Fight or Flight or...?

Acts 1:6-14 | Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35 | 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11 | John 17:1-11

Jeremy Richards

“Don’t be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you…” Really, Peter? Don’t be surprised? What, exactly are we supposed to not be surprised by? Innocent young people at a pop concert being killed by a suicide bomber? Nearly 30 Coptic Christians – men, women and children – in Egypt slaughtered by terrorists? Two people here in Portland, who stood up against hate speech on a max line and were stabbed to death for it?

Really, Peter? Don’t be surprised by these things?

The truth is we are surprised, and we aren’t. The truth is, that Coptic Christians being killed in Egypt, however tragic, hardly surprises us anymore. The truth is, that a suicide bomber killing innocent people at a public event, however tragic, hardly surprises us anymore. The truth is, islamophobic hate speech that turns violent, however tragic, hardly surprises us anymore.

The question it seems isn’t if, but when. It isn’t if there will be more terrorist attacks, more shootings, more murder and tragedy, but when? What shape will it take? Who will be the victim? Will it be me? Someone I know? Someone I love?

So we aren’t surprised that these things happen, and yet, every time something does happen, it shocks us. The way these things do take shape, the ones who die or are injured, the details turn our stomach. Because these tragedies have faces. Real people die. Real families are torn apart. And we never get used to that.

So we’re surprised, and we’re not.

The killing of two people on the MAX Friday night may hit us especially hard. The deaths of those on the other side of the world break our hearts, but they often seems so removed. But people in our own city, on the very public transportation system we use, make it all the more real to us. It really could have been us. It really could have been someone we love.

Maybe this is a time for those of us who rarely face the threat of violence to get a glimpse into the reality for many marginalized people in our society. Specifically People of Color and the LGBTQ community are threatened by violence at a much higher rate than those of us who are white, cisgendered, and heterosexual. Our ability to fit into societal norms may have given us a false sense of safety and security, but the horrific events on the MAX train remind us that we are all susceptible to violence.

When faced with the danger, violence, and pain that is ever-present in our world, our response is often fight or flight. That’s exactly the disciples reaction in Acts 1. Their first reaction is “fight.” They come together to meet with Jesus, and, yes, they’re very excited that Jesus has been raised from the dead, but the powers and principalities that put Jesus to death are still alive and well. Caiaphas is still the high priest. Pontius Pilate is still ruling over Judea. Herod still sits on his throne.

They think Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection are the prologue to the real story: the restoration of Israel. Now comes the time when God will place Israel’s enemies under their feet. No more beatings and crucifixions (unless they’re the ones doing the beating and crucifying). No more dehumanization by the Roman intruders.

They’ve seen violence first hand many, many times, but perhaps the worst was when they saw Jesus himself beaten, tortured, humiliated, and killed on the cross. We are not alone in feeling the shock and horror of senseless violence. The disciples who come together in Acts 1 also have seen their fill of violence.  

It’s unclear if they think they’ll do the fighting or not, or if they think Jesus, leading an army of angels, will overthrow the oppressors, but either way, they think Israel is about to be restored to the military and economic power it was in the days of David and Solomon.

But Jesus, surprisingly, says no, that’s not going to happen (Jesus never does what anyone expects). There isn’t going to be a war, or a fight. He says, “‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud too him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up form you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

When the disciples learn that “fight” is not an option, they turn to “flight.” They stand staring into the clouds. They long to follow Jesus into the clouds, to fly away and leave this world marred by sin and death behind. They want to escape.

We often react in a similar way. It’s fight or flight.

Often “fight” is our first reaction. But fighting always requires the “other.” You don’t fight against nothing, you fight against someone. The disciples think Jesus has come to restore Israel, which means the destruction of those who are not Israel. The Israel they imagine is one that is clearly defined over and against others. An Israel with a geographic location and cultural particularities, but Jesus says the Good News doesn’t shore up borders but transcends them. The love of God will not be confined to the geographic, cultural Israel, but Israel will come to include the whole world: all of Judea and Samaria and the rest of the world. In the words of Ephesians, the dividing wall will be torn down and those who were far off will be brought near. In the words of Romans, the Gentiles will be grafted into the tree that is Israel.

The Gospel is not good news just for Israel and bad news for everyone else. It’s good news for everyone and it comes through Israel.

But when tragedy strikes and danger is close at hand, only a MAX stop away, we don’t want the dividing wall to be torn down, because that means anyone can get in, and, as we’ve seen, some people want to hurt us. So our first reaction is to build up walls that keep “us” in and “them” out.

The problem is that we can’t tell who wants to hurt us and who doesn’t, and creating these barriers between one another is the very thing that perpetuates the violence that so horrifies us. In Manchester and Egypt, the tragedies were reportedly carried out by Muslim extremists. But here in Portland, the murders were committed by an anti-Muslim extremist.

When out instinct to fight kicks in, we have to identify who we will fight against, and we will inevitably end up creating dividing walls that create “them” and “us”. We’ll end up categorizing “them” based on their religion, their race, their culture, or other identifying markers that set them apart from us. And, inevitably, the “us” group will be those who look, talk, worship, and behave like we do. And all of a sudden we are buying into the very fears that created these violent acts in the first place. Us vs. them. Christian vs. Muslim. Conservative vs. Liberal. American vs. Middle Eastern. Black vs. white. Men vs. women. Whatever it may be. And the cycle of fear and violence continues on and on and on.

But if we don’t give in to the instinct to fight, we might give into the flight instinct. We may physically avoid public places, but more likely our flight will be more nuanced than that. While we may continue to live in the same house, go to the same grocery stores, visit the same friends, we will be tempted to give up on the world we live in. We might decide that it’s not worth it to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty, to invest in justice work and earth care. What’s the point? Nothing seems to get better. If anything, the world’s getting worse.

So we disengage from the troubles of this world, and turn out eyes toward the heavens, simply waiting for Jesus to come back. Waiting for the next life because we’ve given up on this life. “Flight” for the modern Christian doesn’t look like running away to be a hermit in the woods, it looks like an over-spiritualization that holds out for the future without engaging in the present.

The words of these two men in white might even seem to support this idea. They tell the disciples, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” But this isn’t about Jesus’ second coming in the “Left Behind” sense. Jesus has already told the disciples that they are to wait on the Holy Spirit. The disciples are to wait for Pentecost, which we will celebrate next Sunday. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, comes suddenly “from heaven” (Acts 2:2). The Holy Spirit comes from heaven, just as Jesus was taken up into heaven.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t come to take the disciples away, but it comes to guide them in how they are to live in the present in this world. The world were Caiaphas is still high priest and Pontius Pilate is still the governor. The one where terrorists still bomb concerts and kill innocent Christians on buses in Egypt. The one where good Samaritans who stand up to bigotry and hate get killed on MAX trains.

After the ascension of Jesus, the disciples return to Jerusalem and “the room upstairs where they were staying.” They go back into the world they were in before all this took place, where, to most people, everything looks the same.

And they wait. And they pray.

They wait for the Holy Spirit who will guide them. And in the meantime they devote themselves to prayer. Or, in the words of 1 Peter, they cast all their anxiety on God, because they know that God cares for them.

Taking a moment of silence in the face of tragedy is the hardest thing to do. We want to either act or distract ourselves. We want to do something that will restore things back to the way they were, as the disciples wanted Jesus to restore Israel to its former glory, or we want to hide our heads in the clouds and distract ourselves from the pain, uncertainty, anger, and fear we feel.

Obviously action is necessary. I’m not saying we should sit idly by, that would be giving into the flight instinct. But often our actions are guided by fear and not by God. They’re guided by something we read on Facebook and not something we read in Scripture.

There is a time for action. We must act in the face of evil, as those two men, Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche (as well as Micah David-Cole Fletcher who was injured), did on the Max Train. But sometimes our actions come from the wrong place. Sometimes we act because we just feel like we have to do something. Other times we do it to distract ourselves from the questions that are rising up in us. Other times our actions take the form of lashing out and demonizing others, which only continues the cycle of hate and fear.

Philippians 4:6 tells us to be anxious for nothing, but to bring all things to God in prayer.

But we don’t want to wait. We don’t want to be silent. And we don’t want to pray. Because that means acknowledging our helplessness. When we jump into action (or the “fight” instinct), we feel like we are doing something to make it better. We give ourselves the illusion of improvement. When we distract ourselves (the “flight” instinct) we imagine that whatever has happened hasn’t really affected us. We don’t have to acknowledge the pain, fear, and uncertainty that’s present within us.

But when we sit still in silence and wait for God to show us our next move, we admit that we don’t know what to do. What do we do when we feel like nowhere is safe? Whether it’s a pop concert or a train ride to work? What do we do when problems like islamophobia and racism seem too big to address? How do we proceed?

What does it mean to be Christ’s witnesses, in a world we can’t make heads or tails of? According to a witness is “an individual who, being present, personally sees or perceives a thing; a beholder, spectator, or eyewitness.”[1] A witness is one who is present and is able to perceive a thing, in this case Jesus Christ. To be a witness we must be present in this moment, and we must quiet our hearts and minds so that we might be able to perceive the Spirit who has promised to be with us always.

One of the most iconic scenes from Jurassic Park is the scene with the T-Rex (and yes, I’m making my second Jurassic Park reference in two Sundays, but don’t worry, this time there won’t be any bad Jeff Goldblum impressions).

For those of you who haven’t seen Jurassic Park, or who need a refresher, what happens is the power goes out and the T-Rex is able to escape from his pen while two cars full of people are right there. Dr. Grant is in one car, and he knows that T-Rex’s can only distinguish where someone is by movement, so he knows that they should all just stay still. But he’s in one car and the other car has two kids, Lex and Tim Murphy, and a lawyer in it. None of them know this helpful little bit of information.

The lawyer runs away and eventually gets eaten, but the kids end up getting stuck in the car as the T-Rex flips it over, tears it apart and almost crushes them to death. Finally Dr. Grant is able to get to the car and help Lex out while the T-Rex is off eating the lawyer. But before he can get Tim out, the T-Rex returns, and is standing right in front of them. Dr. Grant covers the Lex’s mouth when she starts to scream and tells her not to move because the T-Rex won’t see them if they don’t move. The T-Rex puts his face right next to theirs and blows air out his huge nostrils, knocking Dr. Grant’s hat off, but they stay still. The T-Rex starts spinning the car in a circle, and Dr. Grant and Lex have to move with it, as if they’re part of the car, so that the T-Rex won’t notice them and eat them.

But it’s really hard to stay still when a T-Rex is staring you in the face. It’s really hard to stay still when you’ve had a week like the one we just had.

It seems like the only options are fight or flight. We feel like we have to do something, whether it’s trying to find a way to fight against all the evil in the world or turning on Netflix and refusing to acknowledge all the fear, confusion, anger and uncertainty we feel.

But there is a third option: not fight or flight, but wait and pray (and then act). To quiet ourselves and listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit who is always present with us. To wait to act until we discern where God is calling us to, and what God is calling us to do.

Like the disciples, who returned to the room where they were staying, we’ve returned to our place of worship this morning to hear from God. But we can get so caught up in the singing and the conversation and the preaching that we forget to quite our hearts and listen for the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit.

So, after all that’s happened this week – with the death of 22 people in Manchester, 29 Coptic Christians in Egypt, 2 good Samaritans here in Portland, as well as ongoing wars in around the world, and in addition to all that, there are things that we are going through as individuals that others may or may not know about – let’s be quiet for a moment and devote ourselves to prayer, as the disciples did in that upper room 2,000 years ago. Let us cast our anxieties upon God, because we know our Creator cares for us.

I’d like us to be silent for 3 minutes (I’ll time it) then I’ll close us in prayer.