Jesus turned to his disciples and asked them, “Why are you afraid?” The invocation of God “not to be afraid” is recorded throughout both the Old and New Testament. Depending on how you interpret the Greek and the Hebrew, which I’m sure you all have done, then it can be counted over 350 times. “Do not be afraid.” The account from the Gospel of St Mark, that our beloved Curate read to us this morning, is one with which every Christian man and woman is familiar, and as most of you know, it’s represented in the stain glass window at the southeast end of Church. The faces of the disciples are contorted with fear, while conversely, Jesus stands at the helm of the boat in complete control amidst the storm that was engulfing them. “Do not be afraid.” As all you know I am about as techy and social media savvy as a neatly fashioned cucumber sandwich; notwithstanding, I was informed recently that in 2020 600 million people connected with Youversion which is the biggest Bible app in the world and to the verse from Isaiah 41 verse 10 which reads, “Fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” The people who record these statistics also found that it was the verse which people revisited time and time again. So, I guess, thumbs up to global media on this occasion.
Fear is deeply debilitating, and it manifests itself in numerous forms. There is the fear of being wrong, the fear of failure, the fear of the stranger, of loss of reputation or material possessions. There is the fear of loneliness, of being let down, the fear of rejection or humiliation and the fear of losing control. My School Chaplain used to pray with the many young people that he so admirably served, “Lord, help me not to feel useless.” There is also the fear of past mistakes, of guilt that generates paralysing fear. I recall when I was the Curate at Christ Church Heaton that a local councillor, who was also a chalice bearer, had been sent to gaol as a young man for stealing a car. This was dragged up years and years after the event and splashed all over the Bolton Evening news in a rather unpleasant way; his fear of exposure was only assuaged when I wrote a letter that I still have, supporting Terry that was subsequently published. The fear of the law of consequences can create chains of atrophy that reduce humanity and destroy the soul. Fear and worry are two sides of the same coin and they both represent a lack of trust in God. As I get older, I ask myself the question how many times have I, in the course of my Christian life, which began at my baptism as a baby, how many times have I inadvertently, or deliberately wounded the heart of Jesus because I have not trusted him? Big question but an important question. How many times because of sin, and that is a good word that we need to reclaim, the sin of pride, the absence of humility, in thinking that I am the helmsman of my own life have the wounds of Jesus been reopened? In the Gospel reading for today, we read how Jesus’ inner circle, of Peter James and John wounded Jesus too. I wondered to myself and tried to imagine Jesus’ expression and how deflated he may have felt when the disciples asked of him, him of all people, “Do you not care!” Of course he cared and the storm was stilled. I also speculate how the disciples felt as those quickly spat out words, “Don’t you care!” echoed in their ears as they sat silently in the boat making their way to land.
There is a good reason why God in the Bible keeps on saying to us, “Do not be afraid.” And the answer to that question is because God is love and unlike us, he is incapable of being other than who he is. There is a beautiful verse in 1 John 4 where we read, “There is no fear in love.” Why does God keep saying to me “Do not be afraid.” Because I don’t trust him enough and my love for him is always tragically inadequate. What will I do when I cease to be the Vicar of this parish? I don’t know but Jesus, the true helmsman of my life asks me to trust him. You know, when you row a boat, you have your back to the direction of travel. It is the same with being Christian, we have to trust the helmsman that we will not run aground or perish on the rocks. As a finite being I have to trust the infinite God, who is the Holy Trinity; I need to trust that God is in charge of the world and the whole cosmos, not Covid, or governments and powerful people of one sort or another. They, like all empires and powers throughout history are all passing? The great global players who exert such power over the little people in the world; well do you know what, they too are finite.
So how is it that Christianity can say with such confidence, “Do not be afraid?” Well, it’s because God in Christ has entered into the very worst of our fears on Good Friday and so we have no fear of even death itself. When we root ourselves in faith and hope and love, through the spiritual exercises of prayer, in receiving the Sacraments, in what we do in the liturgy week in and week out, we find the courage outside of ourselves, to look at the very worst that the world can throw at us, and not be afraid. As St Paul reminds us “We walk by faith, not by sight.” Christianity is not a set of propositions; it is fundamentally a relationship. It is a relationship with Jesus the carpenter of Nazareth, who stilled the storm, who was wounded by his friends, who took upon himself the sin of the entire world (think about that) and who says to us on this day, in this Church and at this time, and throughout all the circumstances of our lives, “Do not be afraid, behold, I am with you always, even to the end of time.”