O Lord, we beseech thee, make us to have a perpetual fear and love of thy holy Name, for thou never failest to help and govern those whom thou hast set upon the sure foundation of thy loving-kindness….
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
For human beings, fear has never been about the stuff that startles us in the jump scene of a horror movie -- at least not primarily. What I mean is that fear is not exclusively about the mere existence of external threats or those dangers that lurk in the darkness and could strike us at any moment. These dangers certainly do exist, but they are not the main source of fear itself. Because if they were, then we would expect to find that modern people are the most fearless people that have ever lived for the simple reason that we have so thoroughly eradicated many of the dangers that haunted human beings for millenia. Think about it. Most of us don’t have hang our very survival on the hope that blight doesn’t devastate our crops each year. We don’t have to face the winter without any guarantee that we or our loved ones will necessarily make it through to see the spring. And yet, despite the degree of safety and security that we have ensured for ourselves, it’s clear that fear not only remains within us, but abounds. Modern society has by no means banished fear from among us; it’s just changed what we’re afraid of.
So what exactly are we so afraid of? The thing with human beings is that all of our fears “arise from love” : fear is what we feel when something we love is threatened . But because love is complicated, there is a whole lot more going on in our fear than the mere instinct of self-preservation. Animals flee from predators out of a fear that’s pretty straightforward -- it’s similar to the fear that leads us to take shelter from tornadoes -- but even then, what we’re seeking to protect is far more than just our bare survival. “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” our Lord asks (Matthew 6:25). And the answer, of course, is yes. Human beings don’t live to simply survive; we live to love. And I’m not talking about love in a romantic sense. Our lives are made up of all kinds of attachments and commitments, desires and values -- relationships, in a word -- and it’s all of these relationships put together make human life a matter of love. And if life is about love, then so is fear. It’s why, if our house caught on fire and we had a little more time after getting the kids and the pets to safety, most of us would almost definitely have two or three things we would go back to retrieve even though they’re in no way necessary to our survival.
So fear is complicated because love is complicated. But part of what makes our love complicated is that it isn’t always ok; our love of things isn’t necessarily legitimate just because we love them. We can love certain things too much or too little, and we can even love the wrong things while neglecting the right things. Every human life can be measured in these terms: of love that’s excessive and love that’s deficient; of love that is misplaced altogether.
Just as with love, we can also fear certain things too much or too little; and we can fear the wrong things and foolishly ignore the right things that should be feared. Not all fear is justified simply because we are afraid. So I ask again, what exactly are we afraid of?
If you consider our Collect alongside our Scripture readings for this morning, you’ll find that not all fear is the same, as I’ve been saying. On the one hand, there is the “perpetual fear and love of thy holy Name” mentioned in our Collect that’s presumably a good fear to have, since we’re asking God to give it to us. But in our Gospel lesson, on the other hand, we find Christ himself rebuking the disciples for their fear of the storm -- a fear that came from their lack of faith and thus was a wrong kind of fear. But if fear is rooted in love, how can it be the case that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18)? And if perfect love casts out fear, then how can we ask that God would give us both perpetual love and fear?
Let’s start by figuring out the wrong kind of fear. As our Lord says, there is a fear of “those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” -- which is the fear that he commands us not to have (Matthew 10:28). But this fear involves much more than the fear of actual people who may threaten our bodily lives. More generally, this kind of fear is the “worldly fear” that arises from “worldly love” : and worldly love, according to Thomas Aquinas, is “the love whereby [we] trust in the world as [our] end, so that worldly love is always evil” . In other words, when we invest ourselves and our security in this world -- in things that are not God -- we love the world with a worldly love. And if our security depends upon the world, then we will accordingly fear anything that threatens that security: we will fear “those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” which can stand in for anything that haunts our excessive love of that which is passing away. A person who commits the sin of covetousness, for instance, is a person who is guilty of the love of wealth -- which is evil . And not surprisingly, someone who pursues the worldly love of wealth will also be afflicted by worldly fear, because they have to hold on to what they have at all costs, even as they strive to acquire more and more. That’s just one example of many, because anything that we love excessively as though it were God will become for us the thing that we have to protect out of fear.
This is the kind of fear that our Lord rebukes the disciples for in today’s Gospel. The danger of the storm not only threatens their literal survival, but also represents the storm of temptation and adversity that always accompanies this mortal life. The storm reveals what the disciples love the most -- what they value above all else. And with Christ asleep in the stern of the boat, they assume that they are on their own, abandoned to their fate. Even though he is with them, they fear the storm as though his presence means nothing. They should have remembered the Psalm that promises that “he who keeps watch over Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4); they should have realized that the Lord’s nap in the stern was intended to test their faith in this promise. Instead, their faith fails and they succumb to doubt as to whether the Lord really cares whether they live or die. But their love for him should have persisted; then they would have kept the faith and overcome their fear of the storm.
And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”
Even though Christ calms the storm, he doesn’t deny that the storm was really there. The point is not that the threat was a total illusion: the wind was gusting before it ceased. So the problem was not that the disciples thought they saw a storm when there wasn’t one. The problem, rather, was their fear of it. Because their faith was still weak and their sense of security dependent upon the world, they succumbed to the fear of that which kills the body. They identified themselves not as those who had been “set upon the sure foundation of God’s loving-kindness,” but as those who were at the mercy of the storm. Which again, by interpretation, means that they considered themselves to be at the mercy of temptation rather than at the mercy of God. Their fear is thus a worldly fear.
But to close, this is not the only fear that we can have. There is a proper fear, which is the “perpetual fear of thy holy Name” that we ask God to give us this morning. Again, all fear comes from love, so the only question is about what kind of love that we have. The fear of God therefore arises from the love of God, the love that clings to his grace above all else and fears only that which can separate us from it. Now, as our Collect says, the loving-kindness of God is a “sure foundation” because God simply is love and God does not change. It’s that great passage from St. Paul, that:
...neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38)
This is the love that casts out all fear, because what else is there for us to be afraid of that’s not included in that list? There is no “storm” that could defeat the watchfulness of the God who never sleeps or threaten those whom he has claimed for himself. Christ wields final authority over the winds and the waves because he is the same God who “shut in the sea with doors,” as God tells Job today.
But the task remains for the disciples and for us alike to actually live as though this is the case -- to keep the faith and to resist worldly fear. Because while the winds of temptation are powerless in themselves against those who are in Christ, it is possible for us to give them power by succumbing to them. We can divert our love away from God and onto the false promises of that which is not God. And when those false promises are inevitably broken, we will “fall back into fear” (Romans 8:15) and grasp all the more desperately for another source of security and will probably wind up acting unjustly against whoever it is that we’ve identified as threats. It is only the love of God that enables us to love our neighbors instead of fearing them, so if we fear our neighbors, that’s a good sign that the love of God is not in us. This is the fear that casts out the love of God, for it is ultimately the love of something instead of God. This fear is simply idolatry.
So, I’ll ask one more time: what exactly we are afraid of? Remember that we fear that which threatens what we love, and so we’ll discover what we fear by determining what, exactly, we are in love with. O Lord, we beseech thee, make us to have a perpetual fear and love of thy holy Name, for thou never failest to help and govern those whom thou hast set upon the sure foundation of thy loving-kindness….
 Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae. II-II, Q. 25, A. 2.
 Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae. II-II, Q. 19, A. 3.