Of Fear and Love

FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 8:26-40

Psalm 22:25-31

1 John 4:7-21

John 15:1-8

Prayer of the Day: O God, you give us your Son as the vine apart from whom we cannot live. Nourish our life in his resurrection, that we may bear the fruit of love and know the fullness of your joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“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 perfection in love.” I John 4:18.

This is remarkable, because fear is often the engine driving our religion, our politics, or financial planning and so many other aspects of our lives. Fear, of course, is not altogether irrational. To be sure, there are a lot of imaginary threats spawned by conspiracy theories, junk science and bad religion. But there are also plenty of real dangers out there, such as the dangers Black men and boys face when they encounter police, particularly if they happen to be in the “wrong” neighborhood at the “wrong” time. There is a very real danger that our failure to vaccinate globally against Covid-19 in a timely matter will give the virus time and opportunity to mutate once again into a form capable of penetrating our current vaccines. Persons who have lost their jobs, businesses and homes in the wake of pandemic induced economic turmoil are understandably fearful of what the future may hold for them and their families. The damage to our planet’s climate resulting from unrestrained greenhouse gases should frighten us all.

Fear is a normal and healthy emotion. In a properly functioning psyche, fear alerts one to the presence of danger and the need to react. Fear must not, however, be permitted to dictate our reactions. That is so far a couple of reasons. First, like every other emotion, fear sometimes yields a “false positive.” What I interpret as a romantic show of affection, might simply be a friendly hug. What I interpret as an insult might be nothing more than an awkward attempt at humor. So, too, what I perceive to be a threat might actually turn out to be harmless. Thus, it is critical to question each fear: Why am I afraid? What am I afraid of losing? What basis do I have for believing that this person, place or thing threatens my wellbeing? If I “shoot first and ask questions later,” I am likely to wind up with a hole in my foot and not many answers.  

Secondly, fear makes you stupid. When economic downturns occur, people tend to make poor financial decisions in a fit of panic. For example, otherwise savvy individuals are frequently convinced, often by unscrupulous hucksters posing as financial advisors, that the economy is in collapse and their only hope is to convert as much of their wealth as possible into gold bars.[1] On a collective level, nations reacted to the Covid-19 pandemic by shutting down their borders and pulling out of international agencies like the World Health Organization, little realizing that viruses do not respect borders and that a global pandemics require global responses. On an individual level, human beings deal with their mortality by steadfastly denying it, by covering it up with lotions, creams and hair color and by isolating the aged, infirm and dying in retirement communities, nursing homes and hospice centers. But the inescapable fact of death finally catches up and, when it does, the one whose life has been spent running away from it has developed no spiritual and emotional resources to meet it. In sum, fear works well as a warning. As a motivating force, not so much.

The Apostle John tells us that “perfect love casts out all fear.” In other words, love takes fear out of the driver’s seat. There is no fear of judgement, because God in Christ has taken punishment for sin off the table. Henceforth, judgment has the purpose only of moving us away from self destructive beliefs and conduct toward repentance and reconciliation. In much the same way, love banishes fear of others-whether they be painted as outsiders on the other side of the border threatening to take our country away from us, political opponents threatening to destroy our way of life with offensive policies and agendas or hostile nations threatening our national security. Saint John reminds us that if we cannot see the image of God in other human beings, then whatever it is we claim to worship, it is not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Finally, abiding in God’s love casts out all fear of death. That is a message to which I believe we mainline protestant folks have given short shrift. There are a couple of reasons for that. In our manic desire to be “relevant” and our craven fear of being mocked by the academic intelligentsia, we have bent every effort toward making our faith intelligible, appealing and unobjectionable to the modern mind. To that end, it was essential that the resurrection we preach not offend the cannons of modernism with anything that cannot be empirically verified. Resurrection is therefore less a bold proclamation than a truncated affirmation of humanist values easily digestible for a world too small for miracles and shorn of all mystery. A robust witness to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come is too big to fit our “worldly” and “modern” theology. The only way to make it palatable for the modern mind is to preach it as a metaphor for something else-political liberation, self actualization, the discovery of authenticity, etc. In the process, we have manufactured a faith that is inoffensive to the contemporary mind-and as boring as hell. Professor Lance B. Pope[2] puts it succinctly:

“If the summoning the church heeds is not the voice of Another-if it is merely a human projection arising predictably from so many wishes, needs, resentments, and drives-then the church has no real existence, no authentic commission to preach, but only a habitual and unwarranted longing to speak back to the world its own fears and hopes, filtered through the images of a very old book. In this case, the world shows great forbearance by benignly ignoring ‘preaching,’ which surely deserves worse than indifference.”  Pope, Lance B., The Scandal of Having Something to Say: Ricceur and the Possibility of Postliberal Preaching. (c. 2013 by Baylor University Press, Waco, TX) p. 3.

Another reason for our failure to preach the resurrection of the dead is fear of promoting “quietism.” After all, if we make resurrection from death and eternal life too prominent, our people might respond by giving up on his world and pinning all their hopes on “pie in the sky.” Perhaps that is one of those “fears” Saint John would have us “cast out.” If Ernst Becker is to be believed, humanity’s efforts to repress its craven terror of death lies at the root of our most atrocious collective acts of violence, war and genocide.[3] Thus, victory over death is perhaps the most basic and critical element of the gospel. If Becker dismisses religion as but another “death denial” mechanism, that is only because he, too, is captive to the moribund modernist outlook which modern theology has chosen to placate rather than challenge. It seems to me that a strong conviction that Jesus of Nazareth, the friend of “the least,” has been raised from death, that the nations of the world will be judged by how they have treated these “least,” that the future belongs to the God who promises a new creation in which the peoples of every nation, tribe and tongue will share the unity of the Trinity, that Jesus promises his disciples of all ages participation in that future, all of this goes a long way toward freeing us from the fear of death. Liberated from fretting about what we cannot (and need not) change, we are free to spend our lives focusing on more important things we actually can change. A robust resurrection faith makes each minute of life here and now more rather than less urgent.

In sum, Saint John would have us know that love, as it is revealed in Jesus, is the antithesis of a life in bondage to fear. It is life that can be live courageously, smartly and hopefully within all of the complexities and paradoxes given expression in e.e. cumming’s poem below. Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia.       

[love is thicker more than forget]

love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more frequent than to fail

it is most mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea

love is less always than to win
less never than alive
less bigger than the least begin
less littler than forgive

it is most sane and sunly
and more it cannot die
than all the sky which only
is higher than the sky

Source: Complete Poems 1904-1962 (c. 1991 by the Trustees for the E.E. Cummings Trust; pub. by Liveright Publishing Corporation). Edward Estlin Cummings (1894 –1962), published as e e cummings, was an American poet, painter, essayist, author and playwright. He authored 2,900 poems, two autobiographical novels, four plays, and several essays. He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father was a professor at Harvard University who later became nationally known as the minister of South Congregational Church (Unitarian) in Boston. He grew up in the company of such family friends as the philosophers William James and Josiah Royce. Cummings aspired from childhood to be a poet and wrote poetry daily from age eight to twenty-two. In 1915 he graduated from Harvard University magna cum laude with a BA degree and membership in Phi Beta Kappa. He received a MA degree from the university in 1916. In his studies at Harvard, Cummings developed an interest in modern poetry, which ignored conventional grammar and syntax, while aiming for a dynamic use of language. Upon graduating in 1917, Cummings enlisted in the armed forces and served in the ambulance corps in France during the First World War. There he was arrested by the French military on suspicion of espionage and held for three and a half months in a military detention camp. He was released at the insistence of the Wilson administration on December 19, 1917 and returned to the United States in January of 1918. Shortly thereafter he was drafted and served until November of 1918. Cummings spent the last decade of his life traveling, fulfilling speaking engagements and spending time at his summer home at Joy Farm in Silver Lake, New Hampshire. He died of a stroke in September of 1962. You can read more about e.e. cummings and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.


[1] I am not sure exactly what you do with a gold bar in a collapsed economy. But I have to confess that I didn’t attend the webinar where all of this was supposed to be explained.

[2] Lance B. Pape is Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Brite Divinity School.

[3] Becker, Ernst, The Denial of Death, (c. 1973 by the Free Press, a division of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. New York, NY).

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