Even though veterinary science will say that dogs don’t grow longer after a certain age, some days I’m convinced that my dog, Isaac, has defied that conclusion. When spread out from tail to snout in a long line on the sofa, he takes up far more space than he did even a year ago. How do I know this? Because the space he leaves for me to sit has gotten smaller and narrower with time. Without fail, there is always just the right amount of couch for me, and once I settle in, he’ll prop his nose up next to me in a silent command to “stay.”
There’s room for me, but not for much of anything else.
The kind of love that the apostle John describes between the Father and the Son, between Christ and his Church, is a sacrificial, selfless love that is so encompassing and widespread that there seems to be a “no vacancy” sign on the sofa of our lives for much of anything else. When it comes to the love of Jesus, there is indeed, as the old children’s song says, a fountain flowing deep and wide, wide and deep. It’s a fountain flowing from Emmanuel’s veins that fills all who are willing to surrender and receive.
Here in Eastertide, in the light of resurrection glory, we can hear the apostle John poetically trying to convey what this love looks like, why it matters to us as the Church. He harkens back to Jesus’ own teaching of abiding in the Father as the vine and the branches in John 15. He even repeats some of his own teaching from the first part of the letter of confessing Jesus as Lord and believing in him. There is talk of judgment, but only in passing, for in the light of a coming judgment is the deep need for present action. When the love of Jesus fills the room of our communities, our lives, and the larger body of Christ, there isn’t much vacancy for anything else, especially that which hinders and suffocates such love.
So, if we’re reading John’s letter correctly, if love takes over our lives’ spaces the same way a Labrador Retriever mix dominates a standard-sized sofa, what are we to do with fear?
In verse 18, John minces no verbs on what God’s love does to fear. The new Revised Standard Version says that love casts out fear - a flinging that creates far more than a social distance of six feet between fear and love. The Message translation says that love banishes fear - a fleeing, followed by a blunt, ‘no trespassing sign.’ So many modern worship songs carry this same tone of ousting, and I confess I enjoy humming them.
Fear is a liar.
Fear doesn’t stand a chance when I stand in your love.
I’m no longer a slave to fear. I am a child of God.
The apostle John would probably agree with all those assertions. But in reality, and especially in the pandemic, fear doesn’t seem so easy to cast out or banish, no matter how loudly we sing. It always seems to creep back in and take up whatever little space on the sofa is left. I can’t help but wonder if Pastor John is asking something different of us, calling us to be more gentle and honest with ourselves. Perhaps he is inviting us to bring those fears with us to the small space that unconditional love has left for us on the sofa. Perhaps he is inviting us to let the love of Jesus Christ do the tough work of casting out fear; but first, we have to be honest about those fears. We must name them. And we must ask Love to stop them.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought so many underlying fears to the surface. The fear of the virus itself. The fear of dying and suffering. On a lighter note that is still a well-founded source of anxiety, the fear of an internet connection going out at a key moment of a business meeting on video call. The fear of the live stream failing in the middle of preaching to an empty sanctuary. The fear of losing connections with one another.
It is a part of our humanity, and as much as we don’t like the way fear feels, it lingers. John goes on to tell us that fear surrounding our differences as human beings can fester into the dangerous territory of hatred. In verse 20 he writes, “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.”
John has experienced the fear and witnessed the hatred. And with a healthy mix of compassion, gentleness, and truth-telling, he names what is hindering the kingdom of Jesus’ love from being all he intended it to be: not loving the man or woman standing right in front of us. Our closing commandment in today’s portion of the letter likely sounds familiar. John translates Jesus’ two greatest commandments into the language of a blossoming body of believers. This new, burgeoning community learning to live and work and function as the Church takes the commands of Jesus and turns it from “thou shalt love” into this paraphrase of verse 20: “If you love the Lord your God with all your heart, then you must love your brothers and sisters, too.” There is no room for fear, no space for hatred.
In the midst of heightened calls for racial justice in 2020, calls that have been resounding for far longer than the past year, we have witnessed some moments of reckoning, but there is still much work to do. A spotlight on the longtime, lingering pandemic of racism’s sin in the U.S. has sparked some individuals, communities, and institutions to ask long overdue questions: “Are we a part of the hatred that declares love for God but does not fully love brother or sister because of their skin color? Do we treat one another in the body of Christ differently or with disdain because of socioeconomic status or gender or culture?”
From whom am I withholding love, and why?
These are the questions Love demands us to ask. These are the questions that can fill the space left by Love. These are the questions some of us fear because they might lead to resurrection, and resurrection is beyond anything we can control. Of course, we often fear what we can’t control. Resurrection takes over the whole sofa with a love that just might perfect us.
In the world of Isaac the dog, perfect love is one where I, or whoever the closest human is, obeys his silent command of a wet nose propped on the human knee to “stay.” To abide. To abide with the healing presence of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the blessed Three-in-One who meets us in the honesty of our fear and fill us with such love that there is no longer room for fear to stay. To abide with the difficult and necessary questions even if the answers are long and slow and incomplete in their coming. To stay on the sofa so that love makes room for all of us brothers and sisters to live in resurrection together.
Let us learn to be a people who “stay” for as long as it takes, and the space left by love might be filled with our unconditional love for one another.
Would you pray with me?
Gracious God, indeed we are only able to love because you first loved us. Expand that love within us as individuals and among us as your body so that we might provide with our very lives spaces for your love to grow. In Jesus’ name. Amen.