I have a recurring nightmare. In the dream, I get up on a Sunday morning, drive to church and don my vestments, and step into the pulpit to preach. But my manuscript is gone. There are no words awaiting me on the lectern. Beads of sweat collect on my forehead. I begin to speak without notes, and it is a disaster. It is always a disaster. I fumble. People in the pews roll their eyes. The congregation begins to get up and walk out, and my muddled voice is drowned out in the hubbub. That’s my nightmare.
According to the web site SelfHelpCollective.com[i], Americans’ top ten fears include the fear of public speaking, fear of flying, fear of heights, and fear of spiders. Other than fear of public speaking, these fears (of heights, flying, and spiders) all entail physical danger. These are things that we perceive can injure us, and we’re afraid of them. That’s not surprising. What is surprising is the list of the six other top ten fears. They are the fear of intimacy, death, failure, the dark, rejection, and commitment. In other words, sixty percent of our fears are not physical, but existential.
With the exception of the very modern fear of flying (and maybe spiders), Peter and the other disciples experienced virtually all of these fears, both physical and existential. During the week of the Passion, their fears were well-founded, as they watched Jesus of Nazareth, their leader and their hope, speak boldly in public, only to become a failure, as he was stripped from his intimates, carried away in the darkness, scourged and killed. The disciples then hid, except for Peter, who rejected Jesus outright in the high priest’s courtyard. After the crucifixion, the disciples huddled together in the upper room in fear. That’s how we left them on Easter.
But the attentive worshiper may also have noticed something strange about our first reading these past several weeks. Since Easter, we’ve read nothing from the Old Testament. In its place, the lectionary has prescribed a series of readings from the Acts of the Apostles. In these, Peter speaks, and the Peter we discover here is a very different person from the one who made excuses in the high priest’s courtyard and hid in fear in the upper room. Something transformative has happened. This Peter speaks boldly. He proclaims goodness and the Gospel. He shows courage.
Many of you will know C.S. Lewis’ fantastic book, The Screwtape Letters. The book is a series of epistles written by the master demon Screwtape in response to requests for advice from the apprentice demon Wormwood. Wormwood has been assigned as his “patient” a young World War II English soldier. Wormwood’s job is to corrupt the young man, and Screwtape offers counsel along the way.
At one point in the book, Wormwood asks Screwtape how to turn his soldier—who faces the fear of combat in the war—into a coward.[ii] But Screwtape counsels otherwise. Cowardice is one response to fear, but an even better option, Screwtaps says, is to turn the patient toward hatred. You see, hatred, unlike cowardice, feels kind of good. For one thing, because hatred seethes, and rises, and often boils over, it disguises fear in a way that makes fear look like power. For another, hatred so clouds judgment that we easily convince ourselves that our hatred is not really hatred at all, but rather righteous indignation toward whatever affronts us. Screwtape explains that hatred and fear feed on one another. The more we fear, the more we hate, and the more we hate, the more we fear.
As we look around our world today, the truth of Screwtape’s analysis is obvious. As I flip through the talking heads on the cable news channels; as I witness the rhetoric of people on the street; as I observe the international, political, racial, and economic tensions that simmer across our communities; I see people who pose as powerful and people who feign indignation. But just below the surface of all that sound and fury, I sense fear. It is, really, that existential, “top ten” fear: the fear of failure, the fear of rejection, the fear of loss, the fear of intimacy with those different from us. And too often that fear finds its outlet in thinly veiled words and actions of hatred, which are surely tearing this world apart.
Are these the only options in the face of fear? Must we succumb to cowardice and retreat in hiding from the world, or else pose with false strength and hold our fear at bay through hatred?
There is another option, the one most feared by the demons. In place of cowardice and hatred, we can choose courage.
What is courage? Screwtape says that courage is not itself a virtue, but rather, “the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Courage is the form of every virtue at the testing point. We need to think about that for a moment. Maybe the best way to do so is to return to the Book of Acts.
Between the time Peter has huddled in the upper room in fear and today, when he boldly proclaims the Gospel, danger has not lessened for Peter. Indeed, when today’s reading begins, Peter is a prisoner in the hands of his enemies. He is in eminent danger. He knows it, and he is undoubtedly afraid. And yet, he boldly speaks the Gospel of love. What has changed?
Love is a weak brew until it is tested. That’s what Peter and the other disciples earlier learned. Their love for Jesus, which they professed floridly throughout Jesus’ ministry, dissipated on Maundy Thursday as soon as that mob arrived to haul Jesus away. When their love met the testing point, it failed.
But Jesus’ own love for them couldn’t have been more different. Jesus’ love endured rejection, and darkness, and even death. It was not that Jesus lacked fear any more than the disciples did. All the Gospels make this clear. Jesus was anxious and afraid. But courage is the form of every virtue at the testing point, and, when tested, Jesus’ love proved to be courageous. He didn’t cower and hide. He didn’t lash out in hatred, with fury and invective. Jesus continued to love. His love persevered in the face of fear. It was so faithful and strong that it saw its way through death to return to the very disciples who rejected it. Can you imagine such courage? Can you imagine such love?
It is when Peter and the others experience the radical courage of Jesus’ love for them, a love that will not be dissuaded by any of life’s fears—a love that defeats death—that their own love is transformed. Theirs, too, becomes courageous love. And the next time their love meets the test, it does not retreat into cowardice or devolve into hatred. Peter and the others will have none of that. In the face of their fear, they will love. In the face of all danger, they will love. In chains and under threat, with dangerous men jeering him, Peter boldly speaks love.
The second reading today is St. John’s soliloquy to this courageous love. John says: “We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us—and [in love] we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods, and sees a brother or sister in need, and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not [only] in word or speech, but in truth and action… And this is God’s commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another.”
It is not exaggeration to say that the movement from cowardice and hatred to courageous love transformed the disciples, and through them, transformed the world. And it is surely not exaggeration to say that our world needs this transformation now more than ever. Every day, there are demons whispering in our ears, fanning our existential fears of failure, of rejection, of intimacy. We can huddle like cowards. We can lash out in hatred. Or we can love until we reach the testing point, and see if we find courage.
The Rite II Post-Communion Prayer says, “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you, with gladness and singleness of heart.”
May it be so.
[ii] Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters, chapter 29.