Be not afraid. There are those who will tell you that this phrase occurs 365 times in the Bible. And while that sounds like a perfect number – a good reminder for each day of the year – it’s hard to say if that’s true or not. But what I can say is true is that the Bible references fear a lot, encouraging us to not be afraid and reminding us that God is with us in the ups and downs, the hills and valleys, the sunny days and the storms.
Our scripture reading for this week is one place in the Bible where the disciples experience fear and Jesus comes to them, walking on the water, saying: “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.” The disciples were alone on a boat when a storm started. This may have contributed to their fear, but the majority of the disciples were experienced fishermen and had probably weathered such storms before. The text tells us that their real fear was related to seeing Jesus walking on the water. Initially they assumed he was a ghost and cried out in fear. As the story unfolds, we join the disciples as they move back and forth between fear and faith.
We are living in and through a fearful time. There’s no rule book to living through a pandemic, and I imagine all of us experienced varying degrees of fear these past five months. What better time to revisit one of the many scripture passages that invite us to understand our fear through the lens of our faith, seeking God’s word, God’s presence, God’s guidance and God’s peace.
I’m looking forward to being together on Sunday!
Matthew 14:22-33 (CEB)
Right then, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds. When he sent them away, he went up onto a mountain by himself to pray. Evening came and he was alone. Meanwhile, the boat, fighting a strong headwind, was being battered by the waves and was already far away from land. Very early in the morning he came to his disciples, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!” They were so frightened they screamed.
Just then Jesus spoke to them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”
Peter replied, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.”
And Jesus said, “Come.”
Then Peter got out of the boat and was walking on the water toward Jesus. But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened. As he began to sink, he shouted, “Lord, rescue me!”
Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saying, “You man of weak faith! Why did you begin to have doubts?” When they got into the boat, the wind settled down.
Then those in the boat worshipped Jesus and said, “You must be God’s Son!”
Consider these questions:
- Is it really possible to not be afraid? What does the Bible mean by this? What does it mean to you?
- In the NRSV, Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” The Message translates this as “Faint heart, what got into you?” What do you think was Jesus’ tone and intention?
- How do you experience fear in your own life? How do you know when you’re afraid? How are you experiencing fear during COVID-19? Has that fear changed over the months?
- Have you had an experience of being caught between fear and faith? Where and how did you “take heart” or find courage?
Have you had an experience of being caught between fear and faith? Where and how did you “take heart” or find courage?
As an adolescent and young adult filled with anxiety and panic, I painted Jesus’ words about not being afraid on the ceiling of my bedroom at home.
As a psychologist with a specialized spiritual and religious practice (I also treat ordinary panic, anxiety and depression, of course) I am often quoted “Perfect love casts out all fear” from Paul. THis sentence is used as a kind of “blaming the victim” cudgel. Years back I gave a workshop at PBUMC on anxiety and faith, with this unfortunate usage of Paul as one of the points.