I John 4:7-21
I want to start out by asking everybody to try something that will need a pencil or pen and a piece of paper. You can use the pencils in the pews, and the blank space at the margin of your bulletin. This is an exercise that I’m stealing from the District Superintendent, who got it from someone else, and maybe you’ve done it before. If you have, just play along. Everybody ready?
What we’re going to do is very simple. We’re going to count aloud from one to twenty-six, and as we do that, we’re going to write the letters of the alphabet – in order. On your mark, get set, and…
How did it go? This is an exercise that’s supposed to demonstrate the difficulties with multitasking. We all know someone who claims to be able to talk on the phone, type, and balance their checkbook all at the same time. Maybe that’s you. The point is that even if you think you can do more than one thing at a time, you do not do anything as well as when you focus on one activity.
I John says that one thing should be the focus of our lives.
“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.” [I John 4:7-8]
That was the focus of Jesus’ life. He was not here to give new laws, but to help us understand the ways and the reasons that God had laid out from the beginning. He was not here to establish some sort of kingdom for himself, or to enjoy special honors, or to set up an institution like the Church. (That part came later, as a means to God’s ends.)
“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.” [I John 4:9-10]
Religious people toss the word “sin” around pretty freely. We speak of sins of commission: doing what we are told not to do. We speak of sins of omission: not doing what you know you should. It’s a sin of commission to covet your neighbor’s wealth and a sin of omission to refuse to share your own with somebody in need. Sin involves choosing something – anything – over the love of God.
There are those aspects of just being human that hold us back from that kind of single-hearted expression of God’s love. They may not totally prevent us from loving one another, but get in the way of doing it as well as we could. Going back to the alphanumerical exercise we did, it is not impossible to write the alphabet and count at the same time. It is just harder. It takes more effort. Jesus himself knew that, as he put it,
“The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” [Matthew 26:41]
For himself, he knew what a struggle it can be – make that what a struggle it is – to foresee the consequences of living by God’s love in an unloving world, and still to go forward on God’s path. When his arrest and crucifixion were imminent, he needed to take some time to strengthen himself to face them. He went to the garden of Gethsemane to prepare. Matthew says,
“He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ And going on a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.’” [Matthew 26:37-39]
Fear (and sometimes it’s justifiable fear) gets in the way for us. Jesus had to overcome that, as he had to overcome all sorts of temptations, on his way to the cross. But he loved us enough to keep on going.
Back to I John: fear is a major obstacle to living in God’s love, but Jesus has a habit of overcoming obstacles. “A wedding reception and no wine? Go get some water. Five thousand people and nothing for supper but five rolls and two cans of tuna? Sit down while I say grace. Sin? Oh, yes, that’s the really big one… that does get in the way.”
“Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear …” [I John 4:17-18]
We no longer need to fear God’s judgment, because Jesus has taken care of that for us. In turn, the fears that we have about acting according to God’s love instead of according to our self-interest, as real as they may be, can be faced and overcome.
In fact, those fears can even become an advantage. I read a story this week about a woman from Pittsburgh named Sloane Berrent who dropped a high-octane business career and went to work with an organization called Kiva that makes microloans to really, really poor people around the world. She found herself hanging out with folks outside Manila who survive by scavenging in trash dumps, seeing how ten dollars here or twenty dollars there could, in the right hands, make a major difference. She said,
“I’m scared every day. I’m scared people won’t think I’m doing this for the right reasons. I’m scared since I’m everywhere at once and nowhere all the time I won’t have the opportunity to settle down and have a family. I’m frightened something will happen to a loved one while I’m too far off to reach them and I won’t be there for someone who loves me.
But here’s the thing. I’ve also realized that fear is normal. If I didn’t get a little tug in my stomach before something big, it wouldn’t be the right thing. Fear is energy mangled and a powerful motivator, so I just turn it into something positive. When you’re scared your senses are heightened. I use my fear to hone my intuition. I’m alone in a lot of countries and situations people at home wouldn’t be comfortable in, but nothing bad happens to me. Why? Because I make smart decisions, but also because I use my senses and I trust my fear to have its place when there is something to truly be scared of.”
She’s right that there are things and people and situations where fear is like a warning light on the dashboard. Fear is worth paying attention to. But if the fear comes from yourself, not from outside, then it is something to be handed over to God so that you can get on with the one real focus of the Christian life without distraction, so you can count from one to infinity instead of one to Z.
“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. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their 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.” [I John 4:18-21]