Changing the Conversation
Bible Text: 1 John 4:18: “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.” | Preacher: Mark Edington
[Editor’s note: this is an edited transcript of a sermon preached extemporaneously.]
Finally, it’s spring. The rain is falling and the little buds are beginning to form on the trees, and the little green things are beginning to poke out of the ground. And what all that means for someone in my line of work is that there is a new crop beginning to appear in my life. IT is the crop of young couples who imagine that, sometime between now and September, they want to be married.
They come to see me with big smiles, trying to put on their best show to ask me whether I will officiate at their wedding.
They’re so dumb. They just have no idea what they are getting into. And that’s okay; I know that. And I try to be as patient as I can with them.
But the fact is, dear friends, that most of the couples who come through my door these days asking that question have had no experience of the church, or its language, or its ideas, or its traditions, at all. And what is more, most of them come from families that have no experience at all.
What they are looking for is a setting. What they are looking for is a stage, and a backdrop, and someone who on the stage of their wedding will be playing the role of their officiant.
And so I say to them that I’m happy to talk with them if they are willing to grasp that working with me will mean they have to spend a great deal of time with me—probably an investment of eight hours or so, in all—and they say “yes,” because they are afraid if they don’t, I will stand at the gate and say “no” to them.
So, they come. And they sit, and they smile, and they try to say all of the things I expect them to say.
In my effort to explain to them what we think is happening on the day that they get married, I give them the following image: I ask them to imagine that they are taking a walk on a beautiful spring day through a meadow. And in the middle of the meadow, they see a beautiful New England farmhouse. When they see it, they say to each other— “That’s such a beautiful house. I hope we will get to live in such a beautiful house someday.
What I explain to them is that the beautiful house is their marriage. And below it, where they cannot see, is an old stone foundation holding up the house. In our understanding, it is a set of theological ideas that holds up the house.
That foundation is made up of these three theological claims. First, that we are made in the image and likeness of God; second, that we are made to be in relationship with God; and third, that we best approximate how that relationship between us and God is supposed to work in that one relationship we have in this life in which we are the most vulnerable—and thereby the most open to the power that love has to make us better.
Now, that might seem hardly controversial to you. But when I use that line—the ‘image and likeness of God”—words familiar to all of you from the first chapter of Genesis, words we hear at least once a year at the time of the Easter Vigil. But the young couple in my office almost always looks a little bit mystified. And so we talk about what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God.
I think it means at least three things.
What do we learn about God in the bible? The very first thing we learn is: God creates. Indeed, that is the very first verb in the bible.
If God creates—if God acts as a creator — then God is ultimately free. God is free to decide whether or not to bring the creation into being, free to decide what it is that should be brought into being. If you make something, you have the freedom to make it in any way you wish. You can sculpt a sculpture, paint a painting, write a poem, make a garden—anything you create, you are expressing freedom in doing so.
Finally, there is this thing that we just learned in the Epistle—this uniquely Christian idea about God, right there in the fourth chapter of the first Letter of John. It simply says this: God is Love.
If you studied math, you will recognize that statement as an identity relation. It’s a three-line equal sign. You can reverse it and get the same result: Love is God.
So what it means for us to be made in the image and likeness of God is: We are made to be creative; we are made under the condition of free will; and we are made to know love, somehow, in the world that we move through.
So how can we do that—how can we be the people we are meant to be, living out fully the image in which we are created—if we live in a world of fear?
Think about those words again: “There is no fear in love; perfect love casts out fear.”
Fear is the besetting sin of our age. Fear is the thing that divides us actively and estranges us from each other—and from God. Fear is the tool being used in our public discourse today to achieve certain kinds of ends.
We know from the science that fear does at least two things to the way we think: It makes us overestimate the risks around us, to make us see them as larger and more dangerous than they really are; and it makes us underestimate our ability to make change in the world. It makes us hunker down, afraid to do anything and certain that there is nothing we can do.
But we are made in the image and likeness of God. And we are meant to be transformed by love, not shrunken by fear.
So somehow, it is now for us to change the conversation around us. Somehow it is for us to overcome, or to transform, or to disarm, the fear in which—right now—our society is becoming collapsed, and constrained, and rooted—and people are being turned against each other.
We have to do that by being followers of a God of love—God is love. When I talk to those young couples, what I try to teach them is: That place where you first fall in love, where everything you think you have control over goes completely away, and you feel like you’re losing your mind because this person is in your life—that is the power of love transforming you for good, transforming you into the person God meant you to be. That’s how God changes the world.
John doesn’t say God is fear. John doesn’t say God is power. John doesn’t say God is wealth, or greatness. John says God is love. And that one thing has the power to overcome all of the fear that keeps us locked down in ourselves and unable to come out.
We will not be very effective at this unless we take on seriously the words of the angels, the words that mark the beginning and the end of the story: Fear not. Do not be afraid.
Those are not meek and mild words. Those are not Hallmark-card sentiments. They are commands. They are setting the standard for what it means to be disciples.
Don’t be afraid of other people who are different. Don’t be afraid of the frailty of this body. Don’t be afraid of death; don’t be afraid of sorrow; don’t be afraid of sorrow; don’t be afraid of the things that keep you hunkered down.
Love has the power to transform all of those things. And it is for us to show a willingness to love fearlessly—and an unwillingness to be held in thrall by the fear that is meant to seduce us into estrangement from God and from each other.
Brothers and sisters, we are that love through which others glimpse God outside this place. We have been given this gift of faith in that God of love so that we can transform a world shrunken by fear. That’s what it means to believe in the God of Easter—the God that brings life out of death, and love out of despair. Amen.