1 John 4:7-21 and John 15:1-8 ‘There is no fear in love’

Reflection by Anne Stewart

I wonder if you have someone in your family circle who does any of these things:

  • Deliberately makes racist comments because they know you hate it and will take the bait
  • Never lets things go and brings up past mistakes every time you meet
  • Repeats the same stories every time you meet
  • Argues about everything – just to be right
  • Is highly competitive and turns everything into being better than anyone else
  • Hogs every conversation and turns it to their story
  • Talks too much and dominates every situation
  • Teases you about something you can’t do anything about – your height/weight/age
  • Hugs you too much, too long or too tight, or won’t let you hug them
  • Repeats something you might have said in private openly to others, even to the ones concerned

Do you recognise any of these characters from among your family circle or circle of friends, maybe a friend’s spouse?  Or maybe you can think of more than one of these you have to cope with!  They may make you cringe but they are part of the family or connected in some way that makes them fairly difficult to avoid from time to time.

I wonder if anyone recognises that they may even be, or have been, one of these people in the family circle.  Yes, that one’s bit harder isn’t it!

It’s not easy is it when you find someone in your circle of family or friends that is difficult to be around.  It’s hard because aren’t we meant to love those in our family or friend circle, even the tricky ones.  It’s the same with our church family, sometimes we find ourselves next to some characters who rub us up the wrong way, or who say things that wind us up.  We may present a lovely calm exterior but this stuff can still rankle deep inside.  It’s a skill to be able to address some of these things with someone close and not damage the relationship – I think that might be a key component we all have to find our way with, as part of that ‘growing up’ thing!

Whoever wrote the first epistle of John, and the authorship is still debated, that we heard read from this morning is pretty clear that we must love our ‘brothers and sisters’ if we are truly loving God.  I wonder if John’s gospel that we also heard read this morning turns that around in a quite helpful way.  John’s gospel tells us that if we truly love God, with God’s help we might be able to love our ‘brothers and sisters’ more fully.  We hear that apart from God, we can do nothing that bears fruit; “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”  Being enabled to love one another, especially the tricky ones is how the fruit of loving God plays out.

This vine imagery is quite helpful, I think.  What does it mean to bear fruit, for instance?  Whether we are gardeners or not we know, don’t we, that a vine that is starved of nutrients and water, sunshine and air, will not bear much fruit.  If the line of sustenance from the vine is cut off or limited then we won’t get as much fruit as we might like.  So too, we don’t produce much fruit if our line of sustenance which our faith life is fed by, is cut off or neglected.  To walk our faith journey, we need the source of our sustenance near; we need to be abiding in it and engage with it abiding in us.  Because when we wander off and are apart from it, we can do nothing – we can bear little to no fruit.

But it’s not always easy is it – of course, no one ever said it would be.  Jesus talks about the kingdom way being as difficult as getting a camel through the eye of a needle – which, by the way, is one of those things you shouldn’t try at home!  But he also says that apart from him, you simply can’t do it.  We are not expected to take this path alone – that’s the point!  With him, even the seemingly impossible is possible.  Even learning to love that impossible family member, neighbour, or friend’s spouse can be done, because in God’s love we are sustained and are therefore enabled to bear the fruit we might otherwise struggle to do.

Do you know people who are very good at maintaining even tricky relationships?  I know a few who can do this and I am in awe of how they manage these relationships.  These people seem to be able to stay true to themselves even when weird stuff is happening around them.  I really admire that.  I find it’s all too easy to get sucked into something I don’t like or on the other hand to perhaps over react to it – both of which I can later regret.  It’s a difficult line to tread, because often staying in relationship can be read as agreement with the line someone is taking, when that is far from how you might feel.  Or alternatively disagreeing can be read as an assault on the relationship.  These are very fine lines to navigate.  And I believe they are lifelong struggles; they are what makes us ‘works in progress’.  Just when we might have found our way with one character it’s highly likely another situation or personality will pop by to keep us on our toes; to keep us growing; to keep us humble and to remind us to keep abiding in God and God in us because apart from God, we can do nothing.  The potter’s work in moulding us, is never done!

The other point that struck me from the epistle reading is this: “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.”  I am often fascinated at the connection between fear and love.  These forces that work within can seem to battle for control of us.  I read a wonderful article this week written by James Nokise who is a New Zealand comedian, playwright and podcaster.  In the article he talks about the reaction that we sometimes hear to the increased acceptance of Te Reo in our world.  Te Reo has been an official language in New Zealand for over thirty years now – you could argue that it should have been way before that but at least for over thirty years it has held that status but only now is the way opening for it to sit more comfortably in our everyday world.  Nokise questions how “anyone can cry that Te Reo is invading their life while proclaiming themselves to be a proud kiwi, without choking on the irony of ‘kiwi’ being a Te Reo word.  Why he asks do people say that New Zealand is an English-speaking country without acknowledging that “Zealand” never has been and will never be an English word?”  He goes on to question the role of fear in bigotry.  He says that bigotry is grounded in fear.  “The fear is that in empowering Maori, Pakeha will be disempowered.  It’s a cruel fear, he says, because it lives in the absence of communication, while encouraging a lack of discourse.  This is not new, nor is it unique to New Zealand, but it is difficult to come to terms with.”[1]

So, this is my question, how would we greet the growing use of Te Reo in our land, our whenua, if with God’s help and guidance we were to replace this innate fear with love?  What if we focused on what we can gain by widening our perspective with what this will bring to our lives, our family, rather than live in fear of what we think we might lose.  Surely living into the Treaty our country is bound by, can only make us stronger, happier, freer because we are better together.  Knitted together, by God’s love, we can grow and flourish in ways that fracture, distrust, and competition can never enable us to. I think this fear/love dichotomy is what lies at the base of most of the characters we struggle with.  What we struggle to love in others is often rooted in fear of some sort.  It might be simply that we fear losing control, or we fear that by involving ourselves with them they will take something of us, from us.  We will be lessened by the connection.  But perfect love casts out all fear.  It’s that perfect love we should be focussing on – it abiding in us and we in it.  Because from that place we can do things. From that base we can bear fruit, we can witness to the love of God in our interactions with others.  When we have been hurt, we can so quickly fall back on fear in order to prevent us from being hurt again, that’s why we need a robust relationship with God that can help us replace that fear with love.  That’s what makes the difference and that’s what makes a Christian community possible – it’s what makes it a unique and beautiful thing to be part of.  Of course, this is a counter-cultural approach and it takes God’s strength within to stand against some of the things that our culture wants to pull us back to – things like meanness, gossip, judgementalism, inward groaning, and writing people off, assumptions that don’t have room for any ‘benefit of the doubt’ etc.  I was at a wedding last Saturday, a very overtly Christian wedding of a young Pakeha couple, in which Te Reo was very evident and I was encouraged to think, that in this, the church can help to lead the way for once.  Rather than joining the chorus of fear that we hear far too often.  Perfect love – that’s what we are after.  But we do not have to conjure it ourselves because we all know that that’s just too hard.    God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.  The choice is where to abide, in the one who brings life or in our own strength? 

[1] Taken from an article in The Press Friday 30 April, by James Nokise