Immediately after the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.Mark 6:45-52
When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
Today’s supplementary texts: 2 Kings 2:1-15; Ephesians 4:1-7,11-16
“Do not be afraid,” Jesus tells his disciples, as he walks over the water and calms the waves. But of course, they are afraid. They were afraid of the sea, and we can understand that well in Japan. How much more afraid should they be of someone who can tame the sea. As afraid as Moses when God spoke those same words, “I am,” from the flaming bush, or when God “passed him by” on Mount Sinai. As afraid as Elisha, when Elijah was lifted up by the wind of God. “The power that yields to no power of nature,” as Kant put it, is truly terrifying.
Yet fear of God, said Solomon, is the beginning of Wisdom. God is a vast ocean of love so wide that we can never see beyond the horizon, and so deep that we can never reach the seabed. And while love offers comfort, certainly it is a fearful thing. The unknowability of its depths is what makes Love so terrifying. Did the Buddha not say, he who has a thousand loves has a thousand sufferings? Yes, and we Christians embrace all thousand of them, we swim among them, even at risk of drowning; because we, like Saint Augustine, know that our hearts are restless until they their rest in God. When we fear God, we are at rest, because we need fear nothing in this world.
Fear of God is the gravitational force which drags us down into his unknowable depths. The moment we think that we have tamed God, or even worse, that we understand God, is the moment that we create an idol, or perhaps a Tamagochi, an imaginary pet. God is not so much like a kindly uncle. He is more like a mysterious lover. Even in our most intimate moments, we can only catch a glimpse of his beauty. If the veil were pulled away completely, we could not bear its intensity. Like sailing on the sea, loving another person is a dangerous adventure. How much greater the danger of loving Love itself! But how much greater an adventure, and how much greater the reward.
I must admit, I used to be put off by the idea of “fearing God.” Isn’t fear a negative emotion? The atheist campaigner Richard Dawkins sponsored a message on the side of a London bus saying, “There’s probably no God, so stop worrying.” He also criticises religion as an emotional comfort for the weak. So which is it? Are we Christians afraid of our “delusion,” or comforted by it?
Actually, I think the latter is the more salient criticism these days. Modern religion is sometimes too comfortable. The main job of religion is to force us to our knees, rather than to wipe our noses. To use a musical analogy, there’s too much Rutter and not enough Messaien. Shinto gagaku music, amplifying the songs of the birds and insects which live in the forests around the shrines, I think attains something of that sense of awe at the supernatural power behind nature. Fear of God is not exclusive to Christianity, which is why so many religions use bells, incense and chant to drive us to our knees. We are innately receptive to the gravitational pull of divine yearning.
Without that pull, we will not find the rest and stability which the world so desperately needs. Certainly, we won’t find it by being blown about by the exhausting winds of change. We will not find it in the revolutionaries’ call to tear down society and build it again from zero. We will certainly not find it in the myth of “progress,” that most heinous western export, which ranks civilisations on their willingness and ability to control the world, the environment, our bodies and one another by technological means, and by the quantity of consumer goods we can produce. The belief that we can dominate the world and perhaps live forever by our technological means is a sure way to eliminate the awe that is so vital to love.
This world is like the stormy surface of the sea. Beneath it lies the deep ocean of God’s love. We are too afraid to swim down by ourselves. But we have been given the Cross as an anchor which plumbs right to depths, a terrifying sign of the suffering and self-gift that love demands. And yet, I do not commend the Cross as a matter of Christian exclusivism. On the contrary, I think that it is the stormy surface seas of western modernity which divide us humans from one another and from the rest of the natural world. If we can get to the still waters of the ocean beneath, I think that we will find far greater commonality with the ancient religions, philosophies and traditions of the world, including those here in Japan.
Take the ancient pagan Homer’s tale of Odysseus and the beautiful Sirens. Their song was so delightful that captains would steer their ships straight onto the rocks, where they would feed on the corpses of the shipwrecked sailors. Odysseus ordered his men to bind him to the mast of the ship, so that even while he hears their bewitching melody, he will not be tempted to steer off course or jump overboard and into their arms. Foreshadowed in this pagan myth, do we not see something of Christ? Christ, who hears the seductions of the Devil in the desert, and passes by without sin. Christ, who is bound not to the wood of a mast, but nailed to the wood of a Cross. Christ, whose Cross gives us something to cling to when we are “tossed about by every wind of doctrine,” like an anchor in a turbulent sea. Its horizontal axis embraces all the world, and its vertical axis plumbs the dark, unmoving depths of heaven.
On the other hand, the Church’s attempts to grow in number by filling her sails with the winds of the world’s latest doctrine have manifestly failed. As the letter to the Ephesians shows, the priority for church growth should be growth in love, before growth in number. Growth in number will follow growth in love. Might the fruits of declining church attendance in technologically advanced countries be a sign of our weakness in this regard? A sense of all-too-comfortable self-sufficiency? A lack of fear seems to lead to a lack of love.
Love is terrifying. Yet if we plumb its depths, nothing in this world can hold any real fear for us. A Church that is afraid of the opinion and judgments of this world is a Church which has forgotten the fear of God and so fallen out of love with Him. We must be careful that our aversion to risk does not become mere cowardice, and betray a weakness in our convictions. Fear of God liberates us from fear of this world, and sets us free to love. Then we can obey Our Lord’s command.