April 26, 2021
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 said good-bye, never dropped a note, never explained why they left the congregation—maybe it felt awkward to them to do so precisely because they sensed the pastor 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 voluntarist 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. No big deal. 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: Stan Mast
On this Fifth Sunday of Easter, we continue to watch the march of the Easter Gospel across the ancient world as the early Christians followed the marching orders of Jesus given in Acts 1:8. Actually, it was not so much a march as a meander, particularly in the case of Philip in our text.
At least it looks that way if you follow his travels on a map, because he starts by moving north out of Jerusalem into Samaria (Acts 8:5-25). Then Philip moves way south toward the Negev where this story happens. But then in what sounds like the blink of an eye, he finds himself in Philistine territory along the coast of the Mediterranean, landing at last in Caesarea, a coastal town in the north of Israel.
If you just follow the map, this all looks haphazard. In fact, if you don’t read this story carefully and in context, it reads like a story whose various parts are connected by the famous words, “and it just so happened.” But a careful and contextual reading reveals that this is not about happenstance; it is about the Holy Spirit propelling and empowering the church exactly where Jesus said it would go.
And that makes this story much more than an interesting history lesson. It is an immensely important motivational message for the modern church. If the church of today is ever going to get unstuck and make progress in this world, we’ll have to be as sensitive to the movement of the Spirit as Philip was when he preached the Risen Christ to “the outcasts of Israel.”
Indeed, more than one person has suggested that the book of Acts is misnamed when it is called, “The Acts of the Apostles.” It should be called, “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” That is surely the case in this story, where Philip is not an apostle and the Holy Spirit is the main actor in each part of the story.
Philip was a deacon, one of the original 7 deacons appointed by the apostles to help feed the poor widows. Early in the life of the church, the heavenly harmony we’ve seen in Acts 2 and 4 was disrupted by a painfully modern issue, ethnic strife. The Hellenistic Jews complained that the Palestinian Jews were getting preferential treatment in the daily distribution of food to widows. Rather than spend their energy waiting on tables instead of preaching the Gospel, the apostles wisely decided to appoint 7 men “full of the Spirit and wisdom” to take care of the widows. Philip is mentioned second in the list, right after Stephen.
In God’s providential plan, Philip would become much more than a deacon. When his fellow deacon, Stephen, was martyred for his faithful and fearless testimony about Christ, Philip joined the frantic exodus from Jerusalem which was caused by a fierce persecution led by a young man named Saul. We will soon hear about that young man in Acts 9, but first God had something important for Philip to do.
Acts 8:2 is a very important verse in the history of the church’s mission, because it tells us that “all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” The apostles, the Christ-appointed preachers, were still in Jerusalem. But everyone else was scattered. How would the Gospel spread to the ends of the earth if the preachers were stuck back home in Jerusalem? Well, God had a plan. Acts 8:4 challenges the church of all ages. “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.”
The very next thing we hear is that “Philip went down to a city in Samaria” where the Gospel spread like wildfire. Just like that, the Gospel has touched “the outcasts of Israel,” people who were ethnically and religiously half breeds, scorned by the pure Jews. Yet, by the power of the Spirit, these “dogs” are now part of the flock, approved by Peter and John themselves (Acts 8:14-17). Jesus’ plan is proceeding as he commanded, from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, but in ways the apostles could not have imagined.
No one could have dreamed how the Gospel would reach the ends of the earth. Here’s how it happened. The Holy Spirit (disguised as an angel?) said to Philip, “’Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Do an about face. Leave the flourishing church in Samaria and head to the badlands of the wilderness. Which Philip does immediately and without question.
And it just so happened that “on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians.” And it just so happened that this man was returning from Jerusalem where he had gone to worship. And it just so happened that he had a copy of Isaiah’s prophecy for his travel reading. And it just so happened that he was reading that part where Isaiah talks about the silence of a lamb who was slain. No, this didn’t just happen. It was all arranged by the Spirit, who says to Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”
What a perfect example of God knowing what he’s doing, even when we don’t. Jesus had said, go the “ends of the earth.” That’s exactly how the Greeks and Romans saw Ethiopia (cf. Homer’s Odyssey), which was probably what we call northern Sudan today. Which means that this man was black; indeed, in the Greek, “Ethiopian” means “burnt or black.” Further, he was an important official, meaning that he would have access to the corridors of power back home. He was an important African man.
But he was also a devotee of the Jewish religion. That’s why he had just journeyed all the way to Jerusalem to participate in a Jewish feast. His light reading for the trip was a large scroll of Isaiah. He was a deeply devout proselyte, a “God fearer.” Sadly, he was also a eunuch, which meant that he was legally excluded from the Temple. He was, in spite of his piety, an “outcast of Israel.” Both an important African and a devotee of Judaism who was excluded from its holiest place, he was the perfect choice to be the first non-Jew to hear the Gospel.
The Holy Spirit made sure he heard it and believed it. At the Spirit’s explicit command, Philip ran up to the chariot and asks exactly the right question. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Now, this important official might have blown off this lone figure sweating in the desert heat. But he responds with the very kind of question asked by the crowd at Pentecost, a question that indicates a Spirit-produced openness. “How can I unless someone explains it to me?”
Well, the Spirit had provided that someone in the person of Philip, who uses that mysterious passage from Isaiah 53 to tell the Ethiopian “the good news about Jesus.” There’s a subtle word play going on here. In Isaiah 53 the lamb did not open his mouth. Verse 35 of our text in the original says that Philip “opened his mouth,” which is an Old Testament way of saying that God was speaking through him. He opened his mouth and out came the Gospel, even though he wasn’t an apostle who had spent 3 years with Jesus. The Holy Spirit overcame his lack of credentials and training.
Clearly, the Holy Spirit opened the Ethiopian’s mind and heart as well, because the next thing we read in verse 36 is the man asking to be baptized. Verse 37, recorded in a footnote as the possible addition by a scrupulous scribe, has Philip asking if the man really believes, to which the man replies with a perfectly orthodox confession of faith. And just like that, the man was baptized and the gospel had reached one of the ends of the earth.
How do we know this was the Spirit’s doing? Because the passage begins with the Spirit’s word to Philip and it is shot through with explicit and implicit references to the Spirit and it ends with the Spirit mysteriously snatching Philip away and depositing him in Azotus (Ashdod in Philistine parlance). Rather than reacting with shock to this sudden disappearance, the newly converted Ethiopian “went on his way (back to Ethiopian) rejoicing (and witnessing as he had been witnessed to?).”
Philip continued to preach the Gospel in formerly Philistine territory until he arrived in the important Roman town of Caesarea in northern Israel, where we find him next with 4 unmarried daughters who are all (surprise!) prophetesses (Acts 21:8). It would be surprising and disappointing if the Ethiopian didn’t do the same. Whenever new converts were scattered by persecution or by religious pilgrimage or by personal business, they preached the Gospel. It wasn’t just the Acts of the Apostles that spread the Gospel. It was the Acts of the Holy Spirit using ordinary people.
The New Interpreters Bible sums up this passage in its context. In these early chapters of Acts, we see the Gospel going to “the whole household of Israel—resident Jews from Jerusalem to pilgrims from the most distant parts of the Diaspora, pious Jews most devoted to their religious heritage to those most detached from it. Why? To prepare the reader for the Lord’s most shocking commission of another Jewish convert who will carry the word of God beyond Israel as ‘a light to the nations (Acts 9:15).’”
A textual sermon on this passage should highlight and celebrate the role of the Spirit in the early church’s incredible success. And it should challenge today’s church to be open and dependent on that same Spirit, so that we will preach the Gospel wherever we go. Asking good questions and speaking of Jesus with bold simplicity will, by the Spirit’s power, lead the most unlikely people to faith in Christ.
Desmond Doss was a coward, a lily livered, yellow bellied coward, and everyone knew it. Until “Hacksaw Ridge,” which is the title of the movie that tells the story of Desmond Doss.
The movie is set in WWII. Like all red-blooded American boys, Desmond wanted to help in the war effort, so he enlisted in the army. But because of his peculiar brand of the Christian faith, he wouldn’t carry a rifle or kill anyone. He wanted to serve, so he volunteered to be a medic, which his fellow soldiers interpreted as cowardice. So, they mocked him, excluded him, even beat him up. The Army itself tried to drum him out. But he insisted he wanted to serve, but as a medic.
Doss was part of the invasion of the important Japanese island of Okinawa. Doss’ unit was tasked with the impossible mission of taking Hacksaw Ridge, a sheer cliff 100 feet tall on top of which were thousands of fiercely patriotic, even suicidal Japanese troops. The Army had to climb that cliff using crude rope ladders. So up the cliff went Desmond Doss, the coward.
On top was a living hell. It was like walking into a hacksaw. Hundreds of Americans troops were maimed and killed. Before long, they had to retreat back down the cliff, all except Desmond Doss. He stayed behind to rescue the dying. He found a man bloodied beyond recognition, and dragged him to the edge of the cliff. Doss fashioned a rope harness and, wrapping the rope around a stump, slowly lowered the man to waiting comrades below. When he finished that, Doss set out in search of more injured GI’s. One by one he dragged them to the edge and lowered them over. After a while, he began to pray, “Lord, help me find one more.” Over and over, he prayed, “Help me find one more.”
By the time that day was over, Desmond Doss, the coward, had saved 75 men. His formerly scornful comrades now praised his faith and his courage. His bravery and dedication earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. It’s a true story.
His prayer should be the prayer of all believers as we march and stumble and crawl through the living hell that our world often is. “Help me get one more.” But the only way we will dare to pray and live that way is by the leading and empowering of the Holy Spirit.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Let’s try a little thought experiment: imagine running across a long-ish narrative poem that began with something like, “The one I love torments me day and night, insults me in private and in public. She has made me out to be a villain, and I rue the day I ever met her at times. Who will deliver me from this woman!?” Well, that’s a striking set of observations!
So can you imagine this same poem ending this way: “She walks in beauty like the night, of cloudless climes and starry skies, and all that’s best of dark and bright, meet in her aspect and in her eyes.”
Surely, you would think, both parts cannot be included in the same poem. Either this is a mistake or someone inadvertently smashed together two completely different poems about two completely different people and experiences.
But honestly, this is almost exactly what Psalm 22 is like. If you take up just this week’s Lectionary verses of 25-31, you would assume that if this was the end of a poem, then the first part of that same poem must have been pretty lyric and lovely too. But no. The opening of Psalm 22 is a cry of raw dereliction and most of the first half is all about torment and the triumph of enemies and about a God who seems remote, aloof, and unwilling to do anything to help the hapless poet.
How, then, can the same psalmist who accused God in the shank of Psalm 22 conclude on a series of notes that could not be more laudatory? The last half-dozen verses here are gushing with pious enthusiasm for God. The sentiments expressed very nearly count as fawning. God is depicted as beneficent and munificent. God raises up the poor and puts them on a par with the rich. God provides a rich feast of food even as people look to God as the source of all life. The whole earth redounds with God’s praise and all who see and know this God bow down before him. God’s reputation is so glowing that it will ricochet from one generation to the next and so on forever and ever.
It’s like listening to the Hallelujah Chorus six times in a row! Therefore the question: short of some editorial glitch in which someone mindlessly stitched together the beginning and ending of two disparate and opposite psalms, what explains the 180-degree turnaround from “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” to “They will proclaim God’s righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: God has done it!”???
Honestly, I don’t know the answer fully. Let’s rule out an editorial error, however. Let’s also stipulate something I have observed before about Psalm 22: whatever you make of its sunny conclusion, do not use that as a way to wash away the power of the first half. Don’t do what one preacher I heard once did: suggest that when Jesus cried out verse 1 from the cross, he didn’t really mean it but was kind of winking at us because he knew how Psalm 22 ended and thus that was his real message, not that he ever actually felt abandoned by his Father or Spirit.
No, that won’t do exegetically. We have to take the derelict and miserable situation of the first part of Psalm 22 with utmost seriousness and conclude that this really had been the psalmist’s experience at some point even as it was also the experience of Jesus on the cross. That kind of thing can happen to believers along the way in their walks of faith. Having faith in God is no shield against hurt or sickness, loneliness or alienation from other people. Philip Yancey once had an aptly titled book that resonates with most honest Christians: Disappointment with God. Or think of the more recent volume by Kate Bowler: Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved).
But that only makes our key question more difficult: how can all of that coexist in the same psalm with this roaringly positive and praise-filled conclusion? Truth is, this is a mystery but it is not a mystery with which we are unfamiliar as pastors and preachers. We have all met and ministered to people who have had every right to ditch their faith in God altogether. By all objective standards it seems like God has ignored far more prayerful pleas in someone’s past than God has answered. From the outside looking in, God seems to have let this person down repeatedly and even brutally. Few of us would tolerate such treatment at the hands of a fellow human being. This is not what friends do for one another.
Yet there this person is in worship every week, singing his or her heart out. There they are in the Wednesday Bible study group encouraging those who are discouraged and talking about God and about Jesus in ways that bolster the resolve and the faith of every person in the room. Job-like they stand up in essence to declare, “Though he slay me, yet will I believe. I will sing of my Redeemer and his goodness unto me!”
You witness all this and you step back in wonder. It is a mystery how the Spirit keeps people in their faith when a lot of people would have given up on God had they experienced even one-tenth of what such a person had gone through over the years.
How can Psalm 22 contain such disparate elements of despair and pious joy? I don’t know, but I meet incarnate examples of exactly this with some frequency and I regard them as miracles of the Spirit. If Psalm 22 reminds us of such faithful folk, then that is a good thing indeed.
In a scene from the film version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Hermione Granger attempts to tell her friends Ron and Harry why a fellow student of theirs is so conflicted. (You can watch the scene here). After piling up at least a half-dozen disparate things this young woman is experiencing and that caused her to cry in what should have been a happy moment, Hermione then listens as Ron exclaims, “One person couldn’t feel all of that. They’d explode.” Hermione then rejoins, “Just because you have the emotional range of a teaspoon!”
But Hermione is right: each of us can at any given moment be a boiling mix of all kinds of conflicting and conflicted feelings. We can be simultaneously grateful and angry about something. We can be at once excessively sad over some loss in our life and yet feel profound happiness in another area of our lives.
The psalmist who penned Psalm 22 definitely had a much wider range of emotions than a teaspoon. Here was a person who could hold in fruitful, faithful tension a wild variety of experiences and attendant emotions and yet somehow weave them together into a single poem that—if we are honest—is a pretty good reflection of where a lot of us are on any given day.
1 John 4:7-21
Author: Doug Bratt
Contrary to the Beatles’ sung claims, all we “need” isn’t “love.” But the full-orbed, whole person love to which this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson summons Jesus’ followers will go a very long way to meeting all sorts of “needs.”
Jesus’ friends might call John’s first letter his “love letter.” That emphasis is, in fact, a theme of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. “Love,” John almost immediately insists in verse 7, “comes from God.” God is, in other words, the source and origin of love.
Even God’s mostly saintly adopted sons and daughters wouldn’t know how to love unless God first both modeled love for us and implanted it within us. After all, while people naturally love ourselves, we don’t naturally want God’s best for our neighbors.
Yet while even Christians sometimes confuse love with romantic and/or lustful feelings, God has graciously shown us a more perfect way. “This is how God showed his love among us,” John writes in verses 9 and following, “He sent his one and only Son into the world … he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
God understands that since even God’s beloved children whom God graciously creates in God’s own image have naturally forgotten how to love, we need a concrete model for love. God graciously gives the world God so deeply loves that model in the gift of God’s Son. That at least suggests that one large element of godly love involves self-giving and –sacrifice.
Of course, even many children who have an age-appropriate faith can articulate something of what I’ve just written. But John’s readers peer into considerably murkier waters as we read more of this 1 John 4. What, for example, we wonder, does John mean when he writes in verses 8 and 16b, “God is love”? The apostle isn’t, after all, professing that love, like mercy and grace, simply characterizes God. Nor does John insist that God simply acts in loving ways, much like God acts in forgiving and patient ways.
No, John insists, “God is love.” It’s not easy to fully explain what the apostle means by that. Preachers and teachers who have opportunities to interact with their hearers might want to explore with them what John means when he insists God “is” love.
But perhaps “God is love” means at least this: everything God does, even God’s judging, is loving. Love defines God. It is God’s chief characteristic. In fact, John might even mean that love sums up all of God’s other character traits. God has always and will always act in love.
It’s hard to quickly come up with a more comprehensive and bold way of thinking about God, God’s world and those God creates in God’s image: God’s posture in regards to all God creates, including creatures that have made themselves God’s enemies, is that of love. It is a love that is so unconditional that even when God must judge what and whom God loves, God always does so in love.
Yet the apostle isn’t done loading chapter 4 with mystery when he insists, “God is love.” In verses 12 and 17 he goes on to add, “if we love one another God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
That’s a hard concept for Christians to understand. In fact, while the NIV translates teleiomenei as “complete,” other translations’ “perfected” may make the apostle’s assertion more difficult to understand. We profess, after all, that God’s love is already perfect and sufficient without God’s people. God doesn’t need our help to fill out God’s love.
Yet perhaps the apostle is saying at least something like this: God’s dearly beloved adopted sons and daughters somehow enhance God’s love when we reproduce something of it in our love for our neighbors. We might even say that Jesus’ followers help others to experience God’s love even more concretely when we’re deliberate and conscious channels of that love. Christians in some ways make God’s love more visible when we love especially people who are least, lost and have made themselves our enemies.
Proclamation of I John 4 will fall, for many of us, less than two weeks after Officer Chauvin’s conviction of the murder of Mr. George Floyd. That makes this a perhaps especially important time to talk about Christ-like love. Mr. Chauvin’s murder of Mr. Floyd was a complete failure of love. It serves to remind Christians of the radical but utterly necessary character of love for those who are different from us. Love for “the other” has historically proven to be very fragile.
But while proclamation of it needs careful nuancing, 1 John 4’s proclaimers also remember that God calls God’s adopted children to also love those who have, like Mr. Chauvin, made themselves our enemies. So we remind both our hearers and ourselves that we don’t get to choose whom we love. While we continue to vigorously hate and condemn Mr. Chauvin’s and similar acts, we follow a Jesus who calls his followers to love even those who don’t deserve it.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s third great mystery may involve verse 18’s, “Perfect love drives out fear.” This, of course, raises the specter addressed above in regards to what John means when he speaks of teleiomenei (“complete” or “perfect”) love.
But verse 18 adds to that mystery the mystery of how complete love “drives out fear.” Again perhaps it’s in some ways as simple as this: those who, by God’s grace and with the Spirit’s help, love don’t have to be afraid of God’s wrath. It may help 1 John’s proclaimers to remind our hearers that exo ballo (“drives out”) is closely related to the ekballo that refers to Jesus’ act of casting out demons. In that light, fear is something as both unnatural and destructive as evil spirits. Since it’s so dangerous, God graciously throws it out of God’s adopted sons and daughters.
A colleague whose name I no longer remember once compared perfect love and fear to oil and water. They’re simply incompatible. The love God equips God’s adopted sons and daughters to show our neighbors is an unmistakable demonstration that God has graciously done God’s work of salvation in and to us.
This may also relate to our posture towards people. Perfect love doesn’t just cast out fear of God. It also casts out the fear of others that sometimes provokes Jesus’ followers to act in unloving ways toward them.
As 1 John 4’s proclaimers reflect with our hearers on it, we might note a couple of “takeaways.” This text won’t let Jesus’ followers play off our love for God against love for our neighbors. Those who love God have no excuse for failing to love our neighbors.
On “the other side of the coin,” as it were, however, Christians don’t get so busy loving our neighbors that we fail to cultivate love for God. In a real sense, we can’t love God without also loving our neighbors. But our neighbors aren’t God. So worship of God and love of neighbor always go hand-in-hand. Neither can replace the other.
What’s more, no matter how God’s dearly beloved people understand “perfect love,” we always remember that growth in love for God and our neighbors always comes through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s presence alone makes Jesus’ adopted siblings more and more loving, that is, more and more like Jesus Christ. Any love that we generate in response to God’s love isn’t so much our accomplishment, but the result of God’s gracious work.
Finally, love is always based on and grounded in the work of God in Christ. So Christian love isn’t just a matter of making the right choices or just trying harder. Christian love is far more than a laudable human project.
All Christian ethics, including love, are the outgrowth of a conscious imitation of God Christ. While God’s adopted children love in order to promote our neighbors’ well-being, that’s not our sole or even primary reason for loving each other. We love because God first loved us and graciously calls to live in the way for which God created us, in love for both God and our neighbors.
In her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott relates a story told by Jack Kornfield of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. An eight-year-old boy had a younger sister who was dying of leukemia. His parents told him that without a blood transfusion she would die. They also explained to him that his blood was probably compatible with hers and, if so, he would be a good blood donor.
They asked him if they could test his blood. He said sure. So they did and it was a good match. Then they asked if he would donate to his sister a pint of his blood because it could be her only chance of living. He said he would have to think about it overnight. The next day he went to his parents and said he was willing to donate the blood.
So they took him to the hospital where he was placed on a gurney beside his six-year-old sister. Both of them were hooked up to IV’s. A nurse withdrew a pint of blood from the boy and transferred to his sister’s IV. The boy lay on his gurney in silence while the blood dripped into his sister, until the doctor came over to see how he was doing. The boy opened his eyes and asked, “How soon until I start to die?”