Fear. I would imagine that this was the primary emotion floating around that upper room in Jerusalem more than 2000 years ago. This small band of Jesus followers have been on quite a rollercoaster. For a few years they ardently listened to and followed Jesus. He gave them hope and courage in a time when there wasn’t much hope to be found.
Israel of 2000 years ago was a brutal place to live for the average person. Life expectancy was short. You think taxes are high now? Think about earning minimum wage and having half of that wage collected in taxes. The average worker could not feed his family. He might farm and farm and farm, plant and plant and plant and still have to watch his children starve to death. Add to the crushing poverty that most were experiencing the fact that Israel was an occupied country and while the Romans did bring “peace” the “pax Romana” to the countries it occupied, it was a brutal peace. You either did it the Roman way or you died. And the religious leaders, for Israel was a profoundly religious place, there was no separation of church and state in those days. And the religious leaders were doing nothing to alleviate the pain and suffering of their people. Instead, they were doing all they could to support the status quo of power in order to protect themselves.
And then Jesus entered the picture, and he offered a different vision. He offered a vision of a world in which all have enough, a world in which the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, the brokenhearted laugh with joy, the prisoner is freed, the high and mighty are cast down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up. He offered that one thing that every human being needs to survive and to thrive, he offered hope. And then the Roman Empire and the religious leaders got him too. Jesus’ friends and family had to watch as this man who gave them such great hope was crucified, was brutally killed, like every other person who had brought hope to their world. And then three days later he returned.
We tend to think that people that came before us were somehow less intelligent than us because they didn’t have the scientific knowledge that we have. But let me tell you right now, the followers of Jesus knew, even without our scientific knowledge, that when someone was dead, they were dead, never to be seen again. They knew that dead people don’t appear in their midst and talk with them. And yet, there was Jesus, in their midst, talking with them, eating with them, blessing them. And he stayed with them for several weeks. He would come and go, usually appearing out of nowhere. They must have been on an incredible spiritual high. He’s back! Their hope was returned to them. And then he leaves again. And they are left staring up at the sky with their mouths open. And that is where we come upon these Jesus followers today. They are huddled together in an upper room praying as if their lives depended upon it. The text does not say that they were afraid, but I have to imagine that they were. Wouldn’t you have been?
So, I want to talk this morning about fear, for it is an emotion that each and every one of us experiences. We all experience fear. There is nothing wrong with experiencing fear. But left unchecked, fear become an incredibly destructive emotion that can lead to some pretty horrible things. It was fear that caused the January 6 insurrection, fear that is causing the relentless removal of individual freedoms and rights for people of color and women in many states in our country, fear that caused the 9/11 attacks, fear that caused the bombings in Boston, fear that caused the Vietnam war, fear that caused the civil rights clashes of the 50’s and 60’s, fear that caused the rise of Hitler in Germany in the 30’s, fear that killed Jesus more than 2000 years ago.
Uncontrolled and unworked through fear leads individuals to follow people and do things that they would never otherwise do. Fear shuts down our neo-cortex, that part of our brains that enables us to reason, to have empathy for our fellow human beings, to love, to be generous, to find new solutions to our problems. Fear shuts down that very part of our brains that makes us human and causes us to act like the animals that we have evolved from. Fear causes us to lash out and seek to destroy anything and anyone who seems different from us or who disagrees with us.
I speak about this fear this morning because we are living in a time of incredible fear. The world is changing at a rate that seems faster than we can handle. We are learning that the history and social understandings with which we were raised contained too much white supremacy. We are seeing long fought for rights for people of color, women, and differently-gendered people struck down. We are seeing the foundations of our democracy shaken and we wonder if the foundation will break. Almost daily we hear of mass shootings, sometimes of innocent school children. We hear reports of the ever-increasing stress our human activities are placing on our planet. We hear of outbreaks of new infectious diseases like monkey pox.
All of these things scare the life out of all of us. We are afraid. And by and large we are not handling our fear well. And I am talking about you and me here, the average American citizen, not our politicians—they aren’t handling all this well either, but that’s not what I am talking about here. By and large the average American is handling their fear by hunkering down and huddling with those who see the world the same way they do. Most of us are handling our fears by demonizing those with whom we disagree, by calling the other names and by accusing those who see things differently from us evil and bad.
So, what are we to do then? If we aren’t supposed to give into our fear, if we aren’t supposed to name call and label and work to annihilate those with whom we disagree, what are we supposed to do? Well, let’s return again to that upper room in which those first followers of Jesus are huddled. What were they doing? They weren’t watching 24-hour news networks—those great encouragers of fear. They weren’t arguing amongst themselves about who caused Jesus’ death or how to solve their current problems, they weren’t hatching a plan of revenge to get back at those who had taken Jesus from them. They were praying. They were praying without ceasing.
And what happens next? The Holy Spirit comes upon them. They receive the very breath of God and are empowered to leave that room and go into the world. They are enabled by the spirit to hear, understand, and speak with those whom they would not have understood before. They are given the strength and the courage to go out into the world to carry the hope of Jesus to all they meet. They are given the energy and the courage to be Jesus’ hands on earth. They are given the understanding that just because Jesus has left them, doesn’t mean that the hope is gone. Instead, the hope resides in each and every one of them. The poor will be fed—by them, the captive will be freed—by them, the brokenhearted will be healed—by them, the sick will be made well—by them.
And you know what? That same Spirit from God is available to each and every one of us. So, stop watching those 24-hour news stations. Stop the name calling. Stop seeing those with whom you disagree as the enemy. Stop trying to eliminate those who are different from you. Stop huddling up with those who are just like you. And start praying. Allow the Holy Spirit to enter your heart and your mind that you too might be empowered to bring the hope that Jesus brought to the world to others. Feed the poor, free the captive, heal the brokenhearted, make the sick well. Speak the truth of God’s love for all. Be the hands of Christ in the world. Amen.