In Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus appears after his resurrection to the disciples who are gathered together behind “locked doors.” That phrase is used twice in Chapter 20 of John’s Gospel. The disciples are behind locked doors the first time Jesus appears to them. The second time Jesus appears, when Thomas is there, the Bible notes Jesus appears among them despite the locked doors.
The image of locked doors is a powerful one. It indicates not only fear of what’s outside, but also a desire to keep hidden. And those have been my feelings of late. I wake up in the middle of the night feeling fearful. If I’m not careful, my response to that fear is to keep myself hidden, just as the disciples were doing. Fear is paralyzing.
But in this same passage Jesus offers the disciples something to cope with their fear. “Peace be with you,” he says not once but twice the first time he appears to them. He says it again the second time with Thomas present.
I want to believe “Peace be with you” is more than a simple greeting. And more than a blessing, too. I think it’s a path forward when we are paralyzed by fear.
The danger the disciples felt from the Jewish leaders was real. The danger we feel from a deadly virus, ever more frequent gun violence, and bitterness in our public discourse—is also real. Jesus didn’t make the danger go away for the disciples, and it’s not going to miraculously disappear for us. But he did give us a way of responding to the fear that results from danger.
Peace is a kind of vaccine all its own. Instead of paralyzing, peace propels us forward into the world. Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into the disciples, knowing they would need the Spirit’s help and peace to leave that room. To go out into the world, despite the real danger and their fear, to spread the good news of the Gospel.
It sounds good, but in practice cultivating peace is hard. I recently discussed my fear with my husband. He admitted he feels fear, too, which manifests as anxiety and anger. He decided to spend less time reading news headlines and to focus on his “circle of influence.” A junior high school teacher, he makes sure he shows up each day in his classroom with energy, humor, compassion, and a willingness to see each of his students as individuals.
He might not put it this way, but I translate this as a way of saying he sees them as holy human beings, beloved by God. His students sense his commitment to them, and they respond to it in the way all of us respond to loving kindness.
I have to work a little harder to cultivate God’s peace in my heart to hold sway over my fears. But here are some things that are helping me.
- Making myself walk out my locked door. I often work from home, and it’s easy to ignore the world and stay put. But I have found that when I leave—to go to the office, to walk the neighborhood with my dog, to engage with other people—my fear abates. I am reminded God’s people are good and God’s creation is jaw-dropping.
- Listening to uplifting music! Many years ago, a good friend suggested I do this before an interview. It was one of the most important interviews in my life, because it determined if I would go to graduate school. I listened to Michael W. Smith’s song “Be Bold and Courageous!”—on a cassette tape over and over, and I felt calm and prepared when I walked into the interview room.
- Thanking others—not for something they’ve done for me, but for the way they are using their spiritual gifts in the world. I’ve sent thank you’s to my mayor, to a newspaper columnist, to church volunteers and employees, and to my yoga instructors, hoping it lets them know their work matters.
- Fellowship with others—this has been hard during the pandemic, but not impossible. One of my cousins took the initiative to start an extended family Zoom meeting, which overcame thousands of miles between us. I’ve zoomed now with my 85-year-old mother, with a book club, with students and teachers, and once even for a poetry reading.
- Cultivating friendships, especially lapsed ones. Early in the pandemic I reached out to a friend I hadn’t contacted in decades. Her mother had passed away, and I wanted to express my sympathy and also gratitude for her long-ago friendship. When she next came to town, we met for a socially distanced hike. Just like that, the decades slipped away. I felt as if a piece of my heart had been returned to me. My fear that time had worn away our deep connection was gone for good. (She was the friend who urged me to listen to music before that all-important interview!)