301 First Street NW
Mount Vernon, IA 52314
Worship Sunday at 9:30 am
Rev. Lorene E. Wunder
I saw a billboard yesterday that said, “Fear is contagious.”
Isn’t that the truth? “Fear is contagious.”
I haven’t looked into it, but I have to wonder if fear is contagious on purpose, like that’s the way we’re designed. After all, the fear response is intended to keep us alive, right?
But I suspect when we are afraid, we prefer to be afraid with other people rather than alone. Perhaps this is why scary movies are so popular, and haunted houses. For some—not me—it is fun to be scared with your friends.
In a similar way, when there is something we hear or see or read that scares us individually, our impulse is to tell other people. We call others, ask, “Did you hear about…?” when we run into people we know, post and share the story on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram.
The saying goes, Misery loves company, and I suspect the same holds true for fear—fear loves company, too.
Perhaps that’s why on the evening of that first Easter, the remaining disciples were huddled together in a locked room, afraid.
Just a moment to talk about context:
Last Sunday, we read Mark’s version of the Easter story, which ends with the women running from the tomb, too scared to say anything to anyone. (But of course, they did tell someone at some point, because gospels were written, and here we are.)
This morning’s reading is from the Gospel of John. In John’s version of Easter morning, we see the women tell the disciples and Mary Magdalene have the experience of meeting the risen Jesus.
And yet…the disciples were still terrified. After all, the religious authorities (which is the more accurate translation of “the Jews” here) might come for them next. They were his followers, other people had seen them with Jesus, so they were huddled and hiding in a locked room, trying to make sense of what the women had told them and what they were supposed to do with this absolutely unforeseen development.
Fear is contagious, and best experienced in a group of people.
Suddenly, through the locked doors and into that frightened group came Jesus, who stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
Given everything that’s happened, it’s an interesting thing for Jesus to choose to say.
It’s possible that Jesus saying this might have rung a distant bell in the disciples’ heads, calling them back to what Jesus told them just a few days before as he said good-bye to them after washing their feet. Jesus said a lot of things that night—four chapters worth (see John 14-17)—but one thing Jesus promised was this:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
Jesus offered them peace. He showed them his hands and his side. The scales fell from their eyes and they began to believe, and even to rejoice. He tells them again, “Peace be with you.” And then our translation says he breathed on them but a better translation is breathed into them, in an echo of the story from Genesis in which God formed humankind out of the dust and breathed into them (Genesis 2:7) to give life. Jesus breathed into them the Holy Spirit, also known as the Advocate or helper (John 14:25), as a gift to help them understand and act.
And these experiences of Jesus made all the difference for the ten disciples here. They could believe and trust again.
However, the 11th disciples Thomas, missed out and because of that, he is forever known as “Doubting Thomas.”
Poor Thomas. It’s really not fair that he got stuck with that name. He only wanted what everyone else got—to have an encounter with Jesus, his own moment of face to face time.
Thomas has an important role to play in John’s gospel. For John, “belief” is not an intellectual assent to a list of propositions (e.g. I believe in God the Father Almighty and Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord and so on and so forth). No. Belief in John is all about relationship, having a relationship with God and with Jesus, and then, finally, with the Holy Spirit. John uses the Greek word meno to describe this relationship; meno can be translated “abide, remain, stay, continue, dwell.”
When Thomas doubted because he wasn’t there, he pointed to the importance of belief as a relationship based on experience. And that gave Jesus the perfect opportunity to look at those of us listening in on the story to say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:29b)
That moment is a way of saying that going forward, first-hand experiences of Jesus would become far more rare, and that the way faith and belief would happen was and is through the witness of and relationship with other people.
I suspect that for many of you, like me, your own belief, your own relationship with God, is something handed on to you through the witness of others—family members, mentors, friends, pastors, authors, sometimes complete strangers.
My belief, my relationship with God is based on my relationship with other children of God. Yes, I have practices of prayer and contemplation and reading that I must do on my own. But it is essential to be in community, too.
We listen to God’s story together, we worship and pray together, talk about and witness to how we’ve seen it happen in our own lives. When one of us is having a difficult time, we walk together and share the load. When my faith is weak, others of you lift me up, and sometimes it is the other way around.
We believe together because we live together, we are in relationship with one another and because of that, in relationship with God. We belong to God, and we belong to each other. We need each other. That’s how we make it.
Remember that billboard I told you about? I only mentioned half of what it said:
“Fear is contagious. So is hope.”
We live in fear-full times. There are real things happening in our world to be afraid of, anxious about, upset about. And, there are forces deliberately at work to keep us afraid, to use our fear to make us support causes and buy products, to manipulate us.
Fear is contagious. So is hope.
That’s why we need this place, this time of worship, this spiritual home, where all are welcome to gather and be reminded that there are always reasons for hope. The way things are right now is not all there is and it is not how things will remain. There is always hope for the future.
And we will find that hope together, abiding with God, keeping our eyes on Jesus, trusting the help of the Holy Spirit and relying on each other.
Thanks be to God for this gift! Amen.