Fear motivates us to do many things. We often fall into the fight-flight pattern. We turn around and put up strong resistance, sometimes more than we thought we were capable of. At other times, we run away not simply in cowardliness but as an act of self-protection. And sometimes fear just freezes us in our tracks.
We have all experienced fear, and I suspect we have all experienced the fight-flight-freeze syndrome. In the Gospels, we see that pattern many times. The disciples run away when Jesus is betrayed. One of them picks up a sword and cuts off the ear of a servant before running. Earlier, unable to face the prospect of what is about to take place, they fall asleep – another way to run and hide. Peter, protecting himself, denies he knows Jesus, and the rooster crows “Betrayer! Betrayer!” The soldiers guarding Jesus’ tomb are paralyzed with fear when the great rock is rolled away. Why wouldn’t they! They had participated in killing him and now feared his retribution. Even after hearing that he has been raised, the disciples hide behind locked doors “for fear.” Thomas goes even further away.
Later, the new Christians were terrified of their persecutor, Saul. His sudden conversion frightened them, especially Ananias, who was sent by the Spirit to heal Saul. The young Christian community did not trust Saul, who had to be brought in, introduced and vouched for by Barnabas.
In all these situations, there is a word of the Lord: “Fear not!” That command (or is it an invitation?) is not only spoken but put into flesh – there is a presence and a promise: “I am with you.” Jesus is with us for healing, not judgement, for comfort and challenge, not punishment. On the cross, Jesus does not curse and condemn the soldiers and the high priests – he prays. He offers forgiveness to the people watching (and themselves cursing) at the foot of the cross. He looks with compassion on his mother and the blessed disciple, and forms a new community.
Raised from the dead, Jesus comforts Mary Magdalene in the garden, forgives and re-commissions Peter, strengthens and empowers the frightened disciples, gives the information Thomas needs to overcome his doubt, calls to his service Saul, soon to be renamed Paul, the old enemy of the faith. Later he calls Peter to baptize and welcome the centurion Cornelius, who surely was at the crucifixion.
What do we make of this “Fear not”? The opening chapters of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, tell the story of the betrayal of God’s commandment by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. We call it The Fall of Creation, the first sin of humanity, following our own path rather than God’s. The story tells us that after they ate the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve hid themselves from God, who was searching for them, because they were afraid. Indeed, there were consequences for their actions, but God did not stop loving and caring for them. In Eucharistic Prayer 1 in the BAS, we pray to God saying, “When we fell away from you in sin, you did not cease to care for us, but opened a path of salvation for all people.”
In Eucharistic Prayer 4, we say to God, “We turn against you, and betray your trust; and we turn against one another. Again and again you call us to return. Through the prophets and sages you reveal your righteous law. In the fullness of time you sent your Son, born of a woman, to be our Saviour…By his death he has opened to us the way of freedom and peace.”
Freedom and peace!
Joy Kogawa, the renowned Japanese-Canadian author who is a churchwarden in one of our parishes, writes in her most recent book, Gently to Nagasaki, “For me, the big difference between Peter’s betrayal and the betrayal of Judas Iscariot is the early-rising rooster, its feet rooted in the night, its voice in the morning crying good news. Take heart betrayer! You can make amends. You can be forgiven.”
Our fears turn us away from God and from one another – in fight, in flight, in paralysis. We can express it in anger or addiction or indifference or acting out. We may think we are unworthy or that God does not care or that we are abandoned or that we are too small to make a difference. Jesus, the whole of him – his birth, life, death and resurrection – is God’s invitation to fear not, and is his continuing promise to be with us always so we can learn to fear not as we grow in love following him and serving one another in forgiveness and love.
Christ has been raised from the tomb. We are offered new life in him. Alleluia.