There is a lot to be afraid of lately. The pandemic is surging again, we are finding out that friends or family members have tested positive and we don’t know what that means, hospitals are on the edge of being overwhelmed, our president is doing things we don’t understand and the incoming president is saying, “More people will die” because of the uncooperative spirit of the outgoing president. There are businesses closing, jobs being lost, lives being lost, savings being lost — there is word of loss all around us and we don’t know what losses we may experience in the months to come. But Jesus says over and over again in the Gospels, “Be not afraid.”
How wonderful it would be to put aside our fears and worries, but is it possible? What can give us the power to “be not afraid?” What does Jesus even mean when he tells us to “be not afraid?”
Fear is a feeling. Our feelings are neither right nor wrong, they just are. Feelings are part of our natural senses and they let us know what is going on around us. They are meant to be for the now, for what we are experiencing now, just as our other senses let us know what something sounds like, looks like, tastes like, smells like, or feels like to our touch.
We can hold in our memories what we have sensed in the past. We remember a taste, a smell, a touch, a sound, a sight. We remember our feelings, too. We remember being happy, sad, lonely, jealous, disgusted, annoyed, surprised, expectant, and afraid. We can call up these remembered experiences easily. Because we can remember them, we can also imagine them and bring them into the present, into the now. We tend to do that a lot with fear.
Fear is our sense of threat. Our body lets us know there is danger, whether physical, emotional, or psychological. Fear is useful and tells us to get away from danger. It would not be helpful to be unafraid if a bear was charging down the hill at you, or your stove-top burst into flames, or someone is setting you up for a fall. Fear says danger and our response is to act. We run away, we fight the problem, or we gather the children to safety, standing between them and danger.
Sometimes our fears are irrational as the danger we perceive is not in fact dangerous. We can develop phobias. Fear can also be stimulated on purpose for the thrill of escaping danger, as with every roller coaster or Haunted Halloween House. Fear can also be for something we imagine might happen in the future. We can brood on possibilities and make ourselves sick with fear.
Christ Jesus addresses another fear. It is the fear that comes upon us when we encounter Mystery, Power, The Unknown, The Something Beyond Our Understanding, The Unfathomable, The Numinous. It is the fear expressed in scripture when people encounter God, an angel of God, or the Risen Christ. We cannot name this being or understand what the encounter means to us or for us. Usually included in this fear is the fear of death, or more properly, the fear of what happens after death.
Our fear of Unfathomable Mystery is cast out by the consciousness that this is God and God loves us. God has attempted to reveal this love to us through Christ. As parents most of us learn that there is no way to prove to your children that you love them. You can say it, you can do loving things for them, and still some children suffer from doubt in parental love. The response of a good parent is to simply continue loving the child. People can be like doubting children, doubting that they are worthy of love, doubting that God could love them. God’s response is to continue loving. God is love and we live in that love whether we know it or not. God’s love endures through all our doubts.
How wonderful and freeing it is to trust in God’s love and to trust that salvation is a free gift given to us out of the love. When we trust in this love and this assurance of being united with this love after our death, we can get beyond the developmental stage of doing things out of a “carrot and stick” mentality. We can let go of trying to get ourselves to heaven; let go of trying to keep ourselves out of hell. Once we are free of this fear we can become God’s adult children and spend our lives in partnership with God as we work together to build something beautiful and awesome, bringing God’s kingdom to earth. Jesus rightly said, “Be not afraid.”
However, the fear of what might happen in the future while we are living here on earth can ruin our life here and now. Fear comes to us as a temptation from the future, summoning us to brood over possibilities until they hatch into nightmares. We imagine dangers and hurtful things and our bodies think we are facing those dangers now, and we feel fear! Here is another time to hear God say, “Be not afraid.” This is the fear we can set aside once it has spoken to us; we can let it inform us and make plans, but then, let it go. It is not happening now and may never happen. We need not let this fear rob us of our today.
When we are tempted by fear of the future it is helpful if we belong to a faith community that can remind us that the Beloved Community of God is already present on earth and is growing. Christ Jesus has already triumphed over the world and its unjust systems and the Beloved Community is spreading like scotchbroom. The Kingdom of God is good news for the poor, for the suffering, for those in need because it is changing how things are done on this earth. There are whole communities of people working to overcome the unjust systems of this world. We can permit ourselves to imagine good possibilities for our future.
As the book of Revelation says, “The lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has triumphed. … purchased for God members of every race and tongue, of every people and nation.”
Be not afraid, my beloved ones, at the news you hear today. Trust in God and be kind to one another.