From Fear to Courage
by Nora Conner
Five-year old Johnny was in the kitchen as his mother made supper. She asked him to go into the pantry and get her a can of tomato soup, but he didn’t want to go in alone. “It’s dark in there and I’m scared,” he said. She asked again, but he persisted. Finally, she said, “It’s okay, Jesus will be in there with you.” Johnny walked hesitantly to the door, and slowly opened it. He peeked inside, saw that it was dark, and started to leave, when all at once he had an idea. He said, “Jesus, if you’re in there, would you hand me that can of tomato soup?”
Fear can be a funny thing, can’t it?
Another story is told that one summer night during a severe thunderstorm, a mother was tucking her small son into bed. She was about to turn off the light, when he asked in a trembling voice, “Mommy, will you stay with me all night?” Smiling, the mother gave him a warm, reassuring hug and said tenderly, “I can’t dear. I have to sleep in Daddy’s room.” The boy’s long silence was broken by his shaky voice, saying, “The big sissy!”
Sometimes, though, our encounters with fear aren’t really funny, but they surprise us.
You may have heard of an experiment conducted by a university where ten students were placed in a room. Three lines of varying length were drawn on a card. The students were told to raise their hands when the instructor pointed to the longest line. However, nine of the students had been instructed beforehand to raise their hands when the instructor pointed to the second longest line. The experiment was designed to observe the response of the remaining student. What do you think happened? Would it surprise you to learn that 75% of the time, that student would put up their hand when the “instructor” pointed to the longest line, look around, and realizing they were all alone, would put it back down? The researchers conducted this experiment many times, and they found that most of the time, the subjects actually put their hand up along with the other students when the “instructor” pointed to the second longest line. They knowingly lied out of fear that they would be seen as responding differently from their peers.
Sometimes, our encounters with fear are not as insignificant as this. Here are some true stories that I read about in the news recently:
Just over a week ago, a Muslim teacher in Kenya died shielding Christians during an attack on their bus. He left behind four children, ages 2-10, and his pregnant wife.
On Good Friday, a group of children in England were enjoying an Easter egg hunt when they noticed a police helicopter circling overhead. When they saw two men fleeing across a field near them, they laid on the ground making a human arrow, pointing in the direction the men had run. The helicopter crew told officers on the ground, who arrested the two men for burglary. The police chief later said that the swift action and ingenuity by the children and their parents were “a great help.” Do you think the children were afraid? Well, maybe not. But do you think their parents were? I can’t imagine they weren’t.
Or what about the Iowa State football players who rescued a woman from her sinking car. At South Padre Island for Spring Break this year, one of the young men was standing on his hotel balcony and saw the car go into the canal. He yelled to his friends, and they all ran to the water’s edge. Three of them swam to the car, which was under water in less than one minute. They had to punch through the window, under water, to get the woman out. They then swam her to the water’s edge, where the other young men pulled her out. Some of these young men sustained injuries, and they could have dismissed the car going into the canal as some bad April Fool’s joke. They could have easily pretended that they saw nothing. They could have valued their lives over hers. Instead, they chose to act.
Stories like this are striking, and we’re are drawn to them, aren’t we? We can’t help but wonder how we would respond if we were faced with an emergency. We hope we would do the right thing, the courageous thing, but we wonder. Would we? We hope we would, but would we? We know that we would know what the right thing was. And we hope we would be able to do it. But we also know how hard that would be. There’s a reason that stories of extraordinary courage stand out. Knowing the right thing isn’t usually all that hard. It’s doing the thing that’s hard. We can imagine ourselves doing the right thing, but in the face of it, in a crisis, under pressure, perhaps just going against the tide, what would we really do? There are many psychological experiments that answer this question. Acting courageously is difficult. Whether the situation is life-or-death or really pretty insignificant, showing courage can be hard.
Did the people in the news stories I shared a few moments ago feel fear? Of course they did. Did they have anything to lose by acting? Of course they did. And in one case, a man lost his life and left his family behind.
In our passage today from the Gospel of Luke, we see that the disciples are afraid and confused. They want to believe, but they are startled and afraid, and they are tempted to doubt.
Right before this passage, Jesus has been betrayed by one of their friends and killed, but now his tomb is empty. The women went to the tomb on Easter morning to prepare Jesus’ body for burial, but when they arrived, they found the stone rolled away and Jesus’ body missing. After two men in gleaming bright clothing remind them of Jesus’ words that he would be raised, the women go to tell the disciples and the others. Luke 24:11-12 tells us, “Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women. But Peter ran to the tomb. When he bent over to look inside, he saw only the linen cloth. Then he returned home, wondering what had happened.” And “on that same day,” two disciples encountered the risen Jesus on the Emmaus Road, and he was made known to them when he broke the bread at dinner. The two disciples hurried to Jerusalem to tell the others what had happened. And “while they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood among them…”
Just a short time after today’s passage, the disciples receive the Holy Spirit at the Pentecost, and they become bold and confident, witnesses and teachers and leaders who initiate the spreading of Jesus’ message. But they didn’t start out like that.
In this passage, they are in between those times. What happened? What changed?
The disciples and the others gathered in Jerusalem have the job of sorting out fact from fiction: What happened? Who can be believed? What testimony is credible? What’s next? They are immersed in chaos and confusion. They are afraid, they are frustrated, they probably feel some guilt, and they are filled with grief, and doubt, and anxiety. There are two things they know for sure, though. Their leader is dead, and his body is missing. And in the midst of their escalating alarm, out of nowhere, Jesus himself appears. Jesus shows up. Giving words of comfort and assurance, as well as the gentle, smiling admonition: “Why are you afraid?” It was the same old Jesus, caring yet still fussing, acting as if nothing had happened.
Yet here he was, risen from the dead!
Jesus addresses their fear and doubt directly and offers them tangible evidence—his hands and side, his invitation for them to touch, and his request for food. In the midst of this encounter, Luke offers a poignant phrase that perhaps we can resonate with: “In their joy, they were disbelieving.”
Too good to be true. For many, hope is a cruel emotion, so they dare not let down their guard and believe. They are afraid to trust, for the pain that follows such vulnerability is just too much. But remember that the Bible is full of things that are too good to be true: Abraham and Sarah, Moses, David, Daniel, Mary, and many more.
Perhaps the disciples should not have been surprised at the resurrection. Perhaps, upon hearing the news, upon seeing Jesus, they should have thought, “Oh yes, now we remember. This happened just as Jesus said it would.” But even if they had remembered, the challenge for them is not over. Repentance and forgiveness now and forever must be proclaimed to all nations. Jesus’ disciples, then and now, will be the ones who take this message out. Indeed, their purpose in life is to be the witnesses of all these things. Lest they be tempted to return to fear, God, who has provided them with all they need, has one more provision for them: power from on high. But that has not happened yet. In this moment, they are trying to figure out what on earth is going on. They are trying to understand the seemingly impossible.
Just when we thought Jesus’ story was over, just when the religious authorities thought they had accomplished their goal, just when the disciples thought all was lost, God still had something to say. Jesus appeared to his followers to assure them that he lives, and to put their fears and doubts in the context of God’s grand plan.
The Lord is risen! And we as followers of Jesus Christ now live in this world where evil, darkness, and death itself have been unconditionally conquered. Evil conquered? Yes! Death conquered? Yes! And to really understand that we live in a world where evil holds no fear and death holds no threat may require a radical shift in our understanding and our attitudes. Do we live with eternity in mind? Do our choices represent the One we serve? The truth that darkness can never extinguish the light gives us confidence, and we can have courage where fear once dominated. What is there that can really do us harm?
Rueben Job tells us that to feel fear is not unusual, and it can be a necessary and life-saving experience. However, when our fears dictate our actions, we can become paralyzed and incapable of thinking clearly or living faithfully. The disciples, victims of their fears, were behind closed and locked doors when Jesus appeared to them. Once the reality of his living presence was clear, their fears began to give way to courage. Ever since Jesus appeared to the disciples, Christians have discovered that there is no need for fear when we are in the presence of God. To walk with God not only rebukes our fears and sends them away, but also gives us courage. To walk with God is to be reassured of direction, guidance, and strength for our daily journey.
Do you know how many times the Bible tells us we do not need to fear? Hundreds! Over and over and over again, we are assured that while things may be difficult, we do not need to be afraid. When we have decisions to make, we do not need to be afraid. When things are overwhelming or beyond our comprehension, we do not need to fear. From the Psalms to God’s messengers to Jesus Christ himself, we hear, “Do not fear.” “Do not be afraid.” “What are you afraid of?” “You have nothing to fear.” In our passage today, Jesus says, “Why are you frightened? Why are your hearts filled with doubt?” Jesus knows that acknowledging our fears is important, and he tells us 21 times in the Gospels that there is no need to be afraid. 21 times, more than any other command Jesus makes. Do not be afraid. Let not your heart be troubled. Don’t let your hearts be troubled or afraid. Jesus knows that fear holds us back from God’s best for our lives.
In a recent blog, author and pastor Rick McDaniel tells us that fear keeps us from loving deeply. It keeps us from giving freely. It creates spiritual amnesia, and we seem to forget all the ways God has carried us through. As fear takes hold, we make security our god, and we miss out on what God wants to do in our lives.
What do we really have to fear when we are in God’s presence and care? Nothing at all! This does not mean that we will be spared discouragement, disease, or death itself. It does not mean that we will never be alone. It means that we will be given strength to meet the demands of our daily lives. It means that we will receive wisdom to judge wisely and well in the directions we must take. It means that we will know the joy and peace of living in the presence of God in every circumstance of life. From fear to courage is the natural journey of all who walk with God.
Fear leads to doubt. Pastor and author Norman Shawchuck says that fear kills our minds and souls by slowly obliterating the visions we hold for our lives. This passage in Luke’s Gospel asks us, it challenges us, how are we to be released from our fears in order to be true disciples, to be the person we know God calls us to be? Disciples love and honor and trust the one they follow. What then are Jesus’ disciples, those who claim to follow Jesus, to do? How do we honor, how do we obey? What is it that we are to do? What courage does that take?
Second Corinthians tells us, Christ died for the sake of all so that those who are alive should live not for themselves but for the one who died for them. As Pastor Mark shared in his message last week, disciples have an intense longing to be in connection and to serve. They long to be a part of Christ’s community with such intensity that they are willing to pay any price, make any sacrifice, to be a part of it.
Disciples reflect the image of Christ in all that we do. What do we fear? In what ways is God calling us to show courage?
In our scripture passage today, we’re in joyful, confused surprise as we see Jesus come among us, and we journey from fear to trust, from doubt to joy, awaiting promised power. Soon Jesus will commission the disciples as witnesses of all that God has done and is doing in the world. Jesus will declare that his followers are now ready to be credible, reliable, ready witnesses in Jerusalem and to all nations, because of what they have seen and what they know. And Jesus declares now that we are ready to be credible, reliable, ready witnesses here, today, in our lives, in our world, because of what we have seen and what we know.
In the stories I shared earlier, great courage was needed for responding in desperate situations. Most of us, though, won’t be called on to save a life or to stop a criminal. Most of the times in which we will be called upon to be courageous will be more subtle. They may perhaps be easier to ignore. They almost certainly won’t be the stuff of headlines that jolt us. They will, however, be the decisions in which we choose to either serve the one we claim that we love, or to let our souls slowly grow cold and die. As we reflect on our journey from membership to discipleship, let us consider our fears and move toward courage, the courage realized through walking with God.