Jesus was ready for some alone time. He sent his disciples away on a boat, dismissed the crowd that he had miraculously fed copious amounts of loaves of bread and fish, and hiked up a mountain to be alone and to pray. His disciples were on the Sea of Galilee when the winds increased, and they were struggling. Jesus saw this and headed down the mountain, and walked right across the water. In the darkness, the disciples did not realize the figure coming towards them was Jesus, and they were frightened.
Fear is a common human response to a perceived danger. It can alert us to act, to flee, to fight back, to do whatever we need to avert the danger that threatens us. Psychologists note that especially in more ancient times, the fear response has been very necessary for human survival.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is renowned for saying, in his first inaugural address, in 1933, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…” How we react to fear can be problematic at times, rather than helpful. Noam Shpancer, in “Psychology Today” in December 2017, said that the “fear of fear” can cause us to react to fix the problem as quickly as possible, and that can lead to mistakes. Mostly, he points out, we try to escape, or avoid, whatever makes us afraid – which means that we remain afraid of it whenever we encounter it again. But we harden our hearts to that which frightens us.
Maybe, then, avoidance and escape can be, at times, the wrong approach. Maybe we need to face our fears in order to get over them. In Matthew’s version of this story, Peter did just that. When he saw Jesus walking on the water, tried to join him. He was successful at first, but began to sink. Jesus rescued him. But in Mark and John, no one else dared to walk on water. Jesus calmed the wind. But, first, he spoke to them to reassure them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
This is a miracle story. It is also an epiphany or a theophany story. Most think Epiphany means just the appearance of the magi after the birth of Jesus. But an epiphany is a sudden understanding or insight into something. And a theophany denotes a holy appearance. The language here, of Jesus meaning to “pass by” rather than to stop and help the disciples, is the language of other biblical appearances of God (Job 9:8, Isaiah 43:16). At a moment when Jesus’ disciples were “terrified,” God appeared, God passed by.
For people of faith, such theophanies often happen in moments of crises. Many have reported being in the midst of a terrifying experience and realizing that God was present. That is how, for instance, I recall the head-on collision that happened to me late in 2014. Only moments after the car crashed into me, a woman pulled open my passenger door and sat in the car with me until paramedics arrived. To me, she was an angel, sent by God. When we are afraid, God is nearby.
And yet we, as human beings, can let fear overrun us. We can let fear rule our lives, rather than trust and hope in God. We can do this as individuals, as the church, as a nation. We are, in fact, in the midst of what some have called “a politics of fear” in this country. We have seen the results of such before in history. We are reminded of how our country responded to fear of people we designated as “others,” in a new memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, called the National Memorial for Peace & Justice. This memorial starkly recognizes more than 4,000 African Americans who were lynched in 12 southern states between 1877 and 1950. We are also reminded of how some responded to fear of others they disregarded as less than human in the Holocaust museums here and in Germany. These monuments depressingly alert us to the estimated 6 million or more Jewish citizens who were ruthlessly killed in Europe in the 1930’s. A “politics of fear” is based on appealing to people’s fears, and uniting them around a common cause to eliminate the identified cause of those fears. Too many people here and around the world have been cruelly treated and persecuted because of reactions to our fears of one another.
Even though Jesus got in the boat with the disciples, and the winds stopped, the disciples did not understand, the text tells us. Indeed, the church does not always get what Jesus is teaching us. Sadly, even the church can operate by fear. Pastor John Pavlovitz noted in his book, A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community that some segments of the Church (big C) like to scare people into the kingdom by enlisting them into us vs. them thinking. This approach gets people worked up, and can even unite them for a time. The problem, Pavlovitz says, is that if we “frame the spiritual journey as a stark good-vs-evil battle of warring sides for long enough,” we will “eventually see the Church and those around [us] in the same way.” We will “begin to filter the world through a lens of conflict,” where everything and everyone becomes a threat or a potential enemy, where fear “becomes the engine that drives the whole thing.” When this happens, he says, rather harshly perhaps, the Church “becomes less like God and more like the Godfather.” (Pavlovitz, pp. 28-29)
In our passage from Mark, Jesus and the disciples landed, and as soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus as the healer they had heard so much about. They rushed to get their sick family members and neighbors, and brought them to him. Even as Jesus moved around the area, people knew who he was and kept bringing sick ones to him for healing. They so believed in his powers to heal that they thought if they could only touch his cloak, like the woman we heard about earlier in Mark, they would be healed. But the disciples, the ones following Jesus and watching him heal, hearing him teach, seeing him multiply a little bit of food into enough to feed thousands, seeing him walk across water and still the wind, still did not understand. Outsiders realized that Jesus was someone special, at least as a healer. Yet the disciples’ “hearts were hardened.” Usually the hearts of outsiders were seen as hardened against the gospel message, yet Mark saw the disciples as clueless in the face of the Savior.
In the church, our hearts can be hardened by fear. The church has reacted wrongly to fear many times in history. Yet, if we follow Christ in truth, we are called not to act out of fear, but to greet one another with love, a love that sees no differences.
But, there is another meaning of “fear” in the Bible. At the burning bush, when Abraham faithfully was preparing his own beloved son for sacrifice, God stopped him, the story tells us (Gen. 22:1-19), saying “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (v.12). The Psalms tell us to “serve the Lord with fear” (Ps. 2:11), to “honor those who fear the Lord” (Ps. 15:4). “Let all the earth fear the Lord,” says Psalm 33 (v.8), “let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of God.” The fear of God is not one that hardens the heart. It describes more an awe, a respect, a trust in something much greater than us. It is the awe of God that we heard in Psalm 65, as God “established the mountains, “ God waters the earth, and provides the people with grain, and so much more, so that the very earth itself shouts and sings for joy. In her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris talks about “fear of the Lord” as the “beginning of wisdom.” She says: “It is fear, in the old sense of awe, that allows us to recognize the holy in our midst, fear that gives us the courage to listen, and to let God awaken in us capacities and responsibilities we have been afraid to contemplate” (Norris, p.145).
Yes, there is plenty to fear in our world, in our personal lives and in the political and social arenas. There are those who try to harness fear to mobilize the people they want to incite, or to immobilize those they want to oppress. Again, such a politicized use of fear, history shows us, results in way too many people being ostracized, imprisoned, persecuted, or even killed. When we respond to fear by lashing out, others will be hurt.
But when we recognize our fear as something to be overcome, something to lift to God, we realize that with God on our side, we need not fear anything but God (in that sense of awe and trust). And then, we will reach find ourselves reaching out in love rather than in hatred. Our world, our country, our own lives certainly need , less judgment and more justice and grace, less fighting and more peace, less fear and more love. May our only fear be the awe of God.
Take heart,” said Jesus, “It is I. Do not be afraid.” Amen.