If the last ten years have taught me anything at all, it is the power of fear. After 9/11, our nation was turned upside down by fear. We went to war with a country that had nothing to do with the terrorist attack over fear. If that fool, Trump was elected legally (of which I have some doubts), it was because of fear. We have handed over our civil liberties because of fear. Indeed, many of the problems we are facing in our world have been caused by fear. FDR, a truly great president, told us we have nothing to fear by fear itself.
I cringe when I think of how many opportunities I’ve missed in life because I was afraid. If my dreams of becoming a working musician/entertainer failed to come to fruition, it was because I was afraid to go out and risk being penniless in order to fulfill them. The great chess master, Bobby Fischer, said that you could never win a game of chess by playing a defensive game. As long as you are afraid of losing, you will.
I learned in kung fu that the only way to win a fight was to lose the fear of being hit. That’s why they toughened us up so much, so that when we did get hit, it wouldn’t hurt us. Once you realize that you can get hit and still survive, you can keep on going. Had I let fear rule my life, I never would have run those six marathons, or gotten married, or gone back to school. When I stop to think about it, those moments in my life of which I am the most proud, are those moments when I chose to be courageous in spite of my fears. And I have plenty of fears, let me tell you. But I don't feel bad. Everybody has fears.
Even the apostles had fears and they had seen amazing things. Really, if Jesus taught us anything, it was to let go of fear. You would think his students would have learned that, but they wrestled with fears throughout their lives. There is a long tradition coming from a story from the apocryphal gospel of Peter about how Peter came to meet his end. According to the story, Peter is leaving Rome in order to avoid the persecution of Christians going on there through the efforts of the emperor Nero. Peter is walking down the road when he sees Jesus coming the other way, carrying a cross. Peter asks Jesus (after coming to, I would suppose) where he is going. Jesus replies that he is going to Rome in order to be crucified again (implying that Peter is a big pussy for trying to avoid the same fate that Jesus suffered). So Peter turns around and heads back to Rome where he insists upon being crucified upside down, as he is not worthy to be put to death in the same manner as was Jesus.
Peter was afraid, and he knew the resurrection was real. He had seen the risen Christ. He spent time with Jesus after he had risen from the dead. If anybody had a reason to feel sure, it should have been Peter. But then, courage requires uncertainty, doesn’t it? You aren’t afraid to go on a roller coaster because you have a reasonable certainty of surviving the ride. So it doesn’t require courage to go on the roller coaster, just insanity. Courage is what you need when you don’t know how the story is going to end. Courage is what you need in order to push on in the face of your fear.
Of course, the most devastating thing about fear is that it is totally irrational. You can be afraid of things even when you know you are safe. I know so many people who are afraid of thunder, when thunder never hurt anybody. Now lightening on the other hand…that is worthy of fear. But people never seem to be afraid of lightening. They just watch it and then go, “oooooooh and aaaaaaaaah!” Sometimes people never overcome their fears.
I remember the first time I had to break a pine board in kung fu class. My teacher called me over to the back of class where some of the older students had been breaking boards. He had some of the students hold the board for me and told me to punch it. I knew better than to question him. If I did that, it could be months, even years, before I had another opportunity to break a board. I told myself that he wouldn’t tell me to attempt it if I weren’t up to the task, but I was still scared. I had seen what happened to people who tried to break boards when they weren’t ready to do it. It wasn’t pretty. So I just kept on concentrating on breaking the board and pushed the fear out of my mind. My fist shot out, and the board broke like Styrofoam. It was no big deal at all. It didn’t even hurt a little bit. Concentration is very important in dealing with fear.
Right after feeding all those people in last week’s episode of Matthew, Jesus sent his students off in a boat on that famous Sea of Galilee, AKA Lake Tiberius. Funny thing about water. We like water to be smooth, especially when we are in boats. But calm water is dead water. Water needs to be churning in order for it to provide food and air for the fish and plants that live in it. Water that sits still becomes brackish and unhealthy. We like our water to be smooth, but churning water is much better for children and other living things. Well, those knuckle-headed students of Jesus were out on that lake water when a storm hit, and then something very strange happened. I’ll let Matthew explain:
And then he compelled his students to get into a boat and go to the other side while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up onto the mountain to pray by himself. When night fell, he was alone there all by himself. Meanwhile, the boat, already being far from shore, was being tossed by the waves and buffeted by the winds. During the night, Jesus came to them, walking upon the water. When his students saw him, they thought they saw a ghost and cried out in fear. Immediately Jesus called out to them, telling them to be of good courage and to not be afraid, that it was himself walking on the water and not a ghost.
Peter replied, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
Jesus said, “Come.”
So Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water. But then he looked around and saw how strong the wind was. He became frightened and began to sink. He cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Jesus reached out his hand and lifted him up saying, “Oh little-faith man, why did you double-think?”
Immediately, they rose into the boat and the wind died down. The other students prostrated themselves and said, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew, Chapter 14, 21-33, Big Daddy Translation)
Now maybe this story is a true account, and maybe it was just made up to make a theological point. It doesn’t really matter, one way or the other. Let’s just assume that it is a piece of fiction designed to teach us something about God and our relationship with God. According to the story, Jesus sends these guys out onto the water. Jesus, being a holy guy, knows there is a storm coming, but he sends them anyway. When the storm starts, the disciples were all scared witless, and these guys were fishermen. They KNEW this lake, and they were STILL scared. Then they see Jesus walking on the water and that freaks them out even more. Holy Crap! It’s the lord!
Only Peter is brave enough to call out to the apparition. Only Peter is brave enough to step out of the boat onto the churning waves and walk on water. It isn’t until he looks around and sees the effect of the wind and the waves that fear takes over. He starts to sink and so calls out to Jesus to save him. That should be a lesson on prayer, right there. That prayer is all of three words long—“Lord, save me!” Notice that he did NOT say, “Oh Jesus, Lord of the wind and sky, calm the waters and save me from death as you are mightier than any other God, etc., etc., Had Peter’s prayer been any longer, it would have been glub, glub.
Jesus chastises Peter for his doubts. Why did you double-think? Why did you think twice? You were doing so well. And we can feel superior to Peter if we want to, but I’ll tell you, Peter has walked on more water than I ever have. Peter did okay. And, you notice, Jesus saves him. He might have made an example of Peter and let him drown, saying, “There! See what happens when you start to doubt!” But no, Jesus saves Peter’s sorry ass. It is interesting to me that out of that huge lake (that’s why they called it a sea); Jesus knew right where to find those guys. He walked right to them. But then, he is the Son of God, after all.
And that’s the point of the story. You don’t have to be afraid. Just trust that God will take care of you. That’s where Peter fell into difficulty. He took his eyes off Jesus and looked at the wind and the waves. He was doing fine until he looked around. He let fear take over. And Jesus says that there is nothing to fear. What is there to fear? Death? There is no death. Death is just an illusion. Your body may die, but you continue. God takes care of every living thing. God will take care of you, too. True, sometimes we have to go through some pretty unpleasant times, but then, sometimes we have to weather a storm or two also.
We like having our lives run smoothly, but when you think about it, it was all the trials and tribulations we’ve been through that developed our characters. You don’t learn to be honest until you’ve been confronted by dishonesty. You don’t learn to be kind until you’ve been the victim of some unkindness. We’d like things to be easy, but we need adversity. We need the storm. We need the storm in order to have faith. God puts God to the test all the time. Every time there’s a storm, God gets to say, “There, now look and see if I don’t get you through this one too.” And so our faith increases. You can’t learn to be brave unless you are forced to face your fears.
I keep thinking of my neighbor who lost everything in Katrina. So she moved out here, got a new job, met a guy, and now she is uproariously happy. She has more now than she did then. Her life is better now than it was then. She made it through her storm just fine. And we will make it through our storms too. We will make it through because we have love, and that is all that really matters. Nothing is ever taken away that something is not given. Keep your eyes on your goal and let nothing distract you. You can have anything you want as long as you don’t let the wind and the waves frighten you.
Jesus tells us over and over to fear not. We have been afraid as long as there have been people. Even by the bible record, Adam, our great granddaddy, told God that he was hiding because he was afraid. So the bible tells us that people have been afraid since there have been people. And people are afraid of everything. We fear failure; we fear success. We fear rejection, and yet we fear love. We are afraid of death, and some people are afraid of life. Fear has helped to keep us alive. So fear can be a good thing. But fear also keeps us from doing the things we want to do. Jesus says, “Look, there’s nothing so bad can happen that you can’t handle it.” Go ahead and walk out into the storm. Hold your head up high. Be not afraid.”