Sunday, May 10, 2009

Fear, Love, and the Salvation of God

Texts: Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21

THERE'S A LOT TO BE fearful about these days. The economy's going down the sewer. There's a strange new kind of flu going around. The Middle East is blowing up worse than ever. And the politicians in Washington seem to spend all their time thinking up new ways to take away our rights and liberties, not to mention our money.

The world is filled with Fear, and to paraphrase a certain poem, "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, maybe you haven't grasped the situation!"

With all this, the Apostle John comes along with His First Letter and says, "Perfect love drives out fear." He commands us to love one another, and that will prove whether we have perfect love, as in, "The one who does not love does not know God."

That's putting a big burden on Love! Maybe you remember the hippie days of the late 1960s, early '70s. A lot of us were running around babbling about Love, Peace, and Flower Power. It was all "Make love, not war." The idea was that if we would all just bliss out and love everybody, all the nasty, scary things in the world could be magically overcome or ignored into oblivion. I was just young enough during that time to be skeptical about how that was going to work. And in the end, it didn't. My Baby Boomer generation turned out to be just as greedy, hateful, and rapacious as any other, we were just more sneaky and sanctimonious about it.

Is this the kind of love the Apostle John is talking? The warm-fuzzy, head-in-the-sand, self-seeking human love that fades out when the situation gets scary or just inconvenient?

No, John is speaking of the tough-as-nails, purifying, self-giving, fear-defying, eternal agape love of Almighty God. He begins our passage with this command: "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God." This love of God is what we're to do our loving with, not some feeling we've imagined or felt or come up with on our own.

In the Greek this passage actually begins with "agapetoi ," which means "Beloved," or, "You who are loved with the love of God." So verse 7 could well read, "You who are right now already loved with the purifying, selfless, fear-defying love of God, love one another with the purifying, selfless, fear-defying love of God, for purifying, selfless, fear-defying love comes only from God." In other words, you've already got what you need right now to obey this command and stand up to fear, because you've received it from God Himself.

In the same vein, verse 8 would read, "Whoever does not love with this purifying, selfless, fear-defying love of God does not know God." Obviously not, because God Himself is this sort of love, and only those who know Him can love this way.

Moreover, the love of God will certainly show itself in anyone who has it. Not all at once, but if someone claims to know God and never, ever shows any sign of Christian love, you have every right to doubt his or her salvation.

But this agape love of God: how do we know it can face down all our fears and make it possible for us to love one another?

We know it, as John writes in verse 9, because God sent His only-begotten Son into the world that through Jesus Christ we might have-- not just bios-- physical life-- but zoe-- the eternal life of God. Think of what Jesus Christ did for you and me on the cross! He faced down all the terrors of sin, death, and hell. He defeated every last thing that we should ever be afraid of.

Verse 10 gives us a true picture of God's purifying, selfless, fear-defying love: It's not that we came up with this kind of love towards God and He rewarded us by loving us back. That's putting it the wrong way around. No, God initiated this love. He embodied it in His Son and His sacrifice for us. When Jesus shed His blood, beyond all else He dealt with the most fearsome thing you or I would ever have to face. Not disease, not death, not even all the devils of hell: Jesus turned aside or propitiated the wrath of God. He, the innocent Lamb of God, died in the place of us guilty sinners. And why? Because God so loved the world, as John writes in his Gospel. Because, as Paul writes in Romans, God was demonstrating His love for us, even while we were still rebellious sinners.

So, John continues in verse 11, "Beloved, since this is how God loved us, we also ought to love one another."

Let that sink in for a moment . . . God loved us when we were wretched, wrong, and undeserving. In response, we are to love one another with purifying, selfless, fear-defying love . . . even when the other person is wretched, wrong, and undeserving.

Oh. So we're supposed to let others walk all over us? After all, Jesus put up with cruel insults and dehumanizing treatment! Is that the love God demands that we show others?

But look at Jesus. No one victimized Him, not even when they nailed Him to the cross. The Scripture clearly teaches that Jesus humbled Himself and laid down His life willingly. When He submitted to humanity's scorn and cruelty, He did it on purpose so humanity might be redeemed from sins like scorn and cruelty. The love of God demonstrated in Jesus Christ always triumphs over the evils thrown against it, and raises us up to new life. The love of God can never condone sin, or promote it, or give up against it. The love of God wants nothing but the best for the object of His love, and that best is Jesus Christ and everything He gives.

Make no mistake: The purifying, selfless, fear-defying love of God working in us will call us to endure pain and insult from the unredeemed world. If you are persecuted for Jesus' sake, you follow in His steps. You exhibit Jesus Christ and His salvation to the world, that more and more people might be saved.

John says in verse 12, "No one has beheld God at any time"-- not with the physical eyes, that is. But as we love others as God loves us, with the same purifying, selfless, fear-defying love, the world will see in us an image of God working in love. As we grow more and more like His Son, that image is being perfected in us. How can you know if you're really saved? You know it by the presence of the Holy Spirit in you, bringing you along, conforming you to the image of Jesus Christ, assuring you of God's gracious love for you, encouraging you to show His love, helping you to repent when you fall short, and never, ever giving up on you.

Again, what's the primary way we show the purifying, selfless, fear-defying love of God? As verse 14 says, it's by bearing witness that the Father has sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world.

Notice what John says. For many years, "Christian witnessing" has meant "telling people how Jesus has improved my life/made me a better mother/made me a nicer person," etc. What I'm about to say may go against everything you've ever heard on the subject, but hear me: That is not Christian witnessing. Yes, Jesus may well have done all that for you. But our true witness to Christ is telling the old, old story of how God's only Son came in love to take on our flesh and hung on a cross to take away our sins and rose from the dead to bring us new life. We testify with John in verse 15, that if anyone confesses that this risen Jesus is the Son of God, God will make His home in that person and that person will forever be at home in God. That wouldn't be possible without the cross. And the cross was possible only through the purifying, selfless, fear-defying love of God that we have come to believe.

This is the loving witness we see in Acts, in the account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Philip the deacon could have had every reason to be afraid in this situation. An angel speaks to you, that's frightening enough. But then the Spirit directed Philip to speak to a total stranger who by his clothes and jewelry and the style of his carriage was obviously a high government official. Philip's fellow-deacon, Stephen, had been martyred not long before. How could he know this official wouldn't turn him over to the Jewish authorities? And then, the man was a foreigner. And he was a eunuch-- pretty much all courtiers were in those days-- and the Law of Moses forbade any man with damaged genitals to be admitted to full fellowship with the people of God. What if Philip were doing something, well, unkosher in offering the Gospel to him?

The striking thing is, fear is the last emotion you'd attribute to Philip. There's simply no question of it. He's so full of the love of Jesus Christ that he comes right up to that man in his chariot and strikes up a conversation. He preaches Jesus Christ to him out of the Scriptures, just as we are commanded to do, and the Holy Spirit confirms the love of God towards that Ethiopian and moves him to believe and be baptised and go on his way with joy.

That is what our attitude will be when we love with the love of God. John says it again in verse 16: God is love. The world says, "Love is god," by which they mean unbridled sex and selfishness and emotional highs that don't last. That kind of love is cheap and shabby compared to the everlasting love that God is. God gives us His glorious, strong, fear-defying love to live in. It's like a castle He builds for us. It's fortified against all assault, and that castle of love is God Himself. He keeps us and defends us and perfects us in His love. He shields us from everything that could make us afraid.

Especially, His love for us in Jesus Christ shields us from the fear we would otherwise have on the Day of Judgement. We don't think much about the wrath of God against our sins. We don't spend time fearing it. But in the end-- literally-- it's the only thing we should really, truly be afraid of. Financial hardship, illness, starvation, grief, frightening as they are, they all come and go. Even if they end in death, people will say, "Well, now he (or she) is at peace." But the righteous wrath of God says No, for after this comes the judgement. His verdict will be final and those who have rejected Christ and His love will bear the horror and fear of their decision into eternity.

But if truly we have received the love of God shown us in Jesus Christ, we have no need to fear the Day of Judgement. We can be confident in that dreadful day, because already in this world God is working out His love in us, making us into models of Himself. There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.

Yes, but how do we get this perfect love? I used to think it was up to me, and knew I would never succeed. But the Holy Spirit helped me understand what John is saying here. You and I cannot gin up this perfect love. Rather, this perfect love is the purifying, selfless, fear-defying agape love of Almighty God. It's the love He puts in us by faith in the death and resurrection of His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.

In verse 18 it says that "fear has to do with punishment." Wait a minute: Aren't we afraid for a lot of other reasons as well? But when you think about it, the root of fear really is dread of punishment or retribution. Have you ever noticed how physical pain or sadness or uncertainty is worse when it's tied up with the feeling that you're alienated from other people and from God? Suffering is more fearful and harder to bear when you feel it might somehow be your fault.

I'm thinking of a situation in my own life. I won't go into detail, but members of my family and I find ourselves deeply concerned about a certain relative of ours. I've been very afraid and worried for her. And I find myself saying to myself, "Of course I'm afraid and worried for her! I love her, don't I?" But I have to admit that what I'm encouraging in myself really isn't love. Love is warm and expansive and open, even when it's full of sadness and pity. What I'm feeling over my relative is tight and cramped and closed. It has to do with me trying to atone for my own guilt in not doing more to prevent the situation. It's about me not quite trusting God to take care of her when I can't, so I make myself sick over the situation and imagine that means I'm in control.

I admit it: I am not yet perfected in love. And, I'm willing to guess, neither are you. We still fear. We still wallow in our guilt instead of giving it up and accepting the forgiveness Jesus won for us on the cross. We still try to make our faulty human love do when we could love with the saving love of God. Nevertheless, bit by bit, more and more, we love, because He first loved us.

And in case we should think this is all just a bunch of nice-sounding religious philosophy, John brings us down to everyday specifics in verses 20 and 21. Church member, do you consider yourself to be a lover of God? All right, how do you treat your brothers and sisters in Christ? How do you treat your pastor? Do you encourage them, build them up, support them, work in harmony with them, and always seek their highest good? Or are you always looking out for that juicy bit of gossip to spread? Does it give you a charge whenever you can undermine your opponent, so he or she won't look good? Do you keep a list of grievances and refuse to forgive, especially people in the church?

The Holy Spirit has a word for people who behave like that, and it is "Liar." For how can anyone love the unseen God as his Father if he hates someone who is his brother in Jesus Christ, whom he sees face to face?

No, the end and object of God's love for us is very practical. We must obey the command of our Lord Jesus Christ and love one another, as He has loved us.

And let us rejoice in that! God has loved us and does love us, with a love that is pure, selfless, and fear-defying. He proves it to us by the salvation He gives us in His Son Jesus Christ. Down with fear and let us stand firm in His love. This world throws many fearsome things at us, but what's the worst it can do? We and those we love could die, true. But for us who are God's beloved, to die is gain, for it means forever being with our loving Lord. In this encouragement, beloved, let us love one another with a purifying, selfless, fear-defying love, for purifying, selfless, fear-defying love is from God.

Alleluia, amen!

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