To be free from the prison of envy
Ecumenical Forum on Church Teachings on Faitful and Responsible Citizenship

Be not afraid

By Bill Lewellis
The Morning Call
August 9, 2008

She screamed. Again. Again. Would she stop? God would get me for the smiling sinner I am, she warned. With frightening conviction.

It happened earlier this summer. Raging threats of God’s wrath, she followed Monica and me through a subway corridor near Port Authority in New York City. Those 20 seconds seemed like five minutes.

She had been hawking literature near a table laden with posters proclaiming that judgment was at hand. Be afraid. A vengeful God would soon enjoy his day of wrath.

I smiled, to allay my anger within. I slowly shook my head.

It was the reaction she sought. I had given her an opportunity to scream her caricature of God. She was a true believer. I didn’t look back.

The irony is that some version of “Be not afraid” and “You are loved” appear throughout the Bible she deconstructs to scare people.

I rely on God’s radical, incredible love. The single, most difficult Christian belief is not belief that our God is a Trinitarian community, nor that God became one of us, nor that God raised Jesus from the dead, nor that we too will be raised. It’s none of those. It is that God forgives and loves us before we repent.

God’s Good News, as I understand it, is threefold. Point one is that we’re all sinners.

Does anyone not believe that about the person in the mirror? My sinfulness lurks within attitudes, desires, motivations, and inclinations. As sinners we stand at the end of a long line of biblical role models, from Abraham and David to Peter and Paul.

Point two is that we’re all forgiven, and loved by God.

We need to hear it again and again. In the mirror, we need to see one who has been forgiven and is loved.

Point three of God’s Good News, as I understand it, is that we’re all forgiven and loved by God not because we’ve been repentant. We’re repentant and transformed because we’ve been forgiven and loved.

“Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person,” Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans, “though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” While we were yet sinners

In his novel, Brighton Rock. Graham Greene wrote: “You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” We find it so difficult to believe that God forgives and loves us before we repent, I would contend, because we find it so difficult to imagine acting like that toward others. “You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”

I paraphrase, from Isaiah: “Be not afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine. Should you pass through the sea, I will be there with you; or through rivers, you will not drown… For you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you… Be not afraid, for I am with you.”

“It is I, be not afraid,” Jesus said to his disciples as he walked on the water through a storm toward their battered boat.

“For the wonders that astound us, for the truths that still confound us,” some of us have sung, “most of all that love has found us, thanks be to God.”

[Canon Bill Lewellis has been communication missioner for the Diocese of Bethlehem, the Episcopal Church in 14 counties of northeastern Pennsylvania, since 1986, and canon theologian to the bishop since 1998.]


Janice H. Mitchell

This incident reminds me of a similar one which occurred over a decade ago. Based on your description of this woman’s anger, I wonder if it could have been the same person I encountered.

Back then, I was employed in a government office and we dealt with a lot of people. One day my line had a huge gap in it which was unusual in such a crowded room. In the middle of this open space was a woman wrapped in a white bed sheet fashioned into what she seemed to regard as a religious habit. It wasn’t her manner of dress that set off an internal alarm, so much, but the wild look of hatred that radiated from her eyes.

The people ahead of her mentioned that she had been telling them that they were “going to burn” and that “God’s vengeance” would be “heaped upon them”. When she finally reached my work station, it was as though she had stepped up onto her soapbox. I had only to smile and say “Hello” for her to let loose a loud surge of rage.

“Satan!” she growled “YOU ARE THE TOOLS OF SATAN!” she screamed then turned to point at my co-workers and the other claimants standing next to her. “You are ALL going to burn when the wrath of the Lord Jesus is unleashed upon you! Sinners! Hypocrites!” The room fell silent.

We tried to calm her but this woman was having none of that. After screaming a torrent of curses at us, she ripped up her paperwork, threw it at us and stormed out of the office.

Later, during lunch, we discussed what this woman’s vision of heaven must be like. Did she believe that heaven was merely a vantage point to watch the terrible ordeal of those “tools of Satan” - who were finally “getting theirs”? Her perception of Jesus was similarly unsettling but not unusual – an emphasis on wrath and revenge rather than love and forgiveness.

A few years later, someone mentioned that this woman was a resident of the State Hospital in a secure section. She does not appear to be living in this area any more. I often wonder what happened to her and whether her vision of God has stayed the same.

The comments to this entry are closed.