attract as many women/men. If you don’t have this particular car you family will be less safe on the road. But the Church can also foster our fears. When it promotes conformity to religious norms, just as advertising promotes conformity to cultural norms, it also encourages the fear of not being part of the in-group, the fear of being rejected.

And as a human institution the church can use fear – as all human institutions do - to manage its members. Fear is a very convenient tool for getting people to do what you want them to do. So the Church too sometimes encourages people’s fear of being considered insignificant and unsuccessful. But perhaps the worst the Church has done in this regard is to present God as someone to be feared. It has done this by promoting our fear of what might happen after death, if its members don’t believe or do certain things.

Now the antidote to fear is, of course, love. If we love someone how can we fear them? John’s first epistle contains this useful proverb: ‘There is no fear in love but perfect love casts out fear’. This is the text which should be hung up in people’s homes I think, rather than, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. Of course when the disciples do meet the risen Jesus, their fears are cast out because it is clear that he loves them and loves them perfectly. The switch is clear in John’s account of the meeting: he says that ‘the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord’.

And if we too are not willing to be led through our fears and anxieties we will never see or grow. Just as the disciples could not have moved on to found the early church without first confronting the leader they had deserted and betrayed, so we too must confront our fears. Our first response to anyone calling us to a greater understanding of ourselves will be increased anxiety. We don’t say: ‘Isn’t this wonderful’. Instead we recoil in fear and say, ‘I don’t know if I want to go there.’

At the edges of medieval maps where the map-makers didn’t know whether it was land or sea and if land whether it was hospitable or not you would often find the warning, ‘Here be dragons’. We confront these dragons when we approach the edge of our comfort zone. But dragons need slaying rather than appeasing. And dragons are often more imaginary than real.

Jesus in dying on the cross has slain our dragons both imaginary and real. In rising from the dead he has shown us that we have nothing to fear, not even death itself. He meets us on the other side of the grave with a perfect love that acknowledges all our inadequacies and indeed recognises our fears. His perfect love casts out our fear.