Easter 5: Love that casts out fear

1 John 4:18
"1 John 4:18" by philipcdavis, on Flickr

Acts 8:26–40
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it." So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

"Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth."

The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

1 John 4:7–21
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or 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. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

John 15:1-8
[Jesus says,] "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples."

There are plenty of Sundays that I have stood up here in the pulpit and started out a sermon by saying “Wow, today’s readings were really tough,” or “As preachers, we cringe when we have to find some good news in difficult texts like these.” So I feel like I need to balance things out a bit, and not just complain about the hard Sundays, but also share joy over Sundays like today. Here we have three rich texts, all filled with good news. Yes, sometimes as a preacher you luck out. There are six or eight or a hundred different sermons that I could preach.

As I prepared for today, I was struck by one of the common themes in these readings, the theme of being bound together as community in Christ.

In our first reading, we encounter an Ethiopian official serving the queen’s court, a eunuch who, not to be crass, has quite literally been cut off from the temple community, and who is reading a passage from Isaiah about this suffering servant who we know to be Christ. Desperately seeking to be a part of God’s community, and emboldened by the good news of the sufferings and resurrection of Christ, he asks Philip, "Here is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?

In other words, “What is preventing me from becoming a part of God's community, despite my race, despite my nationality, despite my physical impairment, despite my job?" Because for all of the reasons that he was cut off from society, he knew in his heart that there was nothing - nothing - that could actually cut him off from the life-giving promises of God's grace and the community of Christ, the suffering servant.

I've been thinking a lot about community these days - about the way that we are called to love our enemies and seek the good of our neighbors and to live in harmony with one another and to live peaceably with all. I've been thinking about that question of barriers, about who are those on the outskirts, those who don't have the privilege of health or happiness or justice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about struggling communities in Nepal who are still unearthing bodies, dead and alive, from last week’s earthquake, who are piling up bodies along the sea to be cremated, who are waiting for relief to come at the mercy of many and various international aid organizations, and all of the complicated lessons that disasters like this might be teaching us about being citizens of a global community.

I've been thinking a lot about the city of Baltimore these days, about Freddie Gray and his sister and his family who grieve his death, about how his life was taken from him at the hands of six police officers sworn to serve and protect life, about race and class, peaceful protests and angry riots, and all the layers upon layers of complicated lessons this tragedy might have us about community, about who is in and who is out and who gets to decide that.

As we watch these sagas unfold on our televisions and news feeds, we are presented with a huge list of unanswerable questions.

How can we efficiently and sustainably help unearth the rubble and rebuild infrastructure across the globe after natural disasters? And what do we do with the knowledge that poorer communities suffer more deeply than affluent communities when environmental disasters hit?

How do we respond to the reality that racism is still alive and well in our country? How do race and class intersect?

What do we do with violence done falsely in the name of justice? What do we do with violence done in the name of protest? How do we speak about right and wrong ways to stand up to power without condoning or victim blaming the protestors?

Who in our society has the power, explicitly or implicitly? Who suffers under this power? How do we use the power we are given for good? How do we claim power when we are oppressed?How do we know when to live under the law and when to rebel against it? How do we speak the truth about abuses of power without either blindly defending or demonizing law enforcement?

Why does any of this even matter to us, residents of Decorah, Iowa, far removed from either Maryland or Nepal?

Why does it matter? It matters because Jesus is the vine, and we - all of us - are the branches. And to be connected to the vine is to be connected through Christ to all of those other branches, whether those branches are here in Decorah or all the way in Baltimore and Nepal; whether those branches are black or brown or white, rich or poor, straight or gay, liberal or conservative.

The crises in Baltimore and Nepal make it impossible for us to ignore the fact that so many people in our world live in fear: Young black men. Practicing Muslims. Neighborhoods built on fault lines and typhoon-threatened coastlines. Families living in crime-ridden areas because it's the only housing they can afford. Women who feel vulnerable to unwanted sexual advances. White middle class men and women who feel threatened or defensive when they are confronted with the privileges that they take for granted.

Our news culture keeps us up close and personal with every threat, big or small, likely or unlikely; political, nutritional, international, criminal. There is fear all around. And this fear stands as a symbol of our broken world, as a symbol of sin and death in our midst. Fear stands in the way of God's intentions for this one holy community of all humanity and all creation.

Today in 1 John, we hear these words: "Perfect love casts out fear."

Perfect love casts out all fear
. As trite as it may sound, love, I think, is the solution to all the calamities facing our world. Love deeply. Love divinely. Love so strongly that fear is banished. For love, as an action, is what we are called to do in response to the love that was shown to us in Christ.

Love brings justice. Love speaks the truth. Love shows compassion. Love inspires sacrifice. Love gives us responsibility to care for one another and all creation. Love binds together rather than pulling apart. Love creates community. Love brings joy. Love gives life. Love casts out all fear.

All these acts of love are possible only because we are branches of the Christ the vine. He is this main artery of love and goodness and resurrection that flows, unceasing, and we each are branches through with his love flows. This love pulses through us and, ultimately, we bear the fruit of love for the world and we grow green with leaves for the healing of the nations.

"I am the vine and you are the branches; abide in me as I abide in you." In the Greek, those "yous" are plural. This is hugely important! We don't do this work of love as individuals. We are called as a community of faith to love our world back into place; to let God graft onto the vine those who have been cut off by society; to invite others into our work of loving as Christ has empowered us to do. Because not one of us can do any of this alone.

Tuesday morning, after the violence of Monday night’s riots, in one Baltimore neighborhood, volunteers made sack lunches and delivered them to children, because school was canceled and they knew that these children wouldn’t have any lunch without the school’s free meal program.

On Thursday, a colleague of mine serving a congregation in Baltimore sent me a picture of a young girl from his congregation, four or five years old, standing in the street on a sunny morning, wielding a red plastic hammer and a huge smile. Behind her, family members and congregation members raised up real hammers, boarding up broken windows as an act of tenderness for their wounded city. They carried hammers and snacks and love and not fear.

There is love out there. There is hope.

But it takes a community to show love. It takes a community to rebuild the community of this world. It takes a community of divine love, a community gathered and called and sent by a bigger power than just our own spirits. It takes a community of Christ.

Friends, standing here in front of us is this font. Standing here in front of us is this table. Through the splashing of this water and the eating and drinking of this fruit of the earth and the vine, we have already been grafted as branches into the one vine, the one body of Christ. Be empowered by these sacred signs to love without fear. Be strengthened by this holy community to be Christ in a weary world.

Christ is the good vine. We are the branches.
Christ’s love casts out all fear: This is our hope.
Love one another: This is our calling.
We love because he first loved us.