In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have been looking at the notion that God is a God who meets us where we are and moves us to where he wants us to be. Last week I talked about what it means to be Living Stones for God, noting that God meets us where we are there too. I also talked about the very real possibility of meeting terrible opposition because the powers and principalities do not want to give up running the show. This, of course, can cause us to become afraid, which can paralyze us and our discipleship. This morning I want to briefly look at why we become afraid and what we can do to stop being afraid so that we can become better Living Stones for Jesus.
In today’s Epistle lesson, Peter encourages us not to be afraid when we suffer for things that really are not our doing. We remember that there are people out there who hate us because we are Christians and who would gladly imprison or kill us if given half a chance. We may not have to suffer that kind of persecution in this country—it usually comes in the form of scorn, ridicule, and derision—but there are Christians being killed all over the world, simply because they are Christians.
As we think about Peter telling us to not be afraid, we cannot help but marvel over this because we remember the many times in his life that Peter himself was afraid. We wonder what has changed for him, assuming he is not simply a pontificating hypocrite. Take, for example, Luke’s account of the time when Jesus and his disciples were in a boat on the sea of Galilee. A storm erupts quickly and threatens to engulf the boat and drown everyone in it, including Jesus. The disciples are terrified and call out to Jesus to save them (Luke 8.22-24).
We can immediately relate to a story like this because if we are old enough, we’ve been in the disciples’ shoes many a time. We may not have faced the actual danger of drowning but each one of us has been in situations that have made us afraid, either for our physical safety or for our psychological/spiritual safety (or both).
Fear might come when we lose our job or a loved one. It might come when we fail at a task and wonder about our future. We may be afraid that no one will ever accept us for who we are, not even God. It might come with a medical diagnosis that is life-threatening. It might strike us as we think about growing old and infirm. And yes, fear may paralyze us in our discipleship because when it gets right down to it, we just don’t want to have to suffer for Jesus and are afraid he may call us to do just that. The list is endless, but you get the point. Because we live in a broken and fallen world, we are confronted constantly with things that can make us afraid.
But here is the interesting thing. The most common command in the Bible is “don’t be afraid.” We see it in action in Luke’s story. Who can blame the disciples? They are on the verge of drowning and the guy who can fix things is fast asleep, getting ready, apparently unawares, to be drowned with them! I mean, really. How often do we think the same thing in the midst of the storms of our life? “Jesus! I am about to be swamped! Don’t you care about what happens to me? Why are you sleeping?” To which Jesus responds, “Why are you afraid?”
And here we get to the crux of the matter. We are usually afraid because we don’t know Jesus well enough to trust him or to believe he can help us. Or we might believe that he can help us but that he will choose not to do so. Others of us are content to try to be the master of our life and our own destiny, and fool ourselves into thinking that we are—until “it” hits the fan and everything starts to unravel. Then to our shock we learn otherwise and we become afraid.
This is what our rebelliousness (what the Bible calls sin) has done for us, in part. It has made us afraid because we don’t know God well enough to trust him or we think that we know better than God what is best for us.
So how do we learn not to be afraid? Jesus alludes to the answer in today’s Gospel lesson. “I am sending you the Spirit so that you won’t feel abandoned or alone. He will help you remember your experiences with me,” he says. “And if you don’t know me yet, take the time to really get to know me so that you will know the love I have for you and the power I have to save and protect you. Now if you expect me to keep you from ever having to experience the hurts and trials of this world, I won’t do that. Don’t ask me why I won’t do that because you are not ready and able to hear the answer. But if you really do know me and trust me, that shouldn’t matter to you. After all, what if you die? I’ve conquered death for you and you have the hope and promise of New Creation awaiting you. My resurrection will be (and is) proof of that. And besides, life is more than your mortal existence. When you get to know me, you will soon discover that you have the ability to transcend fear because you realize that whatever happens to you, I will turn it into your good and that nothing in this creation can separate you from me or my love for you.”
Talk about requiring a leap of faith!
When we become afraid, then, there are some practical things we can do to help us get to know Jesus better and/or to remind us why we need not fear. First, we should make a conscious effort to recall stories/persons from the Bible that remind us of God’s love for us, that remind us why we should not be afraid. For example, read the story of Abraham in Genesis or the stories of Esther and Ruth to see how they dealt with the uncertainties of their lives. Read the heart-wrenching story of Jeremiah to learn how to really put your trust in Jesus. Read the story of the Exodus about how God delivered his people from slavery and exile. Read the beginning and ending passages of Matthew in which God promises to be with us by becoming human (Immanuel, God with us–1.22-23) and in which Jesus promises us to be with us always, even to the end of the age (28.20). Read the first several chapters of Acts, where Luke tells us how Jesus’ disciples were transformed from sniveling cowards into bold and fearless apostles. Read Romans 8 and Psalm 23 to remind you of God’s great love for you and how nothing can separate you from it unless you do so yourself by willfully rejecting his love.
Take Jesus’ advice to his disciples that we have read about in our Gospel lessons these past two weeks. We cannot experience Jesus the way his disciples did when he walked this earth but we can experience him in and through the Spirit and get to know him intimately by reading the Gospel accounts repeatedly, always with the mediating help and Presence of the Spirit which Jesus promised to send us.
Toward this end, resolve to read your Bible every day and in a systematic way so that you will know the stories of everyday people who discovered God’s love and protection in the midst of their trials and note carefully that often they were not spared of having to go through trials. Learn from this.
Then think about the times in your life that God has acted on your behalf. Resist the temptation to take the credit for your successes and be humble enough to give credit where it is ultimately due. Think about the times when “it” hit the fan and you received just what you needed to help you deal with “it.” Surround yourself with Christian friends—this is massively important—who will love you enough to speak the truth in love to you and who will remind you not to be afraid; who will be with you, physically and emotionally, in your times of trial when you need the human touch the most so that you will have a palpable sense of God’s Presence in the midst of your struggles.
Ask God in prayer to give you a sense of his Presence in your life, to give you boldness to live for him and be his agent of New Creation, and when you start to meet opposition for doing this, take it as a badge of honor and give thanks to God. Consider the possibility that in your trials God is giving you an opportunity to show you his trustworthiness so that you can learn to trust him in any and all circumstances.
And by all means, do not try to pigeonhole God by demanding that he act in a particular way or grant you a particular outcome before you will give him your love and loyalty. God does not negotiate with terrorists and you will likely go away very disappointed and angry. The very expectation itself is a reminder to you that you do not trust God, that you know better than God how things should go.
I am not going to suggest to you that doing these things will have an immediate or magical effect on you. If my experience is typical, they won’t. What you will find is that over time you learn to go back to God in the ways I have suggested and that will make the fear subside in you (or go away completely). The key is to focus on God in Jesus and to get to know him better through reading your Bible, prayer, partaking of the sacraments, and through the tangible love of Christian fellowship. None of this is a magical elixir. All of this points to common means of grace that have been proven to help us not be afraid because we know the One who is in charge and we trust our very lives to him.
If you are afraid, resolve to come to the One who can still the raging waters of your life and who has conquered forever the great enemy of humans—death. As you get to know him you will learn to trust him and when that happens, you will discover the blessing of God’s peace in your life that not even the gates of hell will be able to take away. When that happens, you will discover that you are really living the Good News, now and for for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.