Sermon: from Fear to Peace

“From Fear to Peace”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
April 28, 2019

Acts 5:27-32
When the temple police had brought the apostles, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, so that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.’

John 20:19-23, 30-31
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 religious authorities, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. 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.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

The scripture reading for the Sunday after Easter is always this last part of the book of John, starting with the part about the disciples being locked in the upper room, covering Jesus’ appearance to the disciples, and then telling the story of doubting Thomas, who isn’t present for Jesus’ first visit and has to touch Jesus’ wounds before he will believe that he has met the risen Christ. In most sermons on this day, Thomas tends to take the spotlight; but since I preached about him last year, today I’m going to focus on the other part of the text. (If you’re looking for a sermon on doubt, click here.)

Today’s scripture reading asks the question, “What do you do after a miracle?” For the disciples, the answer appears to be, “Go lock yourself in a safe room.”

When you stop to think about it, it makes sense: they are the remnants of a movement whose leader was just executed by religious authorities still looking to destroy his following.  

In other words, they are living in fear. Fear has quite literally thrown up walls around them, giving them a sense of protection, perhaps, but also isolating the disciples from the outside world. Just a few verses earlier, Mary Magdalene told them that Jesus is risen – news which should thrill them! – yet they cannot seem to take the information in. It is only when Jesus slips through their fearful barricades and speaks peace to them that they are finally able to rejoice.

Into their claustrophobic, darkened space Jesus comes – they know not how – and says “Peace be with you.” Did you notice that he says it not once – but twice? Perhaps he knows the disciples need the reassurance, to push back the doubts and the demons lurking in an as yet unknown future.

And then when he’s shown them that it is really him, he gives them a mission, a purpose: “As the Father has sent me, so I send” – or commission – “you.”

So first he brings peace – then he gives purpose. And finally, he gives them the Holy Spirit, breathing into them the living Comforter and Advocate who will equip them to accomplish the mission he’s given them.

I wonder whether you have ever been where the disciples were – living in such a state of fear or anxiety that even good news can’t seem to reach you? Maybe after a diagnosis (or while awaiting one); maybe with a loved one deployed in a perilous situation; maybe over the welfare of your children; maybe over nothing you can pinpoint. When we live in fear, no amount of rational thinking or good prognoses seem able to break down the walls; it can feel hard even to breathe normally.

But what, I wonder, would it look like for us to let Jesus breach those protective walls; to inhale his peace, claim whatever purpose he has in mind for us; and to receive the Holy Spirit as our guide and our champion?

It might seem an insurmountable goal. Fear and anxiety, after all, seem to have lives of their own, and the most maddening part of their presence in our lives is the very fact that we can’t always control them.

Perhaps we have it backwards, though: maybe the point isn’t trying to control our fear, to tear down the walls by force; maybe our only job is to keep an eye out for the Jesus who will find a way to bypass our walls no matter how forbidding they are.

This past Thursday as I was trying to finish up details for the funeral of long-time member Zoila Flores Quesada the next day, and just as Chris was heading out the door for an evening meeting, Davie shut her finger in our screen door. If you have never tried to nurse a baby, tend to the injury of a screaming child, and text about funeral details all at the same time, I don’t recommend it.

Chris’ meeting ran late, so by the time I fell into bed I still hadn’t squared away everything for the service. Normally such unfinished business keeps me up at night, or at the very least means my sleep will be disturbed by dreams about my teeth falling out or missing a semester’s worth of math class. (Does anyone else have anxiety dreams like that?)

Right before I went to bed, too tired to meditate or calm my mind, I sort of mentally shoved things into God’s hands: “Here, you take care of it.” And surprisingly, I slept like a baby – that is to say, I did wake up multiple times to feed a hungry infant, but afterwards I went right back to sleep, with nary a bizarre dream to mar my rest. And lo and behold, the next morning everything sorted itself out just in time for a beautiful service celebrating Zoila’s life.

There’s a lot of power in the fact that Jesus’ peace can come to us no matter what; it’s reassuring that his being able to reach us isn’t dependent on our ability to calm our own fears. Believe me, I’ve tried to muscle my way to tranquility before; Jesus is much better at it than we humans tend to be.

There’s another piece to this peace, as it were – Jesus commissions the disciples, giving them a purpose: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” If you’ve ever decided to clean your house or take on some other project when feeling like things are out of control, you’ll know that having some kind of purpose can help take your mind off of the unknown. Jesus tells the disciples to forgive sins and to master them (usually translated “retain”). In other words, they are to go out and free people from the grip of destructive behavior.

Later, in this morning’s reading from Acts, we find Peter and the rest of the disciples living out this mission: they are teaching repentance and forgiveness in Jesus’ name, an act that has resulted in their arrest by the very religious authorities they had barricaded themselves against just a few days earlier. Where has their fear gone?

Peter gives an explanation: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

Now we might assume they’ve simply traded fear of other people for fear of God’s wrath. But peitharxéō, the word translated “obey” here, literally means “persuaded of what comes first.” So Peter’s words are more literally translated “It is necessary to be persuaded that God comes first rather than any human,”

to be persuaded that what God has in mind for us takes priority over whatever constraints our very human fears may have placed on us.

I wonder what God is calling you to that might push aside your fears and anxieties – at least for a time. What have you been commissioned to do that can take your mind off of your fear, or even propel you forward through it? Maybe it is to lift others up, to create beauty, to teach, to listen, to share stories, to nurture, to work for justice. What God-given thing, when you are doing it, dissolves all fear and anxiety in you?

Photographer Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York went to the Special Olympics World Games recently and interviewed participants and coaches. A coach from the island nation of Vanuatu shared the story of one of her athletes: “When I first met Monick, she’d never really left her house before. She couldn’t look me in the eye. And she was afraid of the shot put. She’d drop it on the ground every time I handed it to her. She’d hide her hands behind her back. But I invited her whole family out to train with us. …and that gave her confidence. …When it was time to compete, nobody knew if she’d be able to get on the plane. She was so scared. She was crying and clinging to me the entire flight. … [Then t]he stadium was so big and she had to go out on the field all by herself. On her first throw she forgot everything she learned. She dropped the shot put immediately and the referee raised a red flag for disqualification. But then she looked back at us. She calmed down. She remembered being on the island with her family. And she threw it so far on the second throw. When the white flag was raised, we all went crazy. And she won the silver medal.”

Monick had a purpose, a mission that overrode her fear. You can hear in her coach’s words how something just came over her and allowed her to put what mattered first.

But she also played her part, choosing to look back at her team and draw strength from them. There’s a part of this formula that does rely on us. When Jesus says “Receive the Holy Spirit,” “receive” sounds about as passive as it gets. In reality, though, lambánō – the Greek word translated “receive” – means “to actively take hold of, to accept with initiative.” So while there’s nothing we need to do for Jesus to bring us his peace, if we want it to become ours – to stick with us, to shape the way we respond to everyday life – it helps to actively invite it and lay claim to it.

I follow a woman on Instagram who has an elementary-aged son with learning disabilities which require an Individual Education Plan, or IEP. An IEP is a detailed list of the accommodations and support services that help students with learning challenges or developmental disabilities succeed in school. Those of you familiar with IEPs know that for parents, the meetings to create or adjust an IEP are a morass of anxiety: will the school be willing (or even able) to offer what my child needs? Will they agree with my assessment of my child’s particular issues and how best to address them? Will I be able to advocate for my child or will I find myself tongue-tied or emotionally overwhelmed?

Recently this mama shared what she does while waiting for an IEP meeting: she writes “Come Holy Spirit” on a blank sheet of paper over and over again. It’s a simple thing, but it keeps her mind engaged and her heart open; it’s her way of “actively laying hold of” the peace Jesus offers each of us, of inviting her purpose to take priority over her fear.

Friends, it’s both simple and inexplicable. We can’t explain exactly how we are moved from fear to peace, but we can stay open to the One who helps us get there. If we can keep an eye out for Jesus, if we can prioritize the purpose he’s given us, and if we can lay claim to the Holy Spirit he breathes onto us – then we, too, may just find ourselves boldly defying the fears that not so long ago had us sheltering behind locked doors.

May it be so. Amen.