Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. - John 14:27
How many times does Jesus tell us not to be afraid? Well, I googled it, and it looks like in the four gospels, Jesus talks about not being afraid or not worrying about 25 times. The gospel story is all about Jesus’ walk toward the pain of cross, and there were probably a lot of fearful situations in the course of his ministry. He was an embodied human just like you and me, so he certainly knew quite well what fear felt like. But by virtue of his faith in something much bigger than this world, he had the courage and trust to move forward despite the political and theological hostility and turmoil that faced him at every turn.
So was Jesus telling us to deny the existence of a natural human emotion? I don’t know about you, but I feel fear quite often. Does that mean I am not faithful? I don’t think so. II think that Jesus was teaching us to acknowledge our fears - and rather than focussing on them - to put them trustingly into the capable hands of God before going ahead and moving forward anyway. When he says, do not be afraid, it is not about stuffing an emotion, but about trusting God to carry you through despite any trouble or danger.
There is a false image of spirituality, very common in our culture it seems, that implies that a truly spiritual person will never feel fear. It implies that if you can just be spiritual enough, you will not have stress, will be calm all the time and will live a perfectly balanced life without any conflict or struggle. I have a few things to say about this common misconception:
Being spiritual does not mean you suddenly are no longer on earth and not subject to the stresses and injustices that surround us all. Jesus’ life was full of conflict and struggle because this world is full of conflict and struggle, and if you are standing up for the poor and oppressed of this world in any way, you’re inevitably going to hit some serious pushback from the powers and principalities. Being deeply spiritual, therefore, puts us in more fearful situations rather than less.
Spirituality is not a self-centered, self help strategy in disguise. It is not a tool for gaining more personal satisfaction and respite in life. Rather, it is something planted deep within everyone’s DNA to connect us more deeply to God and awaken our compassion for others. Being deeply spiritual will actually lead us into new and unfamiliar situations that might make us feel less comfortable more often rather than less.
There will be fear, even for the most faithful people. Fear is part of being human.
So what can we say about Jesus telling us not to fear? For me it’s this Sunday’s gospel passage that holds the key to what Jesus means when he says not to be afraid, because he links not being afraid with the peace of God. True peace is not something we can generate ourselves by being uber-spiritual good do-be’s. The kind of peace Jesus is describing is not the peace you feel in those rare moments when everything happens to be going smoothly for you. It is the kind of peace that comes from something outside of ourselves and that surrounds us all the time, even when things are not going smoothly at all. The peace of God - the peace that passes all understanding - is a gift that we do not earn or generate for ourselves. But it is the peace we can really lean into when we are in situations that are fearful, trusting that God has it all in hand.
The last verse of hymn 661 in our hymnal says:
The peace of God, it is no peace,
But strife closed in the sod.
Yet, let us pray for but one thing:
The marvelous peace of God.
May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God.