I remember in a high school English class learning all sorts of words ending in -phobia for a vocab quiz. Like acrophobia—the fear of heights. Agoraphobia—the fear of open spaces. The one that’s been in the news recently: xenophobia—the fear of foreigners. Here’s a good one: ophidiophobia—the fear of snakes. There’s scotophobia—the fear of darkness. My favorite in the list was the one that could get you running around like a dog chasing its tail if you thought about it too long: phobophobia—the irrational fear of fear.
What are you afraid of? Does it have some fancy Latin-based word to go with it? I suspect since you’re here this morning it’s not ecclesiophobia—the fear of church. But I’d bet there’s something for each of us lurking deep inside that has the power to paralyze us. Thankfully we aren’t in Professor Lupin’s Defense Against the Dark Arts class at Hogwarts with that tricky boggart which could sense your worst fear and then immediately take that shape right in front of you—like the giant spider for poor Ron Weasley who suffered from the one you all likely know: arachnophobia.
A sermon for the 6th Sunday of Easter on John 14:23-29.
We live in a world saturated with fear and cynicism. It permeates our news cycles. For some, these things impact their moods and their outlook on life. I offer the current presidential campaign season as exhibit A, an election cycle that may likely include two candidates whose negative ratings are higher than their positive ones. Both of their possible presidencies cause large portions of our country to stay awake at night and consider possible moves to other countries.
We don’t get a sense of it, but there’s fear skulking in the shadows of our gospel lesson this morning. Jesus and his disciples have just finished the Last Supper. He’s already washed their feet, and told them that he’s going to prepare a place for them. And now with these words—his Farewell Discourse as it’s called in theology books—he wants them to know that even if he goes away they shouldn’t be afraid. He says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” And then, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” Don’t be afraid because the Holy Spirit is coming to be with you and then, at some point in the future, Jesus and the one he calls the Father will make their home among them. Don’t be afraid for you will not be alone.
Out of all my childhood toys and stuffed animals, only one has made it with me to this point in my life. No, it’s not Woody or Buzz, but a Smokey the Bear I found under the Christmas tree when I was four. He had a plastic hat that broke just a couple of months after I got him when my cousin and I tried to put in on our own heads. His belt buckle emblazoned with his name split in half and came off sometime during my college years when I left him back at home. Early on I rechristened him “Ted,” short for “Teddy Bear” of course, and these days Ted hangs out in Noah’s room.
That silly old bear brought me a lot of comfort during my early childhood while my parents still battled the ravages of alcoholism. He took up a permanent residence on my bed during those years when I might not have admitted that I had a stuffed bear, but I fell asleep countless nights with him held close to my chest. He was a comfort, keeping the fears of adolescence at bay. And now I remember with nostalgia those days gone by when I see his worn face knowing that he was clearly well-loved.
“Perfect love casts out all fear,” writes St. John in his first epistle. I suspect this belief germinated in words like these ones Jesus spoke to his disciples so long ago. Sometimes it’s hard when we’re afraid and feeling all alone to remember those words. To recall that Jesus promised the Spirit to guide and comfort us. That he and the Father would make their home with us because we are loved by God.
Love and home and comfort: things that can clearly dispel the shadows from our lives. Things that can bring us such deep joy.
I love the opening words from our collect this morning: “O God, You have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding.” Imagine the most joyous thing that you can. Conjure up an image right now if you can—perhaps a person you love or place that holds your heart or a day where you uncover such great delights. Not even close to the good things God has prepared us. God continues the work of preparation in order to give us lasting and eternal joy when all our fears will be swallowed up forever.
But here’s the thing: I do not think that the joy given to us is meant just for us. I don’t think that the effects of all of those good things that surpass our understanding will end with us. Love is generative. It expands and expands and expands. While love’s opposite–fear–closes us off and leaves us scared and alone, deep and abiding love fills us with joy that spills over to others. It cannot be contained. We cannot help but share it with those around us.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the purpose of the church these days since I’ve been recently asked by Bishop Gates to work on a team tasked with drafting the mission strategy of our diocese. What is it we are called to do? What’s the point of a community like ours?
There are two basic answers to questions like this. One is that we are here for our own institution. We hope that people will come in and join us, but our focus clearly is on our parish’s longevity. Sometimes, when congregations get small, the fear hovering in the background comes forward—we need more new people to help us keep our beloved parish going—and these types of congregations begin to feel alone and disconnected.
The other answer is that we are here for the world no matter our size. We gather together to remember who we are and then go out to share Christ’s love with others. We are disciples of Jesus who cannot contain the joy and love we have received and need to spread it around in the dark and fearful places of our world.
Perhaps you think this too simplistic, and yet I’ve been involved with churches who’ve embodied each of these responses. The church hoping to have enough resources to keep the heat running a few more years and the church wanting to make an impact in their town by spreading love. One gripped by fear. The other exploding with love.
We have been given the amazing gift of Christ’s love, and we cannot hold on to it. There will always be days when we forget the promises of Christ and do not allow the Spirit to break through our deepest fears. But perfect love casts out all fear. God needs us to share that love with our world, because it is a dark and cynical place. Jesus overcame death and the grave not so that we could feel good about ourselves but so that we could, through his power, change the world.
And it’s all about relationships. Notice the direction of things when we are afraid: we go deeper and deeper inside, shutting ourselves off from one another. And love is the other way. We are unable to contain the joy and the grace and need to share that with others.
I’ve seen the love get shared when visiting someone who can’t get out anymore because of an illness. Or in handing a hot meal to someone who hasn’t eaten in a couple of days. I’ve experienced that love in sitting down with a teenager who feels they are all alone, listening to them and then praying with them. I’ve watched it play over again and again while tutoring children after school or building a house for someone who’s never owned a home or playing a game with a child. That love can be seen in writing a note to a widow or singing songs in a nursing home or grabbing lunch with a friend who lives alone or giving away quarters at a laundromat or sending extra money to a sponsored child in Africa. We cannot remain paralyzed by fear’s icy grips; we must proclaim the joy and love of Jesus’ resurrection.
He has been risen indeed, and we can live in a way that shows the power of his resurrection to our world. He has not left us alone, the Holy Spirt comes among us. We have nothing to fear, not even fear itself, for God makes a home among us, and we are called to find that home out in our world. We’ll uncover it in those moments of redemption when love spills over in unbelievable ways. Let us live as the ones who know deep down that we are loved and have nothing to fear for God is with us always. May it be so.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!