As a child—I think it was because I had such a vivid imagination—I seemed to be afraid of almost everything. Maybe it’s because of that, but today I hate to see anyone afraid. Sadly, at the moment there are many people living in fear, especially fear of terrorism, fear of not being able to cope or provide for their families because of all that is happening. It is very understandable and yet it is also one thing that God does not want for us. 366 times in the Scriptures are the words ‘Do not be afraid.’ God wants us to be at peace.
2000 years ago, on Holy Thursday night, out of fear the Apostles had all abandoned Jesus, even though they believed He was the Son of God. Judas had betrayed him for money. Peter tried to be faithful, but ended up publicly swearing that he never knew Jesus. They all betrayed him. Now after Easter they are locked in the upper room in fear. They were afraid first because they knew they could face the same punishment as Jesus since they were his associates. Secondly, perhaps they were also afraid of what God might do to them because they had betrayed the Son of God. It is a very human response to be afraid of God when we feel we have betrayed him in some way, by the way we live, or by something we have done.
Then something beautiful happens. Jesus is suddenly standing with them in the room and he says: ‘Peace be with you.’ The first thing he does is to take away their fear. There are no words of condemnation for having abandoned him a few days before. There are no words of judgement on how they were unable to be faithful. Instead: ‘Peace be with you.’ ‘It’s alright.’
I don’t know about you, but I can certainly say that I have often felt that I have betrayed the Lord by my actions. Sometimes I even wish I was not a priest, because then I would not have to deal with what is sacred. It is difficult to have to deal with the sacred when you are aware that you are a sinner. It is easier to run and hide. Think of Peter when Jesus worked the miracle of the great catch of fish. Peter’s reaction was, ‘Leave me Lord I am a sinful man.’ Yet when Jesus appears to the Apostles, the first thing He does is to put them at ease. ‘Peace be with you.’
Each time in the mass when we recall this wish of Jesus to give us his peace—which is not just a universal prayer for peace, but a reminder of what Jesus said to his followers—He is saying, ‘Do not be afraid, because I am not here to condemn you, even if you deserve to be condemned. Peace be with you.’ God only wants us to come closer to him and to know that He is not going to act as we do to each other, with frowns or giving out. He knows what we are like. He knows that we betray him, but He still tells us to be at peace. I for one, find that very comforting.
Think too of Thomas who in his grief at the death of Jesus would not believe the words of others that Jesus was alive. When you are grieving, you don’t want someone else to give you false hope, because it is too painful. And then when Jesus did appear to him He was so kind in helping him to believe. No giving out, but instead Jesus offered Thomas to put his finger into his wounds, so that he would believe. No condemnation for not being good enough; only encouragement.
In this Gospel Jesus also gives his disciples the authority to forgive sins in his name. Why? So that we need not ever be living in fear of God. Through the priesthood we have the concrete reassurance of God’s mercy and forgiveness, so that we can move on when we have done wrong; so that we need not live in fear. No condemnation, only encouragement and love.
Let me finish with this story. There was a young soldier in Napoleon’s army who was tired of war and wanted to go home. He decided to desert, but he was caught. The punishment for desertion was death and so he was to be executed. This man was the only child of his mother who was now widowed. His mother happened to work in Napoleon’s house and the day before his execution she managed to get to see Napoleon in person. She pleaded for her son, and told him that he was the last thing she had in this world as she was widowed. The mother begged Napoleon to have mercy on her son. Napoleon said in reply, ‘He doesn’t deserve to be shown mercy’, but the mother replied to Napoleon, ‘If he did deserve it, it wouldn’t be mercy.’
Peace be with you. It is I, do not be afraid.