Discipleship 101: Don’t Be Afraid (Even Though There’s Plenty to Make Us That Way)

Sermon delivered on Trinity 1A, Sunday, June 22, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 21.8-21; Psalm 86.1-10,16-17; Romans 6.1b-11; Matthew 10.24-39.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Do you know what the most common command is in the Bible? A command for us to ditch our idols? To behave ourselves better (to repent)? To pray and trust God more? The answer is none of the above. It’s don’t be afraid. We see the command stated explicitly in our OT lesson. It is implicit in our psalm with its assumption that if God will hear us and answer our prayers, especially when we are in trouble or afraid, we will have no reason to fear. It is surely one of the themes running in the background of our epistle lesson this morning and Jesus explicitly commands it in our gospel lesson. So guess what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

At first blush, our Lord’s command to not be afraid is puzzling. In the pericope right before our gospel reading, Jesus had just finished giving his disciples a lot of reasons to be afraid. The context is mission. He was sending them out to proclaim the kingdom’s coming. He told them they would suffer all kinds of physical and emotional violence and even be killed for being his followers. Now in today’s lesson he tells us that we should be prepared to be called all kinds of names and even be accused of acting on Evil’s behalf! And of course we know Jesus was right. Try speaking out on behalf of traditional marriage in the broader public debate about what constitutes marriage and be prepared to be vilified as a homophobe, a hater, a bigot, or just plain being evil. These epithets are designed to shame us into silence, i.e., to make us afraid to speak the Truth in love, and for the most part they have been pretty effective. Many of us keep our mouth shut to prevent this kind of abuse. But our lessons suggest we should not.

Why should we not be afraid to proclaim the gospel? Jesus gives us three primary reasons and Paul adds another in our epistle lesson. First, our Lord tells us that when we try to be his faithful and obedient disciples and stand up for biblical Truth, which is God’s Truth, it should not surprise us that instead of being perceived as agents of God’s compassion, salvation, and liberation, we are reviled as agents of demonic oppression and enslavement. When that happens, instead of being silenced by fear, we should lift up our heads and rejoice, because as Jesus reminds us, our enemies are doing to us what his enemies did to him and this is a sure sign that we are “in Jesus,” i.e., that we have a real and living relationship with the Lord of the cosmos. Here we must take a lesson from Jesus’ disciples because they were living examples of what happens to people who have a real relationship with the risen and ascended Lord. Consider how they were transformed into bold evangelists in the name of Christ and how they faced death fearlessly. They were transformed from being sniveling cowards precisely because they knew Jesus had risen and had conquered death so that there was no longer any reason to fear suffering and death. Why don’t we have that same boldness today? This question demands an answer and cuts to the heart and nature of our faith (or lack thereof).

Paul affirms the reality of the risen Lord in our epistle lesson, where he tells us that those who are in Christ have been baptized into a death like his. What does Paul mean by this? What is a death like Jesus’? It is a death that has been destroyed and swallowed up forever in life. To be sure, Jesus’ mortal death was real and horrible; he suffered on our behalf. But God raised him from the dead and thereby destroyed death forever. And because we are baptized believers in Jesus, we share the same kind of death. Barring the Lord’s return before we die, we too will suffer death. But like our Lord, our death will be swallowed up in life when the new creation comes in full and our mortal bodies are raised as immortal and imperishable bodies.

And here is where Paul has some intensely practical advice that will help us not be afraid. He tells us that we are to consider (or reckon) ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. The word Paul uses for “consider” means literally “do the math.” In other words, Paul is telling us when we are afraid, when we look at our lives and don’t see much Christian growth or evidence of God’s love, we are to stop and calculate the objective reality. In Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension death has been destroyed, evil has been defeated, and life and new creation is our destiny. It’s not about us. It’s about what Jesus has done for us.

Paul and Jesus seem to be saying, “Don’t always trust your feelings because your feelings can be terribly wrong.” Just ask pilots learning to fly planes via instruments instead of their senses and feelings! No. Stop and do the math. Reflect on the objective truth that is in Jesus, our risen and ascended Lord, and then take courage to be his disciples and proclaim God’s truth in Jesus! Coming back to our point about being persecuted for Jesus’ sake, this knowledge is critical for us to live and proclaim the Good News and God’s Truth boldly and with power. Even if our families turn on us and hate us as Jesus warned some families would do, even if our enemies kill us, hurt and death have no ultimate power over those who are in Jesus.

Now of course Jesus never had in mind that we would go out and be his kingdom workers on our own as rugged individualist Christians. Jesus sent out the first disciples in pairs (Luke 10.1-24) and Paul spent a lifetime talking to first-century churches on the ground (and beyond) about how to love one another, support one another, and encourage one another in their work (and ours), precisely because both Jesus and Paul knew we are called to live out and proclaim our faith in a hostile world where evil has not yet been fully defeated. When we do our discipleship together, we also have each other to help remind us not to be afraid.

Second, Jesus tells us not to be afraid because nothing that is covered up will remain hidden and nothing that is secret will remain unknown. Our Lord seems to be saying that one day Truth, God’s Truth, will win out over the world’s lies and evil, and that if we have been courageous enough to proclaim and live the gospel publicly and faithfully, we will have nothing to fear on that day. Not so with Jesus’ enemies. As our Lord reminds us, the only One we are to fear is God himself who alone has the power of life and death in his hands. We are not to be afraid of God, but rather to reverently and humbly respect the One who holds our lives and eternity in his loving and gracious hands. And if we are tempted to be afraid of God in a pathological manner, we must always remember what Paul just said about the God who became human and gave himself for us in a terrible and costly act on the cross.

Why is it so important for us to know that nothing covered up will remain covered? Because a favorite mantra of those who seem to be winning the cultural wars today is to say that they are on the right side of history and we Christians are not. If true, this is reason enough for us to despair. Who wants to be on the wrong side of history? But our Lord is telling us here not to believe such propaganda because he is Lord and they are not. And one day the whole universe will see and know this is true as well as who is on the right side of history (helpful hint: it won’t be Jesus’ enemies). So those of us who really are in Jesus never need to be afraid.

Last, we are not to be afraid because we do not worship and serve a distant and uncaring God. We worship and serve a God who is so intimately involved in the activities of his world, our lives included, and who knows us so well that even the hairs on our head are numbered. This is a pretty big buzzkill for those who scoff at Christians who pray for seemingly minute and trivial things like finding a parking space, etc. Not so fast, Jesus seems to be saying.  That’s the kind of God we worship! Nothing is too small to be outside the attention and care of God the Father. Again, we must look to Jesus’ apostles to see how this can affect our courage. Surely their belief in the risen and ascended Lord was powered by the firm knowledge that this same Lord was intimately involved in their lives, and especially in their suffering for his sake. And like any other relationship, if we want to know intimately this God who knows us even more intimately, we have to work at it each day through prayer, Bible study, worship, and fellowship.

Don’t misunderstand. The command to not be afraid is hard to obey, primarily because we are fallen and broken creatures who live in a fallen and broken world. But we must do the math. We are to carefully consider what is real versus what is not. In other words, we are to consider what the world offers us to follow its gods and agendas (fleeting victories, fame, wealth, power, etc.) versus what our Lord offers us (eternal life, real healing, and the chance to be citizens forever in God’s new world) and then act accordingly. This explains why Jesus would say that those who save their lives—those who side with the gods of this age and their lies and lifestyles that lead to destruction—will lose it, but those who lose their lives (sometimes literally) for Jesus—those who adopt lifestyles that are difficult to live out because they are so unnatural to us, at least initially—will save it because Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. This is what it means to take up our cross and follow him, dying each day to sin in the power of the Spirit. Perhaps it is here, in learning not to be afraid to take up our cross, that we begin to learn to confront our other fears.

It is only in having this kind of living and vital relationship with Jesus that we can find the power to overcome our fears and order our lives in ways that imitate our Lord so that we can be his faithful kingdom workers. What does that look like in your life? In the life of this parish? Whatever it is, and we need to be talking with each other about this constantly, we are called to do this work together under Jesus’ Lordship and to love and support one another as we do. We can overcome our fears, of course, because Jesus is present with us right now in the power of the Spirit and because in his death and resurrection, he has abolished death forever and allows us to share it with him. This means we have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.