Trinity 2 – Fear of God is good

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1 John 3:13-24       St Luke 14:16-24


The fear of the Lord is clean, and endures forever.  Ps 19:9


I have spoken to you about how these first few Sundays are an introduction to the rest of the Trinity season, which is about our spiritual ascent into the life of God – from immaturity to full maturity in Christ.

Trinity Sunday outlined the beginning and end of that journey to God.  The journey begins in the waters of baptism – we must be born again – it is by the gift of God’s Holy Spirit that we will be led into heaven.  And we are sustained on that earthly journey by keeping our eyes on Jesus lifted up on the Cross.  It is only by grace that we can see and enter the kingdom of heaven.

Last Sunday we were reminded that it is all about love – God is love, and God showed us that love in Jesus Christ, and if we say we love God, we must love our neighbour also.  How we treat one another is the true test of whether we are on the right path.  All the Sundays that follow in Trinity Season are about the perfecting of our love.

In our Collect today, the prayer that gathers up the theme of the readings, we prayed that God might “make us to have a perpetual fear and love of [His] holy Name”.

So the other aspect of our ascent into the life of God is the perfecting of our fear.


There is an image that is helpful for us to think about to see why fear and love are leading motivators of our actions.

Plato used the image of a charioteer holding two horses as an allegory of the soul (Phaedrus 245c-257b).  It was not his image, it came from earlier traditions, but Plato refined it and it was taken up by the Fathers of the Church as helpful.  The charioteer is the rational aspect of the soul, and it holds the reins of two horses: the appetitive aspect of the soul (that which moves us to a perceived good) and the irascible aspect (that which responds to perceived threats).  Holding these reins is not easy!  The Fathers agreed with this observation. They corrected the image by saying that the charioteer, the rational aspect of our soul, must first look up and see itself as under God.  We must have faith in God, and needs God’s grace to hold the reins, to control the horses.

So the two horses are the aspects of the soul that move us.

Love of a perceived good, moves us towards that good.

But we must love the right things, we must not love lesser things excessively or they will divert us from moving towards the highest good – God.  So the life of sanctification is the life of perfecting our loves.  And the love of God and our neighbour are the highest goods, nothing else must absorb our attention so much that we forget these highest aims.

But today we are looking at that other horse, the aspect of our soul that responds to perceived threats, when the soul experiences fear.  We can respond with fight, flight, or freeze.  (And psychologists have added to these three responses, “faun” – trying to remove the threat by trying to placate the aggressor.)  Depending on the situation, one of these reactions will be best, but given that we are fallen, we often choose wrongly.  Courage is the virtue that we have if we are able to react properly to a perceived threat.  And hope is the theological virtue that adorns the soul to respond with courage, to act properly, to move forward, despite our fears on our life’s journey.

In the Collect we prayed that God would “make us to have a perpetual fear … of [His] holy Name”, that is, to have a perpetual fear of God.

It seems fear of God is a good thing, but why should we fear God?

First, we are not speaking of fear of God, in the sense of fear of condemnation by God.  For Christians, that kind of fear is relieved in time as we come to accept the profound mercy of God in the depths of our soul.  This is the fear that John Newton speaks of in his famous song Amazing Grace:

Twas grace that taught my soul to fear
and grace my fears relieved.

It is not that kind of fear.  Jesus told us to fear God.  He said to his apostles, whom he was preparing for the persecution that was sure to come: do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. [Matt. 10:28]  And he was talking about God.  Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  No human being can do that, no demon can do that, even Satan himself.  Don’t fear them.

In our Bible study on Acts of the Apostles, which is a history of the early Church, we read a scary story about  a couple who lied to the Holy Spirit – Ananias and Sapphira [4:34-5:11].  We read that:

In the early Church, “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need…

But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife's knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord?  Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.

We don’t know why Ananias kept some back – the point is that he lied to the Apostles, and so to the Holy Spirit – he had no fear of God – and it seems that the reaction of the whole Church to the incident was to increase their fear of God.  It was a fear which did not drive them away from God, but closer.  It made them take God, who is the Way, the Truth, the Life, with the utmost seriousness, and to take their own words and actions more seriously.  John says in the Epistle reading: “Whoever does not love abides in death.  Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”  These words are meant to frighten us!  “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the parable of the Great Banquet:  A man arranges a great banquet.  Many are invited, but those first invited made excuses.  They chose to attend instead to their possessions, to their work, or to their family.  They are all good things to attend to, but not if they get in the way of attending to what is most important.  Jesus doesn’t need to explain it, but in the Parable, the man who gave the banquet is God and he is inviting every human being to feast in the kingdom of heaven.  The ones who chose something less, out of fear of losing them, suffer for it, “none of those men who were invited shall taste of my banquet.”  It is not vindictive, it is a statement of reality.  These men had no fear of God.  If they did, they would have heeded the invitation from the One who made us and who offers us eternal life.

Fear of God in Scripture is seen as a gift – it is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, spoken of by God through the prophet Isaiah [11:2].  We pray for this gift in confirmation.

Later in Isaiah, God speaks against Israel saying:

“this people draw near with their mouth
and honour me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men…”

Somehow this “fear of God”, this gift of the Holy Spirit, must be prayed for, it is not something that can be rationally known.  It is not something I can just explain to you and you get it, it must be experienced.  It shakes our foundations, it awakens us to the power of God, the presence of God, and it results in us not wanting to fritter away our time with distractions in life or to be too casual in our words or actions.

No one described in the Bible who is in the presence of a revelation of the glory of God, directly, or through angelic mediators, is unimpressed and goes on with life as normal – it bears a mark forever on the soul.  [see for example: the Transfiguration, St Matthew 17:1-9 and 2 Peter 1:16-18, written probably 30 years later where Peter recalls it]  The Psalmist says, The fear of the Lord is pure (or clean) and endures forever.  It cleanses us in the sense of making us more awake, more alert to the highest things, it draws us closer.

We will need this gift if we are to continue in our ascent into the life of God.

With this fear made right, we will never refuse invitations to love, invitations to glory.

And that’s why we pray for this gift of the fear of God always:  Lord,…make to have a perpetual fear and love your holy Name, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

God invites us now to eat bread in the kingdom of heaven, let us respond, with repentance and faith, and not hesitate, but come forward with courage and hope, to be filled with Love.

Amen +

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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2