Fear and trust

Frances writes on this coming Sunday’s readings :-

Many of us spend at least part of our lives under duress and in fear and our readings today are all about ways in which different people in the past dealt with that fear under divine guidance. Elijah (1 Kings 19:9, 11-13) should by rights have been completely annihilated by the awesome power of nature, ‘red in tooth and claw’ which assailed him and yet, obedient to God’s command he stood at the mouth of the cave apparently unharmed whilst a tornado; an earthquake and a fire tore the mountain apart. We should see this description as an allegory, for Elijah was running away from the revenge of Ahab and Jezebel who sought his life after his defeat and execution of the prophets of Baal. Elijah, alone, faithful servant of Yahweh learnt that the God of Israel was not in fact to be met and explored in great powers and might; though obviously he was the controller of his creation; but rather in quiet reflection, in trust, in perseverance and devotion, and this attitude as we see in our reading conquered his fear. His experience assured him that God was with him and despite appearance and expectations, he was not overwhelmed. Through adversity he learned to trust God.

In our gospel (Matthew 14:22-33) we are presented with a great contrast; that between the quiet of Jesus who dismisses the crowd after feeding the 5,000 and goes up into the hills to pray alone, having sent the disciples over the Sea of Galilee in a boat. Elijah-like, he met God in the small and the still. The contrast lies with the attitude of the disciples. When a storm blows up and the disciples see Jesus walking towards them on the waters they are terrified; seemingly nothing that Jesus has done previously or said to them matters. Yet, as we have seen, many of his words and actions prepare them for his own passion and his continual presence with us in the eucharist, but it is all apparently in vain. As if to press the message home we then have cocky Peter’s bit of bravado which immediately falls flat, in his case with his suddenly doubting what he knew was happening; his walking with Christ on the water. His loss of faith results in his sinking. Jesus saves him and immediately, on climbing into the boat, the storm subsides.  By way of contrast with all this chaotic natural activity Jesus is completely calm, in control of events, and we have to learn to trust him absolutely along with the disciples. This putting of our whole trust and the committing of our entire being to God is what the divinity we are being schooled in is all about, the supreme quiet confidence of the master.

In our second reading (Romans 9:1-5) we are given Paul’s object lesson into this process in which we travel beyond the despairing Paul of Romans 7 and his recognition of the power of God to save in chapter 8. Paul has arrived at that absolute trust in God which enables him to do things beyond the ordinarily human. It is a trust and confidence so great that he can now entirely lose himself and his own needs and is able to offer up – not his life – which we might think the most a man could do, but, and much more important to Paul, God’s promise of eternal life with him for ever in exchange for the salvation his own race, the Jews. He goes on to recite the abundance of blessings given the Jews, his people, and speaks of his immense sorrow that they have rejected Jesus. “My sorrow is so great, my mental anguish so endless, I would willingly be cut off from Christ if it could help my brothers of Israel, my own flesh and blood.” Here at last we see someone finally free from fear and selfish needs; someone who has truly become Christ-like; an image of Christ himself. Just as Jesus willingly surrendered his divinity and became human for us and knowingly suffered for the redemption of fallen humanity, so Paul could contemplate the throwing off of promised divinity in the cause of the salvation of the race he loved so much. Surely here, at last fear has been conquered and trust in God reigns supreme. No one should doubt Paul’s utter devotion to Jesus, the God of his Damascus road experience, to whom he devoted his entire life thereafter. When we contemplate this, the enormity of Paul’s offer to God, an atonement made in his eternal being in exchange for the salvation of the Jews truly strikes home. This is what trust in the God of Jesus Christ is about and we can appreciate that Paul has lost all fear in that act of irrevocable commitment.

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