Easter 5 B
Scripture: 1 John 4:16-21; 1 Corinthians 13
By Giuseppe Gagliano
St. John tells us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” What might John mean by this deep and mysterious phrase?
Fear is an incredibly powerful thing. It is so formidable because, in a sense, fear is what has brought us to this point in time. If our ancestors did not fear the bear in the woods, or the possibility of a drought, or the vindictive enemy across the river, they would have succumbed to their weaknesses. Those who did not fear ceased to survive, and by nature, we are the offspring of fearful creatures.
Fear, in other words, is an ancient form of protection. And it has done a tremendous job to keep us on edge against all sorts of infirmities. It’s no wonder that fear, when it grips us, pulls us inwards and towards ourselves: it’s like an in-built safety switch that makes us focus entirely on our own survival, at the cost of all others. It collapses our entire universe into the pursuit of our own self-preservation.
But when it comes time to put fear aside, and to venture beyond its safety, this primordial urge resists vigorously. It shakes within us, and makes us tremble. Fear whispers into the ear of our conscience, “I’ve gotten you this far. You need me. You can’t drop me. What would you do without me?” And so often, perhaps out of our fear of fear, we give in to its imprisoning request.
But love replies to fear. And this is not a response of an equal and opposite force. It’s not as though love and fear are two dueling cowboys, one with a white hat and the other with a black hat. I’d say it’s more like fear is a cowboy in a black hat, scanning the horizon for the next thing to shoot; and love is a mysterious and sudden tidal wave that washes over that black-hatted menace.
Love stands above fear, beyond fear—and it is even incomprehensible to fear. Just look at the way St Paul describes love. In that famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13, he says that love is patient and kind, that it “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Fear is a response of our emotions and sentiments. Love, on the other hand, is a response of action. It bears, believes, hopes, and endures—all active things. Love is not simply what is felt, but a form of action grounded in what is true. Paul says, “[Love] does not insist on its own way . . . but rejoices in the truth.”
One sentiment cannot cast out another. Pleasant feelings are no match for in-built, reactive, protective mechanisms that come down to us from time immemorial. If we try to squelch our fears by ramping up our other emotions, we are simply doubling down on the game of fear. We are proving to fear just how powerful it is, and how much it controls us. Or, to re-use my strange analogy, by sending in a white-hatted cowboy, we are accepting the terms of the duel.
But love, grounded in truthful action, washes fear away. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” These virtues that we carry out, by God’s grace, are of a divine origin. They are not on par with the primordial urges of fear and other desires, but have instead been placed within us by the Almighty. Our ability to love is founded on that original love, shown to us by the creation of the world, the dwelling of God with humanity, and the sending of Jesus Christ to show us the way. In other words, as John writes, “We love because [God] first loved us.” We can embrace truthful action, because God acted towards us in truth.
Fear relies on our human power to do its bidding; but love relies on the divine. It is founded on what is true, wise, and holy—those things that come to us from the Source of all love.
Let us cast ourselves before the grace of the Almighty, and accept the free gift of love that he sheds abundantly on creation. And by accepting that gift, may we then show that love to others, full of grace and truth.
The Rev. Canon Giuseppe Gagliano is a priest serving rural parishes in the Anglican Diocese of Quebec.