April 15th, 2018 “Set Free From Fear” Rev. Heather Jepsen
Luke 24:36-48 with Acts 3:12-19
While at home the Easter lilies have begun to fade and we have put the plastic eggs away to save for another year, here in the church it is still Easter day. This morning we are reading from Luke, and again the reading takes place on the evening of Easter day. While very similar to our reading last Sunday from the gospel of John, there are some interesting differences in this text, especially around the issue of fear.
The way Luke tells the story a group of women find the empty tomb, hear the news from angels, and then go home and tell the disciples. Peter returns to the tomb to confirm that the story the women tell is true. Then the author of Luke takes us on a detour on the road to Emmaus. We read a portion of this story on Easter morning. Two disciples are walking on the road, discussing the happenings in Jerusalem over the Passover. Jesus comes among them, but is unrecognized. As evening draws near, the disciples ask the stranger to shelter with them for the evening. It is only after they break bread and share a meal that the disciples realize that they are with the Christ himself.
Jesus disappears after the meal and these two run all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples about what has happened. That is where our reading for today picks up. While they are still telling their story, Jesus himself appears among the disciples. Those gathered believe that they are seeing a ghost, (what other explanation could there be?) and they are very afraid.
The belief in ghosts was common in the ancient world and it was a real cause for fear. It is also an understandable concern as the things that Jesus has done would be consistent with a ghost. He is supposed to be dead in the tomb, and the tomb is empty. Friends just saw him in Emmaus and now suddenly he is in Jerusalem, without having traveled with them. Never mind the fact that they all saw him crucified and dead just three days prior. I think to be frightened at this point is totally understandable.
Jesus offers the disciples peace, and then goes about the business of dispelling their fear. He doesn’t judge them for being afraid, he doesn’t judge them for not understanding all the times he told them that this would happen, and he doesn’t judge them for their lack of faith. Instead he patiently goes through the steps to prove that he is not a ghost. First he shows them his wounds. As we discussed last Sunday, this is the identifying mark of the Christ. Then he asks them to touch his body and see that it is indeed flesh and not some spectral apparition. Finally he eats in front of them, proving that he has a body with a digestive system and is not some shadow of a person where the food will simply drop down to the floor.
Even with all these proofs the disciples remain afraid and uncertain. The author tells us that “while in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” I love this line because it seems so real to our own experience. Even in the joy of our faith, there is a portion of us that holds back. Even on Easter Sunday there is a part of our heart that wonders if the story we celebrate every year is really true. Even when we see and feel the love of God in our lives, even in our joy, there is a bit of us that is disbelieving and wondering. Could this story really be true? And if it is . . . then what does it demand of us in return?
At this point, Jesus uses the last tool at his disposal, the scriptures. Jesus decides to use the story of God’s love for God’s people over the eons of time, to prove that the story he is telling is true. Jesus tells them everything; from the beginning of creation to the early patriarchs of Moses and Abraham, from the time of the judges to the preaching of the prophets, from the word of God in the psalms to the poetry of Solomon. Jesus tells them everything and how it leads back to this moment with the disciples, how it leads back to the story that is about him, about death and resurrection, about new life from old, about hope in the midst of fear. Jesus opened their minds, and they weren’t afraid anymore. And then Jesus sent them out to share this news with others, “You are witnesses of these things.”
The scriptures are a powerful tool to calm our fears and open our minds to God’s truth. Later on in the story of the disciples, Peter will use this same technique with the people of Jerusalem. In the story that this same author tells in the book of Acts, Peter and John are on the way to the temple and see a man at one of the gates begging for money. This man has been lame since birth; his only hope of life was the mercy of strangers and passersby who might toss him a shekel. Peter offers him more, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” The man is healed and the people are amazed.
Amazed, and I imagine a bit afraid. From where did Peter get this power to heal? As the people gather around in awe and wonder, Peter uses the Scriptures to explain what is going on. He tells the story of God, again through the patriarchs and the prophets. And he begins to tell the story that is told in the second half of the scriptures today, about Jesus the Christ and his death and resurrection. Peter knows that it is the people of Jerusalem who had called for the crucifixion of Jesus but he doesn’t condemn them for their wrong. Instead Peter offers them grace. “I know you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.” They didn’t know what they were doing. But now that the scriptures have been explained, now that the know the full story of God’s love, now that their minds have been opened to free them from fear, now they can find another way forward, a way of healing and hope. “Repent therefore, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out.”
We too have access to this power of the scriptures to set us free from fear. Think of all the things today that cause us to fear or that we react to in fear. We are afraid for our personal safety; so we lock our doors, close our blinds, and buy a gun so the bad guys (whoever those are) won’t come and get us. We are afraid for our future; so we grasp and grab at every coin that comes our way and save it all secure as if we could somehow guarantee ourselves health and long life through our financial planning. We are afraid as a nation; so we stockpile nuclear weapons, put up walls on our borders, and send our young men and women to foreign countries to kill strangers who live there to protect our own interests. Think for a minute about how much the feeling of fear is a motivator for the things that we say and do each day. I think that fear; fear of the stranger, fear of death, fear of poverty, fear of suffering, fear of everything is woven into the fabric of our country. I think fear is as American as freedom.
Into this climate of fear, what do these stories of Jesus Christ offer us? What does the love story of God and God’s people that we find woven throughout our scriptures offer us? I believe God offers us the opportunity to be set free from fear. In the story of God’s love we find that God will provide for us. We don’t need to fear the future, for God is there as much as God is here with us. In the story of God’s love we find that in welcoming the stranger we welcome God. In the story of God’s love we find that the interests of one nation cannot be held at higher esteem than the interests of the planet as a whole, for God’s love is for the whole of humanity. In the story of God’s love, we find that even if we suffer, our God will never abandon us. And even if the worst should happen, even if we should die, in the story of God’s love we find that God has power over death. Even in our death we are still with God, even closer with God than in life. To know the story of God’s love as told in the scriptures is to be set free from the fears of this life.
Our scripture readings for today remind us that when people encountered the power of God’s resurrection love in the unknown they were afraid. From the disciples and their encounter with Jesus to the people of Jerusalem and their witness of healing, fear and astonishment were the response to God. Through the stories of the scriptures as told by Jesus and Peter, people’s minds were opened, and they were set free from their fear.
We too have the power to be set free from fear. We have the opportunity to read the Bible ourselves to know the story of God’s love. Even more powerful, we have the opportunity to tell these stories to each other, through gathering together for worship, listening to sermons, attending Bible studies and small groups, and sharing our lives together. Jesus and Peter didn’t tell these folks to read their Bibles to understand God. No, they told them the stories from their own hearts in their own words and that is what had the power to open people’s minds.
When we know the truth of God’s love for humanity, of God’s love for us as individuals, then we are set free from fear. When we are set free from fear then we are able to welcome the stranger, to be generous with our blessings, to face our future, and to work for justice and peace in the world. May God’s love set us free from fear today. Amen.