Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.

Isolation, Fear, and the Future

By Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey
A Lenten Meditation
03•17•20

John 20:19-23

We are all pretty much in lock-down.  With movement severely discouraged and the chance for interaction within our communities reduced to almost zero, we are left pretty much to our own devices.  If we do not like to be alone, if we are not comfortable in our own skin, if “bowling alone” doesn’t scare us, this can be a terrifying time.  Being quarantined, either voluntarily or forced, can seem like solitary confinement. 

The futures we had planned all out in front of us are now either wiped out or seriously impaired.  It looks like there won’t be that long-anticipated graduation on Mother’s Day week-end.  It looks like there won’t be that looked-forward-to cruise.  It looks like the place where I have a good job may go out of business.  It looks like I won’t be able to retire as I had planned or sell my home.  It looks like…but we really don’t know what it looks like, because the situation keeps getting worse by the hour. 

The virus has swept away our futures and rendered us immobile, unmoored, and off-balance.  Nobody likes this.  But our Bible provides a way for us to engage our situation and use our experience to understand the message of Scripture like we have never done before.  I invite you to look at your self-quarantineing in the light of that first Easter Sunday evening.

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (NIV)

Before Jesus died his disciples had heard him say, “Let not your hearts be troubled….I will come again and take you to myself that where I am you may be also….I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you….The world will see me no more, but you will see me.”  (John 14.1ff.)  Why, then, did they not remember and trust his words?  Why were the doors locked that first Easter evening?  Why would they want to sequester themselves? 

Well, you remember the reason why.  The text says that it is because they feared agitated religious rulers who strong-armed the Romans into killing their leader.  What was to keep those rulers from coming after them, now? Fear kept them from remembering what he had promised.

With the head cut off, the body is for the pickings.  With the head cut off there is no more future.  There are only memories to mull over, but these memories are of events and experiences that were building step-by-step toward an outcome which seemed reasonable, attainable, doable, within our control.  So, even when you go through the act of reminiscing, when you go through the act of rehearsing or reliving what’s gone before, all you are left with is the bitter taste of a hoped-for future that just will not be. You are locked inside an emotional space where the blinds on all the windows are pulled down tight. 

Night was beginning to fall that first Easter day, and the shadows were extending themselves over the holy city by the time ten men arrived at the upper room and the door was bolted for the final time.  But now shadows were not only stretching over the holy city.  With the fall of night each man came up against the shadow-side of his own soul.  These leaders—smothered up in a fog like a bunch of turkeys, with doors bolted, shades pulled, wagons circled.  It was like they were in a submarine resting on the bottom of the ocean where they sit very still and talk in hushed tones, and they have to put a name on what it is that they fear. 

Imagine with me that in our quarantine we are in the room with the disciples. This virus creates insecurity about who we are and what we are worth and where we are going.  It is a shadow that falls darkly over our lives.  We are locked in with fear.

  1. When we are convinced that the world in which we have made our way is essentially hostile to us so that we cannot trust anyone—that’s enough to make us bolt the door.
  2. When we are haunted by the ghost of shame for looking bad when we fail because we believe that it all depends on “me”, we run and hide like pathetic creatures who can create but cannot control. 
  3. Any thought of having to re-write our business model, of having to shift the paradigm, of having to own up to a mountain of lies and deception and face a future unknown and chaotic brings out in us the urge simply to go limp.   

Jesus comes through locked doors.  He steps into the midst of his fearful disciples and says, “Peace is with you. Do not fear.”  He keeps his promises that he will return.  He knows that for the sake of avoiding their own crucifixion his disciples are hiding.  So he shows them the marks of his death, proving that he is living despite his dying. 

Nothing can stop Jesus from being present in our sheltering-in-place.  We may be prevented from coming to church, we may be prevented from coming to partake of Jesus’ broken body and shed blood, we may be prevented from singing God’s praises, we may be prevented from being strengthened by the fellowship of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Nevertheless, nothing can stop us from hearing his command, “Peace be to you; do not fear.” 

Welcome this time of self-imposed solitude in the spirit of “an open heart and an appetite for the liberation that will surely come,” as a wise friend, Teresa Argenbright, wrote.  She explains, “What if we used this quiet time to play games with our children, send hand-written notes of gratitude and encouragement, take inventory of our blessings and rid ourselves of literal, psychological and spiritual clutter?  What if we balance every aggravation with a prayer for those who are truly struggling?”  In a word, even behind closed doors Jesus leads us to put into practice the potentialities of his words, “Peace be to you; do not fear.” 

One day this home-bound exile will be lifted.  Jesus will call us out again into the world.  It undoubtedly will feel like a different world than what we have known.  We will be different persons.  It will be scary in that it will be unfamiliar.  But we follow the One who said, “Behold, I make all things new.”  We follow, trusting that he will show us how to put into practice his words of peace and confidence.

  • We will take up again the stewardship of a good creation.  We will create

sturdy and buoyant families that pulse with the glad give-and-take of the

generations. 

  • We will take delight in our lives in all their irony and angularity; we will make something sturdy and even lovely of them.
  • We will be even more keen to show hospitality to strangers and to express

gratitude to friends and teachers.   

  • We will take up our assignment to seek justice for our neighbors and wherever we can, to relieve them from the tyranny of their suffering.

The presence of Jesus in our quarantine brings the beginning of a new future.  Even now in isolation we can feel and express joy.  Our story concludes this way: “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.”  Easter re-writes our definitions of joy.  That Jesus should materialize in their presence was incomprehensible but true. Though he shows them his hands and side to prove that they are seeing a body of substance and not a ghost, he is no longer bound by the rules that govern the rest of us.  Joy that’s worth talking about happens when you are in the presence of the incomprehensible.  “It is the incomprehensible and yet the true, the real, the alive that ignites joy,” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  May that kind of joy well up in the place where you are waiting behind a closed door and make you ready to act in peace and confidence.