St Paul’s Cathedral, Springfield
After my first year in seminary, in 1987, I spent a long, hot summer working as a chaplain intern at a mental hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. There were five of us sharing this wonderful experience, and we met as a group every weekday morning to, among other things, articulate and process our feelings about our work with patients and staff on the units to which we were assigned. I have, mercifully, forgotten much of what went on that summer, but one thing that our supervisor taught us, over and over again, has stuck with me, because I’ve found it to have a ring of truth. He said that, even though it may seem as though we experience dozens of different and distinct emotions, they can all be boiled down to only four. These four essential feelings are: happiness, sadness, anger, and fear.
I am by no means a psychologist, professional or amateur, but if I were to in any way refine this simple observation, it would be to say that there is one greater feeling that heavily influences, even controls, the three lesser feelings. Can you guess what the greater feeling is? I would say it’s fear. Our feelings of happiness, sadness, and anger are largely determined by how much and what kind of fear we are experiencing.
Fear, of course, is an anticipation, a reaction in advance of the fact to some pain, either physical or mental, that we might suffer in the future. Falling onto a concrete driveway from twenty feet in the air would cause me great pain, so I’m afraid of climbing on a roof. If I’m convinced that there’s a good reason for me to climb onto the roof, I may have the resources to overcome my fear. But it will probably motivate me to take extra precautions, like making sure I’m wearing appropriate shoes, for instance. Fear of this sort is a good thing. It keeps us out of a great deal of trouble.
But there’s another kind of fear that’s unhealthy, and gets us into more trouble. It’s a kind of fear that pervades every area of our lives and seeks to control every decision we make and every action we take. When we are dominated by fear, we are poisoned, we become dysfunctional, at every level of our being. This is clearly evident, on a grand scale, at various places in the world. Consider Syria and Nigeria in recent months, where civil strife—in Nigeria’s case, motivated by religious differences—has led to unspeakable violence and horrific treatment of human beings by other human beings. We could add Pakistan and Sudan to the mix here as well. What people are capable of doing to one another truly boggles the mind. Do you think all this bad behavior is motivated by happiness? By sadness? By anger? — on the surface, perhaps. But the atrocities that we read or hear about nearly every day in the news are rooted in fear—fear that has been allowed to dominate and control. Ask what lies at the heart of any other political conflict—from the national debt to the Illinois pension quagmire—and the answer will be the same: fear.
But it’s not necessary to look in such faraway places for examples of how fear controls us and leads to behavior that is destructive of ourselves and others. We fall prey to addiction and co-dependency because we’re afraid of facing unvarnished reality. We misbehave sexually because we’re afraid of being rejected or abandoned. We become compulsive workers because we’re afraid of failure or being found unworthy of some standard that we have set for ourselves. We even hold back from committing ourselves unreservedly to Christ in the fellowship of his church because we’re afraid of what he might ask us to do. So we end up with just enough faith to produce guilt but not enough to produce joy, just enough religion to make us miserable, but not enough to make us happy!
The list could go on. Fear is the scourge of human experience. But there is an ultimate fear, a fear that is ultimately controlling, because it subsumes into itself all our other fears. I speak of the fear of death. Death is without peer as a source of fear. Let me count the ways why this is so. First, death is very often accompanied by physical pain, and one of our basic human instincts is to avoid pain. Second, our own death is likely to cause emotional suffering for those who are close to us, and that prospect becomes a source of present suffering to us. Third, we don’t know when we’re going to die. At some point, we may get a hint, probably from a doctor, but it could come unannounced, at any second, as it did for my own younger brother just two weeks ago. When an unpleasant future even can be squarely faced and dealt with, it is less fearsome than when it remains in the great unknown. Finally, death is one role we have to play without the benefit of a complete script. Even when faith supplies a general idea of how the story ends, we are still not privy to the twists and turns of the plot along the way. The fear of death is the mother of all fears. It feeds all our other fears, which in turn feed the myriad destructive behaviors which separate us from the love of God and, in a cruelly ironic twist, render us singularly unprepared to face the prospect of death and judgment.
Are you ready for some good news? Easter … is about liberation from fear! The message of the empty tomb is that you and I are no longer slaves to fear—fear of death, fear of failure, fear of loneliness, fear of reality, fear of anything! Just as Moses, in the first Passover, liberated the nation of Israel from bondage, from slavery to their Egyptian overlords, so Jesus, in the second Passover, liberates us from bondage, from slavery to fear. Jesus faced the ultimate fear. He experienced it fully. He descended into the very jaws of death, which then shut themselves upon him. The body that was taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea was stone cold dead-as-a-doornail. The electro-chemical network in his brain that stored his memory and personality was disintegrated. The amino acids in his cells were unraveling. But sometime before the morning of the third day, in the darkest hours of the night, a light shone in the darkness and cursed it. That same body, with nail-wounds still in its hands and feet, walked out of that tomb alive. And death would never be the same. It choked on itself the way a snake can choke to death on its own tail. Death is swallowed up in victory.
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and setting free those in bondage to fear. We are no longer slaves to fear of death, because death itself has been enslaved. It is no longer the end of life, but the gateway to new life, and a new kind of life. And if we are no longer slaves to the ultimate fear—fear of death—then what other lesser fear can possibly enslave us?! All our fears, all our sins, all our destructive behaviors were nailed to the cross with Jesus and laid in the tomb with Jesus, but when he rose from the dead, he left them there, dead and buried. We are set free to be who we indeed are: sons and daughters of the most high God and co-heirs with Christ of his eternal kingdom, adopted into his family in the waters of baptism.
Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us;
therefore let us keep the feast . . .
Christ being raised from the dead will never die again;
death no longer has dominion over him.
The death that he died, he died to sin, once for all;
but the life he lives, he lives to God.
So also consider yourselves dead to sin,
and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Christ is risen! Amen!