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Taking Heart from Jesus (sermon)

August 5, 2011

Hebrews 2: 10-15     Matthew 14: 22-33

When was the last time you were really frightened? …

There’s something terrifying about being in a small boat in a really big sea.

Add to that the experience of seeing a ghost… ok so many of us may not believe in ghosts. Many of us think that like unicorns we know what the word means, but none actually exist. I know others, even today, who do believe in ghosts.

I guess it doesn’t matter whether we believe in ghosts or not. If you’re out in big seas in a small boat and you see someone walking out there, you grasp onto whatever category you have… So, to re-enter the world of the story. The disciples are terrified by a ghost.

Ghosts represent the dead, the unhappy dead. The job of ghosts is to haunt. They are not at peace. They are disturbed, so they disturb others, they bring their deathly status, into our world… This week I watched the magnificent movie The Tree of Life and the father in that story reminded me of a ghost… he’s a disturbed person, for whom life is a struggle to survive, and he in turn disturbs his children and his family, in his disturbed way he fails to note the glory and grace of God in every detail of life.

To return again to our story. The one they thought was a ghost turns out to be the opposite of a ghost. Jesus says to them: Take heart! It is I! Don’t be afraid!

Today’s reading is really a lesson in fear and fearlessness. Peter even has a go at getting out of the boat and facing his fears.

Some people tell me they’re not afraid of death… I wonder how they would be in a small boat in a storm, with a ghost.

There’s been some great discussion this week on a blog I read (Richard Beck’s Experimental Theology) about today’s text from the letter to the Hebrews:

Since the children (human beings) have flesh and blood, he too (Jesus) shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

So Jesus is the point of history where God suffers death to break the spell that death casts over our living… (even if we think we’re bigger than it). In Jesus God is not just beyond death – deathless – but more than death by virtue of the love that suffers death. God is more than death in the midst of death. That’s the gospel! If God simply remained outside it all, without suffering death among us (at our hands) and being raised for us (giving Godself to us again), then death would continue to hold us in its spell

What I find really interesting in this verse is that the problem that Jesus comes to deal to, the sin (if you like) that holds humanity in its sway, the tool used by the devil and by the forces of evil in the world, is ‘the fear of death’.

So when people say they are not afraid of death, it sounds to me like they are claiming to be free from the power of sin…

Maybe they know themselves better than I know them, maybe they are to a degree, but in my experience and in the Christian experience down the ages, death may have lost it’s sting with the resurrection of Jesus, it’s demise may be clear, it may be on its way out… but we still live with it. The work of the risen Christ in us is incomplete… and ongoing. The Spirit of Christ still has quite a bit of work to do.

A story was told about the Japanese Tsunami:

 “In a coastal town that got completely demolished (not a building left standing)”, …[a] “young, 24-year-old town hall employee headed to the low-lying areas when the tsunami alert came in, and spent the last hour of his life sounding the alarm and making sure as many people as possible fled to higher ground. He never made it himself.

I don’t know whether that guy would say he was not afraid of death, but I think he demonstrated that whatever fear of death was in him, it did not have control over him.

Whatever the opposite of sin is, I think it’s that. Not foolhardy fearlessness, but rather self-sacrificing love that defies the fear of death.

So is it only in crises (in a storm in a small boat with a ghost nearby) that we are afraid of death? Is it only when we are consciously afraid of physically dying, that we are afraid of death. The writer to the Hebrews doesn’t think so. He claims that human beings are ‘all their lives held in slavery by their fear of death.’

In other words there’s a kind of default setting in our lives established by fear of death, which is like a slavery even where we are not conscious of being afraid of death.

Why do I care about what I wear when I go for the evening? Why do I ask my daughters if my haircut is ok when I get it cut? I think it’s because at some level I am conscious of the way I judge people on appearances, as I walk down the street I am constantly making assessments, putting people into certain boxes. He’s rich, she’s arty, he’s a bogan. At some level I want to be accepted by people who matter to me. I want a place of belonging and I am afraid of social ostracism. I may not physically die, but my life is in danger, my social life.

Why am I tempted to name drop? Am I worried that I will be forgotten, unnoticed? Why do I feel uncomfortable with silence in conversation with some people? How security conscious do I really need to be? How financially secure do I need to be? Would it be unthinkable to challenge the demands of the shareholders or the voters? Why?

Why am I tempted to flatter people and not tell them what I really think, or what might be constructive even if it’s difficult to hear?

Tony Campolo asks a very good question, “Even if there were no heaven and there were no hell, would you still follow Jesus?”

In other words… is the Jesus you follow one who is setting you free from the sting and fear of death. Or is he effectively a part of the continuing fear of death. Is your religion just another form of social security, such that even the resurrection of Jesus becomes an expression of death avoidance, and fear – it is limited to the notion of heaven and hell

Following Jesus is what we are called to, both as individuals, and as a community. So there’s another question we need to ask as Coastal Unity Parish.

Even if there were no heaven for Coastal Unity Parish, if it feels like being in a small boat in a storm and there is no guarantee of survival, even if our church was in danger of dying in the hell-fires of being no longer viable, would we still decide to follow Jesus?

I believe that is the challenge we need to live with.

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