“You are going to hell.” I was about fourteen the first time someone said this to me. I had attended a youth group meeting with a friend at a conservative church. After the meeting one of the kids asked me if I had been saved. Not having any idea of what was being asked, I said that I didn’t think so. Didn’t I want to be? I wasn’t sure. A little more cajoling followed and I remained uncertain and a little confused; I thought I already was a Christian. No one told me that I needed to be saved. The end result was the certain proclamation that I was going to hell. Since I wasn’t sure that hell existed as a place, I wasn’t overly concerned. However, I did think about it. And I worried that maybe I wasn’t the “right” kind of Christian.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the last time I was informed of my destined date with hell. It has been repeated more times than I can count over the course of my life. Some people were genuinely concerned for the state of my soul. Others were angry that I understood Jesus differently, and in a way that gave me permission to be me. Some just tried to instill the “fear of God” in me. Of all the things to be afraid of, I’m not sure God should be one of them.
Fear is not the best motivator for human behavior. When we do something because we are afraid of what will happen if we don’t do it, that fear narrows our world view. It’s a slow and gradual shutting down or shutting out of options. Fear eventually backs us into the corner where either meets or and we can see nothing else. I know Proverbs says that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” but it doesn’t mean what some people think it does. In this case awe is a better word than fear. Awe implies respect, a recognition of something greater than ourselves. It’s a better to approach God with awe than it is with fear. Fear has a way of narrowing down our lives.
In my teens I was anorexic. I remember the gradual way in which my choices to eat or not eat transformed into something I had no control over. In a matter of months, I was terrified of eating and of gaining weight. I knew what I was doing was unhealthy, wrong even, and I was absolutely powerless. It was a very long time before I could make a choice about my body that was not governed by fear.
This kind of governance by fear has no place in church. God isn’t sitting around waiting for us to mess up so God can pounce on us with wrath and punishment. When we act a certain way because we are afraid of God’s anger or afraid of going to hell, it won’t be long until we find ourselves trapped. We will be trapped into believing that there is only a right way or a wrong way to follow Jesus, to please God. Fear limits our vision and our imaginations. It can leave us spiritually hungry with no way to feed ourselves.
On the other hand, if we act the way we do out of love for God and gratitude for God’s love for us, our options open up. The Spirit isn’t limited to the narrow corridors defined by fear. Instead, the Spirit can flow and inspire us in all kinds of ways; either/or becomes a thing of the past. The more we recognize that God’s primary way of being known is through acts of loving-kindness, the more likely we are to generate those acts. As much as fear can narrow our vision, love is just the opposite.
When Jesus read from scripture in that synagogue in Nazareth, he was not trying to goad people into faith through fear; he was trying to demonstrate just how much God loves them. Motivated by love, Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, release the captives, give sight to the blind, free the oppressed, and proclaim God’s favor. Could it get any better than this? Jesus demonstrated God’s love with words and actions, and invites us to do the same. We are to engage in these same actions, not out of fear of hell if we don’t do them, but in response to or gratitude for God’s love for us. Where fear limits, love frees.
We can let go of our fear of God’s wrath and eternal punishment and take our places within the Body of Christ. We can take up the mantle of Love and get busy bringing good news to the poor, releasing the captives, creating new visions, freeing the oppressed, and shouting God’s favor with our whole lives. This is a lot of work and it takes time and commitment, but it sounds a whole lot more fun than sitting trapped in a corner somewhere trying to make a choice between either and or. A long time ago, God declared an amazing, unending love for the whole of the cosmos. Isn’t it time we stopped being afraid that we won’t or can’t be included or that there somehow wont’ be enough for everyone and start living in the fullness of God’s grace and abundant love?
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RCL – Year C – Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 27, 2019
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a