Assuaging our fears (Pentecost)

Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. (John 14: 27b)

This is the time of crisis in Jesus’ ministry. He is about to be tested in the most extreme ways possible: through betrayal, abandonment, falsehood and physical torture leading to death. He recognises that this will be a time of testing for the disciples also. As the enemy approaches and appears to gain ground they are likely to be filled with apprehension. In such a state they are to stand firm. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. ‘Afraid’ here carries tones of cowardice. They are to stand firm in the face of the enemy.

At the time of crisis and testing Jesus offers peace. It is his own peace and he offers it to his disciples so that they will be able to endure everything that lies ahead. As a footnote, this says something about the nature of Jesus. In the Old Testament scriptures the gift of peace is the prerogative of the king or of God himself, both of whom can be the instigators of weal or woe. That Jesus offers (his own) peace is an indication of his divine nature.

It may not be the usual approach to a celebration of the descent of the Spirit, but given our text today it would be helpful to think about the destructive nature of fear. This might help us to draw upon our own experiences and to see more clearly what our Lord and his Spirit have to offer us. In recent days there has been much fear over matters of health and well-being. Most of us fear illness which could be debilitating, life-changing or even terminal. Many people (I hope) have had time since the beginning of the pandemic to reflect upon their own mortality. Fear can also result from waiting for medical results or treatment or from the thought of the treatment itself especially if it is invasive. It is natural to fear.

Fear can come upon us for many reasons. Uncertainty of employment or income, the threat of a broken relationship destroying our security, any change in circumstances which threatens our independence. There are many more. If we are given to panic or exaggeration then we will probably find that our sense of fear is heightened. Yet in every situation Jesus offers the gift of peace.

Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. (John 14: 27a)

What is necessary when faced with any threat whether it be natural, man-made or the work of the Enemy, is to maintain a balanced and realistic approach with the help of the Spirit who is our comforter. At the human level the Spirit helps us to think more clearly and to realise the exact nature of the threat we face and how we might deal with it. Human agents can often do this very well and some Christians, courtesy of the Spirit, have a special ministry in this area, but the Spirit himself is there for all of us to keep us calm, level-headed and close to God in any time of trial.

At the spiritual level, described theologically, we can remind ourselves that God knows all things. Nothing is hidden from him – certainly not our struggles. God is also in charge. Homework for this week is a reading of Psalm 8 which describes the place of man in creation. Here is the work of God in all its glory.

For I will consider thy heavens, even the works of thy fingers : the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained. What is man, that thou art mindful of him : and the son of man, that thou visitest him? (Psalm 8: 3-4, Coverdale)

The praise of God due for the creation should be in our minds as the Spirit is first given in power to the Apostles. The images used reflect the description of God’s work in Genesis and make it clear through the development of the imagery of wind and flame that this is the new creation. Only the God who is ultimately in charge can bring this about. From now on, in the new dispensation, the Holy Spirit will be at the heart of faith and life – not the naming of the animals, or the weather, or any of the old things which occupied men’s minds, but the presence of God himself in the midst strengthening and directing the works of man.

Sometimes those who preach on this subject give the impression that the sending of the Spirit is just the icing on the cake: power on top of the cake of faith to make it all real and exciting. It is true that we do see the change in the Apostles and the gift of the Spirit is certainly exciting and empowering. Just read on in Acts and see where the first Christians go and what they get up to! But that is not all that needs to be said. The sending of the Spirit is fundamentally about being part of the new creation which God has brought about in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is an invitation to be part of what God is doing and in taking part to find our true selves and our destiny – our true selves forgiven and renewed, living in harmony with the purposes of God. That is what the synoptic gospels mean when they refer to the Kingdom of God.

Jesus takes fear very seriously. We know that he had his own. He also took peace very seriously. When he offers it to his disciples – and to us – he is offering a way of fitting in to the world and to God’s plan which is completely beyond the understanding of the world because that is of the old order. Jesus invites us into the new kingdom in which his peace, mediated by the Spirit, will enable us to find our proper place and deal with every onslaught. As we prayed in the collect, ‘to have a right judgement in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort’.

Father Andrew Burton SSC

23rd May 2021