A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Fear Conquered by Love
June 1, 2003
Easter 6 1 John 4:7-21 John 15:9-17
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
- Dylan Thomas
This morning we get one last bite of the Easter cherry, as we celebrate the Sunday nearest Ascension. The Dylan Thomas poem above echoes the Christian gospel. Though all would seem to be lost, though leaders are killed and followers may become traitors, yet love is not. Though Mary would slouch forlorn outside the tomb of despair, Judas would lose his mind and Peter lose his nerve, yet death would have no dominion. For love is stronger than death. It conquers even the loss of hope. Jesus would give his life, even to the point of ultimate abandonment, with a love stronger than death.
The Christian gospel echoes our lives. Though all things change, friends are fickle, partners less than perfect, though our ideals are steadily eroded, love can conquer fear for it is stronger than even death and loss. Though we fail; ourselves, our friends, our ideals, love can conquer even this failure.
Ascension is often recalled as a glorious story, a little strange and hard to believe, but glorious. This is the episode of Jesus' space travels! As astronomer Carl Sagan pointed out, if Jesus set out 2000 years ago rising to heaven above the clouds, he would not yet have left our galaxy! In any case there is something more worrying about this tradition than its lack of scientific sense. It teaches that Jesus overcomes this world and rises above the base concerns which we endure and he had to endure for those 33 years. His victory is seen as an escape, which becomes the ideal which his followers are encouraged to strive after. So you can see that much of the other worldly piety which keeps Christianity firmly in another age finds its inspiration in ascension interpretations.
I would want to suggest another way of understanding ascension, the complete opposite of the traditional understanding; an interpretation which affirms the human, is based in this world and the real experiences of existence, in particular the human struggle with change. I would suggest that ascension is a story about leaving, about having someone close leave, about dealing with the grief of loss. Ascension is about those crisis moments which seem to mark an end, yet in time open up endless possibilities.
For the disciples it was the second losing of their leader. This time they would understand a lot more fully than the first that though they lose their leader yet his love would not leave them. In fact he would leave a Spirit of love with them. The Spirit would comfort them, guide them into wisdom and draw them together in love.
The struggle of these first disciples was the struggle every group of disciples has battled with ever since; that is holding onto the inspiration of Christ even without his physical presence. Maintaining unity even without Jesus holding them physically together. And so they would need the Spirit of Jesus to empower their living and loving. The Ascension is just as much a celebration of the leaving of Jesus as it is the celebration of the indwelling of the Spirit of Jesus.
The lessons of Ascension are often taken alongside the lessons of the letters of John, which have a straightforward, yet hard to apply message. God as love is expressed in love of neighbour. The mark of Easter communities is their loving, as was the theme last week. John also points to another truth when he says that true love conquers fear.
If this is true then why is there so much fear in the church? And why is there is so much fear in the church's message? A woman came to me recently to talk about life at St Matthew-in-the-City. She had been a life long member of another church, and had led their Sunday school for several years. When she announced to the leaders of the church that she was questioning her sexual orientation, it was made clear to her that she was no longer welcome. Their fear of difference was greater than their love. What tragedy!
The Church has struggled with gender for many years, and in some places still can't work it out. My experience in the conservative Sydney Diocese is that hiding behind odd and literalistic interpretations of the Bible is the real fear that men will lose their power. In 1968, the (then) Anglican Archbishop of Sydney made the following comment, which even though spoken many years ago could accurately describe the attitudes of many in the church in Sydney today. He said that the Ordination of Women "would mean the death knell of the appeal of the Church for men." Honest, yet not exactly love conquering fear.
No-one could deny the real life stories of people who leave churches or never enter churches because they weren't accepted, and they weren't accepted because some people couldn't tolerate the differences; whether it was a difference due to sexuality, gender, background, even theology or social opinions. Why do some in churches find difference so threatening? What is at stake? I suspect it has something to do with a fear of change, and a need for an 'other' to demonise in order to remain 'righteous'.
There is also too much fear in the Church's message. The message should be one of peace and security, and not "turn or burn". The message of hell, fire and brimstone is a tragic miscommunication of the truth that love conquers fear. Our message must be the enormous love of Jesus which would drive him to live and die our human death. Our message must be the perfection of love which drives out fear of death, and punishment and judgment.
If the love which is the mark of the Church is one of contentment and never needing to compete or measure up, our lives will be so much fuller. We may also just find some inspiration for dealing with change.
The words of the Tao Te Ching are helpful here:
If you realise that all things change
there is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you aren't afraid of dying
There is nothing you can't achieve.
Whether the death you are dealing with is the loss of a friend, an ideal or a dream, try loosening your grip. Just let go for a moment, stop controlling. You just might find that the connection becomes stronger in the process, and so much fear will vanish.
"True love conquers fear for love is stronger than death, many waters cannot quench it.'
Finally, A prayer frrom Micahel Leunig, 'Let it go. Let it out. Let it all unravel. Let it free and it can be a path on which to travel.' Amen.