Fear is an element in both our readings today. Paul, writing to the church he helped to found in Corinth, hints at the story we know from the Acts of the Apostles - how on the road to Damascus he encountered Jesus, and was blinded by that experience, but also changed - changed from the chief persecutor of the followers of Jesus into an apostle, into a teller of his story. And then in the Gospel we find Simon Peter terrified by the amazing haul of fishes he and his companions have brought up from the lake in response to what Jesus has told them to do. They’d fished all night without a catch, remember - and night is the time to fish, not a bright sunlit morning. His fearful response is to say - go, leave me, I’m a sinful man, I can’t cope with this.
Fear can paralyse us into doing nothing, keeping things as they are, refusing to change. Fear can persuade us that we can’t do it, that we’re not worthy of this or that responsibility, even that people won’t like us, or that what we say or do or offer will be rejected. Fear often works against reason, and it allows us to imagine only the possible bad outcomes as we look to the future. And although fear is actually a good thing, in that from our early days it helps keep us safe, if we allow fear to become our whole story, we’ll be trapped by it.
A phrase often used in church language but not much understood by the rest of the world is “the fear of the Lord.” God saves those who fear him, we say. The problem is that we tend to associate fear with cowering in terror, hiding under a rock, so fearing God translates in terms of fleeing from his wrath, hiding because he has the power to do terrible things to us. Because we’re not good enough, and never good enough, and he’s bound to punish us. Well, you can find something of that in the Old Testament, and maybe Peter’s response to Jesus is rather an Old Testament response. Peter recognises in Jesus the power of God. This man in his boat is not just a rabbi, he’s something so much more. And Peter is terrified. I’m not good enough for this, he realises.
So his reaction is to say, “Go, leave me!” It’s more than just uncomfortable to have God in his boat! But all through the Gospels we see how Jesus comes to where people are. And just as Jesus came to Simon Peter in his boat, and to so many others as he travelled and taught, so he comes to where we are; and yes, that can be uncomfortable, and yes, we can be very aware of our own deficiency, but he comes to call us, to enrol us, to ask us to do things. And he comes with love, he comes to change us, and to change the direction of our lives. I don’t know who first said this, but it’s a quote that’s often used: “God loves us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to leave us that way.”
To stay the same would be to go against what are baptized to be. To follow Jesus means not staying as we are, but growing in love, and accepting his challenge to live in a way that will help make the world around us a better place. It means responding to his love for us in the love we share and give and live. And we don’t have to be perfect in order for God to meet us and call us and use us - just willing as we are to drop our own baggage, to overcome our fears, and to say “yes” to his call to follow.
Peter and his friends did just that, once they’d brought their boats to shore, overflowing with the fish they’d caught. Luke tells us they followed him straight away. Jesus had told the fishermen that from now on they’d be catching people, not fish. And that they shouldn’t be afraid. The fish they’d caught were a sign of the blessing and the abundant mercies and the boundless love of God. As they set themselves to follow Jesus, the whole order of their lives had now changed, and even though things might get scary, even though there might be much in what lay ahead to make them afraid, they’d now be placing Jesus at the heart of every action or decision in their lives. They were replacing the fear that paralyses with the true “fear of the Lord” - which really means recognising God’s authority in our lives, placing him first, giving him honour in all that we do.
As Secretary of my local Rotary Club, I’m being bombarded at the moment with messages about making sure I’m using the right logo, because our corporate identity seems suddenly to have become really important. I’m getting some of the same from the Diocese as well, I have to say. Logos and straplines aim to establish identity, and to express common values and a shared ethic. That’s how business does it, and we’re all supposed to be getting more businesslike. Personally, I think too much emphasis on corporate identity can dampen individual flair and initiative.
But, having said that, I can also see how in business and more widely, it can be good to know clearly what your core values are. When major decisions have to be made about future policies or directions, it helps to ask “Will the outcome support our chosen core values?” - because if it won’t, then maybe those plans need to be changed. A clear sense of identity and purpose can make for clarity and consistency in planning, and that can help ensure that an organisation moves forward with energy and direction.
Applying that sort of ethos to Christian living, how might we, like Peter or Paul, place Jesus at the centre of our decision making and planning? I was always told to keep asking, “What Jesus would do?”, but maybe that’s not quite enough. I need also to ask, “What would Jesus have me do?” What is my list of values - and how do they square with the promises made at my baptism, or the list Paul gives us of the fruits of the spirit, or the “marks of mission” agreed by churches worldwide? These are values like aiming to serve Christ in all I do, being faithful to his example and word, proclaiming in what I say and do the gospel message of triumphant love in Jesus Christ; it has to do with meekness and gentleness, with being a maker of peace, with being controlled in the way I see, act, respond. Do I really take these things as seriously as I should? Are they really at the centre of my life? And how would my life be different if they were?
At my collation service last September, I recall using the response, “I will, God being my helper”. To do it on my own won’t work - or to quote the old mission hymn “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way”. If I choose to follow Jesus, I’ll need God’s help to do it. There are too many other fears around, and the road ahead is unknown and full of challenge. To counter the fears that otherwise would tie me down, I need the fear of the Lord, I need to trust him as my Saviour.
So that’s my experience; my own preference might be to stay where it’s safe, to keep to what I know, to pull back from doing anything that might be scary, and to be much more aware of my limitations than my possibilities. In some areas of my life that very much continues to be the case. I am never going to get on a zip wire, for example, or do a parachute jump, and that’s that. But Jesus seems to have other plans for me than staying safe and settled. He insists on getting into my boat, no matter what. No matter whether I think I’m good enough, or able enough, or strong enough, no matter how great my fears might be. He says “Follow me” to all kinds of people, and he says it to me. Not just the once, but again and again: when I slip, when the fears take over, when I fall back or get discouraged, he says it again.
Jesus meets us where we are, and offers us his outstretched hand, calling us to travel with him into the unexpected, but meeting our fears with his grace, and inviting us to know his love and to share his love, as we follow.