Faith through fear

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“Why do you seek the living among the dead?” by Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908)

A sermon at the Easter Vigil, April 19, 2014.  The lectionary readings are Romans 6:3-11, Psalm 114, and Matthew 28:1-10.

From time to time, I hear people say, “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is fear.” That statement makes some sense. Fear can easily keep us from doing things. It can keep us from filling out the tax forms, asking someone out, calling someone about joining us for some event or gathering. It can keep us from applying for some new job or opportunity. It can prevent us from asking for what we really want.

Fear finds its way into the Easter story, but it has been a part of the events leading up to the Resurrection. Perhaps it was fear that motivated Judas to betray Jesus. Surely it was fear that caused Simon Peter to deny Jesus three times. And it was surely because of fear that the disciples scattered and seemed only to reconvene well after Good Friday.

But to imagine that fear is somehow faith’s opposite, is too simplistic, I think. At least in my experience of faith, fear is never completely gone, totally wiped out. When I think of the times in my life that took the most faith—when I had to make the hardest decision or go with the most ambitious plan— fear never really left me. But somehow, I was able to go forward.

In tonight’s Gospel, as the Sabbath day is dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are surely afraid, but they take their fear with them and go to check on the grave of their friend, Jesus. They could not have expected what happens next. There’s an earthquake. There’s an angel who rolls back the stone in front of the tomb and sits on it.

The guards are afraid, so they run away. But while the women are surely afraid, they stay put. They listen to the good news of the angels, and they move forward.

There’s fear, but the love that draws them forward is even more powerful.

A similar thing happens in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The girls Lucy and Susan are talking with the Beavers. It’s in talking to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver that they learn that Aslan (the Christ figure in the story) is actually a lion. (p. 75-76)

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Faith and following the resurrected Christ is not safe. But it is good, good beyond imagining. Jesus says “Do not be afraid,” words that reverberate throughout scripture. But Jesus also knows that, this side of heaven, we probably always will have fear—before a big meeting, before a difficult conversation, before seeing the doctor—you can surely fill in the blank with whatever your fears may be.

But fear can teach us and help us move more closely to Christ.

Fear can be useful in that way. Sam Wells is the rector of St. Martin in the Fields Church in London, and he has a little book that looks at fear in a number of different contexts. In one place, he talks about the usefulness of fear.

“Fear isn’t itself good or bad.” He says. “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’re 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 [necessarily] be a good thing, because it wouldn’t just be a world without danger—it would be a world without love.”   (Be Not Afraid: Facing Fear with Faith, p. xv )

The love of Christ is so strong that it withstood death. This resurrected love can help us in the face of any fear. It can help us stand up, help us get pointed in the right direction, and help us make the first step. Then, after the first or second step, when we’re scared again, we can ask Christ to speak to those fears, and move us a little further ahead. This is the life of faith—not in opposition to fear, but moving through fear, just like we move through joy, and sadness, and gratitude, and heartbreak—even through death—until we, with angels and archangels, saints and martyrs, the holy and unholy of every age, and all those we have every known and loved—when we, too, experience Resurrection.

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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