Do Not be Afraid
Our minister Trevor Neill writes...
Another month comes round, and tentatively we all inch forwards, taking further steps out of lockdown. By the time we read this article, many of us will have had our first hair cuts in many months, have met with friends in the garden or visited a shop to make the first non-essential purchase of the year.
There is obviously much to give thanks for as we reflect on the events of recent months and look ahead to the easing of restrictions which have impacted all of us. We are blessed to live in a country where the vaccine programme has proceeded with astonishing speed and effectiveness, providing a basis for confidence that the government’s roadmap out of lockdown will proceed as planned.
And yet there are also understandable reasons why many of us might be feeling wary or anxious about the changes which lie ahead. Will we recover the confidence many of us may have lost over 12 months of less physical activity and less interaction with others? How safe will we feel when we step back on a train or bus or return to the office?
As many people have observed, the pandemic has accelerated the pace of change in many aspects of our lives, altering how we work, how we relate to one another and even how we worship. When we return to the shops, the office, even to church, will it really feel the same?
Because of this, it is natural that many of us have fears about what is coming our way. And, as Sam Wells, vicar of St Martin in the Fields, has so eloquently observed, it isn’t always wrong to be afraid:
‘Fear itself isn’t good or bad. It’s an emotion that identifies what we love. The quickest way to discover what or whom someone loves is to find out what they are afraid of. We fear because we don’t want to lose what we love. We fear intensely when we love intensely or when we think what or whom we love is in real danger. So a world without fear wouldn’t be a good thing, because it wouldn’t just be a world without danger – it would be a world without love’ (Sam Wells, Be Not Afraid: Facing Fear with Faith, 2011, Brazos Press, page xv).
These few sentences powerfully explain the many fears we have experienced over the last year. What might Jesus be saying to us, as individuals and his church, as we reflect on what’s passed and anticipate what the future holds?
There are many scenes in the Gospels where we encounter Jesus face to face with people who are frightened, confronted with the reality or possibility of loss, over-whelmed by the circumstances they find themselves in, their awareness of their sin and also their awareness of the greatness of God. And on each of these occasions, the message of Jesus is the same: ‘Do not be afraid.’
‘Do not be afraid.’
This is what he says when he first calls the disciples, speaking these words when Simon Peter cries out, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’ (Luke 5:8–10). Instead, Jesus points him away from fear to a new life fishing for people.
‘Do not be afraid.’
Jesus also speaks these words to Jairus, who has just heard the news that his sick daughter has died (Mark 5:36).
He says the same thing as he walks on water towards the disciples who are in a boat and anxious at a gathering storm on the Sea of Galilee (John 6:20).
When he teaches his disciples to have a bigger perspective, to see beyond the here-and-now and trust in the provision of their heavenly Father, the same message is spoken: ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom’ (Luke 12:32).
When Peter, James and John want to run for cover, awestruck at the greatness of God revealed on the Mount of Trans-figuration, what does he say? ‘Get up, don’t be afraid’ (Matthew 17:7).
And, as Jesus spends final precious time with his friends in the Upper Room, the gathering dread of Gethsemane and the cross coming into view, his message is the same: ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid’ (John 14:27).
And if Jesus were in front of us now, at this threshold moment of stepping out of lockdown and heading towards the ‘new normal’ I suspect he might have a similar message for us. He understands our frailties and anxieties, as well as the love and deeply held values which sometimes lie behind them, but he doesn’t want us to stay in the place of fear. His will for us is that our faith will make us whole.
When we fear, we don’t make good choices. We bury treasure instead of growing what we have, we try to prevent the worst happening and in the process we end up missing out on the best God has for us. It’s hard to trust when we feel fearful and instead we pull back from each other.
I have no doubt that the coming months will bring many challenges for all of us, as plans for worshipping together gather pace and as we return to other activities in the church. All of us have been changed by our experiences of the pandemic, meaning it simply won’t be possible to pick up where we left off in March 2020.
As we feel our way back towards the ‘new normal’, whatever it will look like, my hope and prayer is that we hear clearly Jesus’ words to his first followers and to us also: ‘Do not be afraid.’ Trusting in him, may we find him to be all he has promised to be, the Good Shepherd protecting us, the vine who enables us to bear fruit, the bread which guarantees no hunger and the light who is always with us and guarantees we will never walk in darkness.
Wishing you God’s grace and peace.