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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Easter 4/19/2015

For many of us, having heard the Passion story and the Easter story every year for however many years we’ve been alive, it gets pretty familiar. It can sometimes be hard to remember which details occur in which gospel because they do vary a little bit and, like the different versions of the Christmas story, it all kind of blends together after awhile, but it reaches the point where going through Holy Week and Easter you feel like you’ve heard it all before, you don’t expect to be surprised by anything, until…something surprises you.

That’s what has happened to me this year. After so many years of hearing these stories, after 20 years of preaching on them, I had never really thought too much about the role that fear plays throughout the entire narrative. Fear is what changed the Palm Sunday shouts of “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” just a few days later. Fear is what caused the disciples to scatter when the going got tough and opposition to Jesus became more threatening. Fear is what caused Peter to deny Jesus not once but three times. Following the resurrection, fear was still the primary response of those who found the tomb empty or who had encounters with the Risen Christ.

The nature of the fear wasn’t the same throughout. At first, during the trial and crucifixion it was the fear of being on the wrong side of the crowd followed by fear that what was happening to Jesus might happen to any thought to be his followers. After the resurrection it was the fear of not knowing, of uncertainty, of not understanding what was going on, not understanding what it meant if Jesus was in fact alive again with today’s gospel lesson from Luke being yet another example of this.

But then, as I thought about it, fear as a gospel theme didn’t start with these stories. Fear along with encouragement not be afraid is a thread that runs throughout the gospels. “Do not be afraid little flock,” Jesus says to his disciples. When he calms the storm he asks, “Why are you afraid? Do not fear, only believe.” Same thing when he walked on the water and those in the boat were terrified: “Take heart, it is I,” Jesus said. “Do not be afraid.” On the mountain of Transfiguration, Peter, James and John didn’t know what to say because they were terrified. Those are just a few examples from Mark’s gospel; there are more and even more in Matthew, Luke and John. The point is, that throughout the gospels, especially in response to events involving Jesus, fear is all over the place.

Last week we had the story of Doubting Thomas. As I said then, despite the efforts of people like me who try to get you to think about doubt differently, it’s hard to get away from the idea that doubt is bad, that it is something to be avoided. That causes us to wind up thinking about doubt as being the opposite of faith. On the whole though, it’s probably more accurate to say that in the gospels fear rather than doubt is identified as the opposite of faith.

Even that though, may not be the best way to put it; opposite is probably the wrong word to use. It might be better to say that fear is more of an obstacle to faith than doubt is and that’s the reason for all the “Do not be afraid-s” that occur. Questions and doubts after all can be understood as part of anyone’s faith journey. We may not welcome them because they can be unsettling and challenging, not exactly providing the peace that passes all understanding, but approached in the right way they can also be a means to keep the conversation going, a way to keep doors open rather than closed thus opening the possibility of new insights and deeper faith.

Remember that the Doubting Thomas story ends with Faithful Thomas proclaiming Jesus as “My Lord and my God.” His story doesn’t end in doubt. Thomas’ so called doubt and demand for proof kept him in the game as it were, ultimately leading him to this profound theological statement concerning Jesus’ identity.

Fear tends to have the opposite effect. Fear becomes paralyzing, trapping us, causing locked doors to stay locked and closed. Without question, there is such a thing as healthy fear, legitimate fear. There are times when the best advice is to keep the doors closed in order to keep bad things from happening. But eventually even that kind of fear has to change, it has to be resolved; you can’t stay behind those doors forever.

The initial response of fear on the part of witnesses to the resurrection was understandable and legitimate. The response of fear to earlier events involving Jesus was also understandable. The point though, is that fear can’t be the final response. Again, you can’t stay there forever. Hearts and minds can’t be opened when they’re trapped in fear. In fear nothing new is possible. In fear, there’s no room for hope. Trapped in fear you become someone you don’t want to be, hence the angels and the Risen Christ himself consistently telling the disciples and the women not to be afraid. With fear overcome, the possibility opened for things to be seen and heard in new ways.

Seeing and hearing things in new ways has always been part of the challenge of the resurrection because resurrection does call into question all kinds of things. It calls into question basic assumptions about life and death, assumptions about what is possible; it calls into question basic assumptions concerning what is “really real” to borrow a phrase from one of my theology professors at seminary. To get at all those questions, seeing things in new ways is necessary and that’s not going to happen when fear is in control.

Today’s gospel is the aftermath of the Road to Emmaus story where two of Jesus’ followers were heading home after all that had happened when they were suddenly joined by the Risen Christ himself, although they didn’t recognize him, and as they talked about things, using scripture he began to interpret for them what had happened. With that interpretation, they began to see things differently.

Today’s part of the story ends the same way; those gathered when Jesus appeared were terrified but, similar to the Road to Emmaus portion, “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” This kind of scriptural interpretation is and always has been a key part of the story, a key part of that ability to get beyond fear and to see things in new ways, to allow the peace announced by Jesus to replace fear.

An underlying theme of this text is the understanding that scripture, the Bible, is not a closed story with nothing new to say but instead is a story that is always open to new interpretations, new possibilities and new insights. During these weeks of Easter we don’t get any readings from Paul’s letters but probably because I’ve been reading a lot about him during the past few months, I still find him lurking in the background. One of his major accomplishments was to reinterpret scripture in light of his encounter with the Risen Christ. In doing so, he helped to open minds to new possibilities.

Paul was inspired in ways that caused him to understand that what had happened in and through Jesus was the fulfillment of divine promises and purposes. He wasn’t making things up, he was thinking through his Jewish tradition, interpreting scripture, especially going back to the story of the Exodus and later the exile in Babylon, reimagining those stories in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Central to those Old Testament stories was the promise of God to return and rescue his people and to dwell in their midst. In his letters, Paul quite consistently uses imagery from these stories and others and reinterprets that imagery in ways intended to help his readers to open their minds to understand Jesus as the beginning of God’s promises being fully realized. In essence, he was doing the same thing Jesus is described as doing in these resurrection stories, opening minds to understand scripture.

For minds to open though, obstacles do have to be removed. In the early accounts, fear was a major obstacle, doubt was an obstacle. In our time things like cynicism and indifference, maybe a lack of imagination can be even greater obstacles. With obstacles overcome though, things do start to look different. Those words, “Peace be with you,” take on new meaning because they’re not just words; they’re words spoken by the Risen Christ who does indeed dwell in us and among us, who is present to us in the sacrament we’ll share in a few minutes.

Let your hearts and minds be opened to receive him and to receive the peace he offers.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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