“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear… We love because he loved us first” (1 Jn. 4).
What does it mean to say that perfect love casts out fear?
Over a hundred years ago G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote, “There are some people – and I am one of them – who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy…”
“We think for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether, in the long run, anything else affects them.”
All these years later I think that the most striking thing for Chesterton about our implied individual and collective philosophy would be our fear. On the one hand we live in one of the safest, healthiest and wealthiest societies in all history, and at the same time we are obsessed by unlikely threats and a false sense of scarcity.
In the last presidential election unemployment was at 5%, there had been six years of steady economic progress, our country was developing the technologies of the future, and our military power was unrivalled. And yet many Americans seemed irrationally afraid – of immigrants, terrorists, people of color, government officials, etc.
In these early days of the vast social experiment which we call the Internet, sometimes it seems like people just want to be offended and angry. Fear generates fear and since then we have become even more afraid. We worry about the viability of our democracy itself, environmental degradation, trade wars and actual wars.
Sasha Abramsky my forum guest today points out that our smartphones are “changing our physiology” through stress. He also claims that we are afraid of the wrong things. We worry about Ebola, terrorists, plane crashes, violent immigrants, when we should be worrying about traffic. In ten years 400,000 vehicular passengers and another 45,000 pedestrians were killed on American roads. In 2015 thirty-eight thousand people were killed by cars in the US, an increase of 8 percent probably the result of distracted driving.
Fear makes Americans more dangerous. It leads to policies like the “Stand Your Ground” laws, mass incarceration, overzealous policing, the legitimation of torture and reckless foreign interventions. Because tens of millions of Americans believe they need guns to protect themselves we live with higher rates of suicide and accidental death. In 2014 Gun War News reported that for every American soldier killed in Afghanistan over the previous eleven years, thirteen American children had died from being shot.
- This morning we have two readings that particularly address the universal human challenge of overcoming fear. John dedicates a large portion of his Gospel to what scholars call “The Farewell Discourse.” At his last meal Jesus washes the feet of his friends. He inaugurates the tradition of a holy meal that we will experience this morning. He tells his friends what is about to happen, that he will be betrayed and delivered to the authorities and humiliated.
You might imagine how horrifying this would sound to someone who had given up everything to follow Jesus. They loved him and believed so deeply in his message. They couldn’t help but think that his disgrace would be theirs too. You can almost imagine the desperation and fear Thomas feels when he says, “How can we know the way.” So Jesus explains. He’s not delivering a social science lecture. He is trying to comfort his friends.
In the Gospel of John Jesus offers seven “I Am” statements to help us to understand God. He says, “I am the bread of life… the light of the world… the door… the Good Shepherd… the resurrection… the way, the truth and the life…” Finally, Jesus gets to the last image that he hopes. Each of these pictures has been leading to this.
Jesus says, “I am the true vine and my father is the farmer” (Jn. 15). The scriptures often used this image of God as the farmer and the people of Israel as a kind of grapevine. In those contexts God condemns the whole nation for bearing poor fruit and threatens to uproot the vines. Jeremiah complains about the bitterness of this fruit and God’s righteousness in destroying it (2:21).
But in this context with his very dear friends, Jesus is not so much threatening them with death, as a consequence of choosing to be cut off (as I imagine some might read this passage). Instead he says, “You have already been cleansed (or pruned) by the word I have spoken to you” (Jn. 15). He is promising a whole new kind of intimacy and connection. He is saying, “Don’t be afraid, we will always be together. Your life and all of its fruits will be signs of our ongoing intimacy. I will be with you and our companionship will be even closer than it is now. Today we walk side by side but in the days to come, I will live in you.”
- The second reading comes from the First Letter of John. The Biblical scholar Ray Brown believes that this letter was written during a time of struggle within the early Christian community by a person who was concerned about Gnosticism. John wrote this epistle in the face of a religious movement that emphasized secret knowledge about a war between spirit and the physical world.
For John faith is public and visible. Over and over he repeats his conviction that belief and knowledge are always secondary to love. Or to put it more accurately, we recognize the truth by the fruit it bears. Especially when Christians disagree we have to always keep this message in mind.
John writes that, “We love because [God] first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers and 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” (1 Jn. 4).
John encourages us to show our faithfulness to God through our kindness to each other. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (1 Jn. 4).
This week again the news has been full of reminders about the severity of racial injustice in America where unarmed African Americans are five times as likely to be killed by police as white people. You may have read about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice dedicated to people who were terrorized by the lynching of African Americans. Perhaps you heard about the African American women golfers who were playing at their own club when the police were called to escort them off the grounds. You could have seen the video of Desmond Marrow a former NFL player who was thrown to the ground and choked by police officers in Atlanta, Georgia.
We have reached a horrible place in our society when significant numbers of people believe that calling the police puts African American people at risk of being humiliated or killed.
In the film I Am not Your Negro, we hear the writer James Baldwin (1924-1987) reminiscences of his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t know if you have ever had a friend who was murdered, but it makes a difference in how the world looks to you. Despite this Baldwin can say, “I refuse to hate you. In fact you and I are one. The great lie is that we are two people. I’m your cousin. I can’t hate you because we’re family.”
So much about fear is mysterious. What feels terrifying to me could seem totally irrational to you, in fact it could be even exhilarating to you. Chapman University charts American’s top fears every year. You can see the trends. Fear is a social phenomenon.
When I first arrived at Grace Cathedral riding my bicycle down California Street seemed terrifying. Like an old style roller coaster you come up to Jones from the Taylor Street steps with the wind howling over the top of Nob Hill. Then you launch yourself downhill. Car doors swing open. Uber drivers pass you within inches as you go almost thirty miles per hour trying to avoid cable cars and their accident-causing rails.
It’s dangerous because you are exposed. You have a different kind of vehicle and so the people around you don’t understand (maybe that makes it a little bit like other ways of being different in our society). Over these years I have come to love what I previously feared. Now I see that every day in that place is wonderfully different and I’m filled with joy. I’m enjoying the ride more than the destination.
I began with the idea that your philosophy of life matters to hundreds of small and large decisions in our life. The life of faith is like riding down that hill. To others we might seem vulnerable and a little reckless, as too quick to forgive. We look more exposed to suffering because of our commitment to love. But we have something that cannot be seen. We are part of the true vine. Jesus lives through us. God’s fruits are being born in us. We experience the love that casts out fear.
Let us pray: May all that is unforgiven in us / Be released. / May our fears yield / Their deepest tranquilities. // May all that is unlived in us / Blossom into a future / Graced with love.
 G.K. Chesterton, Heretics quoted in William James, Pragmatism and the Meaning of Truth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978) 9.
 Sasha Abramsky, Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream (NY: Nation Books, 2017) 95.
 Ibid., 74.
 The discussion below comes from Liz and Matt Boulton, “Abide in Me: SALT Commentary for Easter 5,” Salt, April 2018. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-easter-5
 Herman C. Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005) 225-352.
Liz and Matt Boulton, “Abide in Me: SALT Commentary for Easter 5,” Salt, April 2018. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-easter-5
 Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible: The Epistles of John, Volume 30 (NY: Doubleday, 1982).
 Sasha Abramsky, Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream (NY: Nation Books, 2017) 146, 159-60.
 https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2018/04/26/the-lynching-memorial-ends-our-national-silence-on-racial-terrorism/?utm_term=.863fff961c74&wpisrc=nl_popns&wpmm=1 and https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/memorial
 Donald Schell conversation 25 April 2018.
 John O’ Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (NY: Doubleday, 2008) 97.