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Escape from Room 101

May 5, 2011

“Escape from Room 101” John 20:19-31 © 5/1/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

In George Orwell’s 1984, the rebel Winston Smith is finally broken when he is taken to the dreaded Room 101 by his interrogator. The room is many meters underground, “as deep down as it was possible to go.” Winston is strapped tightly in a chair, so that he cannot even move his head. In the room, he is told, is “the worst thing in the world.” The thing is different for each individual, but whatever it is, the agents of Big Brother discover it and exploit it to achieve their goal of terror and control. In every case, the thing turns out to be whatever it is a person is most afraid of. In Room 101, he or she is confronted with the fear in all its destructive, spirit-breaking power.

The eleven apostles and a number of others had locked themselves into their own version of Room 101, with fear their only companion. They were huddled together, afraid of persecution by the authorities, afraid of being accused of having stolen the body, afraid of who knows what else. Men and women dispirited, frightened, powerless, debilitated.

Other emotions competed with fear for first place in their psyches. In that locked room was guilt over running and hiding when Jesus needed them most. Peter especially wrestled with his denial. There may have been resentment as well. Why had they followed Jesus these three years only to end it all locked away in a room, scared to death? How could they have been so foolish as to give their lives to this man?

Familiar emotions, all. Who of us has not looked back on some choice or other with regret? Who has not felt pain because we have hurt another so? How many of us here can claim never to have experienced guilt and remorse? And which of us has never known fear that tortures us in our own Room 101?

What would Big Brother use to break down your defenses? What’s in that locked room? Maybe it’s the fear of growing up or growing older, as the case may be. You’re a teenager or an emerging adult, facing new challenges all the time in a world that’s more and more complicated. You wonder about relationships and sexuality or about whether you’re going to make the team or get the grade or win the competition. And the closer you are to accomplishing what you want to do or getting what you dream about, the more you worry about what comes next, all the questions about tomorrow. Fear 101.

Or you’re an adult, and the problem is you’re not a teenager anymore. There was so much you wanted to do when you were younger, and some of it has happened. But now you’re wondering if your life counts for anything. Can you still do what you need to, want to, do? Maybe you’ve been a very active person, but now the years are catching up with you. Your schedule is as full as ever, but it takes more energy. You have to say “no” to this or that endeavor, and you never did learn how to say no. Could be you’ve gotten sick, and you wonder what tomorrow will hold. Will you be any better? Will some new malady take up residence in your body? The fear of the unknown, the waiting for the other shoe to drop. That’s what’s in Room 101.

Maybe aging doesn’t bother you, but failure does. Our society puts such a premium on “making it,” on being a “star.” Those who achieve are considered to be worthy people, and to be known even for 15 minutes is to have value. To be the star, even if it’s only in your own little universe, or a big fish, even in a little pond, is so very important. But you have made mistakes. You blew it. And the memory of the failure keeps popping up, especially when you’re just about to feel good for once. That disembodied voice of the torturer comes over the speaker in Room 101: “I told you that you were no good.” But the voice is your own. Or as the songwriter put it: “The ghosts of the past still haunt me/I don’t know what to do/They lurk in the shadows; I ask their names. They just answer: ‘We are you’” (“Clean Heart,” © 1994 by Tom Cheatham).

Or maybe your success is what frightens you. Scary thing to meet your goals, to do what you always wanted to do, to have the adulation and admiration of friends and the public. What do you do next? What’s the encore going to be? Pretty soon, folks will be saying: “That was then. What have you done lately?” And you worry you will be a one-hit wonder like some of those bands and singers nobody ever hears of again.

But suppose it’s not aging or failure that bothers you, it’s issues of personal security. Your own safety or that of your family and friends. We live in a world constantly beset by war and terrorist attacks. We are likely to encounter road rage, drunk driving, and driving while texting. There are dangers all around, that can come in a moment, like the terrifying tornado of last week, and wreak havoc on us and our friends, even causing loss of life. The prejudice of others can make anyone different a victim, picked out at random to satisfy some whim to display power or strike fear. The carelessness of others can cause an accident. I suspect we feel vulnerable on any number of days for these and other reasons.

Maybe for you there’s nothing specific in Room 101. Rather, it’s life in general that fills you with dread. You feel a kind of unfocused anxiety, a gnawing doubt in your insides; like in the old Eagles song, you “wake up and worry what’s going to happen today.” And it’s all so very difficult; even putting one foot in front of the other takes an effort. If you go out, you’re afraid; if you stay in, the walls close in there, too.

Whatever our fear, whatever it is locked with us in Room 101, we want to escape. We want hope. Peace. Comfort. Easter is about many things, but it is at least about new possibility in the face of overwhelming odds. It is about discovering fresh courage to face even our most persistent phobias, to confront our greatest challenges. It was the same people who were huddled for fear of the Jews that we find in Acts standing up and defying those same authorities, compelled to preach in the name of Jesus. What happened to them? The resurrected Jesus happened! The Jesus who came and spoke peace to broken disciples. Who proclaimed release to those shackled by fear. Who granted a courage that could only come from the inspiration of the Spirit. Who gave an authority that created confidence even in the face of suffering. Jesus happened! And lives were transformed!

The same thing can happen to us. We trust the same Jesus the disciples did. And he is worthy of our confidence. He promised the disciples he would come back to them. And he did. He told them he would give them peace. And he did. He promised their hearts would rejoice. And they did. He promised his Father he would send out the disciples to continue his mission. And that is what happened. He assured those gathered in the Upper Room that the Spirit would be given. And that came true as Jesus breathed out the heavenly power.

The same Jesus whom they touched, to whom they spoke, whose nail-scarred hands were held out for their examination, this same one walks with us. And when we are afraid, we can remember that he knows what that’s like. We ought not think Jesus never knew fear or never lost confidence. He did. So to put it quite simply and maybe at the risk of a cliché, he understands. He suffers with you and me. Jesus says “Peace be with you,” then shows the disciples his wounds. Perhaps what he was teaching was that peace comes not by denying the reality of violence, fear, and hurt, but rather by acknowledging it. By knowing that Jesus has taken it on himself and into himself.

But our Lord is also the very one who has conquered fear and death and even now lives among us and in us, assuring us of life everlasting. The same Spirit the disciples received is ours now, this moment.

Some of you may have known David Snellgrove. He was for a time the Executive of this presbytery. He passed away recently after a battle with cancer. His pastor, Melody Jones-Pointon, told a story at his funeral. With death imminent, she visited David and asked if he were afraid of dying. His response was “That’s ridiculous. My whole life has been leading to this.” Her point was that David trusted his Savior, and that the perfect love of Christ cast out fear. Because Jesus lives, all of us can have that same confidence

Someone shared with me recently a classic hymn that expresses such faith. The hymn writer, Annie Johnson Flint, invites us to sing: “I will not be afraid; I will look upward, and travel onward, and not be afraid. He says he will be with me; he says he will be with me; he goes before me, and is beside me, so I’m not afraid. His arms are underneath me; his arms are underneath me; his hand upholds me, his love enfolds me, so I’m not afraid. His word will stand for ever; his word will stand for ever; his truth it shall be my shield and buckler, so I’m not afraid” (

But if the assurance of the disciples is ours, so is their mission. Even in the midst of their fear, Jesus commissioned his disciples, sent them out, to carry on what he had started. His task had been the most vital in human history: to demonstrate and proclaim the forgiveness of God. It was a word that would literally transform lives, change the world. But when disciples hide behind locked doors the world cannot be transformed. So Jesus gave them power. He gave them his Spirit and his authority.

Craig Kocher writes: “Easter is always at risk of being domesticated and sentimentalized, a forever-after ending to a Disney animation. We’re eager to replace the scars of nails and spear with butterflies and rainbows; to ambush gospel hope and the resurrection of the body with spiritual ideals and heavenly metaphors. But Easter is not the end of the fairy tale, a once-a-year cherry atop a tasty good life. Easter begins the church’s real work.

“Jesus breathes the Spirit of peace on his fearful disciples and commissions them for ministry in the Easter church. Neighbor love and peace-making do not happen at a distance, he insists; they happen by sharing personal space, getting close to the wounds of the world, and exchanging breath” (

The voice of those first believers speaks now, telling us those gifts and that ministry from long ago are ours today. They belong to you and to me and every future generation. Peter, James, John, and the rest bid us know the perfect love of God that casts out fear, and to share that love with others. To come out of our shells and our hiding places as they did and risk a little or a lot to tell the good news. We are part of a community where sin is forgiven, where burdens are shared, where the risen Christ gives his power to witness and indeed to live. The body of Christ can now bear the hurt, wounds, fear that each of us has, that our neighbors have. As we join together, we impart life to each other.

Nic Robertson, the CNN reporter, has noted that the Tunisians were credited by Egyptian protesters with having “broken the barrier of fear.” Because of the inspiration and example of those courageous folk, the Egyptians could go out into the streets in the face of the police.

Christ has broken down our barrier of fear. The door to Room 101 is unlocked, the light shining in from the hallway. And there he stands, his hand outstretched, bidding us come out. Because of Jesus, we can escape from Room 101 into new life. And we can go on to inspire others to emerge from their places of terror as well.

Will we hear his invitation to peace? Will the risen Jesus happen to you and me today? Will we escape from Room 101?


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