Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
May 6, 2012
MOVING FROM A HOUSE OF FEAR TO A HOUSE OF LOVE
Text: John 13: 3-9, 34-35
It is all about love, this Christian life we seek to live. But what is the nature, the essence of this love? And how do we live it? I John says it as simply, elegantly as we could imagine:
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them (I John 4:16).
Love is the secret name of God revealed, embodied in Christ. “Do you remember, remember back to the beginning of all things?” Jesus whispers in our ear. “God is love. And you are God’s Beloved.”
I John also states the opposite: If we say “I love God” and hate our brother or sister we are “liars” (I John 4:20).
These is deep soul truth, psychological truth here. Our hatred and fear of another comes from a place within where we hate ourselves or are full of fear. This place itself is a place we are afraid to go. But as Rowan Williams says, “There is no place where the love of God cannot go.”
God is love. Unfettered, un-mixed, un-conditional love. And God loves us to the depths. God takes us by the hand and leads us through all the layers of false self until we reach our true self, our real self in its entirety, unique and utterly loved by God.
Richard Rohr said last week if we go to the very depth of anything, our fear, our suffering, our compulsion, our addiction, even our sin, we will be transformed by love. On the surface nothing happens.
Jesus the Word made flesh, fleshed out the love of God. He did so dramatically at the “last supper” in John’s gospel. He took off his outer garments, the ones that signaled rank, took a towel, tied it around his waist, poured water into a basin, and kneeling began to wash his disciples’ feet, their dusty, worn, tired, misshapen feet.
Jesus had just reversed all systems of rank. He, their Lord, Master, Teacher, had become the house-servant, “The Help.” Peter resisted: “Lord, you will never wash my feet.”
What was his resistance? Was it the reversal of rank? He, Peter should be the one washing his master’s feet. Was it embarrassment? Someone touching you, washing a part of your body you are ashamed of? Our feet show what life has done to us, all we’ve walked through, how long we’ve walked. They are no longer pretty. Whatever Peter’s resistance, it was visceral, instantaneous.
Then Jesus said, “Unless I wash your feet you will have no part in me.” Then Peter’s true self, deeper self, real self, hungry self, came rushing to the surface: “Lord, then not only my feet, but also my hands, my head.” Wash all of me! It was one of Peter’s many conversions.
There are parts and places in us all we do not want others to see, to touch, to know. Jesus loves us there, holds us there, bathes us there. It is hard to believe.
Today we install and nominate our new class of deacons. The word deacon comes from the New Testament Greek word diakonos, literally “to go through, dia, the dust, konos. As a waiter waiting tables, as an orderly emptying bed pans, as a nurse bathing a patient, as a servant washing feet. The word is also translated in its various forms ministry, minister and servant. As we lay hands on deacons we say, “Lead us as servants!”
But such a calling, is not just for them but for us all, this love that washes feet. Later at the meal Jesus said,
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, you should also love one another (John 13:34).
Then he added: “By this everyone will know you are my disciples.” By this. Maybe only by this.
But how can we love this way?
Such a love is not possible without the one who spoke these words. He lives such love in us. We live such love through him.
Our human love has strings, expectations, needs, fears. But God’s love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit moves us to a deeper, purer love. Have you experienced such moments, when another’s welfare is more important than your own, when love is just love, unmixed, unfettered, unconditional, free?
Finally, I John speaks of love and fear. Here he touches a very deep place because fear goes very deep.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.
Perhaps the most important spiritual journey we can make is from the house of fear to the house of love. We live with so many fears: fear of rejection and fear of abandonment, fear of failure and fear of judgment, fear of ridicule and fear of embarrassment, fear of the unknown and fear of exposure, fear of sickness and fear of death. Christ has come to lead us from our house of fear to the house of love.
Henri Nouwen writes of this in his book on praying with icons: Behold the Beauty of the Lord. (God’s beauty itself can calm our fears.)
In one chapter he leads us in our gazing upon, praying with Rublev’s famous icon, The Holy Trinity. It is reproduced on our cover of the order of worship. Gaze with me there. There are the three figures of the Holy Trinity: Creator, Christ, Spirit. Remarkably they are feminine figures. They are sitting around a table, they are forming a circle of love. There is an open place at the table. For you. See it? There is an unexpected rectangle in the side of the table facing you. It is a door, the door to the House of Love.
An ancient description of the Holy Trinity in Eastern Orthodox Christianity was the Trinity as a peri-choresis, to dance in a round, a circle dance of love. One of the three in the icon spots you and offers their hand. Come join. Most of us have joined the circle by way of one: God, Jesus, Holy Spirit. Then we came to know all three. Come, they say, into the house of love.
Nouwen writes about his encounter with this icon:
During a hard period of my life in which verbal prayer had become nearly impossible and during which mental and emotional fatigue had made me the easy victim of feelings of despair and fear, a long and quiet presence to this icon became the beginning of my healing. As I sat for long hours in front of Rublev’s Trinity, I noticed how gradually my gaze become a prayer. This silent prayer slowly made my inner restlessness melt away and lifted me up into the circle of love, a circle that could not be broken by the powers of this world. Even as I moved away from the icon and became involved in the many tasks of everyday life, I felt as if I did not have to leave the holy place I had found and could dwell there whatever I did or wherever I went. I knew that the house of love I had entered has no boundaries and embraces everyone who wants to dwell there.1
The 23rd Psalm is so beloved, I think, because it helps us move from a house of fear to a house of love. We are afraid we will not have enough; God leads us to green pastures and still waters. We are afraid of death and the powers of evil; God leads us through the valley of fear to a table rich in food and rich in love. And the closing?
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
From a house of fear to the house of love.
A CEO came to see me. “I am so tired of being a CEO,” he said. “It feels life H-E-L-L.” We talked. Did he need to let go of the position? Or, could he stay at his post but do his work from a house of love rather than a house of fear.
In the Agape Meal at my former church we served over 200 homeless people around our fellowship meal tables every Thursday, all eating together church members and guests. Then we had worship. About 100 would stay. After worship we invited people to the chapel in the next room for communion. About 15 or 20 would come. Some came with tears flowing down their cheeks. They never thought they’d take communion again. One Hispanic woman came for a whole year before she stayed for worship. She was different, “other” in about as many ways as one could imagine. It was another year before she came for communion. When she got to me and I served her the bread and cup she whispered: “All my life I was told church was the last place that would accept me, and here I’ve been accepted as nowhere else in my life.” She had gradually moved from a house of fear to a house of love. Isn’t that what we all want to do? Isn’t that what we want a church to be?
1 Henri Nouwen, Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying With Icons (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1993), p. 21.