Don’t be afraid. It is a phrase that introduces all the resurrection appearances of Jesus: “Don’t be afraid” – but those words are difficult to respond to when you are confronted by the inexplicable otherworldly reality of one you have seen die.
But in our own time, how can we not be afraid – a writer was asked “How would you live if you had no fear?” She pondered long and hard before she anwered, “The question frightened me a little, for it involved asking harder questions about faith, confronting deeper insecurities within myself, and creeping farther down the dark rabbit holes of doubt that lie in wait in all the scary corners of my mind…which made me wonder, “Is hope really the thing that keeps me from disbelief? Or is it fear?”
Tangled in the question of fear and of faith is how we may think of God; for instance, are we torn between fear or trust? I like the way C.S. Lewis has the Beavers describe Aslan in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe:
The story of Hagar and Ishmael always catches my imagination and makes me wonder about the domestic hazards of Abraham’s ménages à trois: the tangle of relationships, the friction as Abraham tries to manage Sarah and provide for Hagar; the rivalries over the children, over the property, over him. It must have been complicated and, running through it all, for all involved, a disempowering undercurrent of fear. My heart goes out to Hagar as the issue comes to a head and she is taken out and summarily dismissed from the household, the community and from all the security that she has known. Her world dissolves. Gone, all gone, in a moment!
|Claude Lorraine (1600-1682) The Banishment of Hagar|
Now imagine that someone you really respect and trust comes to you and, looking serious and sympathetic, says “Do not be afraid.” Do you feel your pulse quicken? Does the heart seem to go in the mouth? Is the breath a little short? Are you suddenly operating on a different level as irrational fears, projections, confusion and panic flood through you?
The fact is, of course, that our world is not safe and our calling to follow Christ is not so that we can feel safe. As the gospel this morning clearly shows us, fear is part of the journey. So we need to recognise fear. Lean into it. Work with it. We have to learn to acknowledge and engage with what is uncomfortable and unpleasant. This is part of the way of the disciple. Perhaps we can learn to place our fear in God’s hands and learn also to be kind to ourselves, accepting that we are vulnerable; if we can’t give such kindness to ourselves how is it possible for us to offer kindness and mercy to other people?
Our calling is certainly to learn not to be afraid. In this gospel Jesus is teaching his disciples; preparing them for what their calling will make them face, dangers, humiliations, death. He encourages them and reassures them at the same time: don’t be intimidated, be honest and faithful. Keep the last day in mind. You are loved. And by losing your life, you will find it. Sound advice to them and to us as we follow in The Way.
You may remember that critical phrase in the Collect for Peace in the BCP Evensong: where we pray to be “defended from the fear of our enemies”. We seek defence not from the experience of fear but from fear of our enemies – whoever or whatever they may be. We name them; pray for them; we hold them and ourselves before the Lord. In so doing we lean into our fear and begin to change it and ourselves into an aspect of love.
You will remember that collect: “O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.”