Christ Lutheran Church Upper Darby
April 18, 2021 Worship Sermon - "Fear and Joy"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7: Luke 24:36b-48
When I read through the Gospel lesson this morning, I am struck by the intensity of the emotions the disciples experience. Jesus appears among them and says, “Peace be with you.” But peace is not at all what they experience when they see him; Luke tells us that they are terrified and afraid.
Fear has been a theme in all of our Gospel readings so far this Easter. Last week, in John’s version of the resurrection appearance, we read that the disciples were gathered in the upper room and that they had locked themselves in because they were afraid. Then the week before that, on Easter Sunday, we read from the Gospel of Mark, about how the women had fled from the empty tomb after the angel had told them that Jesus had risen from the dead; the very last words of the Gospel are that the women told no one about what they had seen because they were afraid.
The Bible has a lot to say about fear, as it should. Fear is an essential part of the human condition. We don’t have to teach babies to be afraid. They are born with an instinctual fear of heights and an instinctual fear response to loud noises. As we grow older, we learn to be afraid of other things, like losing our job or flying on an airplane. And we learn not to be afraid of things like monsters hiding under our beds. But the fear that we have been reading about for these last three weeks is different. Monsters, loud noises, unemployment: all of these things – whether real or imaginary – are dangerous and fear of them makes sense.
But why would the news of the resurrection terrify the women at the tomb? And why would the disciples panic at the sight of the resurrected Jesus in disciples in the upper room? Life is a good thing – right? – especially the life of someone we love.
Part of what makes the resurrection frightening for these disciples is that they have no framework for understanding it. There is nothing in their experience that could prepare them for it. Death, as tragic as it is, makes sense. We may not like it, but we understand that it happens. Resurrection is beyond our understanding and it was certainly beyond the understanding of the disciples on that first Easter Sunday.
But fear is not the only emotion in this story. After Jesus attempts to sooth their fear by showing them his hands and feet, we read in verse 41: “in their joy they were disbelieving.” I love that phrase: in their joy they were disbelieving. I love it because it describes the ambivalence of the disciples and emotional ambivalence is also very much a part of the human condition, especially in our time.
We live in an era of disappointment. We’ve learned that wonderful events very often carry with them not so wonderful consequences. We’ve harnessed the power of the atom. That should be great news; finally humanity has access to unfathomable energy that we can use accomplish tremendous good. But for the last seventy years, the joy of harnessing nuclear energy has been mitigated by the fear of nuclear disaster.
That’s just one example of the many ways we have learned not to trust our joy. We have learned not to trust our joy, which is really sad because joy, like fear, seems to be innate. If you want to see what joy looks like, walk past a children’s playground. There is so much energy and exuberance… kids running around and squealing. Joy comes naturally to children, but as we grow older, our expressions of joy become more muted and our experiences of joy tend to be further and further apart. We don’t give ourselves over to joy as readily as children do.
The emotional journey of the disciples doesn’t end in verse 41. I wanted to read to the end of the Gospel this morning, because it’s important to see that by the end of the story, the disciples have moved from fear, to joy mixed with disbelief, to unmitigated joy. The last sentence of the Gospel reads, “The disciples worshipped Jesus, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” So the million dollar question is this: what brought the disciples from fear to joy, and is there a clue for us in our own lives that can help us to experience more joy?
After Jesus shows the disciples his body, they feel joy, but it’s tentative. So Jesus eats with them and then opens their mind to understand the scriptures. This story is very similar to the story that immediately precedes it in the Gospel, the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. These two disciples are depressed because of Jesus’ death and they’re confused because they’ve heard rumors of Jesus’ resurrection. All of a sudden, Jesus appears beside them, but they don’t recognize him. While they’re walking along, Jesus opens their mind to understand the scriptures, explaining to them how it was necessary for Jesus to suffer and die and rise from the dead. They still don’t recognize Jesus, but when they get to their home, they invite him in for dinner. They sit down at the table and Jesus takes a loaf of bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. Immediately, the disciples eyes are opened and the recognize Jesus. Jesus disappears and they race back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples that they had seen the risen Lord.
Put these stories side by side and think about the similarities. Both begin with the disciples in a distraught emotional state. Jesus appears to them, but they still don’t get it. When Jesus eats with them and explains the scriptures to them, they recognize Jesus and their fear and sadness turns to joy. What transforms the disciples is scripture and a meal. Scripture and a meal. Does that sound familiar to anyone? It’s what we do here every Sunday when we are able to gather for the Lord’s Supper.
I don’t want to imply that coming to church will make you happy and take away all your problems (although there is statistical evidence showing that people who attend church tend to be happier than those who don’t.) But let me ask you this: what is the purpose of our gathering on Sunday mornings? Why do we read scriptures and share the Lord’s Supper? Do we come here for advice or to make friends? That might be part of it, but one doesn’t need to come to church for that. You can just as easily read a self-help book or join a club.
We gather to read scripture and to share the Lord’s Supper so that we too can come to see the risen Christ in our midst. Scriptures give us a story… a framework that helps us make sense of our lives. Just like the disciples needed Jesus to explain to them, again and again, the meaning of scripture, so we listen to the story of Jesus Sunday after Sunday, so that we can begin to understand our own lives in light of his death and resurrection. And then we take bread, bless it, break it, and give it to each other. We do this so that in the Lord’s Supper we can see the One who was blessed by God, broken on the cross, and given for us. We break the bread so that we can see Jesus in our gathering, in our own brokenness, in our own flesh. We bless the bread so that we will know that our brokenness is not a sign of God’s curse upon us, but is a step in our journey to the resurrection.
Soon, we hope that it will become safer for us to gather as a congregation. As we gather, as we read scripture, and share the Lord’s Supper, I hope you will recognize that your life is being shaped around the joy of the resurrection. May you know the joy of forgiveness. May you experience the joy of knowing that your life is meaningful and has a purpose. May you experience the joy of knowing that history is moving us toward a new age called the Kingdom of God, an age when war and injustice will be wiped out. I don’t mean to be Pollyanna. Suffering and death are still among us. In this life, our joy will most often be mingled with disbelief. But in our gathering may you catch glimpses of your future: a future which is filled with the joy of life in God’s presence.
Christ Lutheran Community Church