Scripture: 1 John 4:7-21
Around 6am on Easter morning, I swung by the church to pick up a few chairs for our outdoor Sunrise service at the International Flag Plaza. After parking my van under the portico, I quickly made my way across the grass to come into the building through the office entrance. Being that early in the morning, I wasn’t expecting to run into anyone, but to my surprise, as I walked passed the church flagpoles, I heard a voice in the dark. A man was walking along the sidewalk talking very loudly, and he happened to be right there at the base of the ramp that goes up to the office entrance. In a split second, I made two unfiltered assumptions about him. First, given the early hour, I assumed him to be homeless. Second, I assumed his loud talking to himself was a possible sign that he may have been drunk or high. If he were drunk, I didn’t know if he would perceive my sudden appearance as a threat—like someone jumping him—and then react accordingly. And so, in that split second, I decided to avoid coming face-to-face with him on the sidewalk by immediately turning to the right and hopping up over the brick wall at end of the ramp onto the platform at the door. As it turned out, my being there did startle him. And his response was like most peoples’ in that situation. He said to me, “Oh, man, you scared me! I didn’t even see you there.” And he kept on walking, talking to himself while I went in a got some chairs.
Since that encounter, I’ve done a bit of soul-searching and self-reflection. Here’s what I’ve concluded. I’m not so naïve to think that every person I meet is friendly and has good intentions. I know that there are times and circumstances when it’s wise to be cautious and aware. And sometimes it’s wise to listen to your intuition. At the same time, I also know that my immediate reaction to avoid that stranger was motivated not by intuition but by fear. He was different than me. His actions were unfamiliar to me. Dare I say, even threatening? But the truth of the matter is, I reacted out of fear because I assumed the worst in him based on these two factors: One, I didn’t know him or anything about him. Two, because I didn’t know him, I came to general assumptions about him based on external factors – that he was out and about at 6am and that he was talking with himself. And so, my old dinosaur brain kicked in and told me he was someone to fear.
I don’t want to put him on the spot, so I won’t name him. But there’s a member of our church who regularly volunteers at a local soup kitchen, and has gotten to know many of the men and women like the guy I encountered on Easter morning. Many of you know who I’m talking about. Here’s my question: had this particular church member been in my shoes that morning, do you think he would have had a similar fear-driven reaction to encountering this man in the dark? My hunch is, how ever he may have responded in the moment, it probably wouldn’t have been driven by the same internal fear that drove my reaction. And why would that probably be the case? Because he spends time with many of these folks on a regular basis. He’s gotten to know many of them personally. In other words, he’s developed relationships with many of the people in our neighborhood who, quite frankly, a lot of us avoid out of our own discomfort. And in getting to know them, God’s given him a heart to love them.
Some of you might recall that about 6 weeks ago, we had a visitor show up after worship had already started. His appearance and behaviors seemed to suggest that he was, shall I say, different than the rest of us. And while we certainly weren’t jumping to conclusions about him, I know for a fact that he was viewed with suspicion, and many watchful eyes were kept on him. What was in his backpack. Why did he come here? Is there good reason to be wary of him?
Let me ask a question. If the person who came in late that day had been a clean-cut college student wearing khakis and a polo and sporting the same backpack, and didn’t display the same outward behaviors which are deemed “unusual” for worship, would we have been suspicious of him? I’m guessing, no. But for all sorts of reasons, right or wrong, misguided or right on target, it’s easy to become suspicious and a fearful of those who are different than us. Here’s what struck me at the end of that morning. When the guy who showed up here expressed the desire to pray with someone, guess who they went and got? Mel. As you can guess, Mel was more than happy to pray with him, and even felt extremely blessed to do so. But it does beg the question, why did we feel like Mel was the right person to pray with him? Are there not lots of other Christians among us who can pray with a stranger? And if the stranger had been a clean-cut college student, would we have sought out Mel’s assistance in the matter, or would the pool of persons to pray with him been larger?
Today’s reading from 1 John is fifteen verse long. In those fifteen verses, some form of the word “love” appears twenty-six times. That’s averages out to just shy of 2 uses of the word “Love” in every verse. Anyone care to take a stab at the overall theme of this passage? Love, obviously. Specifically, that God loves us and, as a result, we, in turn, are able to love God and love other people. Verse 12 says that if we love one another, God remains in us and his love is made perfect in us. This was my message last week, that loving others is the surest sign that God’s at work in us. When it becomes our goal to love God and others with the same kind of love God pours into us, then God honors that desire by perfecting the love we have to give. Or, as other Bible translations put it, God makes our love complete.
The Greek word is teleioó, and means “to bring to an end, to complete, to perfect.” It has the connotation of reaching completion, going as far as one can go, reaching the finish line or the end-stage. Teleioó is best illustrated by the ancient mariner’s telescope which extends out one stage at a time until it reaches its full length where it functions at its full strength. That’s what God does with us when we seek to love God and others with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. He perfects our love. Over time he makes it more a more like the kind of love Jesus had for people when he lived among us.
In verse 18, John says that perfected love has the power to transform our experience of everyday life. If fear is something that often grips your heart and head and is often a motivator for the decisions you make, then listen closely. In verse 18 he specifically says: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear.” There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out all fear.
Now, just to be clear about the context of this statement of John’s, when he wrote that “perfect love drives out all fear,” he was specifically speaking to those in his audience who were fearful of God’s wrath which will be poured out on the world on Judgement Day. Let me read what he said starting at verse 17. “This is how love has been perfected in us, so that we can have confidence on the Judgment Day, because we are exactly the same as God is in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out all fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love” (vv. 17-18).
As I’ve said a number of times throughout this brief series on 1 John, one of John’s main objectives in writing this letter is for his listeners to come to a correct perspective of Jesus Christ’s identity (he’s the eternal Son of God) as well as a correct understanding of oneself in relationship with Christ. I for one firmly believe that how we view ourselves as children of God has a huge impact on our experience of life in general, and our experience of God in particular. So, in the specific context of this statement about love driving out fear, John is trying to instill a correct view of self in relationship with God. When a believer hasn’t internalized the truth of who they are in Christ—a beloved child in whom the Holy Spirt lives—they are more likely to live under a dark cloud of self-condemnation. And when we constantly see ourselves through that lens, it’s easy to conclude that God’s going to punish me for my sins. But this way of thinking is to shackle ourselves. There’s no freedom or victory in living with this mistaken identity. So, on one important level, the more intimate our walk with Jesus, the more our love for God, others, and self aligns with the truth of God’s Word….That we don’t need to fear God’s wrath or judgment or punishment. Why? Because Jesus has already experienced that for us.
But I don’t think it stops there. I think it has secondary positive effects on our experience of life. Specifically, when we give God permission to perfect the love we possess within us, that is, the love that’s ours to pour out into others, we begin to discover that our fears of “the other,” those who are different from us, begin to wane and lose power over us. And when that happens, we start to look and act a lot more like Jesus.
So, going back to my Easter morning pre-dawn encounter, if I recognize in myself the presence of a certain amount of prejudiced fear of those whose lifestyles and backgrounds and ways in interacting with the world is foreign to me – and maybe even a bit frightening – the solution isn’t to keep avoiding them out of my own uninformed discomfort. Or to get rid them them. Or to at least hide them out of sight. No, the solution is for me to get out of the perceived safety of my own little box and figure out a way to get to know them on their turf. But not just to know who they are by name, but to know their stories, to develop relationships with them. And only then will I be able to truly love them. The way God calls me to love them.
Back in Adrian a pastoral colleague and friend of mine understood this truth. He knew that the pathway of sharing the love of Jesus begins by showing the love of Jesus. Like every city and town, Adrian has its homeless community. At different times, that community literally sets up camp in a remote, wooded area out of sight. And from time to time, my colleague will head out there with a member from his church, and the two of them will just mingle with them. No agenda other than getting to know them. Creating relationships with them. Should it come as a surprise that out of those relationships forged by getting to know them, some of them eventually connected with his church and took advantage of some of their recovery ministries? My friend once told me that a true shepherd smells like the sheep. “Drew,” he said, “if you don’t smell like sheep, then you’re not spending enough time out in the field with them.”
Well, let me be the first to say that I recognize the fact that I smell like a nice, clean office. And I have no fear whatsoever of anyone who dresses like me, who talks and behaves like me, who shares my same “scent.” But I think I’m getting to the point where I need to spend more time out in the field. My unfiltered fearful reaction to someone I immediately perceived as a threat to me on account of my preconceived notions revealed to me that God is still working on me. He’s still trying to perfect my love. And I’m pretty sure the only way he’ll be able to make my love more Christ-like is by me intentionally spending time with those who smell different than me.
How about you? How is God trying to perfect your love? What or who do you fear, especially if the fear is born out of perceived threats and not actual threats? To what or to whom might God be calling you so that he can perfect your love? For whom in this world do you have little or no love, or even ill-feelings? Whether that be an individual person, or a populace, or a category or type of people, let me invite you to lay that before God and ask him to increase your love for them to the extent you choose to spend time with them, getting to know them, and allowing God to give you a heart for them. Let’s pray….