25 June 2017
12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
“Fear no one,” Jesus says; “be not afraid.” And those can be comforting words, for sure. Sometimes Jesus speaks as a shepherd to his frightened sheep. He offers reassurance when we need it, and when we ask for it. But in the gospel of Matthew today there’s a different tone in his words. “Fear no one,” Jesus says. He’s getting his band of disciples ready to go out and continue his work, and he knew it would be a rough road at times. And so, today, Jesus speaks more like a commander leading his army into a conflict: “Fear no one.”
In other words, he says, “Don’t stand down to anyone; be my disciple in good times and in bad, whether the going is easy or rough, whether it’s convenient or inconvenient. Stand firm, and do not back down.” If we thought that being a Christian just meant saying our prayers and going to church once a week, we’re missing something; we have to stand up for what we believe, every day, every time our faith is put to the test. “Fear no one; stand firm,” the Lord says.
I suppose we could think of how the Sacrament of Confirmation used to be celebrated, where the bishop would give the confirmand a little slap on the cheek. We can interpret that gesture in at least a couple of different ways. One is that that little slap (or light touch) on the cheek was a sign of affection, the way God may put his hand on the cheek of one he cares for. The other interpretation is that that little slap was a reminder that being a disciple of Christ means “standing firm” in the face of struggles. (We could certainly say that both interpretations are true, at the same time.)
Today, that little slap on the cheek has been replaced by a shake of the hands. Again, a handshake can be a sign of friendship and welcome; it can also be a sign that “seals the deal,” one that says, “okay, now go and do what you’ve agreed to do in the name of Christ.” It’s this second interpretation that Scripture focuses on today: the idea of “standing firm,” and “remaining strong when faith is tested.” “Fear no one,” Jesus says. And he says it as a final “command” to his disciples as they—as we—head out into the world.
But before we go off and start converting the world for the love of God, we have to dig a little deeper into that word, “fear.” When Jesus says, “Fear no one,” what does he mean? The word, “fear,” means, basically, to “step back,” or to “withdraw from.” And that makes sense. I mean, if we’re afraid of something, we don’t usually get closer to it—we move away from it. And so, to “fear” something means to “take a step back” from that thing. But, really, to “fear” something isn’t necessarily good or bad; it depends on what we’re stepping back from.
Now, Scripture tells us several times to “fear the Lord.” Psalm 111 is even enthusiastic about the idea of fear when it says that “to fear the Lord is the first stage of wisdom.” If you want to be wise, then fear the Lord. And that’s right. We don’t put ourselves on the same level as God (that’s what Lucifer did); we “take a step back,” we get humble, and acknowledge that God is God, and not us. And so, to “fear the Lord” is a good thing; a very good thing.
But then there’s the kind of “fear of God” which isn’t so healthy. And that’s kind which makes us, literally, afraid of God. And that’s not at all what God wants. God doesn’t want us to be afraid; he wants us to be respectful of him, and to revere him as the all-knowing, all-loving, and endlessly merciful God that he is. And so, “fear,” in and of itself is neither good nor bad; it depends on what we’re fearing, it depends on what we’re “stepping back from.”
When Jesus gives that command to “fear no one,” he’s saying, “Don’t stand down to anyone when it comes to your faith in me.” And so, really, what he seems to be getting at is the basic question: “Whom do you serve?” Because whomever we serve is the one we fear. Whomever we serve is the one we fear. And whoever that person is makes all the difference, as to whether we fear them out of respect, or whether we fear them out of simply being afraid.
Now, there a lot of sayings that support where Jesus is going here. There’s the phrase, “a fair weather friend,” meaning, a friend who’s only a friend as long as things are going well; but as soon as life gets a little tough, they’re gone. And there’s the saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” meaning, when life gets rough, it’s the dedicated ones who stick around and see it through. It’s that question again, “Whom do you serve? Do you serve the demands of Christian living, or do you serve the expectations of others, or your own self-interests?”
“Fear no one,” Jesus says. To put it another way, he’s saying, “Serve me. I am the Lord; serve no one but me. Fear no one, but me.” And that can be either an easy or a hard thing to do.
For example, let’s say it’s Sunday morning. You’ve slept in because it’s Sunday, and you’re planning on going to the later Mass. But then a friend calls up and says, “Hey, you want to go do something,” there’s your discipleship in Christ being tested. You could say to the friend, “Well, I was going to go to church; can we do it another time?” Of course, you might be afraid to lose a friend by putting church first, or maybe this is somebody who’s outspoken about the uselessness of going to church, and you don’t want to get into an argument, and so . . . then what do you do?
I suppose you could just not answer the phone in the first place. Or, you could just stand firm, be not afraid, and say, “I can’t go this morning. I need to go to Mass.” Again, it’s that question: “Whom do you serve?” “Whom do you fear?” Because whomever we fear (whether in a good or a bad way) is the one we’re going to serve. Whomever we “take a step back from” is the one we let have control of our lives.
For teenagers this is especially true (and I would bet that many of us have unresolved fears from adolescence which still influence us). As a teenager, the worst thing is to be on the outside; to be the oddball, and to be rejected by your peers. And so, it’s pretty common among youth for them to sacrifice themselves for the sake of fitting in. What do they fear? Rejection—from their peers. Being alone—among their peers. Having their peers look down on them. Not being loved—by their peers.
Teens are less concerned with fitting in with their parents, and are more concerned with fitting in with their peers. And they’re only sometimes concerned with fitting in with the community of faith, and its beliefs and practices. The great fear is not rejection by the Church, or even by family. The great fear is rejection by their peers. And, as adults that fear can certainly continue on, if we haven’t learned, as Jesus says, to “fear no one.”
It’s a risk to do what Jesus says. Now, he’s not asking us to be recklessly fearless, to go around and be an evangelizing maniac. He’s simply asking us—commanding us—to stand firm, to be solid, to be unafraid to believe what we believe, regardless of what comes our way. He’s asking us to be people of integrity.
“Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no.” If we say “yes” to the Lord; if we believe that the Lord is our Savior; if we believe that God and faith are fundamentally important, well, then, just live life out of that conviction. Own the faith, and “fear no one.”
I experience this almost every day as a priest. When I go out to a restaurant with parishioners, and I’m wearing my collar, it’s hard for people not to know that I’m a priest, and that I represent the Church. Now, I’m not going there to make a statement; I’m just going out to have dinner. I’m just living my priestly life. But with my collar on, I have to remind myself, “Fear no one, fear no one.” I’m not really big on conflict. But I can’t let my fear of conflict get in the way of whom I am as a priest.
The other example from my own life is, of course, in the governance of the parish. I can’t do what I do if I’m constantly afraid of what “this group of people” or “that person” or “this person” is going to think of me. I can’t be a priest if I’m “standing down” to what others think of me, or back peddling to appease others. As a priest, I have to serve the Lord alone. And, as a people of faith—as a priestly people—he is the One we all serve. That’s why, together, we call him the Lord.
Sometimes that means being unpopular, like Jeremiah and so many of the Prophets, and the Apostles, and many of the Saints. Letting our “yes” to God mean “yes” doesn’t always win us friends. But it does get us the right friends, true friends, faithful friends who’ll be there through thick and thin.
“Fear no one,” Jesus says to his disciples. “Fear no one, stand firm in what I’ve taught you.” We know there’s a price to be Christ’s disciples. But, still, the Lord says, “Fear no one. Be not afraid. And, remember, I am with you always, until the end of the age. Fear no one.”