Sunday, 12 April 2015

The Second Sunday of Easter : Fear, Courage and Peace


John 20:19-end
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 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.’

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

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.

 I wonder how we would feel in the face of inescapable peril. I'm reading a science fiction book at the moment about a group of people stranded on a planet which is doomed to destruction. The solar system in which it resides has an interloper, a gas giant planet like Jupiter that was a simple wanderer, no longer bound to an orbit around any particular star. Science has caught up once again with fiction and confirmed that there are indeed free ranging planets like this, ejected by gravity from their own star systems and wandering across the vast depths of the galaxy until they fall into the gravitational well of another star, at which point such planets are drawn in. If they are travelling at sufficient speed they just barrel on through. But if there is a planet in the way they can disturb its orbit catastrophically.

In this novel the situation is, of course, worse even than that. The interloper is on a direct collision course with the planet being explored and the explorers have no way of getting off the planet due to their own landing craft being damaged. As the pages turn so the story unfolds of a race against time to try and fix their damaged spaceship in order to be able to get clear of the planet before its inevitable destruction. The author ramps up tension by the change in the night sky.  As each new night falls, so the wandering planet becomes first a bright point, then a brighter blue point, then a small just-discernible disc, then a larger disc, and all the while the planet on which they are trapped begins to suffer earthquakes and violent weather changes as the gravitation of the approaching gas giant begins to affect the crust of their own doomed world.

As I read this, so I began to wonder how we would respond to this situation. In the novel there are only six explorers and they have a damaged space craft. It's obvious that at least some of them will survive. But what if it were our world, with its billions upon billions of residents of all species?  How would you respond to the news that death was absolutely and utterly unavoidable; not just your death but the death of all things and the ultimate destruction of our world with no hope of anything being rescued? As I read the book I considered the sense of hopelessness that would prevail and I wondered how humans would respond.  Perhaps there would be dreadful lawlessness. Perhaps governments would offer people the means to take their own lives painlessly rather than face to final moments of planetary destruction. I'm sure that in the midst of it there would be many people saying, 'Do not be afraid. You must have courage.' That is our natural assumption because it is the kind of thing we say in any difficult situation, that the opposite of fear is courage.

Courage is something we try and instil into our children from an early age in order to help them overcome their natural fears as they explore a world that is new to them. But what if courage isn't the way to defeat fear? What if there's something else deeper than courage?

When we look at the Gospel reading we find something which is more powerful than courage. We discover that the opposite of fear is not courage, it's peace. Think about the predicament of the disciples for a moment. The Gospel reading begins on Sunday evening, resurrection day, only the disciples don't yet know that it's happened. Instead they are in the upper room and they have locked all of the doors for fear of the Jewish authorities.  We might wonder why they are afraid, after all Jesus is dead. Upset and in mourning perhaps, but why afraid?

It's because the general model for the way troublemakers are dealt with is by arresting and punishing or killing the ring leader, and then finding all of his followers and dealing with them in the same way. The disciples genuinely felt that they were in peril.  So they were locked away in the hope that no one would come and find them. How on earth were they going to get out of Jerusalem without being seen? The gates would have had watchmen on them, and they would have presumed that they were wanted men.

Death seemed inevitable. 

But then Jesus comes and stands amongst them in the middle of a locked room, and what does he say into their fearful states of mind? He doesn't say the Aramaic equivalent of 'Chin-up!' He doesn't say, 'Come on, pull your act together.' He doesn't say, 'Have courage.' Instead he says, 'Peace be with you.' Why? Because the opposite of fear is not courage, it's peace.

The word, 'Peace' comes up over and over again in scripture with the intent of God seeming to be to bring peace to all people. So what does peace mean to you? It seems to depend on who you ask. If you look in various dictionaries you find that it means a time with no war. But do you really have peace when there's no war? That kind of peace is not a lasting peace or even a deep one.

If a nation is not fighting a war does that mean that all its subjects are at peace? No. So there must be a deeper meaning for peace. Another deeper meaning I found was 'Harmony in personal relations.' That certainly goes more deeply into us than an absence of war between nations. Now we're thinking of an absence of war between family, friends and colleagues.  That's a much more profound sense of peace. But is it a real peace? How many times have you heard parents talking about 'Keeping the peace' between their children? A peace like that can be transitory. It doesn't take much for a squabble or misunderstanding to flare up. Just because there is a state of peace in relationships doesn't mean it couldn't suddenly break down. The upshot of that is that an external peace like this, though pleasant, doesn't lead to an internal peace. Within us there may still be a tension, a sort of 'How long is this going to last?' state of mind.  

That's why, to me, the third definition of peace makes the most sense. Peace is an internal state of tranquillity or quiet, free from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions.

That is the kind of peace that Jesus is offering them; that's the kind of peace that quells our fears. The question we might like to ask is, what are the grounds for this kind of peace? I think to answer that we have to know what it is that is at the root of all of our fears?

What are the things we are scared of? Is it being bullied, of not having the right thing to say when challenged? Is it the fear of other people finding out what we're really like, or the fear of not achieving something we really want to do? Or is it the ultimate fear, that of death, of final annihilation?

In an atheistic and agnostic world the prevailing wisdom is to have courage and defeat your fears, but the opposite of fear is not courage, it's peace. That's the kind of peace that Christ offers when he arrives in the locked room, the kind of peace that takes away all of our fears.

Personally, I think that at the root of all of our fears is the fear of not having any control over events. The disciples had locked themselves away, effectively locking the world out. The only control remaining to them was a barred door. What control do we fear losing? We work hard for exams so that we can control our employment future.  We work hard at contraception so that we can control the size of our families. We save for the future so that we can control our retirement plans. And the more control we think we have, the greater our fear at the prospect of losing control, and the more bad-tempered we become with people who we think are going to take our control away. But I am not going to tell you to have courage because the opposite of fear is not courage, it's peace. It's peace we should be looking for.  The bottom line is that any control that any of us have is limited, and the pursuit of control has a habit of making us very unpleasant people. How many control freaks do you know who have lots of real deep friendships? But if instead we engage in relationship with Christ and accept that he has plans for us, a direction we can go, a meaning and a purpose for us, then we stop trying to control our own destinies and begin, instead, to look for what he would like us to do. When we do that it brings a great peace with it. The disciples could be at peace because the Lord was with them, and his resurrection had demonstrated that he could control even death. When we try and listen for his ways, his plans, then peace can come with seeing the next stage of our path.

So the next time you find yourself fearful about something, ask yourself why. Is it because you feel you're losing control of a situation? This is where discernment is needed. It may be that you sense someone trying to change things from selfish reasons, and if so you may need to ask for help to hold steady on the course of action.  Or it may be because the Lord is moving you on to a different route, or giving control of that situation to somebody else. Finding peace again is a matter of discerning God's will and being prepared to act. If you need courage it will be given to you, but what you need more is the peace of knowing, as far as it is possible to know, that you are acting according to God's will.

And remember, the opposite of fear is not courage, it's peace.

[Notes:  I wish I could remember where I originally heard this phrase as it has stuck with me and it would be good to credit it for you.  At least I can tell you that the book I refer to is DeepSix by Jack McDevitt]

No comments:

Post a Comment