"Yes, We Fear Change"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 31, 2002

Acts 10:34-43; John 20: 1-18


     All of us this morning are well aware of the Easter message.  The challenge for us today is to make the truth of the risen Christ a relevant asset that we can use.  It is one thing to believe that Christ rose from the dead.  It is quite another thing to live with the knowledge that we are as infinite as he.  This is the Easter message! This is what Christ revealed to the witnesses. Once we grasp this understanding, it will inspire everything we think, say and do.

     Initially the disciples had a problem making this leap of faith just as many of us do.  This morning I want to spend some time thinking about what caused their collective experience to falter immediately after Jesus' death.  How could eleven disciples virtually collapse under the pressure of what had just happened?  Was this one of those moments where their commitment to his teachings was not strong enough to inspire them? Or, did the failure come from their complete dependence on Jesus for everything?   

     Have you ever noticed how being in the presence of a highly skilled person creates an environment of confidence for everyone?  Most of us have experienced this.  In a marriage, for example, there is usually one person who is incredibly gifted with dealing with telemarketers.  When callers contact us at suppertime, generally one spouse has no trouble saying, "No." They are equally talented at avoiding the savvy, time tested verbal hooks that are used to keep people listening to their sales pitch.  

     Another example is how confident an entire family becomes when Dad has the technical skills required to build an addition to the house, one with a big stone fireplace.  He knows everything from carpentry and drywall to the masonry and electrical tasks.  He can do it all just like the experts and the financial savings are enormous.  

     Sometimes it is the wife who knows how to receive bids from various contractors and it is she who brokers the building of the best family room for the money.  Then like a hawk, she reviews the blueprints and observes the quality of products and workmanship being used during construction.  Contractors know that it can be very challenging to work for a woman who is most particular about details.   

     We could illustrate the display of such confidence in nearly every walk of life, from working for a skilled corporate executive to appreciating a principal in our children's school who exudes excellence at every level of his or her administration. When a skilled person is in our midst, everyone's life becomes easier. 

     This happens because our confidence relies on a source outside ourselves. We can coast through life with feelings of security for years without realizing how dependent we have become. This is why we experience such a shock when rapid and unexpected change eliminates the source of our strength. 

     With the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the stage for such a tragedy was set.  His followers could not help but feel confident and bold, as long as the one riding the donkey was by their side.  After all, it was he and the stories about him that brought the people into the streets.  If the disciples were known by anyone, it was only by a few.  It was Jesus who excited the curiosity and imagination of the crowd, not them.  

     During our Thursday night service, many of us witnessed again the disbelief of the disciples as Jesus revealed that he was going to leave them.  They were shocked when they learned that one of their own friends would betray him.  It was inconceivable to them that the person who was supplying their inner confidence and faith would possibly be exiting their lives.  

     Take yourselves to the site of the crucifixion. Try to imagine the absolute horror of the disciples as they watched the soldiers carry out the execution.   Listen with them as religious leaders taunted Jesus with their words.  Try to sense their same realization that life, as they had known it was over. There would be no miracle this time.  The one who performed such wonders was now dying on a cross. 

     If we have not experienced such a dramatic change in life, its arrival is inevitable.  As with the disciples, sometimes it will come through the death of a dear friend, a spouse, a child, or a parent.  Sometimes this kind of change comes when a marriage dissolves.  Sometimes it comes when employees learn that their retirement security has vanished as their company filed for bankruptcy. Yes, we fear change when so much of who we are is attached to what has left the stage of our drama.  

     We can only imagine the individual response of each disciple following the crucifixion of Jesus.  Most of us have asked similar questions during such moments.  "How could the loving God Jesus talked about be present and not intervene? What are we going to do?  How can we go on without the security that we never questioned?" Yes, we fear such changes. 

     Many of us have a great need to preserve what we know.  We do not want change to occur to our familiar life-patterns.  Only the very secure are capable of greeting change with enthusiasm and excitement. Not everyone, however, has arrived at this level of awareness. We can easily become immobilized. Our fear of the vacuum created by the loss makes our aloneness appear insurmountable. 

     The confidence within the disciples on Palm Sunday had gone.  Suddenly nothing mattered to them now.  It did not matter that Jesus had found them worthy to join him in ministry.  It did not matter what Jesus had taught them about a loving God.  It did not matter what mission Jesus had commissioned them to do. What held their collective imagination prisoner was the thought that the person who had given them purpose and meaning was gone.  

     For Jesus' ministry to survive, the disciples had to grow up spiritually.  Peter had to get beyond the fact that three times he denied knowing his best friend. The others had to cope with the awareness that they lacked courage. The bickering among themselves had to cease.  They had to teach others the lessons they had learned.    

     Think about this.  Would each of you live your lives differently, if you were given positive proof that your life will never end?  The Easter message is that our eternal nature is a given inheritance from God. We cannot earn it and it does not matter what anyone believes about it.  Our wide range of beliefs cannot affect the realities of creation.  

     With that said, does such an understanding have relevance to the dramas that take place in our lives?  Does our infinite nature matter when it comes to dealing effectively with the unhappiness we experience in our jobs, or with our resistance to the aging process, or with the way we cope with the unresolved conflicts in many of our key relationships? 

     Remember, knowledge and beliefs alone cannot equip us to do anything.  We know how to be patient.  We know how to extend courtesies to those who have not yet learned how to be pleasant.  We know how to let go of hurts and move beyond them. Why is it that such knowledge appears to leave us at the precise moment when we need to use it the most?   

     What was it that caused the disciples to overcome their fear of change?  What caused them to give without counting the cost? What enabled them to rise to a high level of faithfulness they did not have immediately following the crucifixion?  Their ability was restored when they saw for themselves the evidence that God is in charge of all things.  Experiencing the risen Lord returned the confidence they were afraid they had lost.   

     God whom they believe had failed to show up in the hour of Jesus' greatest need was now viewed much differently.  This one insight into God's total faithfulness allowed the disciples to become the primary pebbles nestled deeply in the foundation of a thought system that one day will save the entire human race.   

     The disciples realized that nothing could prevent the unfolding of God's will.  What might happen to them from the authorities no longer made them afraid.  How effective they were no longer concerned them. Each of them now understood that the tomb was nothing more than a thoroughfare for arriving at the place where Jesus now stood to greet them.  There was no death.  It was this truth that effectively motivated them to embark on their mission. 

     According to traditions circulating in the early church: 

Matthew was slain with a sword in Ethiopia.

Mark died in Alexandria after being dragged through the streets of the city.

Luke was hanged from an olive tree in Greece.

John was thrown into a caldron of boiling water, but escaped death miraculously.  One tradition holds that John died of old age in Ephesus. 

Peter was crucified in Rome.  His body was nailed to a cross upside down.

James the Greater was beheaded in Jerusalem.

James the Lesser was thrown from the pinnacle of the temple and then beaten to death with a fuller's club.           

Bartholomew was flayed while still alive. 

Andrew was bound to a cross where he continued to preach to his persecutors until he died. 

Thomas was killed with a lance at Coromandel in the East Indies.

 Jude was shot to death with arrows. 

Matthias was first stoned and then beheaded. 

Barnabas was stoned to death at Salonica. 

Paul after various forms of torture and persecution was beheaded in Rome on an order given by Emperor Nero. 

     Yes, we fear change.  But as we know, fear can be replaced with confidence.  When we know that God is in charge of all things, there is no need for us to resolve every problem we encounter.  By our standards Jesus and his disciples failed. They failed miserably. Immediately after their deaths, nothing changed in the world.  Everyone in the world's population at that time died without realizing that something of great significance happened.   

     Into humanity's cycling themes that embody fear and aggression, the thought of "love one another" had been strategically planted.  From that moment, humanity ever so slowly began to move in a different direction. It was from the seeds sown from Jesus and his disciples that enabled us to place so many of the keystones into the infrastructure that form the basis for societies in the free world.     

     What is our mission?  We cannot right every wrong.  We cannot stop others from being who they are.  A number of people will always be successful at crucifying us with their words, at flying aircraft into buildings, at destroying the Internet with viruses,  at spreading anthrax, at giving AIDS to unsuspecting lovers and at becoming suicide bombers.  Such a listing is nothing more than a modern version of how people perceive and act without love.  Nothing is different from similar lists in more ancient themes but the vehicles of delivery.        

     When Jesus said, "Follow me," he was asking us to sow our seeds of love as we pass through our life-experiences.  We are infinite beings, well protected by the love of God.  As it was for Jesus and his disciples, the deeds we do in the spirit of love provides God the visibility to shape a world we will not live to see -- not from this side.  But we will see!  We will see! Absolutely nothing in creation can prevent that from happening. Happy Easter!


     O God, we know how easy it is to disburse the darkness of Good Friday with the bright colors of Easter.  We know how to celebrate with food and fellowship.  We are grateful that our sorrow can be turned into joy, our despair into hope and our defeat into victory.  Help each of us today to experience resurrection from the tombs we have built.  Liberate us from the ghettos of our mind that produce selfishness and price, skepticism and prejudice, fear and doubt.  Enable us to experience the sunlight of truth when we choose to live according to Your Will.  Open our minds and hearts so that your love and grace may be displayed through what we do.  Amen.


     Eternal God, what a joy it is to be here today, surrounded by a colorful array of plants, by loved ones and friends, and by the glow inspired within us when your love is felt and acknowledged. 

     When we dwell on the resurrection of Jesus, we ponder the infinite and the promised inheritance you have freely provided to each of us.  We confess that there are times when we separate ourselves from you by the tombs we build.  Just as you liberated Jesus from that garden tomb, so liberate us from the cocoons we so unwittingly spin around ourselves. 

     Inspire us to a purity of love that gives for the sake of giving, that encourages because others need it, that communicates enthusiasm because it is contagious and that inspires stability in others because that is the object of a search preoccupying so many. Enable us to be instruments of healing in a world that is tired of seeing the results of hatred and fear.  Allow the spirit of Jesus to remain alive in our world by being visible in us.  May his spirit fill us so that every doubting Thomas may come to know that, indeed, he lives!

     We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught his disciples to say when they pray . . .