There are certain passages, in the texts of world literature, which are so profound and so moving that they bear repeated reflection. Words and phrases and ideas that are so achingly beautiful, and so reflective of the deepest experiences of the human condition, that we cannot help but return to them, time and again, as we make our journey through life.
Some have become sacred Scriptures of our spiritual traditions; others are woven into iconic plays and speeches, poems and songs.
The Psalms are filled with such passages.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
But such passages are not limited to the words of sacred Scripture. In the English language, William Shakespeare alone presents a wide selection of such passages.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Or one of my favourites, from John Donne,
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
Our own age has produced certain words and phrases that will likely outlive all of us, words and phrases that offer lament, and vision for how we might see and experience the world differently.
How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
But of all the wondrous passages that our ancestors have put to pen, few compare to the sheer profundity and power of today’s suggested reading from the first letter of John chapter 4.
The passage contains words that encompass it all – first, that both ponder and articulate the very essence of the mystery of God, second, that provide a short yet concise summary of the entirety of the Gospel message, and third, that lay before us both the calling and the challenge of the Christian life.
The essence? “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
A simple statement that merits a lifetime of reflection.
The concise summary of the Gospel message? “God’s love was revealed among us in this way; God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
And the calling and challenge of the Christian life? “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” And later in the passage, the challenge gets even more pointed. “Those who say ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this; those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
It is a passage of extraordinary vision, and one that we all do well to return to, on a regular basis, until the facets of its truth permeate every part of who we are. A countless number of sermons have pondered these words from 1 John, and a countless number of sermons shall still be written about this incredible passage.
I have friends who joke that they think that most sermons in churches should be a lot shorter than they usually are. Their proffered summations of what they would say, were they given the chance, are always quite intriguing – and in fact often are most often based on the ideas that are contained in this passage.
In one case, their suggested sermon would simply be this – God is love. So love each other. See you next week.
Now, in light of my absolute certainty that none of you would actually enjoy such a short sermon, I would invite us to ponder – for a few brief moments, of course, a sometimes overlooked dimension of this profound and powerful passage.
After all, woven into these beautiful words is another theme, another assertion that is equally worthy of our reflections.
And it is a theme that is incredibly relevant to the situation in our world today.
That is, woven into these beautiful words about God’s nature being that of love, and God’s love being revealed to this world in the gift of Christ, and our proper response of love for one another, are words that challenge us to the very core of who we are as human beings.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…”
It is a fascinating construction of words. After all, if most of us had been invited to write this passage, and had to suggest what it is that love drives out, most of us might suggest that love casts out hatred – which is likely true. But that is not what the passage suggests.
Instead, what the passage dares us to ponder is this – that in a state of perfect love, what dissipates and disappears is fear.
The passage suggests that the type of fear that is challenged by love is the fear of divine judgement – and there is likely merit in such an assertion. After all, once we begin to believe, and accept, and even live in the awareness of God’s love, the fear of being judged for how we choose to live our lives begins to fade. The vision, and promise, and hope of a grace that is sufficient for us, a forgiveness that is extended to us, a love that covers a multitude of our sins, begins to emerge.
The fear of God’s judgement begins to fall away when we catch a vision of God’s love.
But an even bigger question then comes to our minds.
And it is this.
What would it mean, truly, to walk through this life without fear, and rest ourselves instead in the love and grace of God?
What would it mean to come to truly believe that there is no fear in such love, for perfect love casts out fear?
What would it mean to live without the fear of scarcity; to live without the fear of violence and disease; to live without the fear of abandonment; to live without the fear of the ‘other’, even if they are radically different from us; to live without the fear that we will be judged and even shunned if we fail, or if we are humiliated; to live without the fear that our identity is wrapped up in who we are, who we are with, who we love, where we work, what possessions happen to possess us; what we believe; how much we are respected?
In short, what would happen if we let go of anything that fills us with anxiety, or apprehension, or self-doubt, or fear — but instead actually believed that we – all of us, just as we are – are infinitely precious, infinitely loved, infinitely valuable, infinitely important – to the one who loves us with a perfect love?
Perfect love casts out fear.
And what I hope that you know – and what I hope that you believe – is this.
God is love; the gift of Christ reveals that love to us; you can love, for you are loved. Yes, life will continue to have challenges and struggles and disappointments. In fact, it is not going to end particularly well. It might sound somewhat morbid, but you are going to die. I am going to die. We will all, one day, as Shakespeare also said, shuffle off this mortal coil.
But even in that seemingly morbid reality, there is actually nothing left to fear.
And why? Because, as this season of Easter continues to invite us to remember, again and again and again, that life and love triumph.
Yes, there will be suffering. Yes, there will be pain. Yes, there will be humiliation. Yes, there will be abandonment. Yes, there will be betrayal. Yes, there will be death.
But in and through all of those realities, there is nothing left to fear. For there is One who endured suffering, and pain, and humiliation, and abandonment, and betrayal, and death.
And yet, who rose above all of those things, held in the perfect love of the One who loved Him.
And who loves you.
So do not be afraid. Live fully. Live well.
There is, truly, nothing left to fear.
Because God is love.
So love each other.
See you next week.
Thanks be to God.