Here’s a confession: the most important recurring words from our gospel this morning: “have no fear, do not fear, do not be afraid” give me some real trouble. For when someone says to me, “Don’t be afraid!” my immediate response is, “Afraid of what?” There’s a paradox there; the remark designed to bring peace, tranquility, and security ends up having exactly the opposite effect on me. So when Jesus says, “Have no fear,” I find the result can end up being somewhat counter-productive.
An example: sixteen years ago this month I moved in with John Davis at the vicarage of St. Peter’s Eastern Hill, Melbourne. I was sitting at his desk catching up on emails to friends in America when he stopped at the door and said, “Now, don’t be alarmed.” My immediate response, “Is it on me?” I had heard too much about Australian spiders and snakes and at that point I wouldn’t have discounted an invasions of birds of prey or rabid wombats into that office. So he asked me to get up come to the door of the room and then turn around to see a smallish huntsman slowing moving ‘round the top of the wall. “Don’t be alarmed?” I have an extremely high opinion of John Davis as a man, theologian, priest, even, in theory, a teacher of pastoral care, but that remark remains the absolute essential example of how not to comfort someone in a dicey or dire situation.
But maybe “Do not be afraid,” as hard as it its to take, is good and faithful advice. It just takes awhile to get there from here. Because so many of us in the church who come to believe, need to pray and study and strive to believe because we start out so full of fear and doubt. I joined the church some fifty years ago when I was twenty-one, but for a long time I wasn’t sure about a God of love, because -– deep down -– I wasn’t that sure if I were really that loveable. Maybe that’s been true for you too?
Facing fear and replacing it with faith has to take time, like the prodigal son returning to the loving father, we have to walk slowly, losing our way and taking time to open us to the surprising sight of this scandalous Creator-God rushing towards us with such magnanimous love, such a surfeit of faith, freely sharing with us the celebration of hope we dare not hold for ourselves. We are here because we hold this hope.
But that’s not to say it isn’t tough, because life can be an uphill struggle, and nobody gets out alive. That accounts for the desire to look for a God of victory like the one sought by Jeremiah, “Praise the Lord for he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.” to save us from the bad times, the day of danger.
But the real danger with that vigilance approach is to fall into a kind of chronic paranoia: always looking for what is safe and what’s unsafe,
who’s good or bad, how to avoid failure and attain success. To split everything into two sides can fail to save room for a forgiveness, and inclusion, to find a loving look that can move through the middle and leave room for a victory for everyone. The danger is, again, that we can get so lost in the ways and wiles of the law we forget our way to the God of love. That’s what Paul is talking about in the letter to the Romans. Looking too hard the law can end up killing the very life of love we’re called to lead.
But how can we come to see how love might live so large? Perhaps it might take an unparalleled and faithful pilgrimage, an almost unbelievable action by one of us, for any of us to see how love might lead us to live into a loved-filled life that is beyond our dualistic distinctions, a place beyond fear, a peace beyond our very understanding.
It isn’t easy. And I have another confession. I think it’s tougher for us in Australia. We’re so damnably hopeful, even terminally optimistic! Listen to the language: “Too easy, no worries, she’ll be right.” But that’s wrong, Everybody lives hard and dies alone. And the question is, if it doesn’t alway go right, where is that love when it goes wrong?
Can we learn from the pessimists here? My grandmother had a mother who came from Wales, a land of gloomy Celts, and her father was born of parents who were - I’d say - Germanic-depressive. I loved her deeply but she tended to be - let’s say, “Sensitive.” Her favourite quote from the New Testament was the shortest verse: “Jesus wept” — short and to the point. I’ll admit I like it a lot too.
How’s this for an Anglican compromise: “Jesus wept - Fear not!”
Maybe that’s the answer of how love lives in the face of death: with tears but without fear. Maybe that’s the way all of us prodigal sons and daughters can get the courage to turn, with all our incomplete understanding, in order to hear the that unfinished love song that’s written into the original cast recording of this Gospel life.
For Jesus’ faithful journey shows us how love lives with hate, how life lives with death, how eternity can even make room for mercy in every minute of time. Even when mayhem and murder make an end to everything we hope will last. Jesus still walks into the tears, the hunger, the thirst, the fear, and still faithfully finds for us an almost unbelievable beginning where love lives forever in the last place you’d look. Even there, especially there; and if there, then everywhere. And he gets there by going through the middle of it all. There’s where the Good News comes; we need not be afraid, we have such a companion, such a redeemer on this shadowed way, into the light.
But it does take longer than we expect, and I think it only ripens in the daily context of relationship, community, kindness, care, tears, doubt and faith. That crisis of the huntsman in 2001 got better when John Davis explained to me that these large spiders did not carry guns or often kidnap two-legged victims and were in fact known to be docile unless you were a fly or mossie; they really were not too bad to have around the house. But it took awhile; and now almost 20 years later I almost believe him.
So in the same way over time our relationship with Jesus changes our relationship with our enemy, our neighbour, and our very selves -– all may be seen in the same miraculous sunrise now, in light of the love that comes so close and go so far to create a new community with room for everyone, even them, even us.
It's a long road home, but fear not.
You’ll make it through alive, so fear not.
You’re in good company, do not fear.
In the name of Christ, Amen.