Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Only Thing in the Gospel to Fear

Reflection on a sermon by Father Daron Vroon at St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, Feb. 9, 2014;  the first few daily meditations by Bo  Don Cox published for February 2014 in Forward Day By Day, and chapter 13 in Theology for a Troubled Believer by Diogenes Allen (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press 2010).

Fear of punishment, fear of not being worthy, fear of hell because I didn't even know who Jesus was:  This was my introduction to the Gospel in my seventh grade year when a smug classmate handed me a comic book tract.  Some better literature this week reminds me that the Gospel saves us from fear, not just the fear of God's wrath, but of fear itself.

Our associate rector Father Daron Vroon stated it succinctly in a sermon this past week.  The gospel reading was Matthew 5:13-20, and Fr. Vroon pointed out how impossible it would be to "exceed" the righteousness of scribes and Pharisees, yet Jesus demands it.  How?  Fr. Vroon concluded that "faith v. works" is a false dichotomy, that faith motivates the works.  We should not ask fearfully, "Am I saved?"  or, "Do I know the secret password to get into God's club?"  We should be asking, "Am I living as if the Gospels are true?"

Philosopher Diogenes Allen expounds on what "living as if the Gospels are true" means in his chapter "The Resurrection of Jesus and Eternal Life." Saying "yes I believe that Jesus was resurrected" is the easy part, writes Allen (136).  In a passage parallel to the story in Genesis of God's breathing spirit into clay, Jesus breathes on his disciples to give them a permanent gift of the Spirit (John 20:19-23), "thereby creating a new kind of human being" (140). Jesus brings them "Peace," Allen points out, at a time when the apostles are most fearful, holed up in a locked room (141).  Quoting a passage from unpublished notebooks of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Allen gives us a remarkable image for the difference faith makes in a person's life:
So this can come about only if you no longer rest your weight on the earth but suspend yourself from heaven.  Then everything will be different and it will be "no wonder" if you can do things that you cannot do now.  (A man who is suspended looks the same as one who is standing, but the interplay of forces within him is nevertheless quite different, so that he can act quite differently than a standing man).  (Wittgenstein, in Allen 145).

I picture here a gymnast doing the "iron cross," or a superhero suspended in air.  I guess, like a superhero, a person freed from fear of shame, failure, and death, is not afraid to try anything.

Writer and ex-convict Bo Don Cox (not to be confused with singer Bo Cox) emphasizes many ways that fear distorts our lives.  "Being afraid," he writes, "oftentimes indicates a lack of faith" (Feb. 11).
  • We are afraid to let go of our addictions.  When he was an addict, he feared that change would be too hard, until a wise fellow sufferer said, "Son, if it were easy everyone would do it" (meditation for Feb. 6, John 6:60).
  • We are afraid that our efforts won't succeed.  Citing Hebrews 12:11 ("discipline always seems painful..."), Cox coaches us to work through the discomfort: "If we go ahead and take the action, our feelings will change."  He recommends faith: "If we take action, the results will follow" (Feb. 7)
  • We are afraid to own up to what we've done wrong.  We say "I'm sorry" to avoid consequences, but live with regret.  But a volunteer where Cox was incarcerated told him, "you can't put manure back in a horse."  The humor of it helped, and reinforced the story in Hebrews 12:17 ("He found no chance to repent, even though he sought the blessing with tears") (Feb. 8).
  • We are afraid not to be in on the gossip and backbiting where we live. "I'm learning to smile and step away," Cox writes. "Living with myself is preferable to fitting in."  (Isaiah 58:9b, Feb9)
  • We are afraid to share.  "And sharing is about so much more than objects or possessions" (Genesis 26:19-21, Feb. 11)
  • Our instinct to protect self can become "promotion of self."  Cox responds to the admonition in Romans 12:3, "not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think." Cox tells us how, hard as it may be to see ourselves as "right - sized," we will find "it fits like nothing else."
Today's meditation, starting me on this theme, is Cox's response to John 8:32, "the truth will make you free."  He tells of a would-be suicide prevented from pulling the trigger by his tail-wagging, face-licking little dog.  Later, in counseling, the man says to Cox, "I've never told anyone this," and "I know I'm a grown man and so I shouldn't say this..."  but stalls.  Finally, he confesses, "I'm so afraid."  Cox tells us, "Tears flowed, and, with each tear, he began to look more and more hopeful."

That classmate of mine offered fear first, then gospel as a magic formula to allay it.  What Jesus offers is freedom from all fear.

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