The date was March 4th, 1933. Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as the 32nd President of the United States. The nation was in the grips of the Great Depression . . . the nation and its people were in dire straits as the economy was pretty much tanked and unemployment was at a staggering 25 percent . . . and times were hard and the future looked bleak. Into this situation Roosevelt stepped to the podium and began his address to the nation:
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.”
In two short sentences, Roosevelt names the issue and offers the solution . . . the issue is fear, the solution is exploring it.
The dictionary defines fear as “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, or pain, whether the threat is real or imagined . . . it is a condition of being afraid.” Others will tell you that fear is “a vital response to physical and emotional danger . . . a necessary response to help us protect ourselves from legitimate threats; but, the problem is that often what we fear is far from life-or-death, and thus we allow it to immobilize us to do nothing.
No one is going to argue that the disciples in our reading this morning weren’t afraid. They were afraid . . . and, for good reason. They had just gone through a traumatic event in their lives . . . witnessed a brutal death of their leader . . . and, heard the mood of the crowds and people manipulating them. They feared that a similar fate would await them. It is no wonder that they hid . . . they feared for their lives. The whole situation reeked of fear as everything they had hoped for and dream of had seemingly been flushed down the toilet.
Now fear has a peculiar way of building more fear. While in hiding the disciples had heard the stories and rumors of people encountering the risen Jesus; yet, their fear kept them from fully embracing the stories and rumors as truth. After all, people say strange things when under stress . . . see things that aren’t there when stressed out . . . fear makes it difficult to believe.
Knowing this it should come as no surprise then that when Jesus popped up in their presence . . . it scared the bejeebers out of them! The writer even tells us that “they were startled and frightened, thinking that they saw a ghost.” I know that if it had been me, standing there with the disciples, I would probably be excusing myself to go and change my pants. Yet, Jesus attempts to allay their fear . . . he greets them with the greeting, “Peace be with you” . . . he tells them to look at his hands and feet . . . he asks for food to eat. A ghost does none of these. Then he “opened their minds so that they could understand the Scriptures” . . . and, he tells them it is just as he said it was going to be.
Then he gave to them the key to overcoming their fear . . . they are to open themselves to their fear . . . to confront it, explore it, and embrace it because there is nothing really to fear. Then they are to go out into the world and to share the “good news” . . . to bring about the Kingdom of God . . . and, to establish peace. In a way, Jesus is telling those gathered that they are to step through the fear into the peace. Or, to use the words of FDR: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
I believe that it is fear that immobilizes us as individuals and as the body of Christ from reaching the full capacity to be what God has created us to be. Years ago, when singer Jewel put out her first album, she had a song that was called Pieces of You. The song also happened to be the title of the album. In this song she talks about how fear makes people act towards other people . . . the bullying and hateful behavior that people display towards others who make them feel insecure or even privileged in their presence . . . people they do not really know, but have preconceived prejudices and understanding built on ignorance . . . built on fear of what they do not know. She sings of the ugly girl . . . the pretty girl . . . the gay person . . . the Jew. These are the words she sings about the ugly girl:
She's an ugly girl, does it make you want to kill her?
She's an ugly girl, do you want to kick in her face?
She's an ugly girl, she doesn't pose a threat.
She's an ugly girl, does she make you feel safe?
Ugly girl, ugly girl, do you hate her
'Cause she's pieces of you?
“’Cause she’s pieces of you?”
In Jesus’ appearance among the frightened disciples he tells them to “come and see for yourselves” . . . he knows that it has to begin, not with the group, but with each of them as individuals. He knows that they must confront their own fears as individuals to begin to move beyond the place where their fear immobilizes them . . . to deal with those “pieces” of themselves that keep them from fully embracing and believing and moving into peace.
So it is for each of us when we choose to follow Jesus. We, too, must confront that which brings fear into our lives and our faith. Confront that which keeps us from advancing the “good news” and establishing God’s kingdom in this time and place . . . that keeps us out of the realm of peace. We must explore that which has us so fearful of fully embracing who and what God has created us to be. We begin with ourselves.
Are you who God wants you to be? If not, why? Is the church—this body of followers—who God wants it to be? If not, why? Is the world in which we live, the communities we exist in . . . are they what God wants them to be? Are they the “kingdom” God calls us to pursue? If not, why?
Why? Well, I would venture forth by saying that the reason why is because we are fearful. In our fearfulness we do what any person would do who is fearful . . . we run and hide . . . we become apathetic . . . we become aggressive, defensive, and attacking towards that which we do not understand. This is what science has described as the “fight or flight” necessary for survival. In this nothing gets accomplished . . . nothing gets done . . . we are immobilized.
Our fear is killing our own faith . . . is killing the church.
It is funny how it always seems to come down to those two commandments . . . to love God with our whole being and, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Funny how it comes down to us as individuals building our intimate relationship with God . . . of fully loving God through who God created us to be. Funny how it then spins out into doing the same with those around us in the world in which we live . . . to love God and others. Funny how it has to come down to us as individuals first. And, because it does, we have to move beyond the fear into the peace. It has to begin with us as individuals.
I do not know what fears keep any of us from fully realizing the peace that comes from being in an open and accepting relationship with God that is based on love and grace. I do not know what fears keeps any of us from knowing the Kingdom of God . . . the peaceable kingdom . . . where all of God’s creation and children are welcome and embraced for who God created them to be. I do not know, but I do know that until we as individuals and as the followers of Jesus can confront our fears it will never happen. There will never be peace.
The bottom line of Easter is life. Jesus calls us to life. Life that is based on love. For too long we have embrace fear as the motivating—or unmotivating—impetus in our lives and journeys of faith. We have not known peace. The call of Easter is to embrace life.
John Lennon wrote: “There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.”
To know peace we must step through the fear and embrace life. As Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” It begins with you . . . it begins with me. Amen.