Don’t Be Afraid
I’m not usually a big fan of science fiction but I have heard good things about the 2016 movie “Arrival” staring Amy Adams, so when the opportunity arose to watch it over the Christmas holidays I took it. Much of the movie centers around the arrival of twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft that suddenly appear at different locations around the globe. Not surprisingly, the human response to the twelve egg shaped ships carrying the seven limbed aliens is shock, awe and a whole lot of fear.
This week as I read once again the story in which Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain and is transfigured before them, his face shining like the sun and his clothes becoming dazzling white, I found myself thinking how much this story reads like science fiction. It really is the stuff of Hollywood. None of us has ever had this kind of experience in our own lives and if you have perhaps, you should be talking to a professional. So how are we to relate to it?
In the past when I’ve looked at this story it’s been easy for me to see the way it points to the significance of Jesus in relationship to the prophets of the past, namely Moses and Elijah who appear on the mountain with him. The part where the bright cloud overshadows them and when it disappears only Jesus is left standing signifies that the disciples are now to follow him alone. And who among us can’t relate to the part where Peter wants to build a tent and stay on the mountain. Who doesn’t want to live on the mountain instead of in the valley where real life takes place?
But this year, it’s the fear in the story that speaks loudest to me. It may be true that none of us have seen the arrival of aliens, or witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus from human rabbi to heavenly being right before our eyes, but most of us, if not all of us have experienced what the disciples experience in this story, the kind of fear that brings us to our knees and stops in our tracks.
When Jesus says to Peter, James and John who have collapsed from their fear “get up, and don’t be afraid”, he uses the same word used in other places in scripture to speak of resurrection. This fear the disciples are feeling isn’t just any fear, it’s the fear that comes in the moment we know our lives are about to change_ forever. Jesus isn’t just telling them to get up off the ground; he’s inviting them to be raised up into new life. He’s inviting them to allow their own lives to be transfigured by this encounter with the holy. He’s inviting them to shine with the glory that is also within them.
Some scholars say this transfiguration story, which we tell in the church every year the on the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, just days before we begin that same journey in the season of Lent, is actually a misplaced resurrection story. Thought of in this way, it’s possible that what frightens the disciples and brings them to their knees is an awareness that if they too are meant to shine like Jesus, they also might just have to journey through the valley of the shadow of death. They might have to journey to the cross.
Sometimes I think that reading the bible is like reading email. Words arrive in our inbox but we’re not always sure about the sentiment behind them. It’s easy to misinterpret the tone of the writer. So when we hear Jesus say in this passage “Get up and don’t be afraid” it’s hard to know if he’s telling his followers to brace themselves because it’s going to take courage to go where he’s leading or if he’s saying don’t worry there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Not long after I graduated from university, I went to a Christian women’s conference with a group of my university friends. It was the kind of Christian gathering that culminated in an invitation to give your life to Jesus. It’s not the kind of gathering I would go to now, but in those early days when I was drawn to exploring my faith, I was open to attending anything and everything that I thought would inspire me. After the invitation was extended to commit our lives to Christ, one of my friends asked me if I would go with her to one of the prayer stations that were available for people to respond. When we arrived at the place indicated for prayer support, my friend sat down beside the person there to welcome her and she burst into tears. She was both overwhelmed by the holiness of what she had been experiencing at the conference and she was terrified of what it was asking of her. She had just been married earlier that year to a wonderful man and as she spoke with the woman who offered to pray with her, she confessed that although she wanted to commit more deeply to her life of faith, her greatest fears was that if she gave her life to Jesus, he would ask her to leave her husband.
I’ve never forgotten that experience because it was such a powerful illustration of the confusion we often have over what it means to follow Jesus and the way our interpretation of the cross can add to that confusion.
If we think that God made Jesus suffer on the cross in order to save us all, then the logical conclusion is that the way of the cross leads to suffering and the one that causes the suffering is God. Have a mountaintop experience, follow Jesus and God will make you suffer, test your fidelity by asking you to give up that which is nearest and dearest to you whether that be your health, your wealth or your husband. That’s what my friend and many others have thought. It’s how I have thought myself from time to time. A challenge arises and we automatically assume God is testing us, making us suffer. Although it may be true that challenges test our faith, why do we always assume its God who gives us the challenges. Who wants to worship a God who purposely puts obstacles in our way?
What kind of a God would ask a newlywed to leave her wonderful husband in order to be more faithful to Jesus? Note that I said her “wonderful” husband not her abusive· or unfaithful husband. What kind of a God would give a child cancer or cause an accident to take the life of a loved one?
I once heard a priest ask the question “what loving parent, when their child is learning how to walk, pushes them over so they can learn how to get up?”
The reality is it wasn’t God that caused Jesus to suffer on the cross; it was humanity and our fear of anyone or anything that challenges the status quo. Following Jesus down the mountain and into the valley of the shadow of death isn’t a journey we take in order to be refined in the fire of suffering because suffering is good for us. It’s a journey we are invited to take, so that life might be more complete and more abundant for us and for others and sometimes suffering takes place along that way. Sometimes suffering is the thing that actually sets us on the path to a better life. So although it can be a scary thing to be caught up in a life-changing experience like Peter, James and John, there really is nothing to be afraid of because God is always on
Wednesday of this week is the beginning of the season of Lent. During the 40 days and 6 Sundays Lent incorporates, many of us will choose to give up something to help us stay focused on our Lenten journey, our journey to the cross. Some of us will give up eating certain foods in order to keep us mindful of Jesus and the seriousness of this journey. Some of us will do things that help us to be in solidarity with his suffering and the suffering of others. Lent traditionally has been a penitential or confessional season when we allow ourselves to become more aware of the brokenness of the world. But the season of Lent is never about suffering for the sake of suffering itself or because we think that by making ourselves suffer, we will somehow become holier. It’s not a time for feeling guilty or shameful about our behavior and yet over the years that’s how many people have.
So in recent years some people have started taking something on for the season of Lent instead of giving something up. Some people take on a more rigorous prayer practice, or they are intentional about getting at the root cause of an injustice or supporting a justice oriented organization.
Somehow, I think this reflects more accurately the notion that the journey towards Easter is something we willingly take on because we know it will lead us to the fullness of life and into a deeper trust that there really is nothing to be afraid of with Christ by our side and within our hearts.
Throughout the season of epiphany, we have been taking on a variety of every day spiritual practices: choosing a star gift word to guide and inspire us; lighting candles and saying a daily prayer; making a home altar; engaging in random acts of kindness; walking the labyrinth… Today’s practice is to write a note of encouragement to someone who needs to hear it. I like the way practice mirrors what we see Jesus doing in today’s scripture reading, encouraging the disciples to not be afraid, to live a life that leads to wholeness and reconciliation for themselves and for others even if that involves suffering. Walking with him, listening to him, allowing the same light that is in him to shine within us, so that our world and we might be led towards greater understanding, greater compassion, and greater peace with justice and freedom.
In the movie “Arrival” the first reaction people have to the appearance of the twelve alien spaceships is shock, awe and fear. In each location, the egg shaped ships land around the world, the army is sent out in a show of force. Weapons are drawn, ready to fire at the first sign of aggression. It turns out; the aliens have actually come in peace to deliver a message to help humanity in the future. To help us live in greater harmony. But the sentiment behind their communication is difficult to determine and the fear in which people · hold them make it difficult to listen. In the end, it turns out the only way to decipher their code and discover their peaceful message, is to
Our first reaction to the awesome nature of God and the awesome nature of our own selves is understandably to be afraid. But that fear has a way of immobilizing us at best and leading us to act destructively at worst. It keeps us from the goodness of life as it was intended. To overcome it, we need to listen to the voice of love, to allow our lives to be directed and guided by its bidding. Get up and don’t be afraid.
Matthew 17: 1-9 The Transfiguration
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter, James, and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.
Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus, 11Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone:
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, 11Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”