Under the right circumstances, we like to be scared. In a controlled space, like a movie theater or gathered around a campfire, fear can be thrilling and even fun. As a scary story is told, tension slowly mounts; goose bumps rise on the arm; cold sweat gathers on the brow. Finally, the moment comes when the storyteller yells “Boo!” or someone jumps from the shadows. We shriek and spill our popcorn. We’re surprised at how fast our feeble courage fails, and we’re secretly relieved that the fright was only an artificial one.
Over time, certain standard motifs have developed in scary stories. As soon as they appear, we know what’s coming next. But rather than diminish our fear through their familiarity, these motifs raise our level of ominous foreboding.
One such motif is the returning, haunting voice or sound of one thought dead. Remember Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Tell-Tale Heart”? It was, I think, the first really scary tale I ever read. The narrator kills his elderly housemate and hides the body under the floorboards, and when the police pay the murderer a visit, the murderer plays it cool and thinks he fools them. But then he hears—first softly in the background and then crescendoing to a fevered pitch in his ears—the steady heartbeat of the man he’s killed. He can’t get the sound out of his head. The murderer, clawing at his ears, finally breaks down before the policemen and admits his crime. (I’ll tell you, the night I read that story, I didn’t sleep a wink.)
Another standard motif in scary stories has a frightened group of people fleeing some horror: a vampire, the blob, a flock of mad birds, until the terrorized group find themselves barricaded and cornered in a closet or a phone booth or a room at the end of the hall. They are trapped. There is nowhere else to go. And something wicked this way comes!
Remember “The Shining”? The movie begins with a happy family arriving at an idyllic mountain lodge where the father is to serve as winter caretaker in the off-season. This happy beginning doesn’t last long, though, as the father slips into madness. Who can forget the scene late in the movie, when Shelley Duvall is trapped in the bathroom. A snow bank outside blocks the window. She can’t escape; she has nowhere to run. And a clearly deranged Jack Nicholson shuffles down the hall toward the bathroom door with an ax in hand. It is scary stuff, no matter how many times you watch it.
Too dark for the Sunday after Easter? Well, no scarier than the beginning of the Gospel today. If we have eyes to see, St. John actually utilizes the same motif as Stephen King. For us, a full week has passed since Easter, nine days since the horror of Good Friday. But not for the disciples. Today’s reading takes place on Easter evening. All these events have just happened. Let’s think back for a moment and reconstruct their experience.
On Maundy Thursday, the disciples gathered with Jesus in the upper room, likely the top floor of a house, with the only access being a single door and a narrow back stairwell. The week had been a glorious one, with parades and adoring crowds and their leader Jesus repeatedly besting the authorities whenever they tried to debate him. Eating and drinking in the upper room on Thursday had been like a celebration. The disciples had no inkling that it was a “last supper.” Sure, Jesus had tried to talk to them of somber things and trials to come, but John tells us the disciples murmured to one another, “We don’t know what he’s talking about.” And we get the impression they didn’t try very hard.
When Jesus tells them he will soon find himself all alone in the world, Peter speaks with bravado saying, “Lord, I’ll lay down my life for you!” And the others agree with a hearty harrumph. Dinner ends with rosy cheeks flushed with wine. Except for Jesus, everyone is cheery, lighthearted and glad.
It really is like the early scenes in scary movies, like that idyllic mountain lodge in “The Shining” or the guilt-free fun at Crystal Lake in the first half of “Friday the Thirteenth.” But as in those movies, we can sense that something horrible is about to happen.
And, of course, it does. We don’t need to rehearse all the events in the Garden of Gethsemane and on Good Friday. We know that the horrors of those days exceeded anything Hollywood could put on film (though Mel Gibson certainly tried). Jesus is killed, brutally and torturously so. But then, on Easter morning, Mary Magdalene discovers that Jesus’ tomb is empty. Seconds later she meets a strange man who, to her shock, turns out to be Jesus alive again. She runs back to town and tells the disciples.
And this is where John’s story veers from the other Gospels. In John, when Mary tells the disciples what she’s seen, most of them do not then run to the tomb to see for themselves. What do they do? They cling to one another and flee back to that upper room, the scene of such revelry just a few days before. They clamber up that narrow staircase, furtively looking over their shoulders. They huddle together and barricade the door. John tells us, “The door was locked for fear of the Jews.”
I once heard Marty Field, who is now the Bishop of West Missouri, discuss this passage. Bishop Field offered an eye-opening insight: “Just which Jew,” he asked, “do you suppose the disciples were most afraid of?”
Think about that. The disciples rode Jesus’ coattails into and through Jerusalem. They basked in his fame and they siphoned his power. They swore with bravado never to leave him. They created and projected this image of who they were, and it centered on being almost as good as Jesus himself. And then as soon as the mob arrived in Gethsemane, the disciples fled into the night. Their bravado crumbled like cheese. They hid in shadows. They abandoned Jesus at his trial. They forsook him on the cross. They did not protect him or even hold vigil for him. They ran away, and he died.
And then Mary Magdalene comes and tells them he’s not dead after all. He’s alive, and he’s coming for them. Would we be excited in those circumstances? Would we await Jesus with a smile and open arms? I doubt it. The man who knows best their false image is coming back. The man who was on the receiving end of their failings is returning. Were it us, I suspect the tension would slowly mount; the goose bumps would rise on our arms; our hair would stand on end. And then we’d run headlong to some place of perceived safety—like the upper room—and barricade the door. Which Jew are they afraid of? The disciples are terrified of Jesus!
We like to be scared in pretend. We enjoy campfire ghost stories and B movies. But what about the real bump in the night that jars us awake? Or, what about those moments in our lives when life catches up with us and we feel cornered and pursued? What are we afraid of? We’re afraid of the same thing that undid the disciples. We’re afraid that the image we project to the world will fail us. We’re afraid that our false bravado will crumble, that our secret moral failings will come to light, that we’ll flee when the moment comes for us to stand firm for good and for God. That real terror can paralyze us, and it is, I believe, the real reason we Episcopalians get nervous when talk turns to Jesus. We’re afraid he might be alive after all. Easter might just be true, and if it is, what might Jesus think of us—what might he do to us—when he shows up and sees our failings? That might scare us to death.
The disciples are cornered in that upper room. The door is locked, and they huddle in fear. Before they know it, and passing through the locked door as though it is smoke, Jesus appears. The disciples’ pulses are racing. The combination of their fear and flight response must be dizzying. Jesus raises his hand and opens his mouth to speak. And this is what he says:
“Peace be with you…Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Fear melts. It’s not that Jesus doesn’t know the disciples’ failings. It is, rather, that Jesus does know them; he forgives them; and he loves the disciples anyway. Most importantly, Jesus redeems those failings. You see, he knows the disciples could not be of any use to him or to God until those false self-images and false bravado were shattered. Only now, when the disciples know who they truly are, when they have seen how far they can flee and that God still seeks them out in acceptance and love, can they do Jesus’ work in the world. Only now—at that moment when fear flees and peace settles in—do they receive God’s Holy Spirit within them and truly become disciples.
It is the surprise twist to a passage that began as a horror story. It upends the expected motif, which is, after all, what God is all about in our world. It replaces fear with peace; failing with acceptance; the old bravado with a new mission in life, for the disciples and for us, to serve the living Christ in honesty, in humility, and in love.