Were any of you bullied when you were in school? It doesn’t necessarily mean that someone tried to pick fights with you (or maybe did pick fights!). Among girls, bullying rarely ends in fisticuffs. But I won’t speak for my sisters; you can recall your own experiences! We can think of many different ways someone can be bullied.
There was a particular fellow in high school, who for some reason I never figured out, decided I would be a good person to harass. He never overtly tried to pick a fight, but when he was baiting me, I knew if I responded in an aggressive way, it would be something that he welcomed. Kind of like a “make my day” sort of thing!
I’ll admit—I was intimidated by him. I was afraid of him. Still, aside from that, I just wasn’t interested in fighting, period. I wasn’t interested in fighting anybody. Maybe it had to do with being raised in a loving family. Our home was not a fearful, violent place. It was a safe place. I don’t know about my friend from high school. I don’t know what his home life was like.
Fear can be a controlling factor in our lives. Sometimes it hides behind other emotions, for example, anger or despair. Bullies are people filled with fear, and they project that fear out into the world. A bully who’s been given authority—especially great authority—is a dangerous thing.
In her book, The Scent of Jasmine, Patricia McCarthy, changing the focus to faith, says, “There is no place for fear in the Christian life, not because we manipulate our emotions, but because we trust our risen Lord. We choose to trust rather than to fear. We choose to let God protect us, rather than defend ourselves.”
The idea that we choose to fear, given what I just said, probably sounds strange. We might object, “I just can’t help it!”
It might be useful to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy fear. Fear of fire…fear of wolves encircling you, growling and showing their teeth…fear of your wife—that’s healthy fear! Fear of going outside…fear of taking risks…fear that keeps you pinned down—that’s unhealthy fear!
Clearly, every person has her or his own story, and there isn’t one easy remedy, but it seems that, in some way, we do choose that latter kind of fear. Several times in the New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples, “Do not fear.” And in today’s epistle reading, we see that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (v. 18).
Much of our fear deals with being left out, with being rejected, or with being denied the material necessities of life.
When he was a pastor in Clinton, Mississippi, Stan Wilson wrote about that kind of fear. He said their church had “an unwritten rule: we will never ignore a member’s basic need.” Whether it’s someone out of work, someone with a medical need, whatever, they would come together and find ways to help. It might have been through a benevolence fund, churchwide garage sale, or some other creative means.
During a Bible study one time, Wilson asked the people there, “Why not make it official? Why not state out loud that no matter how bad it gets, we will be there for one another?”
He says, “I didn’t get an answer at the Bible study. In fact, the very mention of the subject seemed embarrassing, as if I had violated a taboo and uttered that which must not be spoken. I suspect that not only do we fear the future, we also fear each other. We are afraid that somebody will try to take advantage of us, afraid that we will have to expose ourselves at our most intimate, private level: our bank balance.”
(Actually, I can think of other more intimate, private levels, but for the moment, I’ll go along with Wilson!)
The author of 1 John deals with this very thing. In chapter 3, we’re asked the question: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (vv. 17-18). And in today’s reading, we’re reminded, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (v. 8).
Wilson said he didn’t doubt that the members of his church loved each other. He just wanted them to publicly proclaim it. Unfortunately, in our society, we tend to have a fear of commitment. In fact, our culture runs on fear and disordered desire. And that stuff infects the church.
But the church, when it embraces its identity, is counter-cultural. He wonders, “What happens if a little congregation breaks the rules and removes the fear by promising to care for one another?” I wonder about that myself. What would happen if this little congregation broke the rules and removed the fear by promising to care for one another? This congregation does that better than some others, but what would it look like to take it even further?
“We might reveal the risen Son of God, the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep.
“With a living God loose in the world, we might no longer live in fear, and no longer believe that the world runs only when people look out solely for themselves. We might start to look out for one another, and violate one of the cardinal rules of our economic order.”
Matthew and Mark tell us of a rich young man who comes to Jesus, asking about eternal life. Drawing on the targeted advice Jesus gives him, there is one good way to deal with Mammon. Just give it away! That helps prevent wealth from setting up shop in our hearts. (If you ask me if I practice what I’m preaching, I might need to respond, “Are you asking me how often I do that?”)
Recall the reaction of the young man. Mark 10:22 says, “When he heard [what Jesus said], he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” He was used to the advantages his wealth provided him. It had become part of his identity.
Something that’s part of my identity is white privilege. It enables me to avoid the day-to-day crap that my black brothers and sisters deal with. Sam McKenzie, Jr. talks about “racial wealth.” The rich young man has financial wealth. Too often, I’m oblivious to the wealth I have.
A couple of weeks ago, on the way back home from our trip to Tennessee, I was pulled over by the police not very far from home. The officer said my taillights weren’t on. (Which was true.) I gave him the registration for our rental car, and he went back to his car to check things out. He came back and said he would let me go. After driving away, I asked Banu, “I wonder what would have happened if I were black?” I honestly don’t know.
Recognizing our privilege can be fearful, because it calls us to action. It calls us out of our comfort zone. It calls us to hear stories that we possibly would rather not hear.
We have to confront our fears, and we have to do it with love. That is, we must do it with love if we are to be Easter people. Otherwise, we deny the resurrection power Jesus gives us.
The story is told of St. Francis of Assisi, who “was afraid of lepers. One day he kissed a leper and the fear vanished. It is important to note that the fear vanished after he kissed the leper, not before. Before the fear left him, Francis had to take the risk of loving…
“There is a mutuality here in terms of cause and effect. It is necessary to work against fear if we are to try loving our enemies, and it is absolutely necessary to risk loving our enemies if we want to be free of fear. Like St. Francis, we need to risk acts of love before we experience feelings of love.”
Why, at this point, do I bring in love of the enemy? Besides the fact that Jesus stresses the need for it, “love of the enemy” speaks to so much of what we fear. It is so darn hard to love those we consider enemies, whether consciously or subconsciously. It requires a setting aside of self.
According to our scripture reading, the remedy for fear is love. “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” (v. 18). Earlier I asked, “What would happen if this little congregation broke the rules and removed the fear by promising to care for one another?” Can we take that one step more? How do we translate that love among us to the outward community?
How do we go from the church father Tertullian, who famously reported the saying about Christians, “See how they love one another,” to living that here and now? How do we live the call, and loving encouragement of Jesus to live a life of no fear? Are we plagued by an inner bully, a bully who needs to hear again the warning—and the reassurance, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
I imagine we can see how that is warning. It does sound stern. However, can we see it as reassurance? I sure need to. Sometimes my love grows cold. I need the fire of the Holy Spirit to set me aflame. When I am floundering and drifting, when I do not know God, God is merciful, for God is love.
Verse 13 says, “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” (I’m going to draw on my experiences with the Assemblies of God, those blessed Pentecostal folks!) Do we yearn for the Spirit to fire us up again, to burn with holy love?
By the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit, we will tell those bullies, “We have no fear, because we live in love.”
 Patricia McCarthy, The Scent of Jasmine (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), 46.
 McCarthy, 60-61.