Sermon for the 6th Sunday of Easter: “Fear” – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 14 May 2023 by The Reverend Robert Green. (Acts Ch 17: v 22 – 31; John Ch 14: v 15 -21)
When the railways were first built in the 19th century, not everyone greeted them with enthusiasm. There was quite an element of fear surrounding this countrywide development; the dangerous speeds of these explosive locomotives, the cutting open of land, and the spilling out of cities into the countryside. All this and more engendered an almost hysterical fear about how the world was changing.
It took Isambard Kingdom Brunel 5 years, 4000 men and a ton of gunpowder and candles a week to cut the Box Tunnel through nearly 2 miles of hard stone to reach Bath. When it first opened people were too scared to travel through it, fearing they would be crushed by the air pressure below ground. Now 160 years later, the tunnel is in constant use, and is a vital link in the transport network. Whether by design or coincidence, during Eastertide, which happens to be around Brunel’s birthday, the morning sun shines right through the tunnel from end to end, a visible sign that the railways would ultimately bring light not destruction.
Now turning to our Gospel passage from John. In the first part of the Gospel Jesus’s actions demonstrated through the seven Signs are followed by explanations and interpretations. In the second part of the Gospel (Ch 13 following) the narrative order is reversed, and explanation precedes action, that is the Trial, Death, and Resurrection, and this morning we have an early part of the Farewell Discourse given around the Last Supper. Jesus is preparing his Disciples so that they will be able to live out his message when he is no longer physically with them. He is trying to lessen the shock of the events that he knows are coming next.
In the Reading from Acts we find Paul in Athens, and he listens carefully to the needs and situations of his audience, and while finding points of identification with their culture, there is confrontation in terms of the futility of their religion. If you stand on Mars Hill, where the highest court of the city used to meet, there is a wonderful view of the Acropolis and the Parthenon and the other temples representing the pinnacle of their theology and culture. Against that backdrop, Paul tells them that it is all a waste of time: the Creator doesn’t live in houses like that. Nor does he need the whole paraphernalia of the sacrificial system. Nor does he ultimately make any distinction between one race of humans and another. Paul may have found an open window in the culture, but what needs to blow through it, is a hurricane turning it upside down. No wonder that for some this was too much for them to contemplate. The fear of what change might be involved prevented them from responding to Paul’s message.
Returning to the Gospel passage, Jesus spells out quite clearly that he will be leaving them, but that through the Ascension and Pentecost, He will be with them always, and so addressing the palpable fear felt by the Disciples at the Last Supper. They know that something cataclysmic is about to happen, but they don’t know how or when the terror will strike. They have already sensed growing hostility towards them in the city, and they are afraid they don’t have the tools to cope with the demands thrust upon them. Jesus simply reminds them that if they keep his commandments, they will be well equipped. Adopting his model of love breaks the bounds of expectation, and Jesus’s physical presence is not necessary for a relationship to grow. As a community, if they show the presence of the love of God at work In their lives, enabled by God’s Spirit blowing through their community, this will bring comfort, aid, and energy to their lives.
Brunel’s sceptical public viewed his majestic tunnel as something threatening, one of hell’s darker chambers that would be both a portent and an instrument of painful and seismic change. Similarly, Jesus’ disciples were gripped with overwhelming fears- of imminent loss, separation, confusion and hostility around them. Sadly, it is no different today as fear continues to be a great driver in our world, affecting individuals and communities. Jesus’ words addressed to his disciples are designed to shine a light of love right through that tunnel of anxiety. I remember when we became aware of the reality of the pandemic in the Spring of 2020, that it was like the times of plague in previous centuries in that we did not know exactly what it was, and many people were dying, albeit with other health issues, but some seemed perfectly fit, especially in the medical profession. Suddenly human life could be precarious, and there was resultant fear of what the future might hold. For us as Christians, our faith reminded us that even in these dark places, God does not abandon us, and it is a timely reminder as it is all too easy to be motivated or imprisoned by fear. Autocracies are founded on fear, and we are seeing this working out all too clearly by the war in Ukraine. It was thought that the fear of Russia would cause surrender and capitulation, and because it hasn’t, the agenda has had to be changed to justify the invasion. Fear fuels our media, fractures our society, but ‘perfect love casts out fear’. Listening, loving, allowing the Spirit to mould and shape our lives means we can overcome our fears, and be witnesses of God’s love in our families, in our schools, in our communities.