Sunday, April 3, 2016

"Doubting" Thomas or “Fearful Disciples” Sunday?

The Lectionary always has us read the story of “Doubting” Thomas on this Second Sunday of the Easter season.  He is the disciple who is not present when Jesus first appears to his followers on evening after the Resurrection.  They are hiding in a house - the doors locked and the windows shuttered – because they are fearful authorities are going to arrest them just as they had arrested Jesus a few days earlier.  

Thomas gets a bad rap as being the doubter in the group, when in fact, not a single disciple believes Jesus has risen from the dead.  To be completely accurate, most do not even believe the women’s report that the tomb is empty.  Now that is doubting at the highest level!  Here is what sets Thomas apart from the others: he is the only disciple who is brave enough to leave the house where all the others are hiding.  The text does not tell us where he went or what he was doing, but this much is clear: he is not as fearful as the others. 

So let’s switch our focus from the inaccurately dubbed “Doubting” Thomas to the more accurately tagged “Fear-Filled” Followers.  That is what this Sunday should be all about.

Consider this: Jesus spent three years of his life teaching this group about the Kingdom of God – a spiritual reality inviting them to turn their focus upward to God and outward to others.  But now, just a few days after the Crucifixion, the focus of Jesus’ followers has shifted from proclamation to self-preservation.  Aung San Suu Kyi, the former Burmese political prisoner and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize makes the observation, “The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.”  For the disciples, the outer reality of the locked room is a reflection of inner fear imprisoning them.  They have compromised their identity, lost their purpose, and forsaken their mission.  The Kingdom of God, built on self-sacrifice, has given way to the perceived need to protect oneself at all costs.

If we are going to be honest with ourselves, we cannot be too critical of the disciples because we are very much like them.  We too spend much of our lives locked-up in a state of fear.  We are anxious about so much of the way the world is today and we attempt to protect ourselves by locking it out.

Phil Barker, a member of the research staff at the Conflict Research Consortium, defines fear as “an unpleasant and often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.”  He notes fear is “completely natural and helps people to recognize and respond to dangerous situations and threats.”  But, he says, ‘healthy’ fear can also evolve into something unhealthy, even pathological.   It can manifests itself in the guise of anger, jealously, and resentment.  This kind of fear can lead to exaggerated or even violent behavior. 

Barker points to the work of Dr. Ivan Kos who described three stages of fear:

  First there is real fear.  If someone punches you every time you meet, you have reason to fear the person will punch again the next time your paths cross.

  Next there is realistic or possible fear.  This kind leads you to manage a threat or avoid it altogether.  Realistic fear is why we take care crossing a busy street.

  Finally, there is exaggerated or emotional fear.   This bubbles up when a person recalls a past experience of fear and injects that memory into a current situation, even though the two events are not related.  We say this kind of fear “clouds” our thinking. 

Fear can be and often is manifested collectively.  Perhaps the single most significant collective fear in our time is the fear of losing our identity.  The world is changing rapidly and our lives are being changed as a result.  We fear the world will pass us by.  We are afraid our children will abandon our time-honored traditions and that outside influences will supplant our role in their lives. 

This same fear is the common denominator behind all religious fundamentalism, be it Christian, Islam, or Judaism.  Fundamentalists are afraid of change, modernization, and loss of influence.  They worry their children will abandon faith in favor of physical and material gratification.  They worry the mass media will subvert the young people with images of song, dance, fashion, alcohol, drugs, sex, and freedom.  They are especially fearful of education if it undermines the teachings of their religion.   They fear a future they can’t control, or even comprehend.

Is it any surprise the political analyst James F. Mattil states this:

The common thread that weaves violent political movements together is fear.  It is not the only motivating factor behind political violence, nor necessarily the most obvious, but it is virtually always there.  Whenever we ask why people hate, or why they are willing to kill or die for a cause, the answer is invariably fear.

Our current political climate is dominated by fear.  It leads us to portray one group or perspective as completely heroic while branding another other as barbaric, inhumane, and/or un-American.  Leaders understand this and play on our fears because they need our support.  The net effect does not calm our fears, but rather escalates them; giving rise to even more irrational and destructive behavior.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel says, “Fear has never been a good advisor.”  The more afraid we are of the other the easier it is to dehumanize them and dismiss them, or, even worse, to perpetrate abuse against them.

The disciples gathered behind locked doors were not strangers to any of this.  Most were from Galilee, an area considered to yield little more than rubes and bumpkins.  Like all Jews, they suffered under Roman occupation and before that, Greek and Persian control.  As with all fear, memories run deep and all these past experiences played into and fed on the fear they were feeling in that locked room. 

The Risen Jesus walks into the darkness of their self-imposed prison of self-preservation.  His words speak to the heart of the situation:  “Peace be with you.”  He then shows them his hands and side.  They instantly know who he is and rejoice.  Again he says, “Peace be with you”, only this time he refocuses them on their true sense of identity, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  They are not meant for fearful hiding, but for reaching out in God’s name in order to build bridges across the chasms created by fear and hatred.  Finally, Jesus imparts on his followers the presence of the Holy Spirit; not the wild and wholly fireball of Pentecost, but a calm, soothing exhaling of breath.

The Hebrew word for peace is ‘shalom’.  Beyond peace, it conveys a sense of wholeness, fullness, and harmony.  Shalom among people is something akin to a woven fabric where relatedness and interdependence create something useful, often beautiful.  Shalom enables us individually and collectively to live into our true identity as people of God.

Notice Jesus does not return from the dead with an army of avenging angels to wipe out every power and every perspective giving rise to the disciples’ fears.  Everything about the outside world remains exactly as it was.  What Jesus changes is the disciples.  He transforms their fear into shalom.  They will still be appropriately cautious, most of the time at least; which is to say they will still exhibit realistic fear.  But from this point forward, there is not one single instance in the biblical record where they are caught up in emotional, exaggerated fear.  They will move out into the world as witnesses of the Resurrection and their own personal shalom will be one of the most compelling aspects of their testimony.

The psychiatrist Gerald Jampolsky, in his book Love is Letting Go of Fear, contends there are only two emotions: love and fear.  Love is real, he says.  It is the essence of who we are.  Fear, on the other hand, is manufactured in the mind.  We take in events from the outside world and interpret their meaning through a complex web of past thoughts and experiences.  We believe the outside world is the cause of our fears, when in fact it is just the opposite.  Our mind filters what we see and projects its own interpretation onto it. 

If we are going to overcome our own fears – in addition to the shalom Jesus offers – we must come to understand what is going on inside of us that gives rise to fear.  The spiritual counselor Pamela Dussult points to habits that rob us of inner peace.  They include living with drama, dependency on unhealthy things to make us happy, a sense of entitlement, constantly comparing oneself to others, and engaging the world with a sense of pessimism and cynicism.  If you do not understand why these things arise inside you, you will never be able to experience shalom.  You will never be able fully and freely to live into the love Jesus offers to you and invites you to share with others. 

Remember this: the choice is always yours.  You can live and move and have your being in fear or in love.  And, if you choose love, remember you live and move and have your being in a world where most people have chosen fear.  How will you meet these people?  What shalom will you have to offer?  Think about the disciples locked in that room.   Nothing about their world changed until they changed.  Once they changed - once their fear gave way to shalom - they became God’s agents of love and change in the world.  Would you like to bring this love and shalom to your family?  To your friendships?  To your workplace?  To the world?  If so, may the peace that passes all understand be with you.