I like to take every opportunity to remind people that the one thing said most frequently by Jesus in the Bible is “don’t be afraid.” Or “fear not,” if you prefer.
You might think it’s “love God” or “repent” or “love each other” or even “don’t sin,” but no, it’s “don’t be afraid.”
And I don’t think for a minute that Jesus means to say “obey me and stop that right now.” I think he simply means to comfort and encourage people by reminding them that he is with them and that God is with them, however they know God, and, whatever happens, it’s going to be okay.
I’ve been saying this even more than usual lately.
One time, Jesus didn’t even say “don’t be afraid,” he said “don’t let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1). I like that even more because it’s not just about fear, then, it could also be anxiety, discomfort, hurt - all the things that might come along with fear or even inspire it.
That phrase might sound familiar because it comes from verses we often hear at a celebration of someone’s life. I wish it were something we shared more often on other occasions because I don’t think it’s just about the next life.
In the gospel of John, Jesus makes a lengthy speech to his disciples on the night he’s arrested. We call it the Farewell Discourse partly because it sounds like a parting speech but also because we know what happens next. And that’s just it. We know. The disciples don’t.
Sure, Jesus talks about leaving and he won’t always be around and how he’s “going to the father” but we hear that the way we do because we know what’s ahead. I don’t think the disciples had any idea. I think they were anxious, concerned, perhaps even a little frightened and certainly confused by Jesus’ talk of leaving, but I don’t think they heard “I’m going to die.” Sensing their unease, Jesus says “don’t let your hearts be troubled.”
Prompted by a question from Thomas, Jesus goes on to talk about being “the way, the truth and the life,” and tells them that, in seeing him, they have seen God. Then Philip asks Jesus to show them God and I think you can just sense Jesus’ surprise and disappointment when he replies “have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’” I think that’s Jesus again having to tell them that the love Jesus lives, the same love he’s already told them is in his command to “love one another as I have showed you to love” (John 13:34), that love is in each of us, too. And then he doubles down on it “truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these” (John 14:12). Yeah, that’s for you.
I wonder if we shouldn’t be hearing this passage not just as comforting words that there is a place for each of us with God in the next life, but that there is place for each of us with God here. Now. Jesus has prepared the way, it is true and life-giving. When we live it, our hearts need not be troubled: God is with us, we are not alone.