love casts out fear – a sermon

No one has ever seen God.

Maybe you remember that familiar story of Moses. Moses was someone who talked with God – Moses was someone who talked with God like God was a friend right there beside him. But even Moses never saw God. On one occasion Moses went as far as to ask God: “God, show me your glory.” And God said in reply – sure, I will let my goodness pass in front of you – and I will speak my own glorious name in your presence – but you will not see my face. When my glory passes by you, I’m going to put you into a great crevice in the rock, and I’m going to cover you with my great hand until I’m gone. And after I’ve passed by, I will take away my hand, and you will see my back as I pass you by.

No one has ever seen God.

Moses did not see God.

You have never seen God.

I have never seen God.

Sure, some of the prophets and kings of the Old Testament had visions of God – dreams or waking visions of God in the glorious throne room of heaven. In the book of Revelation, also, there are grand visions of the throne room of God. Yes, there are women and men and kings and prophets who have had visions of God.

But no one has seen God.

I have not seen God.

You have not seen God.

No one has ever seen God.

That’s what John says in our passage for today: ‘No one has ever seen God.”

Now it so happens that John does believe that Jesus has come near to us in Jesus. John believes that Jesus is the revelation of God. John believes that Jesus is God’s Son among us and with us’ But he also wants to affirm: No one has ever seen God.

The Father to whom Jesus prayed – no one has seen this God.

The Father to whom Jesus was obedient – no one has seen this God.

The Father who vindicated Jesus and drew him back into the divine life after suffering and crucifixion and death – no one ever has seen God.

If you are anything like me, then there are probably times when you find it difficult to connect with the idea of God or reality of God in your daily life. We can’t see God. God is not visible to us. And that lack of visibility often leaves us uncertain in our faith – uncertain in our trust in God.

Sight is so much a part of who we are. I can walk through our neighbourhood – I can see the red brick buildings that are so much a part of NDG – I can see the urban art that graces building facades – I can see the new leaves on the trees almost leaping out toward the sun – and I can see people out enjoying the beautiful weather this past week. In daily life, this capacity for seeing the world around me is so much a part of who I am and the confidence I have about the world around me.

We find it difficult to connect with a God who isn’t there, immediately before us. Sometimes this means that we become satisfied with a faith that isn’t terribly vibrant or dramatic or real. After all, how could our faith be vibrant and dramatic if we function more with a sense of God’s absence than of God’s presence?

John says: “No one has ever seen God.” But why does John say this? Well, I think he says it on the way to saying something else that is deeply profound – astonishing and beautiful.

No one has ever seen God, but…

No one has ever seen God, [but] if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is finding fullness in us.

You may not have seen God, but that doesn’t mean God is far from you.

You may not have seen God, but that doesn’t mean God is alien to your life or body.

You may not have seen God, but that doesn’t mean you have to live like God is more absent than present.

Where is God present? Where does the reality of God connect with my life? Where do I see or feel or know or realize or discover or affirm the presence of God in my life, in my world? John says that we are closest to God when we love each other.

We are close to the risen Jesus when we love one another.

We are united to God, when we love one another.

We are near to the God we cannot see, when we love one another.

Our closeness to God is not in our seeing God. Our closeness to God is not in an immediate apprehension of God through light and vision. Rather, our closeness to God is in our loving one another.

This love is not eros – it is not the erotic love of intimate relationships.

This love is not phileo – it is not the love of friendship.

This love is agape – it is the love of neighbour, the love of enemy, a love that sacrifices for others, a love that seeks the wellbeing of others, a love that is even willing to die for others – whether neighbour, friend, or stranger.

John writes: “This love, this agape, was revealed among us in this way – God sent his only Son into the world that we might live through him. Beloved, since God’s agape, God’s love, is so great toward us, let us agape, love, one another.

When we love others in agape/love – in love displayed in Jesus – then we are in the love of Jesus and we are united to God.

When we offer a compassionate embrace to someone who is in pain, we are in the love of Jesus and united to God.

When we offer a listening ear to a friend who just needs to talk something out, we are in the love of Jesus and united to God.

When we give up our precious personal time in service to the hungry, we are in the love of Jesus and united to God.

When we extend ourselves in friendship among the marginalized, we are in the love of Jesus and united to God.

When the most important part of our career trajectory is whether we are serving the neighbours around us, we are in the love of Jesus and united to God.

“No one has ever seen God” – Moses never saw God – I have never seen God – you have never seen God – [but] if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is finding fullness in us.”

Which is also to say that anything that keeps us from loving, also separates us from God; whatever stifles our love, stifles our friendship with God; whatever undermines our love, undermines our unity with God.

And if there is anything that keeps us from loving, if there is anything that really stifles our love – it would be fear. There is perhaps no greater threat to our unity with the God – no greater threat to our unity with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – than the reality of fear.

It is not hatred that is most opposed to love.

It is fear that is most opposed to love.

John has a specific fear in mind as he writes – a specific fear that undermines our love and stifles our love. This specific fear may not resonate with us particularly, but we mention it first this morning. The fear John speaks of is our fear of judgment by God.

We all know that this kind of fear has often had a place within Christianity – there have been plenty of times and places where fear has been a strong motivating force in faith and in life – many times and places where human living and relating have been shaped by a fear of divine judgment.

Fear of the day of reckoning,

fear that we are not living up to God’s standard,

fear that we are just a screw, and that God won’t put up with us.

But fear has nothing to do with being close to God – fear has nothing to do with living in relationship with Jesus – fear has nothing to do with the way we walk with the risen Jesus. Fear has nothing to do with agape/love.

Here is what John says:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached the fullness of love.

Love casts out fear. Love leaves no place for fear.

It’s not fear of God that drives us.

It’s not anxiety about whether we are good enough that drives us.

God’s relation to us is defined by love – a love embodied in Jesus who is sent that we might have life. And when we discover the love of God – when we discover the love of Jesus for us – this love of God casts out our fear.

God in Christ is with us,

God in Christ is for us,

God in Christ God embraces us,

God in Christ heals our shame,

God in Christ says, you don’t have to be good enough.

God in Christ says: I love you.

This love sets us free from fear. This love says we don’t have to measure up. This love declares that punishment isn’t God’s way with us. This love sets us free for love.

When we think about John’s refusal of fear in our relationship to God it leads us to think about other ways in which fear might undermine our freedom in love. We can all probably think about examples in our relationships or world where fear has undermined our capacity for love – or fear has stifled our love.

One type of fear that prevents our love is the fear of those who are different – fear of their culture; fear of them in their strangeness to us.

Here I can’t help but think about the recent news surrounding Omar Khader. For some Canadians there is a fear of this man who, as a teenager was bound up with an oppressive and violent ideology in Afghanistan. But this fear of the person Omar Khader is also tied up with a wider culture of fear in relation to those of a different religion, a different culture, a different ethnicity. And this fear very easily drives us to say – don’t let him out of jail, don’t even think about it.

Fear says – we can’t take any risks with him.

Fear says – mistrust him.

Fear says – no second chances, he doesn’t deserve them.

We live, broadly speaking, in a culture of fear. And this fear of others; this fear of strangers; this fear of those of a different culture or faith; this fear invariably cuts us off from the possibility of loving others – of wishing the best for them – of offering ourselves in service to them – of accepting that we might even learn from them – of seeing that we might grow in relationship to them.

The love of God, expressed in Jesus – the love in which we abide – the love in which we find ourselves united to God and to his beloved Son – is a love that reaches out in compassion and confidence – it gives us a deep and abiding security. It finds its fullness in the freedom to serve and embrace and take risks for relationships. No, not to mindlessly expose ourselves or others to harm – but yes to take risks for the wellbeing, the freedom, and the joy of others. Love casts out fear.

Finally this morning – third kind of fear that prevents us from loving another. [SLIDE] And this is the fear of losing someone – fear that they might just walk away from us – fear that they just won’t care any more – fear that they don’t need us as much as we need them to need us – fear that we aren’t interesting enough or desirable enough.

When our relationships to others are defined by such fear – it often means we try to manipulate the other person into loving us – or we try to hold them so close that they can’t walk away – or we try to become the person they need or expect us to be. Fear drives our relationships to them.

But love casts our fear.

Our deep confidence and security is found in the realization that we are loved by God in Christ – that we are embraced and redeemed. That our identity is secure; that our hope is real; that we are called and gifted and blessed in the Spirit. There is freedom in discovering such love – freedom in finding ourselves loved by God in this way.

In a way this makes me think of Peter in the garden at the moment of Jesus’ arrest. The parallel isn’t exact, but in that moment Peter was perhaps drive above all by fear – fear that he was losing Jesus – fear that the path of redemption he imagined was going to be lost – fear that Jesus voice would be silence. And so he lashes out in fear, tries to take the situation in hand – cuts off the ear of the servant of one of the religious leaders.

Jesus tells him to put away the sword – Jesus heals the servant – and Jesus gives himself to the path of loving service to which he has been called. In the love of Jesus we are set free from the need to have or to possess or control or claim those who are around us in life – those whom we are afraid to lose. In discovering our own freedom in love – we discover the other’s freedom in love, also. We learn to work for their healing, their mercy, his or her own service to Christ.

No one has ever seen God

You have not seen God. I have not seen God – [but] if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is finding fullness in us.

This love – this agape – casts out fear. This love is security and confidence and hope and assurance. God in Christ loves us. This who I am – and it is who I am for others. It is who we are together. Thanks be to God, through Christ our Lord.

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