If you preached on the Lectionary selection from 1 John 3 last week—and if you read the sermon commentary 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.
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?”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 29, 2018
1 John 4:7-21 Commentary