Mothers are often fearless, especially when it comes to the safety of their children. As you might expect, scientists having been studying this phenomenon, and they think they’ve figured it out. Apparently, it has something to do with hormones, or more specifically, a drop in peptide levels that occurs during lactation. When this happens, fear vanishes. Scientists made this discovery by studying mice, but it doesn’t take detailed studies of mice to know that mothers normally will do everything they can to protect their young. Just try getting close to a grizzly bear cub or a lion cub and you’ll quickly discover that their mothers don’t take kindly to such offenses.
Although I’ll take the scientists at their word, I prefer John’s explanation. It might not be as scientific, but it makes sense. According to John, love is the answer to fear, not fluctuations in peptide levels! But, that shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us.
1. God is love!
I’ll admit that sometimes John sounds like a broken record. It seems like every other word is – God is love. But, for some reason John thinks we need to continually revisit this idea. In part it’s because love is our foundational confession of faith, upon which everything else is built. Or, to put it another way, if we are born of God, then we will love, for God is love. You can’t have one without the other.
But, John wants to take this confession one step further. He wants us to know that Jesus is God’s gift of love to us. It’s in Jesus, whom God has sent into the world, that the true nature of God’s love is revealed. And more specifically, it’s in the cross that this love is revealed. That is, God’s love, as revealed to us in Jesus, is sacrificial – God is willing to give up everything so that we might once again experience oneness with God and with one another. This is the ultimate expression of God’s love for us – that we might be one with God and with each other through Christ – who is love in the flesh.
2. God’s love is Reciprocal.
If we affirm that God is love and that Jesus is God’s fullest expression of that love, then the next question has to do with the way in which we participate in that love. John suggests that God’s love is reciprocal. We love, he says, because God first loved us. The question is: How do we, who are human, return love to a God who is invisible to us? It’s one thing to say -- I love God – but what does that require of me? The answer is: we love the invisible God by loving the neighbor whom you can see. Or, to quote Jesus, you love and serve him, “even as you do it to the least of these” (Mt. 25:40).
3. No Fear of God
If God is love and Jesus is God’s fullest expression of that love, a love that we reciprocate by loving our neighbor, then love should define the way we see the world. Or, as John puts it – there is no fear in love. That is – fear is the opposite of love, and if we experience love then fear should not be present in our lives.
I realize that Proverbs says that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7), but the author of Proverbs has something different in mind from what we consider fear. In Proverbs the fear of God is reverence and awe, not terror, which is our normal definition of fear. Now, I may be dumbstruck when I’m in the presence of God, but I shouldn’t be shaking in my boots worrying about whether God is going to hit me with a lightening bolt. You know what I mean, like in the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy and her friends first meet up with the Wizard in the great hall. All that fire and noise – that would be frightening, but I don’t think that’s how we should envision our relationship with the loving and gracious God revealed to us in Jesus. Our relationship with God isn’t a backslapping kind of friendship, but we needn’t stand in fear of God, thinking that God is angry or malevolent.
I realize that the church has often taught something very different. Indeed, we can find texts, even in 1 John, that speak of wrath and anger and punishment, but if we take this confession seriously, that God is love, and that Jesus is the fullest expression of that love, then our portrayals of God must not focus on wrath and punishment. Many of us have heard or experienced messages of “Turn or burn.” Indeed, Jonathan Edwards gave a famous sermon that spoke about “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” Somehow, I can’t connect that kind of confession of faith with the confession that God is love and that there is no fear in love.
Now, I do believe that God holds us accountable, but I also believe that God, like any good parent, indeed any good mother, will not torment us or throw us away, even when we’ve been a bit bad. So, fear of punishment can’t be our motivation for faithfulness, nor the basis of our relationship with God.
4. No Fear at all!
With this confession in mind, I want to stay with the issue of fear. You may have seen those bumper stickers that say “No Fear.” Now, in cultural context, the message is this: “Go for it.” Or, “Just Do it.” I mean, go skydiving or do a triple twisting somersault with a forward rotation on your skis, because there’s nothing to fear!
Well, I’m not so sure about the skydiving part or the extreme skiing, but metaphorically speaking, if there’s no fear in love, indeed, if “perfect love casts out fear,” then the message of the day is this: Be bold in your service to God and humanity, because you have nothing to fear, expect perhaps fear itself!
With that, we come back to Mother’s Day. Little children know when their mothers love them, and when they experience that love, they’re not afraid of trying things. Children who know that Mom or Dad loves them tend to be curious and engaged. They ask questions and explore their world. They do this because they have a sense of confidence, which comes from knowing that mom or dad is near by ready to protect them. They know too that they don’t have to fear punishment because of their explorations. Now Mom may set some boundaries for their protection, but they’re not arbitrary and they’re not set up for punishment. Unfortunately, as we grow older and put some distance between ourselves and our parents, we often lose that sense of confidence and we become more fearful.
And here is where the rubber meets the road – we live in a world that capitalizes on our fears. There are lots of fear mongers out there in the world, ready and willing to pounce. Politicians and pundits regularly point out why we should be afraid. The Department of Homeland Security has developed a whole color-coded system to let us know how much fear we should be feeling. While we don’t hear as much about it as we used to, that doesn’t mean that it’s not deeply rooted in our psyche. So, watch out, if you hear a code red warning!!
Now, there may be reasons why we should be cautious in life, but when fear takes hold love disappears. Fear divides us from one another. It makes us cynical and even paranoid, and while we may sometimes joke about paranoia, paranoia is dangerous. It can lead to exclusion and even violence. The message here, then, is this: if we embrace the God who is love, as revealed to us in Jesus, then we can say no to fear and begin to reach out into the world and begin building bridges to those who are hurting and standing on the margins of society, those who need to experience reconciliation with God and with neighbor.
And, since this is Mother’s Day, a day when we remember and honor the love of mothers, perhaps we can best experience the day by experiencing the love that transforms our lives and overcomes the fears that seek to control us and keep us from participating in God’s mission in the world.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
May 10, 2009
Fifth Sunday of Easter