Fear is one of the most basic of human emotions; from the very earliest moments of our lives we learn to fear. And that’s a good thing. If we didn’t feel pain and fear we’d be incredibly vulnerable; we simply wouldn’t be able to keep ourselves safe - or those around us. Heroes like the fire-fighters who faced danger so heroically as they tackled the dreadful blaze at Grenfell Tower in Kensington - these guys were not fearless, though that’s a word we sometimes use. They were as full of fear as anyone else would have been going into such a tragic and dangerous situation. But they were able to overcame their fear, and that’s what bravery is. How did they overcome their fear? Certainly not by under-estimating the seriousness of the task and the danger involved; they knew what they were going into. But they were well trained, well equipped, highly motivated, and with colleague support they could trust.
Fear is a good and necessary thing, but if fear gets the upper hand it disables us. That’s as true when we think of living out our faith as it is for anything else in life. The Bible shows how fear is part of our fall from grace. Adam and Eve hide from God the cool of the evening because, having eaten from the tree, they have learned to be afraid. Fear and sin are connected; fear disconnects us from a good and loving relationship both with God and with one another.
We encounter much to fear in our everyday lives: fear of illness, of poverty, of failure. We fear what we don’t like or understand. We may fear the other person, the one who looks different, speaks a different language, or dresses or worships differently. We fear those we think might wish us harm. Fear feeds into worry, tension, anxiety, stress; fear feeds into political extremism, religious isolationism, intolerance. A study in the United States of five hundred people found that among them they had 1,800 different fears. The media often help stoke up a culture of fear; the internet certainly does.
Fears left un-dealt with and uncontrolled can box us in, they hold us captive, leave us vulnerable to extremist voices. Fear can have a devastating impact, it can unbalance our perception and the decisions we make. The religious leaders at the time of Jesus were themselves transfixed by fear. Some of them at least were looking for the coming of God’s Messiah; but their minds were closed to Jesus, they failed to recognise him. These were men of God so boxed in by the fear of change, so afraid of losing their power, their status, their influence, that they conspired to kill the man whom God had sent.
Fear is designed to protect us; left unchecked, however, it can paralyze us. But John tells us that “perfect love casts out fear”, so what if we could cast out those fears that disable us? A repeated message as we read the Easter story is “Don’t be afraid.” We are called to be resurrection people: people who trust that Jesus is who he says he is, who trust in the reality of resurrection, and from that trust find the courage to place ourselves into his hands. Our fears won’t be magicked away, but we will find strength to overcome them, to work through them. Jesus promises that when we turn to him he’ll be there to strengthen and guide us. Life can be tough, and sometimes like Jeremiah we may feel that the whole world’s against us. But our Lord lives: we need not fear.
Today’s reading from St Matthew is part of his account of Jesus sending his disciples. Jesus warns them it’s going to be tough out there. They’ll face opposition - but, says Jesus, “Don’t be afraid of those who seek to harm you.”
This passage provides pointers to how we can ensure that our own ministry and mission isn’t disabled by fear. Firstly, we must be realistic, see things clearly, measure things up. In mission expect difficulty and allow for opposition; mission’s about telling good news, but not everyone will hear it gladly. Christians may sometimes expect God to prevent the sort of bad things from happening to us that might happen to other people. But real life’s not like that: look back through the pages of Christian history, look in the Gospels or the Acts of the Apostles: see how people doing God’s work face suffering and tragedy like anyone else. Real life includes a measure of pain and difficulty, there’ll be disappointment and even tragedy: but real life is where we’re called to minister and witness. Neither we nor the first disciples Jesus sent can be immune from the bad stuff that happens in our world. And some bad things may be the direct result of following Jesus.
The second thing I want to say is our faith is in the God who is, not some God we might choose to fit in with how we feel. In other words, God has sovereignty. Verse 28: Jesus tells the disciples to fear not the things they might have to face, but “the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Our Christian worship, service and mission bears witness to the greatness of God: his might and majesty are beyond our human reckoning, and yet he seeks us out and calls us to serve him. To focus on God helps me not to be egocentric, not to place myself at the centre of my own universe, but to see me as I really am. Fear is stoked up by excessive focus on ourselves. But God has power over all things, even over death itself.
Paul wrote: I belong no longer to myself, but to Christ. So a third thing to say is that we recognise that we God’s children and he loves us. Jesus says: “Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” God loves us as his own; as Paul again writes: If God is for us, who then can prevail against us?
So fourthly, we must not keep quiet about what we believe: we should go public in confessing our faith and doing God’s will. In verse 31 Jesus says that “anyone who acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge him before My Father in heaven.” Faith needs to be put to work: our holy task is to be builders of the kingdom, and to do this we need to keep ourselves focused on Jesus and his work of salvation, not on our own fears. That’s not to say those fears aren’t real. Bad things do happen; Christians in many places face persecution. Even here faithful witness is a challenging thing to do. But if our mission is cross-centred and cross-shaped, we’ll find, like a fire-fighter going into a blazing building, that we’ve got the tools to do the job.
So mission should be cross-centred: focused on what Jesus has done for us, on the cross where our sins are lifted from us, and the way to life is opened. At the cross our greatest fear is already defeated. And mission should be cross-shaped: at its heart should be the vertical of the cross, communication between me and God, God and me; perfect love casts out fear, and prayer is the spring of that love, that we are constantly seeking God’s presence, wanting to hear his word. Its expression is the horizontal of the cross: not just me and God, but us and God, in a fellowship of ministry and mission in which we look to each other, support each other, are in communion with each other through our communion with Christ. But the horizontal goes further than that: mission is done when we are reaching out to serve in the world.
For, as Archbishop William Temple famously said: “The Church is the one institution that exists primarily for the sake of those who are not its members.” Mission is fundamental to the work of the Church, and it involves its every member; I don’t mean we all have to stand on soap boxes on street corners, or go from house to house as doorstep evangelists - though some of us may be called to do those things. But all Christians are enrolled in a kingdom movement whose aim is that our world might be a better and more loving and peaceful place - a more Godly place. Our task within that movement is to build kingdom values where we are, where we live, where we work, where we have our being. That’s what we see Jesus sending his disciples out to do - they weren’t going out there to preach long sermons, they weren’t going to harangue people, they were to heal, console, forgive, lift up, to change lives for the better; and then to say: “The kingdom of God has come close to you.”
We’ll not manage that if we’re hooked on, paralyzed by, our fears; but nor can we do it by foolishly thinking there’s nothing to fear. If the world’s all right as it is, and there’s nothing to fear, then there is no mission task. But there is of course: we can see that the world is not how God wants it to be. We can see that he has work for us. But we have the antidote to fear; we have the equipment we need to get on with the job. We are resurrection people, and we already know how the story of our lives will end. We can say with confidence that because our Lord lives, we too will live. And in saying that we can overcome our fear, because we know that the future is in his hands: that my future, your future, is in his hands. Life is worth the living, the work is worth the striving, simply because he has died, and yet lives. Rejoice: the Lord is King! That, as Charles Wesley knew very well, is where mission begins.