Sunday, May 23, 2010

Proper Fear

Happy birthday!  Today is Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the church.  The story of Pentecost is always one of my favorites.  It would make a great movie - you have action, humor, redemption, and a moral lesson all within one chapter of Acts.

Getting to Calvin this morning, we read about fear - both proper fear and improper fear.  Several times Calvin uses the words "fear and trembling" from Philippians 2:12.  What does Calvin mean by "right" or "proper" fear?  He speaks of a fear that establishes, not diminishes faith.  The Israelites of the Old Testament witnessed God's wrath upon the ungodly.  This helped them to avoid offending God the way these others had.  The faith of the Israelites grew as a result of the fear they had.  Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 10:11 writes, "Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come."  We can learn fear by observing what has happened to the unfaithful and ungodly of previous generations.

Calvin turns again to the words "fear and trembling" and devotes a section to them.  He says that in context ("work out your own salvation with fear and trembling"), Paul "demands only that we become accustomed to honor the Lord's power, while greatly abasing ourselves.  For nothing so moves us to repose our assurance and certainty of mind in the Lord as distrust of ourselves, and the anxiety occasioned by the awareness of our ruin."  We must have full confidence in God and His power while recognizing the lowliness of ourselves.  Often, we think of "fear" being the antonym of "faith".  Where one exists, the other is absent.  Calvin declares that this is not so - fear and faith can co-exist in the same mind.  "For not only does piety beget reverence toward God, but the very sweetness and delightfulness of grace so fills a man who is cast down in himself with fear, and at the same time with admiration, that he depends upon God and humbly submits himself to his power."

There were (are) those who Calvin refers to as "half-papists" that believe that one can only contemplate Christ (which leads to salvation) or contemplate ourselves.  The thought is that we can vacillate between the two.  Calvin counters this argument by reminding us that Christ dwells within us, so we do not contemplate him from afar.  "We ought not to separate Christ from ourselves or ourselves from him.  Rather we ought to hold fast bravely with both hands to that fellowship by which he has bound himself to us."  He goes on to tell us that at times our faith is tested and the weakest parts of our faith are attacked.  But he tells us, "Yet whatever happens, it ceases not its earnest quest for God."  Nothing will ever keep true faith from desiring to be with God.

The last section for today was mostly a reading from Bernard of Clairvaux.  He wrote, "Even if we are nothing in our own hearts, perchance something of us may be hidden in the heart of God."  We are nothing on our own or in our own hearts.  It is through the mercy and love of God that we may become something.

As I read today's lesson and thought about Pentecost, the people hearing the apostles must have felt fear.  Some had the right fear in them as they witnessed the miracle of the apostles speaking in tongues.  In turn they became Christians and were baptized.  Others did not have the right fear (at least at first) and in their nervousness made jokes and accused the apostles of drinking.  It makes me wonder what kind of fear I would have felt on that day of Pentecost had I been there in Jerusalem.

Tomorrow's reading: 3.2.26-3.2.30

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