“Do Not Be Afraid”

Autun Cathedralby Art History Images (Holly Hayes) licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

Dear Working Preacher,

“Do not be afraid.”

It’s easy to overlook the presence of these four words near the tail end of Jesus’ transfiguration. After all, there’s so much else going on — the dazzling white clothes, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, the thunderous voice from heaven, the disciples fainting to the ground. But while easily overlooked, I think these four words are among the most important words not just in this passage, but in the whole of Scripture.

Think about it. These words — “do not be afraid” — are the hallmark of the Gospel, as throughout Old and New Testaments they signal the coming rescue of God and consequent courage that promise creates. They are the words, for instance, with which the angel Gabriel greets Mary in the quiet of her home and with which the heavenly host addresses the shepherds as they keep watch by night. And, perhaps more importantly in relation to this passage, they are the words the angel of the Lord uses at the end of this story when he encourages the women who came seeking Jesus in the tomb.

Do not be afraid. Powerful words. Even more so, when you consider that they follow Jesus’ instructions to “get up.” Except it’s not just “get up,” it’s “be raised,” as this is the same word used, again by the angel, to describe Jesus’ resurrection. So hear the latter part of the story again: the voice from heaven affirms Jesus’ identity as the beloved Son and commands Peter and company to listen to him — that is, hear his words, follow his commands, be obedient to his summons. In response, they fall to the ground in terror. And then Jesus reaches out and commands them, literally, to be raised and no longer fear.

No wonder this scene has been called by some a “displaced resurrection story” — the dazzling white, the command to be raised, the injunction to fear not. It parallels the resurrection scene except in this scene it is not Jesus’ resurrection but that of the disciples, as they are pulled from their fear and failure to new life and courage.

And what’s interesting to me is that Jesus doesn’t, at least at this moment, rebuke them for their failure, or call them to repentance, or grant them forgiveness. Rather, he calls them to be raised and to shed their fear, sending them forth into life restored and renewed.

Might we take a lesson from this? Might we, that is, literally “listen to him” and go and do likewise? So much of the Christian story, Working Preacher, has been constructed in almost entirely negative terms, in terms, that is, of what we are not. Human nature is not good, but rather wicked and depraved. Sin, understood as all those things we do wrong, is evidence of our inadequacy. And grace, from this point of view, becomes only the antidote to sin, that which makes up for our lack, the divine “white out” that erases the marks against us on St. Peter’s ledger.

But as I read this story, I’m struck that there is no mention of sin, depravity, or failure — no description or condemnation of any kind of lack. Rather, Jesus speaks the word of resurrection that casts out fear, creates unexpected possibilities, and furnishes new life. Jesus, that is, speaks of what is and of what may be in the power of the Spirit.

Now, I should be clear lest the most orthodox among us get nervous. I’m not saying that sin and failure are not part of our story, part and parcel of what it is to be human. Nor am I suggesting that forgiveness of sin is not near the center of our theology and, indeed, existence. But I sometimes wonder if we overplay this hand, hearing it not simply as one important part of the Christian story but interpreting it as the only part of the story and thereby missing the grace and wonder that is present in the promise of courage and compassion that is so palpably present here.

So what if this week, Working Preacher, rather than work so hard to find elements in the text that point to our sin that we may feel appropriately bad and then announce to us the predictable — if absent in this passage — word of forgiveness that we may feel suitably relieved, we instead tell another tale, one that emerges from a close reading of this passage rather than a dutiful recitation of our theology. That is, what if we describe the reality that God calls us to discipleship — “listen to him” — and that sometimes when we sense God’s presence and call we fall into fear, and when this happens God doesn’t scold or rebuke or chastise, but instead calls us to get up, to be raised, and to be bound by fear no longer.

Sometimes, indeed, the word of the text and sermon is a word of repentance, the acknowledgment of sin, and the promise of forgiveness — and certainly we will have our share of that in the weeks of Lent to come. But sometimes — and I think this is one of them — the text is the victory cry of resurrection, the call to courage, and the promise of new abundant life.

You’ll know best how to announce this to your people, Working Preacher. Have confidence that your sermon is just what we need to hear this week and that through your words God will do wonderful things.

And if, by chance, you feel at times nervous or hesitant, wondering if your theology is correct enough, your preaching bold enough, or your faith great enough, remember Jesus’ word to his disciples then and now: Do not be afraid! For God’s Word is, indeed, living and active, able to raise the dead to life and more than capable of equipping us with courage and compassion sufficient to the challenges and opportunities of the day. Thank you for your part in sharing that mighty Word.

Yours in Christ,