Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 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. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
What keeps humans divided from each other? This is the question the author of 1 John is tackling. I’d even say it's THE question we must answer as Christians who believe we are all one in Christ Jesus. So what divides us? Ideological differences? Cultural misunderstandings? Skin color? Favorite NFL team? Level of education? Political party? Geographical accent? Income level? Where we get our news? Who we love? The size of our bodies? What we spend our time and resources pursuing?
Yes! In a real way, each of these distinctions has the potential to divide us… (you can add to this list, I’m sure). But you and I also know that what distinguishes us doesn’t always divide us, it doesn’t. So what’s really going on- what keeps us from taking seriously this command: vs. 7 “Friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.”
Everything that has the potential to divide does so because of one common element. Fear. We fear what is different. We fear what we don’t know. We fear, in part, because that’s a real survival mechanism for humanity. It’s gotten us this far: Reject the unfamiliar, it may cause us harm. But you know what else causes real harm? Fear itself.
Even all these years after Christ emerges on earth, we are still battling the one thing that keeps us from true love, that causes deep pain and oppression. And the author of this text says it directly: “In this world we are [to be] like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
An Harvard research project called “The chill of fear,” outlines what happens within our brains when we sense something unusual. Our brain’s amygdala (that triggers a fight, flight, or freeze response) is immediately activated. In less than a second, our bodies and minds tell us to fear someone different than us, even before we have a chance to encounter that person. In fact, an averted eye gaze actually signals MORE fear. You know what calms our brains down? Turning toward the thing that frightens us: “A direct gaze signals an interaction between participants who know themselves to be non-threatening.”
Could something as simple as eye contact or a shared smile be the answer to reducing fear? I hope for that today, in the name of Christ who unites us. We all have innate fear, AND we all have what it takes to rise above it in the name of love. Just as we have an instant fight, flight, or freeze response, we also have an innate spirit of generosity and goodness. Vs. 13 “This is how we know that we live in Christ and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.”
So then let’s just love everyone, right? Okay! Until the next time my amygdala immediately flags a potential fear. Here’s the truth, It’s the work of a lifetime, to recognize the fear within us and overcome it with faith.
I have developed a rather strange practice in recent years. It’s something I notice when I’m out for a run, at the park, in someone’s home, really anywhere. And it’s a weird thing to say out loud, but here it is: I smile at dogs. That’s right, those four-footed tail-wagging creatures that make countless human beings happy. So why would I have to practice smiling? Well, here’s the thing that’s even weirder to say out loud: I have a dog phobia- I’m terrified of all dogs. I don’t consciously hate them, but something in my amygdala tells me I do.
If you happen to have a phobia of snakes, or spiders, or mice, or I don't know, your... next door neighbor, you understand the physiological effects of a phobia. Your heart begins to race, maybe you tense up, and you can tell yourself “it’s fine, it’s fine,” but when that spider or snake or person heads in your direction, you freak out! That’s how it works for me. I see a dog coming: “They’re nice, they’re nice, everybody loves dogs, Emily,” but as soon as that dog moves in my direction, even with a fence between us, “Ahh!!!” That's what happens inside my otherwise quite rational mind. Sometimes the “ahhhh!” happens out loud, in a really embarrassing way. The most common thing I hear from these well-intentioned dog owners (who clearly don’t have a phobia) is “they’re friendly, I promise!” Okay, thanks, I’d love to believe it.
So I smile at dogs, now, any chance I get. Because I refuse to give into the irrational patterns of thought that tell me all dogs are bad. Nearly two years ago, I even said yes to adding a dog into our household. And I have grown a distant affection for Rocket, but to this day, when that weirdly erratic border collie sniffs me, I tense us. Gah, get away! It’s a work of a lifetime, to recognize the fear within us and overcome it with faith.
The very best therapy for any fear is EXPOSURE. I joked a bit about having a phobia of our neighbors, but social anxiety or agoraphobia/fear of strangers is pretty darn common. And it doesn’t have to be someone from another country or race; often we live in fear of those within our own communities, even our own circles. Maybe it’s a heated conversation we once had; maybe we hold a real difference in values, as evidenced by the political sign in their front lawn; it could be they’ve been passive-aggressively speaking about you to an acquaintance- and just knowing that makes you grit your teeth. I’d venture to say that people phobias are a lot more common than dog phobias, and fear of other people affects our ability to live peaceably on this one shared earth that God has given us.
Our sacred texts remind us: “Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” Period. We’ve got our work cut out for us, for sure. In fact- this work is a big part of today’s World Communion Sunday. To sit at the table with SO MANY others that practice Christ’s love differently than we do, is to say our fears of diverse expressions of humanity will NOT win the day. We even sit at this table and acknowledge God’s love for those who choose NOT to sit at table with us. That’s how much more powerful Christ’s love is than our own fears. And what’s the very best therapy for overcoming the fear of something? Expose ourselves to it!
In this sacred space, on World Communion Sunday, we open our hearts to appreciate just how diverse God’s creation truly is. And we are changed by it- made stronger in the presence of one another. Here’s the truth- we MUST derive our love from God if we expect it to hold up against our human propensity to fear. New Interpreters Commentary: “God’s persistent, encouraging presence--not fear of judgment to come-- is experienced in the lives of those who entrust themselves to Christ and who activate that trust in love for one another.”
Faith overcomes fear, every time. In the end, the ability to love deeper than our innate fears will always be a gift. New Interpreters: “God has decided in our favor apart from our ability to reciprocate, gracing us with love prior to and independent of any response we might offer, for no reason other than that love is the very nature of God that is knowable by human beings.”
May you and I know perfect love this week, if only for a moment, when we release our fear in faith that God’s love can mend every human divide. Even with that person who makes us go “ahhhhhh!!!!!” inside. Amen to that!
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Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.