Psalm 22:24-30; John 15:1-8; Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21
Entertain this proposition: We are, all of us, a mixture of love and fear:
- We go back and forth between them;
- When we are addressed in love, we are able to be open, receiving, peaceable, ready to be concerned for others;
- When we are overpowered by fear, we are likely to be hidden and closed, either cowering or aggressive, agitated and anxious, mostly preoccupied with ourselves;
- We go back and forth, trying to sort it out, yearning for love, reacting to the power of fear.
In the epistle reading, John says: “Perfect love casts out fear.” He refers to God’s unconditional, abiding love given us in Jesus of Nazareth, the full disclosure and enactment of God’s positive regard for us and for all our neighbors. Where the God of the gospel comes, lives are transformed and we have the freedom and courage to live a self surrendering life, and we do so in gladness. Jesus always comes and says, “Fear not,” and invites us to fall back in trust, so safe, so valorized that we need not think about ourselves. He comes and says, “My peace I give you.” Fear is indeed cast out.
But consider if we reverse the proposition of John: “Perfect fear casts out love.” Massive fear makes it impossible for us to be at ease, to sense our safety or our worth; it precludes our turning attention from ourselves to our neighbors:
- The National Security State wants us to be very afraid, and keeps alarm at Level Orange;
- The market economy wants us to be afraid for our savings and our future, and it issues in grudging resentment for needy neighbors;
- Perhaps even our mothers engendered fear, “Don’t make a mistake, don’t run a risk, don’t embarrass us.”
The New Testament spins out a contest between love and fear; it is a contest that is alive and active in our society today…love grounded in God’s own life…fear generated on every side by a sense of threat.
In our reading today we have this narrative of the nameless Ethiopian. He was, we are told, “In charge of the entire treasury.” He was the Secretary of the Treasury! Imagine him showing up in our lectionary reading! How cool is that! We do not know his name because he is a nameless bureaucrat in a suit, unnamed because they are all look alike everywhere. I speculate that like every financial officer in a bear economy, he must have been very afraid. He must have worried about the markets and about credit and about the banks and about unemployment and about not knowing what to do and about making a big policy mistake. I reckon he was fearful in the same way all of us are now fearful.
But he was doing what every Secretary of Treasury should be doing in the Easter season. He was reading some poetic verses from the Hebrew Bible. The poetry from Isaiah is familiar and difficult:
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
And like a lamb silent before its shearer,
So he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.
The poetry describes someone vulnerable who was denied justice. The Ethiopian wondered about what he had read.
Philip the evangelist came to him. He did not know anything about the economy; but he knew about the poetry. He said, “Do you understand that poetry?” I will decipher it for you. It is about Jesus. It is about Jesus’ willingness to suffer for the world. It is about the self-giving love of God who comes into the fear of the world and banishes the fear by an overwhelming gift of love that forgives and embraces and valorizes and makes all things new. It is, says Philip, good news that the grip of fear in the world has been broken by the self-giving love of God.
The Ethiopian, the Secretary of the Treasury, responded with eagerness: “I want to be baptized.” I want to have access to the new world governance that has overcome fear so that I may put my life down in self giving love. I want to start over and not let the power of fear dominate my life. The narrative reports that when the bureaucrat came up out of water, Philip disappeared by the power of the spirit. And the eunuch was left by himself, but now rejoicing, no longer bewildered, no longer tied up in knots. His baptism is not an act of magic. But it is a sign and a gesture, a gift and a decision to live according to the new power for life that has surged all around him. We are told, he went all around the region, telling the good news of Jesus, the good news of God’s self giving love, the good news that fear is not a required ingredient for the new life of Easter.
John says, in his drama of fear and love, there arises a commandment from the gift of self-giving love:
Let us love one another. …The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
The new governance of the God of Easter is pure gift. But it is also awesome requirement. We have to act in a new way. So imagine that the Ethiopian, the Secretary of the Treasury, went back to his office, went back to work. He dreamed of brothers and sisters to be cared for in new ways,
- brothers and sisters like the custodians in the building who are entitled to dignity;
- brothers and sisters like reporters who are entitled to truth;
- brothers and sisters like the poor who are entitled to viable resources for a life of dignity and security.
He imagined. And then he went to work. But he imagined differently now. He was not paralyzed by fear. He now understood because of the good news, that the right order of the day is generosity whereby the ones with and the ones without are bonded in common respect.
It is the same for all of us as it is for this bureaucrat. There is a power beyond fear. There is a gift of self-giving love. There is a baptism. There is new news. There is a commandment for the new life. Fear keeps welling up among us with authority. But the baptized resist it. There is, we now know, a more excellent way to live, to hope all things, to endure all things. This way never ends; it is a gift that keeps on giving. They asked him at the press conference: “Mr. Secretary, why the generous grin?” And he answered, “The whole enterprise is under alternative management. No more Orange Alert!”