Thursday, May 26, 2011

1st John: Perfect Love Drives Out Fear

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 05/22/2011

And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment. In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with (holds on to) punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

Fear is what gets our attention here, isn’t it…?

Love, favor (at the heart of the idea of living in God, and God in us), judgment, fear. Four related concepts all coming together in this passage. Let’s explore them for a bit to get started.

First, judgment and love.

Judgment involves standing above another, to evaluate… (examples)

Love involves kneeling under, to serve… (examples)

Connections start to emerge, don’t they?

When you are above, you are unable to love.

When you are below, judgment just can’t flow.

The world has taught us to judge, even for sport. Shared judgments are so often what bind us together. But as students of Jesus, love is our calling. And it’s the only thing we are authorized to do.

Next, fear and favor.

Fear comes when you perceive the absence of loving presence and power, and is multiplied when you perceive the presence of danger… (examples)

Favor is making your loving presence and power available to another… (examples)

The connections between fear and favor are as profound as the connections between judgment and love, aren’t they?

When you encounter favor, you are protected from fear by the loving presence and power of whomever’s favor you are enjoying (examples…).

On the other hand, a lack of confidence in favor leads to fear. And when you are in fear, it is difficult to show favor towards others, difficult to make your presence and power available to another. Mainly because fear causes you to withdraw, retreat into whatever circle of favor you do have confidence in, and devote your power to protecting the interests of that circle; and this ultimately becomes a withdrawal into one’s self and a devotion of one’s power to protecting one’s self. (examples…)

Now we can begin to explore how the twin ideas of judgment & love, and fear & favor relate to each other.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment…

The word translated “has to do with” is “echo” in Greek. It more literally means to “hold,” as in to hold in one’s hand. As if fear, no matter where you find it, carries a form of punishment, or torment, with it.

Consider this. We are vulnerable to fear when we are unable to perceive favor. When we perceive the absence of loving presence and power. Is this not the fundamental form of punishment we exercise towards one another when someone falls out of favor? Someone displeases us – which sows the seeds of fear in us – we feel unsafe having the posture of a servant towards them, we start to judge them as not having goodwill towards us or sufficient power to meet our desires, and we withhold our loving presence. We stop making our power available to them. We stop smiling at them, stop talking to them, stop helping them. Eventually stop being near them at all. Of course, if they continue to displease us (which they will, because our fearful response causes them to perceive an absence of our loving presence and power, starting the same fear / withdrawal cycle in them that is started in us), we may move even beyond that form of punishment to a more severe form. We take our presence and power and use it to actively punish them. We try to use fear as a tool against them. We get in their face, lash out with hateful words, swing our fists. All the while hoping that the fear of us punishing them will put an end to whatever they are doing to displease us, and the pain they are causing us.

This is a vicious cycle. Truly vicious. Fear “echoing” punishment. And it has been wreaking havoc on the earth.

And it gets worse. Fear holds punishment in its hand. Fear anticipates judgment and all that comes with it, causing us to experience judgment’s effects as soon as the fear arrives, even before any actual punishment has arrived.

Think about Adam and Eve. They sin, and then, in fear of God’s judgment, they hide. In their fear, they experience the absence of his loving presence and power, even though he hasn’t yet withheld it.

This is the horrible destructive power of fear. It causes us to be unable to receive love from anyone from whom we even anticipate judgment. (catching a ball illustration…) And we anticipate judgment from almost everyone, eventually, because we will, in our sinfulness or because of the sinfulness of others, displease nearly everyone we ever meet, somehow, sometime, someway.

Then, horror of horrors, fear inclines us to judge those whose judgment we anticipate. And what we judge them for, out of our fear, is not their actual judgments towards us – which could potentially be repented of, sorted out, forgiven – but only imagined judgments. About which we can do absolutely nothing. Causing us to be reluctant to love them, or show favor to them.

The further fear drives us into ourselves, the stronger fears grip gets on us, life becomes a living hell. Fear punishing us mercilessly. (The one who fears is not made perfect in love.)

God have mercy!

We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides and God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence [freedom] in the day of judgment; because, as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear… (NASB)

Our only hope is that the God who is love would visit us with his perfect love, pouring out healing favor on us. And visit us he does, in Jesus of Nazareth, plunging into the heart of our withdrawal into ourselves, becoming one of us, meeting us in our hell and meting out God’s favor: announcing, demonstrating, and embodying the favor of God, the good news of the kingdom of God, the good news of eternal Zoe life. In Jesus, we have come to know and believe the love which God has for us. And in following Jesus, we join him in his love, allowing us to abide in God and God to abide us. And through our discipleship to Jesus, learning and practicing the way of love, love is perfected (telios, made complete, brought to maturity) with us, so that we may have freedom in the day of judgment. So that we may be free of the fear the presence of judgment usually inspires. [ people coming to church for the first time… ] Because as Jesus’ students, we enter into the same freedom from fear in this world that freed Jesus to not be afraid of the judgment of the Pharisees or the ridicule of the crowds or the brokenness of the sinful or the illnesses of the sick or even of death itself.

More on that in a few minutes. First, let’s examine the specific relationship between fear and love.

There is no fear in love. This is true because of the nature of fear and love, and true in a profound way as well, because of the nature of God.

Let’s start with the nature of God. God is love, John writes. God has no fear within him. Therefore, there is no fear in love. What could possibly cause God to not have confidence in favor? He is full of favor. The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit continuously making their abundantly loving presence and infinitely powerful power available to one another. No one can intrude on that exchange of favor; at the same time, God invites everyone into it. (Put that in your pipe and smoke it, as my Dad likes to say.) There is no fear in this love that is God.

This reality extends to love as we experience and participate in it as well.

Whoever lives in love, lives in God… To love, to place yourself below another to serve, is a defeat for fear, since you have not withdrawn into yourself, and since you have made your presence and power available for another. To love that way requires trusting in God. There is no fear in love in this sense.

And more than that, when we love, we are joining the God who is love in placing himself below another. Whoever lives in love, lives in God, and God in them. So when we love, we are living in God – in that eternal exchange of favor between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit – and God, in whom there is no fear, is living in us. Put that in your glass and drink it!

But wait, as the commercials say, there’s more! When love is received by someone, it is similarly a defeat for fear. Perfect love drives out (casts out) fear.

We can understand this in two ways.

The first has to do with the idea that love and fear are like presence and absence. When presence arrives, absence must go elsewhere. When enough love is received by someone, there isn’t room any more for fear. Love completely displaces the fear. Getting rid of fear on its own is like trying to get rid of a hole by shoveling the hole away. Useless and frustrating. Fill the fear hole in with love, however, and pretty soon the hole is gone.

The second, and more powerful way of understanding this has to do with authority. Same language as Jesus driving out (casting out) evil spirits.

Perfect love drives out fear because love has authority over fear. Fear ruled the old creation from the moment of Adam and Eve’s first sin. Love rules the new creation from the moment of Jesus’ incarnation.

Whenever Jesus drove out demons, he did it with a word of authority. Be gone! Because Jesus is the author of life. All things were made through him, and without him, nothing was made that has been made, John writes in his gospel. In every situation, the creator has primary authority over his creation, over and against the pretend authority of the destroyer. Love is a creative power; fear is destructive.

Fear has this grip over all of humanity. A grip that pretends to the throne. A grip that defends its authority with lies. “You must bow to me because of your sin.” “You must bow to me because of your weakness.” “You must bow to me because of my strength.”

And then along comes Jesus, who is perfect love inhabiting human flesh. And he comes to us, in perfect love, humbly, below us, serving. Ultimately facing down fear with confidence in his Father’s favor. And the creator exalts him, giving him authority over all of creation that has truth as its only defense.

Fear tells you that you must bow to it because of your sin; Jesus says to that fear, “Because of the Father’s favor to me, her sins are forgiven. Be gone.” And fear flees. Fear tells you that you must bow to it because of your weakness; Jesus says to that fear, “My favor is sufficient for him, for power is perfected in his weakness. Be gone.” And fear flees. Fear tells you that you must bow to it because of its strength; Jesus says to that fear, “Your strength has all the power and substance of a shadow and I am here to bathe the world in light. Be gone.” And fear flees.

With all of that in mind, what do we do about the fear in our lives and in our world?

Many of us are probably familiar with that passage from a letter in the Bible to the Corinthians, 1st Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind, etc.”

If we are in the grip of fear, 1st Corinthians 13 is a picture of the love that Jesus is that is driving out fear in our lives. If we are Jesus’ students, it’s a picture of the kind of love Jesus calls us to join him in as he delivers the world from fear. In truth, for most of us, we need both of those pictures.

4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8Love never fails.

Fear will say all sorts of things to you about God, about the absence of his loving presence or power. Fear is lying. Here is the truth.

God is patient. God is kind. He does not envy. He does not boast. He is not proud. God does not dishonor others, he is not self-seeking, he is not easily angered. God keeps no record of wrongs. God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. God never fails.

Fear will say all sorts of things to you about how you should respond to others when you are afraid, or when they, under the influence of fear, withhold their favor from you. Fear is lying.

Jesus invites you to respond by joining him in his love. By joining him in patience. In kindness. By rejecting the temptation to be envious. Or to boast. Or to be proud. By honoring them. By seeking their blessing. By resisting anger with every fiber of your being. By keeping no record of other’s wrongs. By not delighting in evil but rejoicing with the truth. By covering them with prayer, by trusting that good news will prevail, by hoping for restoration and reconciliation, by remaining even when it’s painful, so that we can be present and active participants when love wins.

(a word about healthy boundaries: there will be occasions when the way to participate in God’s love is to withdraw, not in fear, but as a participation in God’s love for you…this is especially the case when fear has moved the other into a place of active aggression towards you and it is no longer safe for you be near, or when your capacity to love those for whom you have a primary call to love is compromised…)

No one of us will do this perfectly. Every one of us will fail along the way. This is a “we” exercise. Love is made complete among us as we, the body of Christ, participate with him in driving fear out of this world. As we come to know and believe the love which God has for us, giving us a freedom to be in this world as Jesus is in this world. (As he is, so also are we in this world.) Full of love and favor.

Practical Tips:

1. Welcome perfect love. Identify a fear you feel relatively frequently, and deeply. Death, harm (for yourself, people close to you), relational rejection or abandonment, social embarrassment, financial ruin, etc. Recognize that God desires to set you free from that fear, not simply by removing the fear and leaving a vacuum behind, but by arriving with his loving presence and power and authoritatively driving it away. Because somewhere along the line, the enemy whispered or shouted an accusation about God or about you that you embraced, and that lie has become the basis for that fear’s influence in your life. In prayer, invite Jesus to make you aware of his loving presence and power in that area of your life. Let him know you are willing to stop trusting whatever that lie is, and begin trusting his truth.

2. Be part of the solution. Identify somebody you have judged and as a result have stopped loving and serving like you once did. Somebody that you have put yourself above, in a position to evaluate the rightness or wrongness of their actions. Somebody that you have since withheld your loving presence and power from, because of the judgment you reached. Repent of that judgment and prayerfully commit to join Jesus in 1st Corinthians 13 love.

3. Enter the mission field. Ask Jesus to show you somebody under the influence of fear to whom you can be an expression of his perfect love, in order to join with him in driving out fear. Adoption. Compassion International. Compassion Ministry. Alcoholics Anonymous Sponsor. Youth or children’s ministry. Ushering. A family member.

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