April 23, 2018
The Easter 5B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 15:1-8 from the Lectionary Gospel; Acts 8:26-40 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 22: 25-31 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 John 4:7-21 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 91 (Lord’s Day 33)
Author: Scott Hoezee
When I was a pastor, I felt a sense of personal hurt whenever members transferred to other congregations, particularly when such transfers had nothing to do with a job relocation or a geographic move, as is sometimes the case. It was made worse by the fact that lots of such people never say good-bye, never drop a note, never explain—maybe it felt awkward to them to do so precisely because they sensed you would take it personally. But indeed, as a pastor you maybe baptized their children, presided over their marriage, did a funeral for a loved one.
But then these members of your flock disappear one day and that is that. It hurts. But even at its most painful that is nothing compared to how Jesus feels when he loses a branch–because in that case it means not that the branch is serving God elsewhere on the vine but that the branch is little more than kindling wood.
John 15 reveals all kinds of interesting things. But one of the most startling perhaps is how much Jesus wants to be close to his people (and how close in fact he is to his people when all this “abiding” goes on as it should). This is, in other words, a lyric piece of Gospel.
You may have noticed in verse 2 that the branches the Father cuts off are described as having been “in me.” This soon-to-be dead wood once had every bit as intimate a relationship with Jesus the Vine as every other branch has. It is not as though these branches had once floated freely above the vine or had had at best only a small connection to the larger vine stem. A branch is a branch and it is organically united with the vine. To lose such a branch is to lose part of your very self. The act of cutting that branch is a wounding, scar-making affair. Small wonder Jesus expresses such fervency in John 15 that disciples not let this happen! Jesus is desperate to keep everyone, desperate that they remain in his love even as Jesus himself and his words remain in the hearts of all branches.
Most people in North America (and in other parts of the world, too) are accustomed to living in very voluntaristic societies. We view our membership and involvement in most every institution as something that is wholly up to us—we can initiate membership and we can terminate membership at will. Hence we tend to view the status of our membership, of our belonging, to this or that group sort of at arm’s length. Being a volunteer member carries with it a vague sense of detachment. I come and go as I please, thank you very much.
And so even in terms of church membership—and here I am recalling something Eugene Peterson once wrote—we have a hard time wrapping our minds around the idea that to say “I am a member of Second Church” is (biblically speaking) like referring to your own hand as a member of your body. Being a voluntary member of some group means joining or resigning are rather easy things. Being a body part carries with it quite other connotations! A hand can’t quit the body without some pretty dramatic effects. Or, in the specific case of John 15, a branch cannot leave the vine without some trauma involved. Pruning, cutting, cleansing a vine involves pain, for the branch but also for the host vine.
There are lots of interesting insights to be drawn out of a passage as rich as John 15. But perhaps in this Eastertide Season, a reminder of what it means to dwell “in Christ” as a member of his community is as important, if not bracing, a reminder we preachers can provide to people who may over time come to regard their membership in the church altogether too casually.
Commentator Dale Bruner calls John 14 Jesus’ great “Father Sermon” since nowhere else does Jesus talk so much about his Father–in 42 verses Jesus uses the word “Father” twenty-one times, about once every other verse. John 15 brings us to what Bruner calls the “Son Sermon” because here Jesus talks a great deal about himself. In the span of just 31 verses Jesus uses the first-person pronoun “I” a whopping seventy-one times, nearly twice per verse on average! (John will present Jesus’ “Spirit Sermon” in chapter 16, which is the longest single section in the gospels where Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s work.) John’s presentation and packaging of the events in the Upper Room make him quite unique among the New Testament’s four gospel accounts. But one thing is clear: the theology John teaches and conveys in these three key chapters has gone on to become extremely foundational for the Church along the ages.
What does the person of faith look like? Is the faith-filled person someone who exudes a serene confidence, a calmed and hushed and unperturbed spirit? Or is the faith-filled one the active and always-in-motion kingdom worker who is mostly a kind of holy blur of volunteerism? Is faith a set of convictions that could be counted-cross-stitched and hung on a wall or is faith seen best only when it is put into practice out on the nitty-gritty streets of the real world?
In the Bible Abraham is the father of all faith, and his life was mostly a series of journeys that involved trust. By faith Abraham packed up everything he owned one day and set off on a long trip toward an as-yet unspecified far country. God said “Go” and Abraham went. God said “Go to a place I will show you later” but Abraham did not reply, “Well, if I’m going to go, could you at least give me a hint, a general direction, a region on the map?” No, Abraham just went–no map, no end destination. Just a wing and a prayer, a dream of starry skies and sandy seashores and a home country out there . . . Somewhere
And that’s faith, we say. It was a leap of faith, and most of us believe at some level that sooner or later faith will involve a leap, a jump into the unknown. Abraham’s own journey of faith had its ups and downs and setbacks, but his story climaxes with one final excursion into the unknown when God told him one terrible day to take his son, his only son, Isaac whom he loved, and kill him on yet another unspecified mountain locale that God would show Abraham later on, only after he had set out. And it was only when the dagger, glinting in the morning sunshine on Mount Moriah, was raised up over Isaac’s rapidly heaving chest that God said, “Now I know!” The journey of faith was complete. Abraham had once more leapt into the unknown, proving his faith.
Frederick Buechner has written that faith should be seen as a verb and not a noun because faith is always about the sacred journey along life’s varied pathways. Others point out that in the Greek of the New Testament people are not said to believe in something but rather they believe into something, again hinting at movement, the risky stepping out onto thin air. To people like this, faith is never a creed because that is too static, too settled. Creeds make faith look like a big overstuffed easy chair that you settle into in your living room in a kind of cozy spiritual serenity. But real faith, some say, is about hitting the road, trusting God to lead you along. Faith is active and moving, not static and dry.
It’s an old debate, of course. Martin Luther’s world changed (and he then changed the rest of the world) after he read Paul’s hope-laden rhetoric that we are justified by faith alone! Faith is a gift given to us by grace. We don’t have to do anything to get faith. But then Luther discovered the letter of James. James was one of those who didn’t want faith to be the overstuffed easy chair and so said over and over that faith without works is dead. If you’ve got faith, you’d better be out there living and working and journeying along in very active ways, James said. Well, Luther didn’t like that at all. “James makes me so angry,” Luther said one day, “that I feel like throwing Jimmy into the kitchen stove!”
Luther wanted faith to be like a precious jewel hidden in our hearts. Others claim that the best image for faith is walking. Some say faith is a matter of the head and the heart–what you know and how you feel. Others say it’s a matter of the hands and feet–what you do and where you go.
In John 15 we get a little of both. On the one hand, faith is about remaining, abiding, staying still and calm and in one place, rooted to Jesus. At the same time, we are called to produce fruit, to be active, vibrant, and verdant.
Author: Doug Bratt
If the Holy Spirit is a bit like a stone dropped into the middle of a pond, then Acts 8:26-40’s story is like one of the concentric rings that ripples out from it and across God’s world. But it’s only one of the first of a series of rings that continues to spread to this very day.
In Acts 1:8 Jesus tells his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” If the Spirit is “the stone” to which I alluded earlier, its first landing spot is on the first Pentecost in Jerusalem. Acts 2:4, after all, reports, “All of [those who’d gathered there] were filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Acts 2-8 focuses on the Jerusalem on which God first “drops” the Spirit. It describes how the Spirit moves into thousands of converts and through the apostles into people with various physical disabilities. While Jesus’ Spirit-filled followers encounter growing hostility, not even that hostility to the gospel and those who proclaim it can stop the Spirit from spreading into more and more people.
Acts 6 recounts how Jesus’ first followers include seven Grecian Jews whom the apostles appoint to minister to Grecian Jewish widows. Those new deacons include Stephen and Philip whom the Spirit graciously uses to continue to spread God’s Word (Acts 6:7).
With their election, however, hostility to the gospel turns deadly. After all, religious leaders seize Stephen, try him in religious court and sentence him to death. His subsequent execution (8:1) triggers further hostility that takes the form of “persecution.” The Spirit, however, turns that persecution into a kind of second concentric ring of the Spirit’s movement. Persecution, after all, sends the apostles out from Jerusalem through Judea and into Samaria.
Those who are aware of the historic tension between the Jews and Samaritans may be surprised by Philip’s proclamation of the gospel in a Samaritan city. They’re probably even more startled by the positive effect his, as well as Peter and John’s proclamation has in Samaria. That witness, after all, fills that city with “great joy” (8:8).
Yet while Acts 8:25 suggests that the Spirit then sends Peter and John from Samaria back to Jerusalem, verse 26 reports that the Spirit sends Philip even farther into the Samaritan “hinterlands.” In fact, it’s so far “out there” that Martin Marty compares the end of its highway to one of those gas stations at the edge of a desert whose sign reads: “Last gas for 150 miles …” To paraphrase an old cliché, if where the Spirit sends Philip isn’t the end of the world, you can almost see it from there.
The man whom Philip meets out in the middle of nowhere may be almost as far “out there” as their meeting place. Acts 8:16 reports, after all, that the man is Ethiopian. Will Willimon suggests that the term “Ethiopian” in the Greco-Roman world usually connoted black skin. So he’s what Willimon calls “a person from an exotic land, the edge of the world, timbuktu, someone whose dark skin makes him an object of wonder and admiration among Jews and Romans” (Acts: John Knox Press, p. 72).
Acts 8:16 reports, however, that the Ethiopian man is also a “eunuch.” Martin Marty (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts, Eerdmans, p. 556) notes that most Ethiopian officials in his time were castrated. That, of course, would have kept the man to whom the Spirit sent Philip out of the heart of Jerusalem’s temple. Yet as Marty also notes, “eunuch was often also [simply] a title for people who served in the court.” So we’re not completely sure just what it means that the man from Ethiopia was a “eunuch.”
So perhaps Luke is saying little more than that the man to whom the Spirit sends Philip is quite “other.” After all, this man who’s riding home through “other” Samaria likely has dark skin. The gentile whom Philip meets near the edge of the world may also be emasculated. Clearly, then, the Spirit is stretching out farther than most of Jesus’ first followers would have expected. Or than where they’d have expected the Spirit to send them.
Yet some elements of Acts 8 seem less “out there.” The Ethiopian eunuch’s devotions include Isaiah 53’s well-known but haunting words about a suffering servant whom people unjustly torture and slaughter. While most Christians have come to see this as a prophecy about Jesus the Christ, the Ethiopian hasn’t. He recognizes that he needs help if he’s to understand what he’s reading. This member of the queen’s cabinet asks a member of King Jesus’ court if Isaiah is talking about himself or someone else.
Ironically, of course, the prophet may, in fact, be talking about both himself and someone else. Philip, however, chooses to focus on the way Isaiah points ahead to Jesus. He uses Isaiah 53 as a stepping-stone to a gospel presentation about the good news of God’s grace received through faith in Jesus Christ.
Yet many of Philip’s Jewish contemporaries have a hard time believing that Isaiah was talking about anyone but himself or one of his own contemporaries. So in the eyes of some of them, even a Christo-centric understanding of Isaiah 53 is something of a “reach” for the Spirit.
Yet nothing may be more of a reach than the story’s next element. After all, Philip and his new Ethiopian friend are traveling on “the desert road.” Near the edge of the world. Yet what do they just “happen” (Marty) to ride past once they finish their Bible study? “Some water” (36).
When Isaiah talks about God’s coming kingdom, he refers to “streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19). And when the psalmist talks about God’s redeeming work, he looks forward to “streams in the Negev” (Psalm 126:4). So we can imagine that Acts’ biblically literate first audience heard something very hopeful when they heard about the desert water Philip and the Ethiopian find.
Yet in the baptism that the Ethiopian receives there, we may also find a bit of a “stretch.” How, after all, do Christians usually prepare adults to be baptized? Often with extensive preparation in biblical, confessional and ecclesiastical studies. Yet how does Philip prepare the Ethiopian for baptism? With what may be a Cliff’s Notes version of the Scriptures.
The next scattering happens after Philip baptizes the Ethiopian government official. Since the Spirit won’t stay in the desert, the Spirit won’t let the Spirit’s messengers stay there either. So the Spirit whisks Philip away to Azotus on his way to Caesarea. The Spirit, the gospel and the apostles are, after all, on the move towards the ends of the earth.
That movement also perhaps helps explain legends about the Ethiopian whom God graciously converts. Acts merely reports that he goes “on his way rejoicing” (39). Yet Eusebius is among those who report that when the Ethiopian returns home, he becomes an evangelist. As Willimon writes, “While our text says nothing of this, we can understand how this lively story of an Ethiopian who appears from nowhere, responds to the gospel, and joyfully goes his way elicited an imaginative response from the church, for in his story we can what the good news can do” (72).
However, the good news, through the power of the Holy Spirit, does an even more shocking thing than convert an Ethiopian God-fearer in the text that follows the one the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. Acts 9, after all, describes God’s conversion of God, Jesus’ followers and his Church’s perhaps greatest enemy of his day: Saul. He hadn’t just publicly approved of Stephen’s martyrdom. Saul also began Acts 9 “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples (1). Yet the Lord knocks him off his high horse and into the kingdom of God. God even transforms Saul’s name into Paul. The Spirit of Acts is, after all, on the loose, refusing to be limited by geography, nationality, sexuality or religion.
The Spirit continues to stretch out towards the ends of the earth that God so deeply loves. Even into places of deep division, hostility and violence.
I have a colleague who, as I write this, is conducting a workshop on healing the wounds caused by ethnic conflict. He’s leading that conference in one of the most tense and violent places on earth. It’s on the frontline of a war in a town that has changed hands several times in just the past few years. In fact, each night my colleague is being whisked away from the sight of the conference to a safer location.
Yet in and through his colleagues and him, the Spirit isn’t just reaching out to a dangerous place. The Spirit is also reaching out to people who stand firmly entrenched on both sides of a bitter conflict that has raged for more than 100 years. Many of us are at least a bit skeptical that even the Spirit can heal their old, deep and painful wounds. So we may need to spend more time reading about Acts’ amazingly effective work of the Spirit.
Author: Stan Mast
The Lectionary can be a hard taskmaster, especially when it assigns the same reading twice in two months during entirely different seasons of the liturgical year. That is the case with this reading from the last verses of Psalm 22. It was our assignment two months ago during Lent and is now our reading for this Fifth Sunday of Easter. What were the developers of the RCL thinking?! Well, maybe they were like my old high school basketball coach, who made us run the same drills over and over again to teach us something valuable.
Psalm 22 is, of course, the quintessential Lenten Psalm. As Patrick Reardon puts it, it is “par excellence the canticle of the Lord’s suffering and death.” But this Lenten Psalm has two parts so distinct in tone and message that some scholars think it is really two separate Psalms welded together. But in my comments on Psalm 22 in the Lenten season, I opined that the two halves really do fit together, because verses 22-31 remind us, right in the heart of Lent, that Easter is coming. The agony of verses 1-21 is not the whole story. They will inevitably be followed by the ecstasy of verses 22-31. Thus, considering these closing verses during Lent was a good corrective to the darkness of that penitential season.
Conversely, focusing on these same verses now in the Easter season reminds us that all is not glory and praise in the lives of those who follow the Risen Christ. Verses 1-21 are still there, lurking in the background of the text and often creeping into the foreground of our lives. The victorious life can still be mighty painful. Sometimes it is difficult to sing God’s praise through gritted teeth. Both the cross and the empty tomb are always realities in the Christian life. I don’t know if that is what the lectionary writers were thinking when they assigned these same verses in two different seasons only two months apart. But that is surely a way you can preach on Psalm 22 in this joyous season.
James Luther Mays puts it eloquently when he says that verses 1-21 are “a vision of what happens when evil breaks through the normal restraints of humanity because the correcting salvation and providence of God are absent.” To which I would add that verses 22-31 are a vision of what will happen when God breaks through the normal constraints of evil and brings the correcting salvation that makes all things right.
That’s what began to happen on Easter, as anticipated in verse 24. Unfortunately, our reading for today doesn’t include that verse, but you must use it in your sermon. It, and it alone, accounts for dramatic shift in visions in Psalm 22, and in life. “For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of his afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him, but has listened to his cry for help.” That is a shocking verse, because it denies the complaints of verses 1-2 and 6-8. In spite of the Psalmist’s deep suffering and his conviction that God had “forsaken” him, Yahweh was not far off, did not despise or abhor, did not hid his face, but heard the Psalmist’s prayer. That kind of reversal is exactly what happened between Good Friday and Easter morning. It is a perfect Easter text.
And the words that follow are a perfect text for this Easter season, in which we live out the reality of Christ’s victory over sin, suffering, and death. According to our reading the most appropriate response to the resurrection of Christ is praise, praise focused on what God has done in Christ. “From you comes the theme of my praise….”
There are two things worthy of note in your sermon on this text. First, this praise begins as an individual act, but it moves to a corporate activity. Second, it begins with Israel before the time of Christ, but extends beyond the life of Christ to the ends of the earth and to the end of time.
So, though the Psalmist begins with his own words of praise (“I will declare your name…. I will praise you…. I will fulfill my vows”), he immediately calls his “brothers,” “the congregation,” “the great assembly” to join him in his praise. For the Israelite it was unthinkable to keep the experience of answered prayer and divine deliverance a private matter, “between my God and I.” Everyone needed to know, because, of course, everyone wrestles with the same experience of God’s silence and inactivity. We need to encourage each other, not with the kind of “humble bragging” that makes times of testimony self-serving, but with the kind of testimony that turns all attention on God and God alone. Note how the Psalmist focuses on Yahweh (“your name,” “you,” “revere him.”)
All members are invited to join him in praise, all those “who fear the Lord,” “all you descendants of Jacob.” All will sit down at the sacrificial meal that followed the thank offering, including “the poor.” That is probably not a reference to economic poverty. The aniwim were those who were poor in spirit. Indeed, sometimes Israel as a whole was referred to as the aniwim, because they depended on Yahweh the way the poor depend on their benefactors. All who feared the Lord, who sought the Lord, who depended on the Lord are invited to join in praising the Lord.
In other words, the redeeming work of Yahweh in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, will create a community united in praise. When I think of the sad divisions in the church today, I hear Psalm 22 as a clarion call to the church to become such a community. We are far from it; indeed, the worship wars are sort of over, but they still sour our praise. You can use this Lenten/Easter Psalm to hold out “the vision glorious” of a church that attracts the world to Christ by the voice of united praise.
That’s the second thing to note in these closing words. The redeemed individual and the united church call the world to join in their Easter praise. The praise of Psalm 22 is not provincial or temporal; it’s not just for Israel/the church and it’s not just for the present or even for the living. In verses 27 and 28 we hear about the future of the Kingdom of God. He is Lord right now, though not acknowledged as such. But as time goes on and when the end finally comes “all the ends of the earth will remember and turn to Yahweh, and all the families of the earth will bow before him….” Why? Because “dominion belongs to Yahweh and he rules over the nations.” The Risen Christ will finally bring all things under the feet of God (I Cor. 15:23-28). Here is an eschatological vision of the power of Easter that should fill us with confidence and hope.
But the Psalmist isn’t quite done with his call to praise. In verse 26 he mentioned the “poor,” but in verse 29 he says that “the rich of the earth will feast and worship,” too. That might be a reference to the fact that the arrogant rich are often the enemy of the poor believer. Even the enemies of God’s people will finally join the Messianic banquet. Or it might be a reference to those who are dying; the Hebrew of verses 29-31 are famously difficult. “The rich” might be synonymous with “all who go down to the dust.” In most of the Old Testament, death simply meant the end of life, and the dead do not praise the living God. But maybe Psalm 22:29 is exploding the conventional Jewish views of what is possible. Even the dying and the dead will join in the praise of the one who is victorious even over the last enemy.
This praise will go on through the ages. “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about Yahweh.” The chain of covenantal faithfulness will go on and on, because those future generations “will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn.” Until Jesus returns, there will be a church in the world, as Jesus said in Matthew 16:18. As the church declines in the West, we hear many gloomy forecasts about its future in the world. But Psalm 22 assures us that the victory of Jesus on Easter will not be wasted. The preaching of the crucified and risen Christ will go until he returns. Finally, the whole world will bring its homage to him, the Lord of Lord, the King of Kings.
Because “he has done it.” That’s the last line of this poem; it summarizes the Christian life and the gospel by which we live. God has done it. It is finished. Everything needed to reverse the agony of human life has been done. Ecstasy shall follow. People ask, “What is the world coming to?” Psalm 22 says, “It is coming to this. In the end, there will be praise, universal and eternal. Everyone, everywhere, at every time will praise Yahweh for what he has done in Jesus Christ.”
Here’s a message of unalloyed hope for dark times in the world, in our nation and in our church. It’s not a triumphalist message that denies hard times; verses 1-21 will keep you from such nonsense. But in times of agony, we need to be reminded that God has done it and the victory of Easter has “cosmic ramifications for all people everywhere. Such is the audacious unrestrained testimony of the delivered.” (Brent Strawn)
As I write this, the famous Davos Conference has concluded. That is the annual gathering of the world’s glitterati at a Swiss ski resort. As someone said, “It’s where the billionaires gather to talk to the millionaires about the middle class.” Once a year the world comes together to sing the praises of Mammon and discuss what that great god can do if we only apply ourselves better. What a different picture is painted in Psalm 22. But thanks be to God, even the rich, saved by the impossible grace of God, will one day “feast and worship” the God who became poor so that we might become rich.
1 John 4:7-21
Author: Scott Hoezee
If you preached on the Lectionary selection from 1 John 3 last week—and if you read the sermon starter for that text that I posted here on the CEP website—then you will know a hard truth as we face this text: we probably both shot our wad on “love” last Sunday! So much of this passage sounds identical to 1 John 3 that I actually double-checked I was reading the right text and was not accidentally back in the lection from the prior week!
There is, however, one new wrinkle on this text that we maybe can fruitfully focus on and that is the idea that true, perfect love casts out fear. It’s your run-of-the-mill Greek word phobos that John uses here for “fear” and that word, of course, is the etymological core root of all our various English words ending in “-phobia.” Many of us live with such phobias: fear of heights, fear of enclosed spaces, fear of cats. There are some strange ones out there, too (you can Google it). Hypnophobia is fear of falling asleep. Heliophobia is a fear of the sun. Or you could fear everything, which brings us to the classic Charlie Brown Christmas Special clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8SDztycKwY
But I think it’s pretty clear John does not mean phobias like that. Or maybe he does mean something closer to Charlie Brown’s depression-inducing pantaphobia in which fear becomes a general way to go at life. John yokes this fear that has no place in perfect love specifically with a fear “of punishment,” which may be an indication that what he is talking about is the fear of still being punished for our sins. Those of us who are pastors have not infrequently heard this fear expressed by those who are ending their earthly journey. “How can I be sure I did enough for God to love me? What if God plays all the sins of my life on some giant screen for all to see? How will I ever live down the humiliation of that? How do I know there is grace sufficient for even me?”
This is clearly the kind of fear of punishment John is pointing to. And it is a miserable thing to have dangling over your head like Damocles’ sword or something. People who suffer with such fear of ultimate punishment need gently to be counseled in the truths of God’s grace in Jesus. We need a full-throated recitation of the end of Romans 8 that there is NOTHING in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus the Lord. If we understand God’s perfect love for us—and have that same perfect love in us by the Spirit of God whom God has given to us—then we will not fear judgment.
(As an aside: the Heidelberg Catechism is one of the great confessions that spun out of the Reformation era in Europe and it frequently tilted directly against the terror-inducing church of the Middle Ages, including all those cathedrals that featured blood-chilling portrayals of the Final Judgment over the front doors in an effort to scare people into behaving and doing what the church told them to do. Vis-à-vis all that, the Heidelberg Catechism at one point asks the question “How does Christ’s return ‘to judge the living and the dead’ COMFORT you?”)
So yes, understanding God’s perfect love toward us should keep us from fear of that same God’s punishing us. And yet . . . a lot of this passage—like others in 1 John—is not about our behavior toward God but toward sisters and brothers, toward other people. If John is talking about fear of ultimate divine punishment—and it seems he is—then how does this relate to our treatment of other people in the church or in the world generally?
I suspect we already know the answer: fearful people tend to be unpleasant people—even sometimes downright nasty people. Not always, of course. Some who are deep-down fearful are too sad to be unkind toward others. Their fears lead them to retreat from life, to be quiet. But not so with others. If you can find a group of people who fear that the very foundations of their faith are under attack, such people very often end up being nasty. In the defense of what they view as the truth, they end up adhering to a line attributed to the politician Barry Goldwater: “Extremism in the pursuit of virtue is no vice.” Maybe you are defending your views on cosmic origins over against views of an ancient universe that has an evolutionary history to it. Maybe you are defending this or that area of morality vis-à-vis what you perceive to be attacks on it.
Whatever the precise scenario, it happens too often in the church that one group attacks another viciously, unkindly, brusquely. These days the ability to be cruel toward one another has been enhanced by the ability to leave face-less comments on blog posts, Facebook conversations, Twitter feeds. People who might not be unkind were they actually talking to another person find it much easier to lob accusations and epithets in print, including very often about people they’ve never met. But that does not prevent many folks today—and we all fall into this to one degree or another now and then—from accusing people of things that, if they really knew the other person as a friend or even as an acquaintance, they would soon discover are just not true.
There are many explanations for this rise in such uncivil behavior toward one another but nine times out of ten if you traced it back to its core cause, you would find some version or another of fear. Fear of losing. Fear of the stranger. Fear of having the Bible disproven. Fear that if this or that turns out to be true, our whole faith edifice might collapse like the proverbial house of cards. And most of those fears, in turn, can be traced back to the fear that maybe our great God doesn’t have the whole world in his hands after all. Maybe he is not the loving and gracious God the church says he is. Maybe . . . maybe my status with this God hangs by a thread and so how can I ever be sure if I am really saved?
The less sure you are about God’s unconditional love toward you, the greater you fear. And the greater you fear, the more likely it is you will find it hard to treat other people with the love of Christ because so much of life will feel threatening to you in the end.
But to know God’s perfect love is to be filled with that perfect love and all the shalom and security and joy that go with it. There won’t be room for fear in a heart filled to the brim with such joyful confidence. And from the overflow of that divinely inspired joy there will come rivers of kindness and love toward our sisters and brothers, too.
You just cannot treat other people unlovingly—indeed, you cannot hate anyone—if you are filled with God’s Spirit of love. Because when you are, there will be no room for the kind of fear that can make a person lash out at others. That kind of fear will have been cast out, John writes. And what will remain will be the love of God in Christ Jesus the Lord.
I have used this quote in other settings before but it may fit also here when talking about perfect love casting out all fear. In Frederick Buechner’s novel The Final Beast someone is talking to a pastor about his recent encounters with a guilt-ridden women in the congregation. This person begs this pastor to declare God’s forgiveness to this deeply disturbed woman. The pastor claims the woman knows that the pastor has forgiven her.
“But she doesn’t know God forgives her. That’s the only power you have– to tell her that. Not just that God forgives her for the poor adultery. But for the faces she can’t bear to look at now… Tell her God forgives her for being lonely and bored, for not being full of joy with a household of children… Tell her that her sin is forgiven whether she knows it or not, tell her what she wants to know more than anything else—to know what all of us want to know. What on earth do you think you were ordained for?”