Recent attacks in the United States might leave some of us feeling especially afraid. People of faith might be tempted to think of the church as a place to flee, to escape the scary world. But I don’t think this is the right impulse.
Not long ago, I was at St. Bart's Church in New York City for a meeting, and a few of us wandered through their beautiful church a bit before we started. It so happens that some work is being done on their magnificent pipe organ, and they had put up some caution tape. Danger!
I snapped a photo, and I posted it on social media with this caption: "Spotted at a church today. Every church should require a danger sign, for the Gospel is not meant to be comfortable!" It got a pretty big response. I think people picked up on the fact that it's not what we expect to see in churches—but, at some level, they understood that the Gospel requires this kind of warning.
You see, the Gospel is dangerous. There's nothing whatsoever that's safe about being a disciple of Jesus in this earthly life. There's a reason Jesus and others in the scriptures are always saying, "Be not afraid!" We are meant to be secure in God's love for us, but we are also meant to be out in the world sharing God's love in extravagant, even dangerous, ways.
We are meant to be secure in God's love for us, but we are also meant to be out in the world sharing God's love in extravagant, even dangerous, ways.
My friend who serves as a priest in Europe said this the day after a Catholic priest was murdered during mass in his own church, "Today we open wide the doors of our church, because that is what we do." She has it right. Christians who serve as missionaries in dangerous places have it right. Congregations who care more about mission than maintenance have it right. Leaders who welcome change instead of clinging to the status quo have it right. Fire and police chaplains who run toward burning buildings have it right. Bold risks and brave actions are the stuff of the Gospel. Safety and comfort are not.
To be sure, it is understandable that we’d be afraid. I lock my doors at night. I keep a wary eye out when I’m walking alone. I get worried when I watch the news sometimes. But to all these situations, Jesus responds, “Be not afraid.”
The Christian’s place is wherever people need to hear a message of hope and love. Followers of Jesus will reject attempts to peddle fear for its own sake. When churches are beacons of grace and love, rather than comfortable museums, the Gospel is made real.
Bold risks and brave actions are the stuff of the Gospel. Safety and comfort are not.
The Bible says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (1 John 4:18). We are humans, so we’ll never manager to reach perfection. We’ll always have a bit of fear with us, which is why we need those danger signs. The signs remind us to expect a bit of fear. But we can, if we allow God to work in our lives, be defined by hope and love, not hatred and fear.
The church needs a warning, because just when we might want to linger in safety and shirk our duty, the Gospel demands that we look out to where there is great need.
Be not afraid! It's easier said than done. But by God's grace, we can be people in whom love casts out fear.
Scott Gunn is an Episcopal priest and serves as executive director of Forward Movement. He is co-author of Faithful Questions: Exploring the Way with Jesus. You can follow him on Twitter @scottagunn or read his blog at www.sevenwholedays.org.