Do Not Be Afraid
I’ve been struck by two things while trying to follow Karl Barth’s advice this spring. A Swiss theologian and pastor, Barth was also perhaps the leading Protestant theologian of the 20th century, and he was fond of saying that good preachers hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. And so while reading both the Scriptures and the newspaper, I’ve first noticed how frequently fear seems to be the topic of the day.
Think how much of the political rhetoric revolves around fear these days or, more particularly, things and people that should make us afraid. Terrorism. Trade. Immigrants. Refugees. Zika. Ebola. And the list goes on, as candidates from both parties first tell you what you should be afraid of and then explain why voting for them will lessen your fear.
Notably, the Scriptures also talk about fear. But in a markedly different way. In the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans that many of us heard on Pentecost Sunday a few weeks ago, for instance, Paul tells his congregation that they “did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear,” but rather “a spirit of adoption” (Rom. 8:15). In fact, the hallmark of the good news of God’s grace across the Scriptures are the powerful and still potent words, “Do not be afraid.” Whether said by prophet or angels or ordinary believers, these words serve to remind us that we are called to courage, not fear, in light of God’s promise to love, bless, and save all the world.
Not that there aren’t things to be afraid of. Of course there are. In many ways, we do live in a fearsome world. And the Gospel doesn’t shy away from this. Rather, the Gospel reminds us none of the fearsome realities of the day have the power to rob us of our identity as God’s beloved children and our inheritance, as Paul also says, as “heirs of God and co-heirs of Christ” (8:17).
So while we may be understandably afraid of various things in this life, we need not be dominated by fear, react (or vote!) out of fear, or be driven by fear to treat those around us with suspicion or hatred. Because as long as the future is God’s, we need not fear. And this is a message we not only have, but need to share.
The second thing I noticed is how regularly fear keeps us from becoming the people God wants us to be. Ever wonder why the Bible so frequently offers the Gospel as an antidote to fear? I think it’s because it’s really, really hard to love your neighbor — or be loved by your neighbor in return — when you’re afraid. Fear corrodes the heart and narrows the vision, inducing us to see everyone around us as potential threats rather than as gifts of God and our siblings in Christ.
Not only that, but fear sometimes keeps us from recognizing God’s activity amongst us, especially when God shows up — as God almost always does! — where we don’t expect God to be. This past Sunday, for instance, many of us heard a story where Luke reports that the crowds who witnessed Jesus raise to life a widow’s son were first afraid. Not overjoyed. Not thankful. Not impressed. But rather afraid. They go on eventually to praise God, but their first response is one of fear. Which makes me wonder how often we are similarly startled when God actually shows up to change our comfortable lives. Even when our circumstances are challenging or perhaps even dire, we sometimes prefer the predictability of them to the unknown future into which God might lead us. And so when God beckons us down a new path, we may understandably react with fear and miss the opportunity to participate in God’s unfolding plans.
We know something about that kind of fear here at LTSP. For while the partnership we envision with our colleagues at Gettysburg is in many ways not only exciting but also incredibly hopeful, it is also different, new, unknown, and for that matter fearful. And there is some reason for such anxiety. We will be a different place, learning new traditions and ways, and not all who serve here may still be serving then.
This is hard stuff, but it need not — and will not — blind us from the “new thing” God is doing. And so I would ask for your prayers as we continue down this road that we might not only discern God’s will for us, but also have the courage to follow where God is leading. Please know that I will also be praying for you. The world can be a scary and uncertain place. But our message now, as it always has been, is as simple as it is important: The future is God’s. God is love. So do not be afraid.
Yours in Christ,
The Rev. Dr. David J. Lose is President of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia