Steve Tilley

1 John 4:7-21

Pastoral principles 4 – Cast Out Fear

We are afraid of spiders but not slippers, tea cosies and cupboard doors. Yet the latter three cause far more accidents.

If we had a church building one of the things we would probably have is a sanctuary.

For those unfamiliar with church architecture a large church will have a nave (boat), a choir or chancel, often separated by a screen and then, before a communion table (some call it an altar) a set of rails separating the sanctuary. This is not the holy of holies but a place of safety. It is not the place only the priest can go but a place where someone is guaranteed safety.

We are looking at a short series which is about behaviour, in particular about raising awareness of short-comings in our interactivity of which we may not even be aware. Not because our behaviour saves us but because it is good practice and because it may lead others to be saved. The series goes alongside the Living in Love and Faith course many of us are doing this autumn.

It asks us to self-examine for six things it calls ‘pervading evils’ in human behaviour

1. Acknowledge Prejudice

2. Speak into silence

3. Address ignorance

4. Cast out fear

5. Admit hypocrisy

6. Pay attention to power

Today we reach number 4 – Cast Out Fear.

And I imagine that those of you who have been Christians for a while, and especially if you have been to church weddings at all during your life, will find that hearing the words ‘cast out fear’ takes your mind to 1 John 4:18, even if you couldn’t remember the reference. What casts out fear? Perfect love does, that’s what.

Fear is useful. Fear keeps us away from dangerous animals, long drops and poisonous food. It is good to have in our mind the fear of such consequences.

Children have no fear. I once broke the 25 metre front crawl world record when Jon (aged 3 non-swimmer) jumped into the deep end while I was in the shallow end.

As children we can have irrational fears – we don’t think we will like the taste of particular foods (Jon and onions) and rational lack of fear that makes us want to touch hot and dangerous things.

But fear also stops us in our tracks unnecessarily.

  • I’d ask them what they think but I’m afraid of what they might say.
  • I’d ask them to volunteer but I’m afraid they’d say no.
  • I’d ask to borrow that book but I don’t want to appear grasping.

A few years ago I was moved to start a group for people with awkward questions. I got the impression that even regular members of our churches had questions they couldn’t voice. Someone even told me they couldn’t even voice the questions at their Christian home group for fear of being thought a heretic. And it got me thinking that there really ought to be a safe place (a sanctuary?) for Christians to ask deep questions, ‘what if’ questions about things taught from long ago, without fear of abuse or ridicule. I started a group in a local pub called ‘Is it OK?’ It didn’t go well. People who came enjoyed it, said thank you and never returned. A few regulars kept coming but ran out of questions. There was a need for something but that wasn’t it so we stopped it. Maybe the fact that I was the vicar was off-putting.

But it does make me feel more certain that our churches ought to be places where Christians should huddle together for warmth and not be afraid. Let’s be gentle with the well meant questions of long-standing members. And not snap at them for asking questions. Someone wise once told me that the only silly question is the one you don’t ask. It takes me back to school where I was a bit dim in a school full of excellence but never asked questions because it felt like I would be owning up to not knowing what everyone else had learned.

Has our teaching on identity, relationships, sexuality and marriage been wrong all these years? Well? Has it? That is precisely the question our LLF course is dealing with.

These letters of John were probably the last bit of the New Testament to be written.

1 John reads a bit more like a tract than a letter. It encourages Christians to love God and to love each other and it warns against enemies of the faith.

The enemies of the faith were possibly saying something like this:

‘We have a new and secret teaching. Everything physical is bad. Evil indeed. This includes our bodies. So Jesus couldn’t have been really human as God couldn’t become a human with a body. And since our bodies are evil anyway it doesn’t really matter what we do with them. We can behave as we like with our bodies. They will be redeemed.’

This flies in the face of the teaching about the incarnation right at the beginning of John’s Gospel where we hear that the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. One can understand why the apostle John, or maybe his followers if he was too old to write this himself, or even dead by then, would take issue with such an idea.

The letter feels like it comes from a pastor. One who loves the church, wants them to love one another and wants them to avoid the allure of false-teaching.

But in our current context of LLF it sets another question before us. If we change our teaching on sexuality are we agreeing with John’s questioners that it doesn’t matter what we do with our bodies?

Atticus Finch famously says to his daughter Scout in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’

That’s an old quote. A couple of more recent ones have informed my ministry. My friend Hadge wrote in a card for my ordination:

Don’t crack up

Bend your brain

See both sides

Throw off your mental chains

Which is as close to Romans 12 as Howard Jones ever got but it was a different way for me to see it.

Read Romans 12:1-2

More recently I have enjoyed a track by Irish musicians The Four of Us. They sang:

I wanna burst outside this canned reality

I wanna turn around and see it like the way it’s meant to be

Which is as close as they ever got to channelling St Paul in I Corinthians 13

Read 1 Corinthians 13:12-13

Another passage popular at weddings, even though it is written as a rebuke and corrective.

Faith hope and love remain. But the greatest of these is love.

Paul is suggesting that there is a hierarchy of character qualities and love is at the top.

The rest of the Bible suggests that every time there is a visit, in any form, from a representative of heaven the first necessary words are ‘Do not be afraid’.

John is saying that perfect love casts out fear. But if you are gay, or trans, or black, or homeless (it’s a long list) you are more likely to be beaten up than if you are a white heterosexual.

As we continue to discuss on Tuesday evenings we might want to remind ourselves that whatever status or view we have on identity, relationships, sexuality and marriage, in the absence of an actual sanctuary in a church, our homes and families ought all to be places where the lost can be found, the fearful can be safe and the unloved can be loved.

Because of the perfect love demonstrated for us in Jesus, nothing else matters.