Sunday, June 19, 2005

Fear Factor

(12th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 19 June, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

One of the most basic emotions, primal in fact, is the emotion of fear. When we are afraid of something or someone, usually it is a negative experience, but fear itself is actually neutral. It can be either healthy or unhealthy. To be afraid of strangers at night might very well be a healthy fear. To be afraid of the people in your own house is not (unless, of course, you live in my house, with Fr. Lolio and Msgr. Evans. I live in fear, and lock my door each night!).

In the Gospel this morning, Jesus identifies no less than three different kinds of fear. The first one is fear of what others may think, say or do in response to our proclamation of the Gospel. Jesus speaks out quite directly regarding this one. He says, “Fear no one.” Do not fear these people at all. No matter what they threaten to do, or what they actually carry out, the Gospel takes priority, even over one’s personal safety.

Thankfully, most of us will not have to discover this reality in the same way as the twelve apostles. All of them, with the exception of St. John, were killed for their faith in Christ and their refusal to deny His Gospel.

Yet we are called to share our faith and the values our faith teaches us, even if it costs us something. We are living in a time when respect for human life and the dignity of the human person are being threatened like never before. Abortion on demand remains a legal right, and even now, laws are being created for the destruction of human life in it’s tiniest of forms . . . in the name of “science,” and in the name of “research.”

Many people, both outside the Church and even some within, say that we should remain silent; stay out of it. Yet the Gospel of Life is one that so desperately needs to be heard in our world today. We cannot be afraid to proclaim it. The value of life is so great that we are called to defend it, despite what others may think, say or do to oppose us. “Fear no one,” Jesus tells us. That’s the first kind of fear.

And from there Jesus moves on to the second kind: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” He says. “Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.That’s something to be afraid of.

There are worse things than the death of the body, and the loss of one’s soul is one of them. The Church prays for the salvation of all people; even the most vicious of sinners has the possibility of becoming a saint because of the mercy of God.

Yet because of the freedom that God has given us, we do not have to accept that mercy. We can choose our own sin over His forgiveness, and reject the reconciliation and the life giving relationship which God offers to us. No one is forced to go to heaven. As C.S. Lewis once said:

There are two kinds of people,
in the end;
those who say to God, “Thy will be done,”
and those to whom God must say,
with great sorrow, Thy will be done.”

The gift of free will is a tremendous blessing and the very thing that makes us most like God. Yet we are responsible for the choices that we make. The real possibility that we could choose to reject the salvation God offers is something we should all be afraid of.

Now there is a third kind of fear that Jesus describes, and without this one, neither of the first two makes any sense. Ultimately, it’s a fear rooted in love.

Jesus describes the love God has for us as the love of a Father. He loves us infinitely, and knows us each by name. Not even a sparrow dies without God’s knowledge, and so how much more are we loved by God. What should our response be to a love like that?

The third kind of fear is what is often called the fear of the Lord. The expression “fear of the Lord” is one that is used in the Scriptures over and over again. It is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and it is very often misunderstood. Fear of the Lord is not fear as we usually think of it. It is a fear of losing or disappointing one that we love, and who loves us more than we can imagine.

Ultimately, this is the fear that God desires from each of us, not simply a fear of punishment or a fear of hell, but a fear based on love, that makes us want to be more and more pleasing to Him. As we pray in the Act of Contrition:

O my God, I am heartily sorry
for having offended You.
And I detest all my sins,
because of the fear of the loss of heaven
and the fires of hell,
but most of all because they have offended
You, my God, who are all good
and deserving of all my love.

That’s fear of the Lord, a fear rooted in love, and one that inspires us to try to love God as much as He loves us.

As we celebrate this Father’s Day, we give thanks to God who loves each of us with a Father’s love, and has given all Fathers a model and an example of how to live and how to love. We need not be afraid to love as God loves, and to share with others the Good News that Christ has come for the very purpose of bringing us all into that perfect love that overcomes all fear.