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Church Talk: Take heart, do not be afraid

Friday 18 August 2023 | Written by Supplied | Published in Church Talk, Features


Church Talk: Take heart, do not be afraid
Catholic Youth attending World Youth Days on Rarotonga. SUPPLIED/ 23081703

The Gospel that I preached on last Sunday was taken from Matthew 14:22-23: “And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” writes Bishop Paul Donoghue of the Catholic Church.

We have just completed the well-prepared celebrations commemorating 200 years since the arrival of the Gospel on Atiu, Mitiaro, Mauke and Rarotonga.  These events have enabled us to show how the Gospel is important in our lives as we acknowledge the Gospel and witness to the values of Christ expressed in it. As we do so, surely, we remember also the courage of all the early missionaries who must have heard the words of Jesus “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

In the Catholic Church Pope Francis called the youth of the world to gather with him in Lisbon, Portugal during the first week of August. One and half million young people from all corners of the globe including two from the Cook Islands, Rangi Kimiora from Mitiaro and Winton Herman from Rarotonga, attended this event. At the same time the Catholic young people of the Cook Islands also held their own youth days as they assembled on Rarotonga, Manihiki and Mauke.

In the world of today many young people struggle with some frightening issues such as climate change with its wide range of natural disasters spoiling the planet; economies that enable the rich to prosper while the poor are reduced to further misery; technology that replaces human intelligence and labour with robots; world leaders lacking the heart to bring about change as resources are exhausted and not replaced. Young people are puzzled as to what lies ahead in the future. Central to the Pope’s remarks to the youth at the recent World Youth Day was the phrase “Do not be afraid.” And “It is Good to be here.” Mt 17:1 – 9.

What might we be afraid of? No doubt some of you have paused to think about what was happening in other places around the world during the last two weeks. How did you react?

Recent world event

The first that I would like to mention occurred in Hawaii. On the island of Maui at least 111 people lost their lives in wildfire caused by a passing cyclone called Dora. As people jumped into the sea to escape the raging fires, they must have been afraid. I would even say terrified.

Secondly, there was the tragedy of the boat with asylum seekers travelling to Britain from France. Six people were drowned and up to 10 are still missing. These people are so desperate to seek a new homeland where they can be free of the terror in their own country. What fear they must be living with daily to take the risk of climbing into such unworthy crafts.

Thirdly, we live with the continuing war between Russia and Ukraine with loss of life on both sides. The appeal for more weapons by the leaders on both sides drowns out attempts at dialogue. Unfortunately the law of force prevails over the force of law. As bombs explode randomly in cities, I wonder how the words sit with those taking cover, “Do not be afraid.”

Matthew 14: 22 35

The scripture I quoted above has Jesus appearing out of the night, “walking toward them on the sea”. It is a symbol of Jesus’ triumph over chaos and evil. The scene is full of symbolic associations. Peter, the chief disciple, ventures into this dangerous element, and makes his way while he keeps his attention on the Lord, but he sinks once he begins to think only about danger. For him it was an experiment: “if it is you…” ‘If’ is an expression of doubt, not of faith.

Look closely at this passage of scripture. Imagine the waves threatening to capsize the vessel which would have had the disciples fearful of being drowned. Into this situation they are confronted by Jesus himself walking towards them over the water. Because his appearance is the last thing they expect to see, they work out they are seeing a ghost – a sure sign they are about to die. Then Jesus says “Do not be afraid.”

Let us focus on Peter. It was Peter who called out to Jesus, “If it is really you, call me to join you out there.” And Jesus replied, “Come.” What a test! “If it is you, let me walk on water!”  Did Peter even consider what would happen if it had not been Jesus out there? Peter jumped overboard and started towards Jesus. For a moment it worked; then Peter let himself get overwhelmed. That sank him. If it hadn’t been for Jesus, it would have been the end for him. And what did Peter hear when he surfaced? He didn’t hear “What a great try Peter” or “How courageous you were Peter.” Jesus just said, “O you of little faith.”

Of all the apostles only Peter took the risk of getting out of the boat. Although he sank into doubt, his daring brought him into a new relationship with Jesus. Jesus had now really saved him. At least this once Peter had risked it all. He bet his life on Jesus. And in the midst of not getting it right, Jesus did more for him than anyone ever had before. Isn’t Peter’s risky expression of faith much greater than that of the disciples who remained in the boat? In their fear they did nothing to save themselves

Do not be afraid in 2023

The expression “Do not be afraid” is relevant today for the Cook Islands. Frequently we hear the expression that we are blessed in the Cook Islands. I admit I use it myself.  Yet we live in difficult and even complex times. Sometimes those of us in leadership, can be intolerant of deviants. Prophetic voices are often silenced as a threat to others. Some may hold on to what they have rather than share with those less fortunate.

Let us think of our near neighbours such as those on the East coast of the north island of New Zealand who saw their homes and livelihood shattered by flood when heavy rain fell as a result of cyclone Gabriel in February. Likewise, the people of Maui who saw towns completely erased by wildfires caused by a passing cyclone.

Are we really better prepared here than they were? What of the 11 apostles who just sat there in the boat? What did they do to help themselves? I notice now that at our recent RAC (Religious Advisory Council) evenings, when we pray for protection from disasters fewer people are attending. Have we become so confident that our prayer has already been heard because there has been no major damage from disasters in 18 years? Is Arorangi and Muri better prepared for disasters than the likes of Gisborne, Hawkes Bay or Maui?

In the Gospel, Peter was saved by getting out of the boat and walking towards Jesus. Yes, he did doubt. He did sink. But he reached out and held the outstretched hand of Jesus who saved him. This Gospel is challenging us to be more than an adoring crowd. The signs of our times are challenging us to do something. The 200 years since the arrival of the Gospel has to be much more than beautifying church buildings for adoring congregations of any church. It challenges us to take risks like Peter. We need to get out of the safety of the boat. That is where we will encounter one another and the world in which we live. Yes, we may fail.  We may start sinking. But together with Christ we will not feel afraid as he has taken us by the hand and told us: “Do not be afraid”.