Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, 10th August 2020
Readings: 1 Kings 19:9,11-13; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33
In September 1940, with German bombers overhead, George Orwell sat down for a haircut. His barber told him that no Nazi air-raid could stop him shaving a customer’s face. “One day a bomb will drop near enough to make him jump,” Orwell forecast, “and he will slice half somebody’s face off.” Nazi Germany had launched the blitzkrieg against Britain in the vain hope that the British people would be overcome by fear and surrender. How terrible it must have been to live through an air raid, to go down into the shelters and hear the whistle and explosion of bombs dropping around you. The bombing did not bring about the surrender of Britain but stiffened resolve under the war-time leadership of Churchill, whose stirring speeches rallied the population, gave them courage and helped dispel their fear.
'Do not be afraid', says Jesus to the disciples. He has to reassure them because they think they are seeing a ghost as he comes to them across the water. The words of Jesus accomplish what they say; his words have power. By telling them not to be afraid, he calms them. In fact his words give so much courage to Peter that he declares that he will walk across the water to reach him, if he just gives the word. Such, initially at least, is the faith that Jesus inspires in him.
Telling someone not to be afraid is easy to say, but harder for that person to do. But having faith in the person who reassures us may help suppress our fear. We may need to be convinced. Who would we trust more, someone who breezily tells us there’s nothing to be frightened of, or someone who gives us all the facts and lets us decide?
Marie Curie said that nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood, for some fear can be irrational, we do not know where it comes from. Understanding our fears, and the reasons behind them, may help us to come to terms with them. I remember a woman I used to work with who was petrified by the sight of men who coming of the light bulb hanging from the ceiling. We later found out that she had been tied up in a robbery and the thieves had broken in through the loft.
In the early stages of the pandemic we were perhaps more fearful, as the situation moved so rapidly. The news concentrated on the awful nature of the virus and the great threat it presented to the National Health Service. Going into lockdown was the equivalent of going down into the bunkers. Coming out of the lockdown bunker has presented its own challenges. We are perhaps not as fearful as we were as the virus has receded in our area. But some are still fearful. We may resent new restrictions, but they are there to protect others and ourselves. We must remain vigilant and not take unnecessary risks, but we need to get back to some sense of normality.
‘Do not be afraid’ is a central Christian message. Gabriel tells Mary not to be afraid, just as the angel does to the shepherds. The risen Christ reassures his frightened disciples with his very presence. The security of faith has given courage to the martyrs to overcome their trials and look beyond their suffering, from the time of St Ignatius of Antioch, who looked forward to being taken to the arena to be killed by wild beasts. ‘Let the wild beasts have me for that is how I shall reach God. I am wheat for God and the teeth of the wild beasts will grind me until I become the pure bread of Christ.’ Just as the blitzkrieg of the Nazis failed to overcome the British people, neither could the cruelty of persecutors make the martyrs renounce their faith.
We may all have fears of some sort or another. They may be fears based on reality, or fears of the unknown. Our fears need to be confronted if we are to overcome them. Martin Luther King said that courage faces fear and masters it, while cowardice represses fear and thereby mastered by it. Elijah had run away from murderous Queen Jezebel in fear of his life, but his awareness of the presence of God gave him renewed courage to continue his prophetic mission.
Being aware of the presence with us of Jesus gives us courage, for what he says to the disciples, he says to us too. The words ‘do not be afraid,’ are an imperative, a command, but they are not like orders barked at us by a sergeant major. Perhaps we are to hear them as a gentle calm voice, like the whisper that Elijah heard on the mountain that was the unmistakable, reassuring spirit of God.
In the words of the psalmist, When I am afraid, I will trust in you, in God whose word I praise. In God, I trust, I will not be afraid