From “Be Not Afraid,” The Fourth River (1935)
“Be not afraid.” What are the things that frighten us — that weigh on the mind and depress the spirit, and lead to morbid terrors by night as well as by day? Quite common things, many of them — the fear of ill-health, of old age, of poverty; the fear of men’s scorn, laughter, and contempt. Can anyone say that these are not matters of concern to us —that they do not lead us into anxieties, hypocrisies — even dishonesties — of which in our hearts we are ashamed, even though the shame we once felt may become dulled by law and custom? Can anyone say that these fears do not overshadow our lives to such a degree that we think less than we ought to of the needs and sufferings of others, and taint our citizenship — whether of earth or of heaven — with an ever-growing selfishness? The Christian gospel bids us look at Jesus and put our fears aside; he repeats his words, “It is I; be not afraid.”
For Jesus during all his earthly life faced fears such as these. He knew what poverty and degradation were; he experienced the ungrateful and cowardly desertion of those who owed him everything; he knew the contempt and laughter of the Sadducees and the bitter hatred of the Pharisees. But not once, if we believe the record, did he on that account swerve from the narrow path of perfect sonship which had set before himself; not once was he afraid. Not even the long-drawn-out sufferings of his closing hours wrung from him any cry of recantation, remorse, or regret. He was faithful and fearless to the last; and it is our duty, with that pattern before us, to be fearless too.
I do not know how far nowadays men and women fear the hour of death. We have so many distractions and occupations that we are able, for large parts of our lives, to put the thought of death altogether on one side; and a reliance on the mercy of God, which — because it ignores all thought of his justice — is only partly Christian, has freed us from the fear we might just feel of the unknown that awaits us after death. Even so, there are times of black horror for some of us when we contemplate — if only for a moment — our utter ignorance, apart from the gospel, of all that death may bring. Believing, as we do, that Jesus was in all things truly man, we must believe that he too experienced such moments, if no more, when the thought of death loomed before him as something almost unbearable; the agony of soul in Gethsemane must have been concerned, in part, at least, with this. And a way of escape was still open. He had only to compromise with authority, only to abate his claim to be Messiah, and promise to retire from Jerusalem into the obscurity of private life, for the Sanhedrin to abandon its dangerous policy of carrying the demand for his crucifixion before the Roman governor. But he refused to compromise even at the approach of death in one of its most terrible forms. He yielded nothing to fear.
Such fears as these of which we have been thinking — the fears of poverty, disgrace, suffering, and death — are common and, as we say, “natural” to man. Many religions have bidden him not to be afraid of them. But no religious pioneer or prophet has been able to stand by a mountainside and say, “It is I; be not afraid,” with the same convincing tones as Jesus. Brave men have endured these terrors with an equal mind, and come through them often enough, we may believe, without faltering; the pure excellence of Jesus’s manhood must mean that no one ever plumbed their agonies as he did, and, therefore, that he stands unrivaled in the completeness of his victory. Yet it is not alone because his victory over human fears was the greatest in history that it is able to save us from fear. Example is a wonderful thing, but cannot do everything; indeed, the nobler an example, the more we despair of ever being able to follow it as we should. It is not to Jesus crucified alone that we look, but to Jesus crucified and risen and living in and with his church.
For the spirit which in Christ conquered our natural fear was breathed upon that fellowship of his disciples which we call the Church. In the Church — maintained by sacramental ordinances, and renewed, generation after generation, by the same life-giving power — we can partake of the spirit which was in Jesus to the full measure that our needs demand.
“It is I” — in the sense which we read out of our text — means this: “It is I, the Spirit of Jesus in the Church — the Spirit given in baptism, renewed in confirmation, strengthened by communion in the sacramental body and blood of Jesus — it is I who am present, year in, year out, for the comfort of all who need me. In my strength all your fears can be met and vanquished, even as Jesus vanquished them. Come unto me; partake of me; be renewed, and transformed by me. It is I; be not afraid.”
Kenneth Kirk (1896-1954) was one of the most influential Anglican moral theologians of the twentieth century. He served as Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, and was Bishop of Oxford from 1937 until his death. This excerpt from a book of his early sermons has been slightly adapted for modern readers.