Freedom from Fear

Reading: Matthew 14.22-33

Are you afraid of anything? Well… it’s no use pretending! It has been revealed that there are some 60 people in Australia who have trained with extremist organisations. The terrorist who  led the attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta last October has warned us from his prison cell that we will face an attack on home soil if we continue supporting the US. September 11, Bali, now London… Where will it end?

The possibility of fear is part of how we are made. Fear can be quite natural and good. If a hard object is heading toward us, get out of the way! Fear comes into our realistic assessment of whether we can climb that cliff, turn a corner in the face of an oncoming car… Some people seem to have none of this natural and good fear. They end up doing some quite stupid things and causing unnecessary danger and hurt to themselves and others.

Fear can also be paralysing – cutting off our ability to think, assess and plan, immobilising us from action, removing from us even the judgement that stirs us into asking for help. Have you ever been afraid like that? The quality that was meant to be healthy and protective has just paralysed us!

Many times in the Bible people were told, “Fear not!” That is strong reassurance for people paralysed by fear! The Bible also talks about healthy fear – “the fear of the Lord”, the “fear of parents”… Neither of these phrases was meant to convey terror, but rather a healthy reverence and respect.

Walking on Water

Peter had been a fisherman. He knew Lake Galilee well. He had faced all sorts of weather in the course of his fishing business. In his boat out on the lake he knew what he was doing.

In Matthew 8.23-27, we read of a time – not too long ago really – when that self-assurance had been shaken. Jesus had had a very demanding day and they set out to cross the lake. They were hit by a fierce storm – so bad that “the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping.” They woke Jesus with the urgent plea, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!Were they simply wanting another set of hands to bail out the water, or was there an instinctive hope for more? Jesus answered them, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” The danger was real enough, as the fishermen-disciples well knew. Their realism led them into practical action. But having made their plea to Jesus for help, there was no further need for fear. And Jesus “rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.” In their amazement they said, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”

Today’s reading is from chapter 14. Again it has been a busy day at the end of which five thousand men – plus women and children – needed to be fed. Jesus sent the disciples off in the boat to cross the lake, while he saw the crowds off. Then he did what he had come to do in the first place before the crowds had tracked him down – “he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.”

Out on the lake the boat was being tossed about by the waves because of a strong wind. There is no indication that there was any danger this time. Mark records that “his disciples [were] straining at the oars, because the wind was against them” (6.48) – they were making slow progress and probably discovering some muscles some of them hadn’t used for a while!

Between three and six in the morning, they saw something out there on the water. What is it? It’s coming towards us! A whitish apparition! Oh no! It must be a ghost! And they screamed out in fear!

Then the voice of reassurance, “Courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid!” So it is Jesus – walking to us on the water!

Peter, master of the lake, speaks out, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” Did Peter remember the calming of the storm? Did he recall the words and actions of the one who was more truly master of the winds and the waves? Was it curiosity that fired him to want to do what Jesus was doing? Was it rising faith that knew that he couldn’t do it unless Jesus commanded it?

“Come!” So Peter got out of the boat and started doing it – he actually started walking on the water towards Jesus! He could do it – as long as the focus of his gaze was on Jesus. But when he started thinking about what he was doing, “But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out…”

“Lord, save me!” Surely the seasoned fisherman knew how to swim! And yet, because he was walking on water at the command of Jesus, he knew he needed Jesus’ help as he sank. It was not just help with a difficult situation that he had struggled with before. This time he had been doing something completely beyond him and he knew he was “right out of his depth”!

Jesus reaches out and grabs hold of him – he was not far from the boat – “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” They got into the boat – did Peter walk back to the boat hand-in-hand with Jesus? – and the wind died down. The disciples in the boat, who had been watching all this, worshipped Jesus and exclaimed, “Truly you are the Son of God!”

Fear and Faith

When you board a plane, you settle yourself down, start browsing the in-flight magazine, perhaps put your headphones on and select a music channel… Then your quiet reflection is broken by a voice over the public address system drawing your attention to all the safety procedures – how to use the oxygen mask, where the emergency exits are, how to get out safely before the plane sinks in the ocean… – all confidence-building stuff, designed, I suspect, so that the cabin staff will have the presence of mind to act appropriately in the unlikely event of major trouble!

First-time travellers pay careful attention and even read up the little card in the pocket in front of them. Seasoned travellers are inclined to keep reading their book or to look out the window or to keep on with their conversation.

There’s one thing about flying. Once you are on board you have committed yourself – committed yourself to this machine and to the pilot and his crew. The outcome of the journey doesn’t depend on whether you are cool and relaxed or all screwed up with tension and fear. However you are feeling, you have committed yourself to this machine and to the pilot and his crew! Your state of mind will affect your level of enjoyment, but not the outcome of the journey!

But it is possible a person could be so terrified at the thought of travelling in that aluminium tube as to pull out of the trip in the gate lounge.

Peter was learning an important principle in trusting his Lord – a principle that has a great deal to do with fear and faith. Notice the three important things that Jesus said. “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid!” (v.27), “Come!” (v.29) and “You of little faith you have, why did you doubt?” (v.31).

“This is a recorded message from your pilot. Together with the rest of my crew, I parachuted from this plane approximately five minutes ago. The plane is on automatic pilot. Have a nice trip!” That’s a quote from a joke, but it would be no joke if it really happened!

Someone coined the clever saying, “An atheist is a person with no invisible means of support.” Well, I can’t see the pilot any more than he can, but I’m prepared to believe he’s there. So I’m on the flight! And I have all the evidence that all the “invisible means of support” are there and functioning!

Jesus says to us, “I am here! Don’t be afraid!” There are all sorts of situations of which we quite rightly take stock. In their earlier experience in the storm, it was sensible to do what they could to bail out the water. But when you are taking stock of any situation, remember that Jesus is here! There may be need for all sorts of action – but not for fear!

Jesus says to us, “Come!” That means going from where we are to where he is! It means accepting his plan for us and living by it! There’s no evidence that Peter ever literally “walked on water” again. But he had to face lots of difficult challenges which he could only face because he knew that Jesus had said, “Come!”

Jesus calls us to have faith in him. Through this experience they came to worship him and to say, “Truly you are the Son of God!” Isn’t that faith? Yes, that intellectual conviction about the real identity of Jesus is an important component of faith. But faith is depending our whole life on this Jesus who is the Son of God. It is trusting that he is with us – and going with him in obedient trust.

Faith is a way of life. As John Henry Sammis, the hymn writer, put it,

“Trust and obey, for there’s no other way

to be happy in Jesus

But to trust and obey.” (AHB531).


© Peter J. Blackburn, Halifax & Ingham Uniting Churches, 7 August 2005
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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