On Being Christian (A Sermon on I John 4:7-21)

Given as a guest preacher at Colonial Church on December 27, 2015. You can listen to the sermon below.

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 the only son into the world so that we might live through him. And this is love: that we love God, but that God loved us and sent God sent the 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 God’s love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in God and God in us. Because God has given us the Spirit and we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent the 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 believed 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 God 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 God first loved us. Those who say, I love God and hate their siblings are liars. For those who do not love a sibling whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from God is this: those who love God must love their siblings also. 

 – 1 John 4:7-21

Well, good morning and welcome to the last Sunday of 2015! Kind of crazy, right?! Hasn’t felt like it could be that late in December. Yet here we are.

I’m so glad to be here with you all this morning. For those of you who don’t know, Greg Meland and Linda Rich-Meland (long-time Colonial members) have become adopted family/have adopted us –I’m not sure which way– my spouse, Andy and myself. So we’re so glad to be here with you. 

As I was thinking about what I wanted to preach on this morning, I decided that I wanted to talk about being Christian. And I wanted to get at it in a particular way: by talking about love and fear and the interplay between the two and how there might be an invitation for all of us as we look towards 2016 regarding how we might live and be as persons who claim the name of Christ. 

Now, I come to this task as far from the first person to ever preach a sermon on fear, let alone a as who has written or talked about fear before. And so I come to this by way of one of my favorite ethicists, H. Richard Niebuhr. He was a long time professor at Yale and his brother wrote a prayer that many of you may know –The Serenity Prayer. In the prologue to his book The Responsible Self, he makes an apologetic for the grounding for his work, that of a Christian moral philosophy. 1 And he says that he’s both doing the work of philosophy in thinking about what it means to be human, and he also comes to the work from a particular location—as a person who follows Christ, who conceives of God as he has come to know this God through Christ. And so when we speak about fear and love, it’s something that all of us, whether we’re thinking about it as people of faith or not, these are things we’ve all both thought about and lived. And yet today I want to ask us to think about them as we think about what it means to be Christian.

My interest in preaching about fear and love doesn’t come that out of the blue for me. It finds its grounding in the place where faith was first enlivened to me: John 3:16. And while this passage notes that God’s love became embodied to us in Christ, it seems clear that the opposite side of love is fear. I say this because as I was growing up, I lived with a deep sense of fear about God, a fear that even though I affirmed that God loved me, the truth of my lived experience made me believe that God didn’t really love me. Maybe some of you have struggled with that same thing: a disconnect from what you mentally affirm and what you actually believe in viewed of your lived experience and pain. Yet what does it mean to have a faith that is rooted deeply in an embodied sense that we are loved? How does love change and transform us? 

Well, maybe another reason that I came to wanting to preach a sermon about fear and love is because of my work in my doctoral program. Last spring, I wrote a paper with a colleague of mine about the ethics of belief. In it we explored why is it that although we say things like we believe in the golden rule, or we believe in love, we see evidence of the failure of these affirmed beliefs in the way that we actually live our lives.  

What is that failing about? How does that come to be? These questions, about the failure of our attested beliefs is what we together considered. One of the themes we took up in our paper was the operation of fear and how it functions to disrupt our ethical praxis. Now, maybe you’ve read a little bit about fear  as there’s some wonderful psychology books on this topic, or maybe you’ve seen some really great social media posts about fear, So here are a few of my favorite Facebook posts about fear that I’ve seen over the last few weeks. The first notes that fear has only two causes: the thought of losing what you have or the thought of not getting what you want, fear. 

And here’s a second: F-E-A-R, forget everything and run (I like that one!) or face everything and rise. 

Or this one, fear is the mind killer. 

Well, one doesn’t have to pay too much attention to the news to notice that there’s reason to fear. And while I’m not going to spend the sermon talking about all of the various stories that give us reason to fear, we know I could do so, right? For in the wake of the Paris shooting and bombings or the shooting in San Bernardino, there’s been an uptick in violence against our Muslim brothers and sisters. 

There was a wonderful piece written a few weeks ago by a man named Omar Hamid Al-Rikabi, he starts off, “I have a Muslim problem, I am a Christian pastor in North Texas, I am also the proud son of a Muslim immigrant family from the middle East and I have a very wonderful and large Muslim family…” He continues in his blog post to recount the tension that he himself feels, being both a Christian and a man with a Muslim name, a Muslim family, and a Muslim ethnic identity.2

And he talks about how sometimes in the midst of our fears, we lose the ability to remember that his family and other muslim families like his are wrestling with the same things that non-Muslims do. They have the same questions, such as: 

  • Will my kids grow up and flourish in their life? 
  • Will I leave a legacy that’s in line with how I wish to be remembered? 
  • Does he like me? (I hope that guy over there does as his name is Andy and he’s my spouse!)

He goes on to say that acts of violence perpetuated by Muslim terrorists, a not reflective of a Muslim problem, but rather tell the story of a human problem. And he says that we need to get our story right because the Gospel of Christ doesn’t discount anyone from grace and salvation…even terrorists. For instance, take Paul. I don’t know if you remember him, but he seemed to have quite a penchant for killing Christians…and yet he ended up being the author of most of the New Testament. So what is at play when we fall into a space of fear? And what is operative when we don’t see one another as human and where love becomes impeded from being lived out in our relationships with one other?

Forgive me for one moment for doing something that I never thought I would do in my life, let alone in a sermon, which is to reference Husserl and speak about phenomenology, Husserl was a philosopher and phenomenologist. Phenomenology is about the study of the phenomenon basically that you see in front of you. And he argued that when we see—that which is before us—that as rational beings we should be able to understand and to apprehend it. I can look at that and I can say, poinsettia those are lots of poinsettias, right? That’s what they are. I should be able to understand this. However, he leaves open the possibility that we can engage in self-deception which interrupts our ability to rightly encounter the phenomenon, and that this mis-recognition occurs for many reasons.3

One of his students, Edith Stein, furthered his work and wrote at length about the failure of our sight is due to that our empathy becomes blocked.4 That happens to us and in our world today, right? We’re living in this place sometimes that’s structured by fear such that fear can actually prevent us from seeing the object or the person who is before us. Our sight thus becomes stymied by a sort of “hermeneutics of fear,” meaning we see the world then not as it is, but we see the world through our fear. And when we’re in this space, it transforms how we see each other and not for the better, but instead leads us to misapprehend, fear, and even hat one another, allowing for us to dehumanize each other because fear is all we see.

And so today, as we turn our sight toward 2016, having just celebrated Christmas as the time of God giving the greatest gift of love, I wonder: what type of faith will we live in 2016? What type of Christians will we be in this new year? Will we be a people who live in fear or people or will we live as a people who believe that love always wins? Will we be a people who believes that love has come near, that love restores and redeems and transforms even the most broken person or thing? 

Will we be shaped by love or by fear, my friends?

One of my favorite films is Chocolat.  Have any of you seen it? Oh, great- that’s a lot of you! That makes me happy. Ok, so here’s the thing— I think this movie depicts a really great image for what faith can look like in our times. What I mean by this is that it shows the difference and options of choosing a faith rooted in fear versus one rooted in love. Quick plot summary: a free-spirited woman comes in on the wind to this small French hamlet during Lent…oh, and by the way: she’s a chocolatier. Scandal! Chocolate during lent! As the story goes, in this town where everyone was expected to follow the rules, the mayor is rather peeved that this woman is tempting all of the faithful townspeople during Lent…with chocolate.5

But there’s something more than the making of chocolate that’s transpiring in her little chocolate shop, for the chocolate itself is merely a pathway for people to come, be seen, and have safe space to as they discover that life can look otherwise than it has.

Into the shop come a woman who’s been abused and finds safety; in comes a couple who had forgotten to love one another and find passion again; in come people to find life and joy and happiness that they had forgotten because they were so busy being good French Catholics. 

And how many times does not faith operate that way for some of us—where faith becomes a list of morality codes: do and don’t do this, make sure that you come to church and if you don’t, God will send you to hell or something? 

But what if instead faith isn’t about abstaining from the wrong things, but faith is actually about letting oneself be found by love? Because it seems that that’s actually a much more vulnerable thing, is it not? Faith that is rooted in love and opens us up to love instead of a faith rooted in fear which roots us in shame.

Love brings with it a type of vulnerability that opens us up in ways we never thought or expected. And yet, even as a song that was just sung before, some of us have known great pain in our lives, and so it feels a lot easier to close our hands and say, “I’m not going there.” For when we live in that space of fear where we say, “I’m not going there,” what we are really saying is, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid of what might happen if I opened my hands.” And when we live in this space of fear, we have a few options of how we might interact and engage with the world. We either live in that fear where we feel constantly terrorized, we try to avoid our fears and then we’re obsessed, OR we learn to live with our fears and in so doing we live courage as we discover that our fear can melt away.

Let me return for a minute to our text. The verb here for love in Greek, it’s not a past tense word: love isn’t a one and done sort of thing. Love is something that changes and transforms us over time. Love is that which invites and calls us forth over and over again; it’s the way we turn towards each other. It’s the way that we wake up and actually look ourselves in the mirror and try to give ourself grace. It’s the way that we move into a world that might look a lot less certain, but a world that is so much more rich and filled with the color and life that love gives and provides. THIS is what the perfecting love that drives our fear does in and to and through us. 

I wanted to share a poem with you about this, it’s called, “The World I Live In,” by Mary Oliver. 

The World I Live In

I have refused to live

locked in the orderly house of

reasons and proofs.

The world I live in and believe in

is wider than that. And anyway,

what’s wrong with Maybe?

You wouldn’t believe what once or

twice I have seen. I’ll just

tell you this:

only if there are angels in your head will you

ever, possibly, see one.

Mary Oliver, “The World I Live In”6

So as we move into this new year, I wonder what it would look like for us to move into the love of God, to be a people who are so transformed by it, who are so marked by it that we live in ways that don’t make sense. What if we chose the perfecting love that drives out fear? What if we become more deeply a people who turn the other cheek, love our enemies, are willing to go to the point of death for people who’ve rejected us? Love invites and calls to us all and love also heals and restores us all.

Love opens us. It births within us new dreams, it enlivens the future and humanizes us to each other and even to ourselves. 

Living love then is not about the absence of fear, but it’s about the way that we, to quote a book, Feel the Fear and do it Anyway. It’s about the call of this Christ and a faith that says to us: 

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God, whoever does not know love, does not know God, because God is love.”

This is how God showed loved among us, God sent the one and only son into the world that we might live through Christ. This is love. Not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent the son as a sacrifice for our sin. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another for no one has ever seen God. But if we love one another God lives in us and God’s love is made complete in us. This is how we know that we live in God and God in us. God has given us God’s Spirit and we have seen and testified that the God has sent the 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. And so we know, and we rely upon the love that God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love, lives in God. This is how love is made complete among us, so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment.

In this world, we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love, but perfect or perfecting love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because God first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a sibling is a liar, for whoever does not love their brother or sister who they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. And God has given us this command. Anyone who loves God must also love their siblings.

May our 2016 be filled and transformed by the love of God and may it change our fear into a faith that changes our world. Amen.

  1. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self, Reprint Edition (Louisville: John Knox, 1999).
  2.  See: Omar Hamid Al-Rikabi, “My Muslim Problem,” Accessed online December 2015. http://www.omarrikabi.com/my-muslim-problem/#sthash.yDj8VvK2.dpbs
  3. Husserl’s early notion of belief is basically evidentialist. The intending consciousness, given evidence (which is understood to be the experience of agreement between the phenomenon as ‘meant’ and the phenomenon as given–to say it another way, evidence is the experience of agreement between how we take something to be and how it really is), should believe. If there’s an experience of disagreement (sometimes called a “disappointment”) between how something is meant and how it is given, we should revise the way we take something to be, in favor of how the thing is given. In Husserl’s view, “the human being has to become what it is:” a rational animal. The ethical human being is the one who seeks to understand the world as it is given; the ethical life is the fully rational life, with beliefs guided by the principle of evidence. What we have in the early writings of Husserl is an ethics of belief that is teleological and evidentialist. Despite that the ‘ethical’ human will change their mind in the face of evidence, however, Husserl leaves open the possibility of self-deception, either willful or due to value-laden (and thus ‘emotional’) passive synthesis. For more see, for instance: D. Welton, ed. The Essential Husserl (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).
  4.  See, for instance: Waltruat Stein, ed., On the Problem of Empathy: The Collected Works of Edith Stein (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1989).
  5. Chocolat. Miramax: 2000.
  6.  Mary Oliver, “The World I Live In,” from Felicity (New York, Penguin: 2015), 11.

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