Updated: Aug 5
What a long strange trip this has been! The last several weeks in which we have been sheltering-in-place as a result of the coronavirus have – perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not – dovetailed with the most significant days on our liturgical calendar. For some of us, who just missed the family dinner or egg hunt that follows church most years, the juxtaposition of a ban on in-person worship and the most wonderful liturgical time of the year was merely inconvenient, but for those among us for whom the re-experiencing of Jesus’s death and resurrection is a necessary annual renewal of faith, it has been truly painful.
Personally, I have been so busy attempting to provide continuing worship and fellowship opportunities for everyone that I just haven’t had the chance to think about what this strange and shadowed period really means -and what we will say about it when it is over. But now on the Second Sunday of Easter, known as “Low Sunday,” for its reduced festivities and usually pitiful attendance, we have the opportunity to consider what it means to profess faith in the risen Christ when our circumstances are hard and we are afraid – just as the disciples did in the days after Jesus’s resurrection.
Lately I have been thinking about a psychological phenomenon called “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret new things through the lens of what we already believe. Confirmation bias has a significant role in prejudice and racism, because we generally believe whatever we are told by a trusted source unless we have the opportunity to test those ideas. If we have been taught to believe that people who have tattoos are antisocial, we will be afraid of people with tattoos, until we spend time with them and discover that our tattooed brethren are some of the most pro social folks we’ve ever met. The big problem is that if you are afraid of people, you tend to avoid interacting with them, so you don’t get the chance to figure out if what you think about them is actually true.
Confirmation bias is one of the major reasons it is so difficult to get people to change their beliefs because, even when presented with concrete evidence that things we believe to be true are not, we will still force the new evidence to fit into our existing ideas. In other words, it’s really hard to change people’s minds. Peter preached his first major sermon to a group full of confirmation bias. They had gathered for a pilgrimage festival in the city where Jesus was crucified. Most of them probably hadn’t even heard of Jesus – and the ones who had probably did not have a favorable impression. It was, as they say, a tough crowd.
Followers of Jesus are facing a collective tough crowd today too. The rising conflict across the country as to whether to comply with the shelter-in-place restrictions has accelerated. Protestors in at least eight states have demanded that their governors lessen the constraints and reopen businesses. Despite copious medical and scientific research that indicates that without universal testing it is difficult to know who might have the coronavirus, and that minimizing social contacts is the best way to contain it, many people continue to believe that the virus is a politically-motivated hoax and/or a biological attack from a rival nation.
Many American Christians have decried the restrictions for another reason: they believe that as followers of Jesus Christ they are protected from the virus – that their belief has bought them immunity. This is the same perspective espoused by the evangelist Billy Sunday in response to the influenza epidemic of the early 20th century. Preaching in Rhode Island in 1918, Sunday held crowded revivals even when asked to refrain. In his sermons, he blamed the epidemic on “the Germans” and, despite the fact that other businesses were closed, he was given an exception so he could keep preaching. His wife was stricken and it was reported that people “collapsed with the flu” as Sunday preached, but he did not stop. This pattern is currently repeating itself, with illness flourishing among those who will not refrain from in-person worshiping. This is both a violation of Jesus’s command to pray for the least among us and an excellent example of confirmation bias, demonstrating how hard it is for us to let go of what we want to believe and to instead look clear-eyed at the truth.
The truth is that Jesus never asked his disciples to build or worship in churches. He asked his disciples to do three simple things: to remember him, to act in the ways he had taught them to act, and to teach others to do the same. He did not say that doing these things would save us from suffering. In fact, his disciples believed that it was important to endure suffering so that, as the author of Peter’s epistle writes, “the genuineness of your faith- tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” Read the Bible. As Peter Marty puts it, “Most of the time in Scripture, joy actually springs from sorrow or suffering. It can even be a consequence of defeat. It need not arise from the neatness of life, when all is running smoothly.” Of course, this is not an easy thing to get people to believe because, let’s face it – who wants to suffer? It is far easier to teach people that loving Jesus gives them membership in an exclusive club where you are rewarded for your faith with earthly power and riches. People want to believe that. But easier is not necessarily right – and that’s not what Jesus promised. It’s also not what Peter told that tough crowd on the day of Pentecost. Instead he told them what they, as readers of scripture already knew: that God does not desert his people -and Jesus had not done so either. Like the psalmist before him, Peter explained that “the real meaning of life is to belong to the Lord, to remain in the divine presence.” His message was simple and true: God loves us and God is with us. And three thousand members of that tough crowd were converted.
This was not the result of Peter’s personal eloquence. It happened because, on that day as on this, God’s people were surrounded by the Holy Spirit. This was the same Spirit that Jesus breathed into his disciples as they sheltered-in-place – tentatively joyful at the news of his resurrection, but still terrified and confused about what came next. It was the same Spirit that caused Thomas to leap into the air, proclaiming “My Lord and my God.” It is the same Spirit that will sustain us if we open our hearts to receive it.
It is often hard to know what to believe, especially when the evidence of our hearts and minds tells us things we don’t want to hear. It would be easier for me and for you if I could stand here and tell you that because you believe in Jesus you are immune to the cares of the world – and perhaps many of you would be converted. But that would be wrong, because I would be telling you things we want to be true, rather than what is true.
Fortunately, the truth is far more powerful and joyful than any convenient fiction. God is with us. God has breathed her peace into us so that we are fully equipped to carry out our mission as Christians. The example of Thomas shows us that God does not fault us for exercising our intellect and asking questions. Jesus did not punish Thomas for his desire to be shown what his brethren had already seen. Instead, God gave him what he needed to believe – and, crucially, Thomas got up and ran with it. Now it is our time to remember, to teach, and to believe – not in a salvation that is easy, but in a savior who is true. Receive the Holy Spirit. Peace be with you. Amen.
John Fea, (April 16, 2020), “Opinion: a pandemic Billy Sunday could not shut down,” Religion News Service, https://religionnews.com/2020/04/16/a-pandemic-billy-sunday-could-not-shut-down/
Peter W. Marty, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 392.
Thomas P. McCreesh, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 386.