Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
One of the many things I miss about parish ministry is weddings. I used to do sufficiently few to get to know the couples quite well as I prepared them for the big day. Couples usually choose from a small number of Bible readings. One is the section from Johns first letter, chapter 4, verse 18, that says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” On one occasion I attended a wedding rehearsal to discover there was a misprint in the service sheet missing off the one. Instead it said we would read Johns gospel, chapter 4: 18, which, from the story of the woman at the well, says, “the fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.” Fortunately, we spotted the misprint before the reader got to it. That would have certainly made the wedding memorable!
The lovely reading from John reminds us that the opposite of love, is not hate, but actually fear. Love is about self-giving, not counting the cost or measuring the consequences. Fear causes us to circle the wagons; to withdraw to a circle of safety and control; to focus on self-protection rather than self-giving. These are the genuine antithesis of the love demonstrated by Christ on the cross.
On my motorbike prayer pilgrimage a few weeks ago, I was surprised how often the theme of fear came up in my conversations. Sometimes we discussed situations when the fear was manifesting itself as anger. I spoke a bit about that last week. Sometimes it was honest fear, plain and simple. There was fear of the surrounding community, particularly in places of social deprivation. There was fear of difference, particularly of our culture, which has changed so much in the last 25 years. Sadly, in some hard-working clergy and laity there was fear of being judged for their perceived failure to encourage church growth. I usually encounter these latter fears in the most conscientious, whose ministry of love and service is an exemplar of Christ. That’s not a fear with a foundation in fact.
As we look to the future, fear is the real limiting factor. Juggling church structures, or successfully encouraging greater giving, or managing our buildings more efficiently will be rather like Titanic deckchair re-arrangement if we don’t take steps to address it. Fear prevents us from going deeper in our discipleship; fear closes our mouths when we should speak confidently; confronted with need, fear closes our wallets with anxiety that we won’t have enough.
Lest you think I speak from a position of lofty courage, let me reassure you that clergy and Bishops grapple with fear as well. A few years ago, on a training course about evangelism, the morning session saw us pumped up with how important it was, its theological underpinning and encouraged us with stories of great success. The colour drained from our corporate faces at the end of the morning when we were told that part 2 was to go out on the streets of Sheffield and engage people in conversation about Jesus.
So, lets at least be honest. We all have our fears. Leaving aside arguments about whether the previous approach is culturally appropriate, most of us have had situations when we could have said something about our faith, or invited someone to an event and we bottled it. Or perhaps its just me, and you are all very courageous.
What then is the answer? 1 John 4: 18 – Perfect love casts out fear. Does this point us to the power of worship? From the beginning of the church we have known that meeting the Lord Sunday by Sunday in word and sacrament is the foundation of our discipleship. The loss of that in COVID has been tragic, and yet more tragic if people have got out of the habit. A vibrant discipleship is nourished by a regular encounter with God, not by a worship that is fitted in when there is nothing better to do. In our worship we are reassured that the ‘spiritual enthusiasm’ of the great heroes of faith is not an aberration, but the normal Christian life. They were normal, fearful people like us, who achieved great things empowered by the Spirit, the same Spirit who dwells in disciples today. We praise and recite the creed, not because God has self-esteem issues and we need to say nice things about him to make him feel better about himself, but to encourage one another. Monday to Saturday in secular culture doesn’t exactly re-enforce the idea that the world revolves around God, not around us. Our worship serves to re-calibrate us, to renew and refresh us in the Lord’s service, to see things through the eyes of faith. Our presenting reality is only surface. God’s is much deeper.
As we grow in appreciation of God’s love, we can begin to experience something of Paul’s conviction in Romans 8: 38, for I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creating, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Perfect love indeed to cast out fear.