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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Without Fear?

Life in Christ, discipleship following the Risen Lord, removes our fear both of taking the way of the cross ourselves and of telling by our words and our deeds “what we have seen and heard.”

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Confession of St. Peter
   texts:  Acts 4:(1-7) 8-13 (9-22); Matthew 16:13-19 (20-26)

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

Jesus and the angels always say “Don’t be afraid.”  It’s not that easy.

We fear witnessing to what God has done in our lives and in the world.  We’re afraid of offending others, of risking being shut out, of being embarrassed.  We keep it to ourselves.

We fear walking the path of the cross.  We’re afraid of what it would be like to live where we didn’t always win.  What it would cost to be sacrificial in our loving.  Our culture teaches us to fear being taken advantage of, so we do.

We fear being open with those who don’t believe as we do.  We’re afraid that if we don’t fight for what we believe and defend what we say, we might lose salvation.  The Church has taken Jesus’ command to Peter, repeated a couple chapters later to all his disciples, to “bind” and “loose,” as our imperative to declare who’s in and who’s out, because we’re afraid of being out.

We should look at Simon Peter.  Something changed in him between these two confessions we heard today, something about his fear.  If we could do the same, we might see the path of discipleship much more clearly, and maybe even find courage to walk it.

There’s a huge difference between the Peter of the Gospel and the later Peter, the one in Acts.

Before the cross and resurrection, Peter confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God.  But when Jesus described what that would mean – trial, suffering, death at the hands of the authorities – Peter rejected that path and rebuked Jesus.  That didn’t end well for Peter.  From Rock of the Church to Stumbling Block in record time.  Peter feared a path of loss and suffering, and on the night of Jesus’ betrayal, he fully turned from this path, vehemently denying his Lord.

But in Acts, after the resurrection, Peter and John stand before the very same council that condemned Jesus to death, not many weeks after those events.  Threatened and told to quit doing healings and preaching in Jesus’ name, they refuse.

In a short time, Peter has become willing to lose everything, even to die, to tell others of God’s love in Jesus, to preach the Good News.

Meeting his risen Lord transformed him.

After the resurrection, Peter met his Lord Jesus and was forgiven in a breakfast picnic and conversation on a beach in Galilee.  There he discovered three things.  First, he was forgiven and still loved forever by the one he had betrayed.  Second, he re-discovered that he loved his Lord very much.  Third, he was told if that was true, then he had lambs to feed and care for.

If you look at Peter’s life before and after, it’s what he does with his fear that changes.  His fear kept him from following, from being faithful, from being courageous.  Not anymore.  Now he knows his risen Lord and has been filled by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Know this, though: it’s not a question of our having fear or not having fear. 

Peter and John in Acts today had to have been a little terrified standing before the same council that sent Jesus to the cross.  They sound really brave, refusing to stop teaching about Jesus.  But imagine the looks they exchanged with each other as they walked out of that council chamber, relief combined with terror.  “Can you believe what we just did?”

Peter always had fear; with the Spirit’s help he just learned it didn’t have to control him.

This can be our path as well.

There will always be a part of us that is afraid.  But does fear drive our lives, control our actions, keep us from our path?

Not since we’ve met our risen Lord.  Not since we’ve eaten at his Table each week, and heard that we are loved and forgiven, loving him in return.  Not since we’ve heard our call to feed his lambs and care for his sheep, and have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

This relationship of faith in Christ that is ours is stronger than our fear, so it doesn’t control us.

When we aren’t controlled by our fear, we can witness like Peter.

“Tell what we’ve seen and heard.”  That’s what they defiantly said they’d continue to do. Believers walked about with confidence in the love of God that destroys death and gives the power to live in the Spirit, and told about Jesus, his death and resurrection.  Thousands of people came to believe.

That could be us.  If our fear doesn’t control us we can tell what we’ve seen and heard, witness by our lives and our words about the love of the Triune God we have known, the forgiveness we have experienced, the life of the Spirit that fills us and changes us.  When our faith in Christ is stronger than our fear, we live lives that witness to what God is doing to save the world.

When we aren’t controlled by our fear, we can risk like Peter.

When Peter rejected Jesus’ path in today’s Gospel, he was rejecting it for himself.  You don’t follow a Messiah with the understanding that might lead to death.

Yet after the resurrection, Peter willingly took the path of Christ, the path of the cross.  The disciples were willing to risk all for the sake of sharing God’s love in Christ, life and limb, friends and family.  They must have been afraid.  But in faith they walked the path.

That could be us.  The path of the cross means we will be changed by God, to be different.  That’s frightening; the idea that the Spirit might transform us is a huge unknown.  But when our faith in Christ is stronger than our fear, we can trust the love of the Triune God to change us into something better, something like our Lord.

The path of the cross can mean we will be taken advantage of by others, even by those closest to us.  If we seek not to win but to love, not to control but to serve, we risk a lot.  But when our faith in Christ is stronger than our fear, we learn that this path of self-giving and sacrifice is empowering, life-giving.  Instead of having empty victories over people we didn’t need to defeat, we find the joy of a shared life of love and grace.

When we aren’t controlled by our fear, we can even be open to new things from the Spirit, like Peter.

Even after the resurrection, Peter sometimes let fear control him.  At first he wasn’t ready for Paul’s spreading of the Gospel to the Gentiles.  If he was supposed to “bind” and “loose,” he wasn’t ready to loose the requirements of circumcision and kosher foods.  Eventually his Lord helped him cope with those fears, too, and he became someone who saw God’s grace in Christ for all people, not just his own.

That could be us.  We remember that the heart of Christ, shown in Matthew 18, the very chapter when these commands are given to all the disciples, is that divine forgiveness and grace is limitless and astonishing.  Christ Jesus shows that the true keys to the kingdom are God’s breathtaking unwillingness to lose anyone, and the Church’s faithful living of such forgiving grace in the world.  When our faith in such love from God is stronger than our fear, we become people who live that love and forgiveness and insistent welcome in the world.

We’ll never fully be without fear, and that’s OK.  We belong to the Risen Christ who loves the world.

So we step forward anyway, in our fear and in our faith, remembering whose we are and what he has called us to be and do.

We step forward together as Christ’s people in the world, so that when any one of us is afraid, the others can help strengthen his knees or hold her hand.  We step forward with the grace and strength of the Holy Spirit in us, so that God’s love will calm our hearts and give us the courage to witness with our lives to the eternal love of God for this world and for all people.

We might be afraid at times, but we are in the loving hands of the Triune God, and nothing can take that from us.  So let’s step forward together and see what God will do.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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