Locked Away ~ Easter 2A, Earth Day 04/23/17

Locked Away
Text: John 20:19-31
April 23, 2017 ~ Second Sunday of Easter ~ Earth Day
Sermon by Rev. Heather M. Hinton


On Wednesday, Hugh was getting Isaac settled into bed while I cleaned up from supper. Over the sound of the running water, I heard Isaac wailing. When I got to his room he was sobbing too hard to talk; Hugh told me that Isaac didn’t want to pray for Aunt Dani because it was going to give him bad dreams.

Aunt Dani isn’t really Isaac’s aunt. She’s my childhood best friend, and our families have remained close for forty years. Dani’s daughter is Isaac’s age; Dani’s sister Jenn has a son who is just a little younger. We spend most holidays with all of them and their parents, and have get-togethers with them throughout the year. They’re my our family, so Danielle and Jenn, two of my best friends – my sisters, really – are Isaac’s aunts, and Linnea and Rowan are his cousins.

During Wednesday’s prayer time before bed, Hugh had suggested that Isaac pray for Aunt Dani because she would be having surgery on Thursday. And that’s when Isaac melted down. He was afraid to even think about her surgery, he didn’t even want to pray for her, because he was afraid it was going to give him bad dreams. “Afraid” isn’t even the right word. He was sobbing uncontrollably and could hardly talk.

Now, here’s the thing you need to know. For about a year, when he was around five years old, Isaac had nightmares nearly every night. Sometimes they were not just bad dreams, but actual night terrors, when he would start screaming in the middle of the night. When we went in to comfort him, he would sit up and often have his eyes open, looking right at us, but he wasn’t awake. He was trapped in the nightmare and couldn’t calm down, no matter what we did. We just had to wait it out. We’d hold him and talk softly to him and hum to him but we just had to let the dream run its course. And then he would lie down and go back to a peaceful sleep.

He didn’t remember the night terrors, the really awful ones. But the more routine bad dreams? He remembered those and it got so that he was afraid to go to bed every night. We ended up putting an air mattress on the floor in his room, and for about six months I slept on the floor beside his bed, just so he could relax enough to fall asleep; he knew that when the bad dreams came, I would be right there. Somehow that gave him enough comfort to be able to close his eyes and allow himself to go to sleep.

When we asked Isaac to pray for Aunt Dani the night before her surgery, Isaac was afraid that merely thinking about her operation was going to scare him into having a bad dream. Even though he doesn’t bad dreams very often anymore, he’s afraid of being afraid.

Fear is an incredibly powerful emotion. It is an alerting-response to a perceived threat or danger; in other words, the purpose of fear is to arouse us to a defensive behavior when we are in danger – or think we are. There are a variety of potential defense behaviors; the one resorted to is the one our unconscious thinks will be most effective in a particular context. “Active coping strategies” are used when escape from threat is possible, either through active resistance or through outrunning the danger. Whatever we’re afraid of is immediate and proximate. There are physiological changes that go along with the active fear-response: increased heart rate, sweating, the flood of chemicals such as adrenaline and dopamine, tensed muscles, quickened breathing – all of these physiological changes prepare the body to either “fight” or “take flight.”

Sometimes escape from threat isn’t possible, or seems impossible, and that’s when we “freeze.” We hold perfectly still – physically, or emotionally shutting down – in the unconscious hope that the tiger won’t notice us and will just go away. In this case, when our unconscious mind choose to freeze, whatever we’re afraid of isn’t immediate or imminent; we’re afraid of something that we are predicting.

That was the kind of fear Isaac was feeling on Wednesday night: predictive fear. And while it made his adrenal system rev up, causing his heart to race and his breath to come too fast, it also made him feel paralyzed, like he couldn’t relax enough to go to sleep. He just froze in his bed, terrified – and this thing that was so scary, the potential bad dream, wasn’t something he could get away from, because it was a perceived threat, a prediction of something dangerous, and there was no way to actually fend it off.

This is also the fear the disciples were experiencing that Easter night. Mary, Peter, and the unnamed beloved disciple have returned from the empty tomb. We don’t know what the male disciples said to their companions, but John reports that Mary told the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

But then John reports that “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” (v. 19) As Biblical scholar Raymond Brown points out, in the other gospels, the guards at the tomb, Mary and the other women, and the male disciples all experience fear when they see the angelic vision at the tomb and as they later see Jesus. But “in John, it is “the Jews” who cause their fear, not supernatural visions.” [1]

The Gospel of John uses the term “the Jews” repeatedly, and far more frequently than any of the other Gospel writers do. It is because of this tendency that the Gospel of John has been used to bolster anti-Semitic arguments throughout history.

It is here that we must take a moment for what some have called “an explanatory pause.” What did John mean when he spoke of “the Jews?”

We cannot assume that we know what John meant when he said that the disciples were afraid of “the Jews.” Raymond Brown points out that “it is quite clear that in many instances the term “the Jews” has nothing to do with ethnic, geographical, or religious differentiation. People who are ethnically, religiously, and even geographically Jews (even in the narrow sense of belonging to Judea) are distinguished from “the Jews.”” [2] So that’s the first point: “the Jews” refers, in John’s Gospel, specifically to the leadership, the hierarchy, of the Jewish Temple. “The Jews” are the authorities, not the whole of the people who are ethnically or religiously Jewish.

However, it is not quite that simple. The second point Raymond Brown makes is this: John’s Gospel was written after 70 CE. Jewish – and Christian – life in John’s time looked significantly different from how it looked in Jesus’ own time. By John’s time, the Christians – the followers of Jesus – had been essentially kicked out of the synagogues by those who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. “John is not anti-Semitic; the evangelist is condemning not race or people but opposition to Jesus.” [3]

That’s an important distinction, and one we must always remember as we read John’s Gospel, particularly passages such as we have today.
OK, explanatory pause over.

When I read this passage this week, I found I wasn’t paying much attention to the part of the story we usually think of: that is, so-called Doubting Thomas and his coming to faith. I was stuck on this very first verse – actually, just the first half of the very first verse:

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…

Now that we’ve cleared up who the disciples were afraid of – that is, the religious authorities who killed Jesus and who, in all likelihood, were hostile to Jesus’ followers – not the Jewish people in general – we come to the question that gave me such pause this week: what were they afraid of?

It doesn’t take us a whole lot of thought to come to a reasonable conclusion: the Jewish authorities had had Jesus killed. As rumors of the resurrection spread, they were probably also afraid that, at the very least, they were going to be accused of stealing Jesus’ body to promote those rumors and give them credence. Moreover, the Temple authorities were hostile to all of Jesus’ followers. The disciples were certainly afraid that they could be next on the execution list.

This is predictive fear. It is anticipatory fear. There is no imminent threat; no police are banging on the door, no warrant has been issued for their arrest. They are afraid that those things might happen – rightfully so, of course; they are in real danger. But because it is danger that they cannot yet face down either through fight or flight (for where would they go?), they resort to the other coping mechanism when one experiences fear: they freeze.

They lock the doors. They hope the “tiger” – the authorities – will forget about them, or not see them, or just get bored in waiting for them and go away.

What happens next? In the second half of my favorite verse this week, we read that “Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then we hear that Jesus, in order to prove that it is really him, shows them his hands and side, still raw with the wounds of crucifixion and torture, and he again says “Peace be with you.”

And then he says this: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

No more being locked away, my friends. It’s time to unbolt the doors and go back out into that world. Much of it may be hostile, but there are those who need to hear the Good News. They need to be given the opportunity to believe, that they, as John says, “may have life in his name.” (v. 31)

Now, it certainly isn’t of the same magnitude – bad dreams certainly aren’t the equivalent of the threat of actual death! – but I needed to say a similar thing to Isaac on Wednesday night. I said something along the lines of: “I know you’re scared, but we’re not going to stay locked away in the fear that you’ll have a bad dream. We have important work to do. Aunt Dani needs our prayers. So we’re going to be brave and do our job. Deep breath, now.”

The scripture says, “When Jesus had said this [that he was sending them out into the world], he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”” (v. 22)

I didn’t personally give Isaac the Holy Spirit. But I believe that he did receive the Holy Spirit when we prayed. I said to Isaac, “Do you want to learn how to pray for someone who is sick? Do you want to see how I do it at the hospital?” He nodded his head and his sobs quieted. And we held hands and we prayed. I said the words, but his little heart was as much a part of that prayer as any words I uttered. We prayed for the doctors and the nurses, that they’d be wise and steady and loving; we prayed for Aunt Dani’s husband and daughter, that they’d be brave while they waited; we prayed that Aunt Dani wouldn’t be in too much pain and that her surgery would make her feel so much better; we prayed that God would help us not be too scared for her; we prayed that our love would give her strength; we prayed that she would heal fast and feel better than she has in a long time.

By the time we were finished, Isaac was no longer crying. I asked him, “Do you feel better?” He nodded and gave me a huge hug.

Through the act of prayer, he was filled with the Holy Spirit. The predictive fear was, if not completely vanquished, certainly diminished.

This is what happens when we pray. We take a breath in, and as the air fills our lungs, God’s Holy Spirit, God’s breath, God’s ruach, God’s pneuma, God’s holy wind, fills our souls. Does it help the person we’re praying for? I believe it does, in some way. Can I prove it? Not scientifically, and yet I still believe it. (Kind of like I can’t prove the resurrection, and yet I still believe it.) Does our prayer mean we’ll get the outcome we desire? Not necessarily. But does it do something important? Absolutely.

If nothing else, it grounds us in God when we’re being drowned in stress hormones and a racing heart and the terror of whatever it is we are facing – or think we might be facing.

We’re all afraid of something. These days, there is a culture of fear all around us. On Earth Day, we may find ourselves reminded of a persistent fear about what’s coming for us, our children, our grandchildren, as climate change continues to intensify – particularly if governments and communities don’t make some big changes, fast. When we watch the news, we may be afraid of terrorism or war or insurrections near and far. We may be afraid of that lump we found or that strange spot we saw or the headaches that won’t go away – of what they might mean. We may be afraid for a loved one who is going through a hard time. We may be afraid of change, or instability, or vulnerability. We may even just be afraid of fear itself.

But we can’t stay locked away. We have work to do to make the world a safer, better place – a place more like the Kingdom of God.

And when we feel paralyzed by fear, when we just want to freeze – pulling the covers over our head or ignoring the plight of the earth and her people or numbing out with our addiction of choice. But as followers of Jesus, we don’t have that luxury. And so we pray. And when we pray, we can be encouraged.

En-couraged. Coeur – the French for heart. We may be given our hearts; we may find them strengthened.

After all, as a wise person once told me, “courage” is not the lack of fear. Courage is just fear that has said its prayers.



[1] Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John: John XIII-XXI, p. 1020.

[2] Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John: John I-XII, p. LXXIff. emphasis mine.

[3] Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John: John XIII-XXI, p. 1020.

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