I John 4:7-21
“The Antidote to Fear”
May 10, 2009 - Fifth Sunday of Easter
I embarrassed my mother in a worship service when I was five years old. We had just moved back to California. We visited a church for several weeks. One Sunday as worship began, I looked down and noticed my mother had new shoes. They had sharply pointed toes in the style of the day. Something clicked in my little mind and I looked up at her and said in a voice that everyone around could hear, “Wow, mommy. If you kick me with those shoes on, it will really hurt.”
Now it wasn’t that I got kicked regularly—or at all—it was just my five-year-old idea of a joke to make it sound that way. But the very reason I could say such a thing is that I knew my mother would never do it. She loved me too much to kick me. If I was even the least bit afraid it would really happen, I would have remained silent, as abused children so often do. But I was not afraid. I could joke about it because I knew I was loved.
So Paul says in verse 18, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” Love is the antidote to fear. Because I knew my mother loved me, I was not afraid of her. Well, not unless I had taken a cookie without asking or teased my sister. Then I was afraid of some punishment from my mom, just not a kick.
Which is what John goes on to say, “because fear has to do with punishment.” Love frees us from the fear of His punishment on Judgment Day. When we live in love, we do not need to be afraid of being punished.
Especially on Mother’s Day, however, we need to understand this love that frees us from fear. We say some awfully sentimental things at times like this. Don’t get me wrong. Mothers are marvelous. They carry you around for nine months before they’ve even met you. They get up in the night to feed you and wipe your rear and just hold you when you’re afraid. They give up some of their own dreams and ambitions so that you can have yours. I cherish my mother’s memory and I adore my wife who is our daughters’ mother.
Yet as Christians, we get a little off track if we say with Washington Irving, “A mother is the dearest friend we have. . .” or with Balzac, “The heart of a mother is a deep abyss at the bottom of which you will always find forgiveness,” or even with Abraham Lincoln, “All that I am or ever hope to be I owe to my angel Mother.” As sweet as those sentiments are, they ascribe to mothers a place and an honor that John here rightly ascribes to God.
Verse 7 says, “Dear friends, Let us love one another, for love comes from God.” Whenever love is the topic of conversation, it’s good to remember this. It all starts in God, in His love for us, not in our love, no matter how strong that may be, no matter if it’s as fierce and determined as a mother’s love. Love begins with God, not with us.
Continuing verse 7 and in verse 8 John draws conclusions we heard in last week’s text as well. Love is evidence that a person knows God. If you don’t love, you don’t really know Him, no matter what you say. Why? “Because God is love.”
God’s love is more dependable, more reliable than any human love. “God is love.” Love is not something external to God. It’s not just a mask or show He puts on. You and I can act loving when we don’t feel like it. But that’s never the case with God. His love goes all the way to root of who He is. He doesn’t just do loving actions. He is love. God’s love really does come right out of His heart.
Yet we cannot just reverse that formula and say, “Love is God.” We can’t worship an abstraction or a feeling. We can’t really love love. Love is the act and character of a person. That’s why verse 9 reminds us how God’s love came to us in person. “This is how God showed us his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” Because God is love, His love was made personal, became a person. God Himself came to us, in His dear Son, Jesus Christ.
Just to make sure we’ve got the order straight in all this, verse 10 tells us, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us…” That’s the priority. We don’t manufacture love. God creates it. He loved us before we ever loved Him. Before we were ever born, God loved us and planned to forgive our sins through the sacrifice of Jesus.
Verses 11 and 12 return to thoughts from last week. Because God loved us, we ought to love one another. That’s how God’s love becomes visible among us. “No one has ever seen God,” he says, “but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
Real love is visible. You see how people treat each other. A husband brings home flowers for his wife. A mother puts a band-aid on a skinned knee. A friend sends a note of encouragement or sympathy. You lend a hand or a car or a few hundred dollars. You listen or hug or just sit close. God’s love for us becomes visible in our love for each other.
Yet John won’t let us forget that God’s love was also directly visible in our world. He showed His love to us when Jesus died on the Cross and rose from the dead. So verses 13 through 15 take us back to the center of the Christian message. “We have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.”
You can’t disconnect love and God. We can’t just decide to be people of love and forget about the source of love. Love without Jesus Christ, without God, is like your laptop computer or cell phone running on the battery. It works real well for awhile, even a long while. You can connect and send and receive messages of love and everything seems fine. But unless you eventually plug in and charge your battery, the screen of your heart finally goes blank. Love goes dead. You come to the point where you haven’t got anymore love to send, and no more energy to send it.
“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us,” John tells us in verse 16. That’s where it comes from. Once again he says, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God and God in them.” Our reliance on external power for our cell phones and Ipods and all that is often unconscious. We forget about it until they die and then we remember to plug in and recharge. That’s why John wants us to know, to be conscious of our reliance on God’s love. We shouldn’t imagine that we can do our love without relying on His love. Ideally, we would stay plugged in all the time, living in God and God living in us.
Which brings us back now to love and fear. Fear disconnects us from God. Fear makes us quit relying on God’s love and start dreading His punishment. Fear makes us stop looking forward to meeting and seeing a God we love and makes us want to hide from a God who will punish us. Like too many supposedly Christian books and movies suggest, we may fear a coming Day of Judgment, and not look forward to it at all.
So in verse 17, John says that God living in us and us in Him is “how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment.” When we connect with God’s sacrificial love to us in Jesus Christ, we don’t have to fear what’s coming.
What’s more, John wrote: “In this world we are like Jesus.” God loves us enough to make us like His own beloved Son. He loves us like He loved Him. We will suffer like Jesus suffered. We will be mistreated and misunderstood like He was. We will die like He died. Yet like Jesus we will be loved, loved by God. And like Jesus did, we will love, love each other, with a love that, as I said before, drives out fear.
As we grow in love, as we learn to love each other, we grow more and more in our confidence in God’s love. We have the order straight. It’s not that God loves us because we love each other. In loving each other we realize more and more just how great and strong and persistent God’s love is for us. Our love helps us know and experience God’s love. That’s the truth in all those Mother’s Day sentiments. A deep, abiding, vibrant human love leads us back to its source in God’s love through Christ.
That’s one reason John insists on our love toward each other. If you don’t love, it’s much harder to believe you are loved, even by God. In C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, that’s the devils’ problem. They have a research program on love, to find out what God is really up to. God says He loves people, but they are sure that can’t really be true. They have no love of their own, so they can’t imagine real love. There must be some ulterior motive, some secret selfish plan on God’s part. God says He is love. But to beings who do not love that can only be a cover up for something like cosmic weapons of mass destruction hidden somewhere if they can only find them.
But love is what God is. God really is love. There’s nothing hidden behind or underneath it. Love is the very essence of God. So verse 18 tells us “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” You and I don’t need to be afraid. God loved us enough to die for us in Jesus and He will never quit loving us, no matter how far we may go away from Him.
Verse 19 puts it very simply. “We loved because he first loved us.” That’s where we gain the character and strength to begin loving each other. It doesn’t come from us. As we read first, “love comes from God.” Our love for each other comes from God’s love for us. And that makes it strong enough to drive out fear.
In some cases love seems almost given. It’s that way between mother and child. But it’s well to remember that even mother love is God’s gift. Mothers love their children like God loves His people, His children. We grow in love for each other by receiving the greater, deeper, more perfect love that comes from God to us in Jesus Christ.
As we heard last Sunday, John wants us to work it out practically. You and I are to love each other and love the world in tangible ways. Verse 20 says we can’t really love God if we hate a brother or sister. We can’t fail to love those we can see and claim to love a God we have not seen. So with verse 21 we come around once again to this basic Christian command: “Those who love God must also love one another.”
How do we do it? How do we show love to each other? Is it just a matter of hugs and handshakes on Sunday morning? You all know it’s not. You know that it’s helping each other move. It’s paying extra for a car wash you may not have really needed so that a student can go to CHIC. It’s stopping to listen when someone is hurting. It’s taking care of a baby in the nursery. It’s visiting each other when someone is sick. Which raise an interesting issue.
Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, wrote that he heard talk of churches making plans for what to do if the swine flue turned into an epidemic. I guess they call it a “pandemic” these days. I don’t know the difference. But how do you do a gathered worship service when people are afraid of crowds? Would Holy Communion be served? Would you quit shaking hands and giving hugs? But there’s something else to consider.
Galli remembered reading Rodney Stark’s account of how Christians handled things when plague and disease appeared in Roman times. Though nobody knew about bacteria and viruses, they understood contagion. It was common for healthy people to abandon those who became infected, to flee and leave those in a whole village or area of a city to care for themselves. About 165 A.D., one of the most famous Roman doctors, Galen, himself fled the city of Rome to his rural villa until a plague had passed.
In 260 A.D. another epidemic swept through the empire. Many ran away from the sick, as usual. But we read this in a letter from Dionysius, a Christian bishop at the time:
Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains… The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of elders, deacons and laymen, winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.
That wholly strange and foreign to us way of looking at and behaving in an epidemic is a lesson in Christian love from which we might benefit. It’s love in which there is no fear. It may sound weird to talk about plague and epidemic on Mother’s Day, but many a mother cares for her sick child unafraid of infecting herself. That same fearless love is what God intends us all to have for each other. It’s the kind of love He had for us. Jesus came into a world infected with sin and hatred and death, unafraid of getting Himself infected. And He died with us so that He could care for us, heal us and restore us to a healthy relationship with God. We’re called to love each other like that, without fear.
I confess I struggle with this all the time, even the caring for the sick part. My family will tell you how afraid I am of catching even a cold when one of them becomes ill. Yet I hear the Word which says, “perfect love casts out fear,” and I realize I’m called to a better love, a love unafraid of the consequences to myself, a fearless love willing to give myself up so that others may know the love of God.
God is love. His love came to us through Jesus Christ. The love of God drives out all our fear. His love is our best reason for loving each other. When we live in His love we no longer need to be afraid, of Him or of each other. God is love and He brings us together to learn to be like Him, with love between us, and no fear. May our Lord Jesus Christ make us more and more perfect in His perfect love.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj