'Sin, Forgiveness and Love' (Messages from the First Letter of John)
Readings: Psalm 22:25-31, Acts 8:26-40, John 15:1-8, 1 John 4:7-21
Preached at Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, NY, May 2nd 2021
Everything I know about growing plants could be written on the back of a postage stamp. I claim zero experience in the green finger department. But this much I know. Nothing grows by coercion. Things only grow through nurture. If you plant tomatoes, you cannot go out in the garden and terrify them into maturity. “Now come on little Tommy Tomato plant. Grow up or I'll give you a such a thrashing that you'll never even be able to say the word fertilizer.” You must tend plants, carefully and gently.
Spiritual growth is no different. Fear cannot produce spiritually mature believers. The only fertile ground for true spiritual growth is the love of God. 1 John 4:18-19 tells us “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because He first loved us.”
The last few weeks we have been following a series on John's first letter that has taken us through the themes of sin, forgiveness, and love. Last week we were considering the great legacy of love that has been passed on to us. We affirmed that love is a great mystery which opens to us amazing possibilities. In chapter four John takes us further. He gives us the famous phrase “God is love.”
One of the amazing things about the life of Jesus was how He never acted out of fear but always out of love. That is not to say that Jesus was never afraid. In the Garden of Gethsemane, He prays that He may be spared from the pain and agony He would face at the Cross. There is nothing wrong in being afraid. It is a part of what makes us human. But being afraid and living in fear are different things.
There are two kinds of fear.
The first is best described as 'Honor' or 'Respect,' the second as 'Dread.'
When the Book of Proverbs tells us ‘Fear the Lord' the intention is not for us go through the whole of our lives being afraid of what God may do to us if God finds out what we are really like. The fear we are to have towards God is by the way of honor and respect. That was the kind of fear that Jesus had towards His Father. He refused to do anything or be anything that did not represent the love of God. His whole ministry was built upon respect for and trust in what the love of God could do.
The opposite of respectful fear, the unhealthy, negative kind of fear that John tells us to have nothing to do with, is maybe best described as dread. John writes “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” Dread is the fear that has to do with punishment. Fear of punishment can never help us build a mature relationship with God or with each other. Jesus lived fearlessly because His life was centered in the loving heart of God.
He did not care what people thought about Him. He was totally secure in His relationship with His Father God. He did not have to gain favor with people or use people to get where He wanted to be. He was right where He wanted to be, in the will of God.
He was able to act in complete freedom and without dread because He knew Himself a child of God. Both at His baptism and on the mountain of Transfiguration He found His identity in His Father's claim on His life “This is my beloved Son”.
What might it take for us to live lives defined by fearless love?
How can we apply these words about 'perfect love casting out fear' to our own lives? In 1895 a lady called Clara Scott had a hymn published called “Open my eyes”.
Open my eyes, that I may see, glimpses of truth Thou hast for me;
Place in my hands the wonderful key, that shall unclasp and set me free.
Only through having a clear picture of God, ourselves and each other, can we unlock the mystery of fearless love. Or to put it another way...
• We need to redefine how we see the Divine.
• Remember the claim of God's name.
• Reach out to others as sisters and brothers!
Let us explore those themes a little more!
1. We need a clear picture of God … we need to redefine how see the Divine
What are we afraid of that prevents us from letting the love of God enfold us and envelope us? Our fears can come from an irrational picture of God. Even with my lack of gardening skills I recognize that nothing grows by coercion. Growth takes place through nurture. The first picture the Bible gives us of God is as the Creator. The second picture is as the Gardener. As you read the New Testament the images Jesus uses are often nurture related. He talks of sowing seeds. Of Vines and branches. Of Seeds and Weeds. Of Springtime and Harvest.
Many of us have picked up on negative images of God. A tyrannical father. A mean dictator. An uncaring judge. A strict disciplinarian. A God of hellfire whose greatest delight is to punish unrepentant sinners with eternal torment. A warped policeman on high. A God of disapproval. Unapproachable. Unrelenting. Irrational. Making rules we can never keep. A rather scary God.
Many times, I have had people say to me ,'Oh, I wouldn't want to set foot in church, probably make the roof cave in or cause the place to be struck by lightning'. A God who toys with people, who is a despot, a blue meanie, a dark disturbing brooding figure from our worst nightmares. I have heard people describe to me the God they do not believe in... and found myself thinking that... I do not believe in that kind of God either!
If ever those negative images of God start creeping in on you, read this passage from 1 John and see how many times life affirming love is mentioned. “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him.' 'We know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.' 'There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.”
To live fearless lives, we need to put our faith, not in a God we dread, but one whom we have the utmost respect for and seek to honor in the way we live our lives. The first letter of John paints a picture for us of a God whose very being is love. A God who wants to nurture us and feed us and grow us. A God who wants us to live life in all its variety and abundance. Not a God whose desire is to restrict, control or dominate, but One who sets us free to live into the people we are meant to be. Again, hear verse 18; “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.”
2. We need a clear picture of ourselves... we need to remember the claim of God's name
Verse 19 reminds us “We love because He first loved us.” Our capacity for loving others comes from the security of knowing that we ourselves are loved by God. Every Sunday following our prayer of confession we celebrate, with words of Assurance, that through the grace and love of Jesus Christ, God claims us as God's own. There is nothing we have to do, or can do, to be God's children other than thankfully accept our salvation as the huge, undeserved, unwarranted gift that it is.
One of the greatest Christian thinkers and apologists of the last century was Karl Bath. I have the fourteen or so volumes of his “Church Dogmatics” (a study in dialectic theology) on my shelf in the study. Still working my way through it. He was the architect of one of the confessions in our Book of Confessions, “The Barmen Declaration,” a historic and incredibly brave challenge to the rise of the Nazi ideology in Germany, a work that made him an enemy of the powers that sought to destroy the world. He wrote thousands and thousands of words, some extremely hard to get your head around, during his life.
In 1962 he made his one and only visit to America and the story goes that he was asked how he would summarize the essence of the millions of words he had published, and replied, with words many of us have known since Sunday School Days; "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so."
Verses 16 and 17 “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”
We need a clear picture of God … we need to redefine how see the Divine We need a clear picture of ourselves... we need to remember the claim of God's name.
3. We need a clear picture of each other... reach out to others as sisters and brothers
The final verse we read this morning reminds us that the love of God is not just about us. True, Jesus loves us, but He calls us to share that love with each other. 'Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.'
John is keen to point out that unless love is also transforming the way we see each other, then God's Spirit is not truly at work in our lives. We are called to see each other as God sees us, as people God sent Jesus to die for, as people God loves, as people, who, like us, are marred by our sins, but nevertheless have all the potential that being human gives us.
There is a movie, called “Come Sunday.” (It was on Netflix for a while.) The movie charts the course of a highly successful fundamentalist preacher. Through his study of scripture, particularly verses his Pentecostal tradition chose not to focus upon, (like these we have been considering in first John), he comes to have something of a conversion experience. At the end of the movie, he is invited to speak to an inclusive Unitarian congregation... folks he would once have considered the enemy.
In speaking to the congregation, he says, “I spent a lot of my life living in the fear of God. And I preached that fear. I preached it and I preached it and I preached it and I preached it. So much so, that I became afraid not to preach it. And I have found it so hard to let go of that fear. Why is that? Is it because, if God loves everybody unconditionally, maybe we have to? Is that it? What is it about loving each other unconditionally that scares us so much?”
To live fearless lives, we must treat others how we would like them to treat us. Grant them all the respect and honor that we ourselves receive from God. That is the challenge. “Whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” That is the challenge of love, of God being love that names us and claims us and calls us to love each other as we have been loved.
We cannot grow spiritually by coercion but only by love. When it comes to growing plants, I confess I am not so good. When it comes to growing in the Spirit, by the grace and love of God, I am hopefully doing better every day. The greatest source of love in all creation is the love of God, that we see demonstrated in Jesus Christ and which impacts our lives through the action of the Holy Spirit.
There is a whole lot of teaching that John packed into these verses we have been looking at this morning. So, let me finish with a quick review.
In order to live fearlessly we need to;
• Have a clear picture of the nature of God, we need to redefine how see the Divine.
• Have a clear picture of ourselves, we need to remember the claim of God's name.
• Have a clear picture of each other, we need to reach out to others as sisters and brothers.
And there is no better place to recommit our lives to fearlessly pursuing divine love than around a table laid with bread and wine. As we share these elements may we seek for God to renew our hearts and lives. May God help us, through the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to live lives of fearless love that truly reflect the light of Jesus Christ. AMEN!
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.