Sunday, 16 April 2023
We know what it means to be afraid.
The disciples were in a room with the door locked because they were afraid. I think that our understanding of what it is to be afraid has changed over the past 3 years. We all know what it is to be afraid as an individual – to be afraid of the dark or of spiders; to be afraid when we hear unexpected noises or wonder whether we’re being followed. To be afraid that our circumstances will change and we will find that life has become challenging. Perhaps to be afraid that, one day, we too will die.
The shift in the past 3 years has been that we now know what it is to experience fear as a community, as a nation. The pandemic made us afraid. We were encouraged to be afraid – the government and public health officials told us that other people were vectors of a life-threatening virus and we should avoid them as much as possible. Nobody came into our houses. Delivery people made arrangements to leave parcels at a safe distance – there was no direct contact between one individual and another. GPs closed their surgeries and moved to phone calls. Churches were told to close their doors and we moved our worship online. For several months we were only allowed one person in this building at a time.
We queued at the supermarket. We took our 1 hour of outdoor time. We met others – if we were brave enough to meet them at all – outdoors. And we watched night by night as our TV screens were filled with images of overrun hospitals and exhausted staff, constrained by their PPE.
We weren’t wrong to be afraid. Many people died. Many of them died alone. It was a scary time.
And just as we were emerging from that, a war began in Europe. We were afraid again. We saw images of cities that looked surprisingly familiar being shelled. We heard the stories of ordinary people who were forced to flee. We had no idea whether there would be a rapid escalation. We wondered where we might shelter if that became necessary. We wondered whether there would be conscription. As a nation, we were afraid.
I suggest that these 2 recent examples have changed us as communities. I might not have fully understood your fear of spiders, probably would have seen that as a personal experience, but I understand very well your fear that war in Europe leaves you feeling unsafe.
Collective fear allows us to talk more freely about our fear. If I am afraid for myself, whether irrationally or not, you might be reasonably sympathetic, but you probably don’t want to spend time discussing it. Your individualised fears are likewise something that you try not to make too much of. But the fear that something might happen that would affect all of us, the fear that there is a threat that is beyond what we can control and is experienced as real by the majority of people, that is a threat of a different order.
The disciples were gathered as a group and they were collectively afraid. This wasn’t a situation where one or two people were expressing a bit of anxiety that was quickly dismissed by others. We don’t read that some were afraid but were trying not to show it to others. They were a group of fearful people. We now understand better what that is like. Our reading of this text is through a different lens.
We now know that to be part of a group of people who are all afraid actually changes our relationship with that fear. It doesn’t take away the fear, but it takes away the need to explain; takes away the need to make any sense of what we might be experiencing.
It allows us just to be, and to be honest about the situation. It allows us to share our worst case scenarios, in the sure and certain knowledge that we are being heard and understood.
Thomas, for whatever reason, was missing. Maybe he was too afraid even to join his companions in that locked room. Maybe he was elsewhere with family or friends, maybe he was hiding in a different place. Either way, he missed out, firstly on that collective experience of dealing with his fear alongside others and then, on the encounter with the risen Jesus. Thomas’ response to the other disciples seems to emerge from a place of fear – you can tell me whatever you like, but that doesn’t make it true. That’s not dissimilar to the person with a fear of spiders who might be told that the tiny spider in the corner of the bathroom wishes them no harm, but why would they believe that?
The disciples fear dissipated because of the encounter. Over the course of those two encounters, they all received the gift of God’s peace, God’s blessing, God’s grace. What else was going on? There had been fear; there was confusion; there was bewilderment; there was amazement; there was rejoicing and there was hope. We have seen the Lord. Things have changed.
Hugh, in a few minutes you will be baptised. You will be offered God’s peace, God’s blessing, God’s grace.
You will proclaim for yourself that you believe – you have not seen and yet still you believe. You have found the confidence to step up and publicly state that you want to know Jesus better, that you want him to be a part of your life. That you trust that your connection with faith has and will continue to change you.
You will be baptised with water; you will be anointed; you will be given a candle to symbolise the movement you are making into the community of light that Jesus inspired.
And you’re not doing that alone. Going forward, one of the changes is that you will be part of a worshipping community that will, today, commit to supporting you in your journey of faith.
Whatever happens as you journey through your life, there are people around you who understand what it is to trust and to believe; what it is to have hope and that deep experience of peace that comes when we encounter the risen Christ.
At the heart of our understanding of Christian faith and worship is the need to come together. Ours is not just a faith which encourages personal practice. It is a faith that requires us to gather, to form the Body of Christ – whether that is in person within our building or collectively including those who join us online – but it is a community of people who gather to share. We share our fears. We share our hopes. We share our joys, with one-another and with you.
Today is a day to rejoice – the risen Christ is amongst us, Alleluia! Inevitably, there will be a day, I have no idea when, a day when things will seem a bit less certain. A day when things just aren’t as they should be; a day when fear raises its ugly head. On that day, remember this day. Remember that you are now counted amongst those to whom the risen Christ brings peace, brings hope and brings strength.