A.J. Thomas is the Founder of Joyful Giving Group, whose mission is to cultivate a culture of generosity.
A.J. is a practiced believer in the power of generosity to transform individual lives, congregations, and entire communities.
A.J. is an ordained United Methodist pastor with over a decade of leadership experience in the local church. He is appointed to Joyful Giving Group as an extension ministry of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
18 There is no
fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects
punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. 19 We
love because God first loved us.
Early in her ministry, a young Methodist pastor noticed one day that a new
family had moved into a neighborhood not far from her church. So she dropped by
late one afternoon.She noticed that one
car was parked in the carport.She had
rung the door bell only once when she heard a deep, bass growl that sounded
like the rolling of thunder coming from the back of the carport.
About 20 feet away in a crouched position was a huge German Shepherd.She began backing slowly away from that door,
in the direction of her car, all the while speaking words of pastoral comfort
to the dog.
It must have been a Baptist dog; never has anyone in their life seen a dog have
such a problem with a Methodist preacher.
She wasn't worth much good at work the rest of that day. Fear had stolen
her energy. She called her friend, the local Baptist preacher, and told him
about this new family that had moved in, and that she was pretty sure they were
Fear had stolen her energy.Today,
I’d like you to consider what fear has stolen from you.As a person of faith, how will you make room
for God’s love restore what fear has taken?
We are wrapping up our May series of messages today, on “Share the Love.”Over the last month, we’ve been looking at
how we can live a warm-hearted faith.
We began with the basics, namely that God is Love.Say that with me: “God is Love.”Period!God is Love, Love is God’s reigning
attribute, our faith begins with God’s Love.
It all begins with God’s
love. In case we ever forget this basic, essential fact of our faith, 1 John
makes it crystal clear.God is the
source and the definition of love. God is love. God loves as the sun
shines: love expresses who God is.God’s
love is a truth more basic and reliable than the ground on which we walk, or the
air we breathe.
God’s love is not some
abstract concept. It is passion expressed in action. God made love real and
present by sending Jesus to live among us and to give himself for us. God
continues to show us love through Jesus’ life-giving presence among us.
The more fully and
completely we know God, the more the immense reality of God’s love dawns on us.
When we open ourselves to the warmth and light of God’s presence, we find that
even our deepest, darkest secrets and the ugliest parts of ourselves are not
beyond God’s reach. Nothing in us is so broken or so filthy that God is
unwilling or unable to touch it. God embraces us as we are, loves us as we are,
and works in us to make us clean and whole and new. Upheld, surrounded,
enfolded by such love, who could be afraid of anything or anyone?
Turns out there’s an awful
lot of stuff in this world to be afraid of.For example, you may have ablutophobia, which is the fear of bathing.It should not be confused with the refusal or
unwillingness to bathe, which is common among students at App State.Chirophobia – the fear of hands.Geniophobia, the fear of chins, which should
never be confused with genophobia, which is the fear or sex, or genuphobia,
which is the fear of knees.There’s
metrophobia, the fear of poetry; and pediophobia, the fear of dolls.The list goes on and on, all the way to
zeusophobia, which is the fear of God.
There’s a lot to be afraid
of, and a lot of people who have figured out how to manipulate our fears.Politicians, cable news networks, and
syndicate radio especially have teamed up in an unholy trinity that runs on and
spews out fear.
I’ve learned, maybe you
have as well, that when someone tries to scare me, they are trying to get
something from me.When someone
threatens me and tries to scare me, they want me to do something that may or
may not be in my best interest, but will always be in theirs.They may be trying to scare me in order to
get my vote, or my money, or my attention, or my support of whatever fear-based
idea they are peddling.Watch for it and
see that it’s true – the next time someone tries to scare you or worry you,
especially if they’re a politician or on cable news, they want something from
you.They aren’t in it for you, they’re
trying to use you.Don’t let them do it.Don’t fall for it.Don’t be a pawn in someone else’s game.
Fear can often be used to
divide us based on the things that make us different.We have a natural curiosity about the
differences between people, but fear exploits those differences.We begin to see difference in and of itself
as cause to be fearful, we become afraid of anyone and anything we perceive to
be different.Difference turns into
division.We divide ourselves away from
poor people, or gay people.Maybe brown
people or foreign people, nevermind that Jesus was, himself, a brown foreign
Yoda said, “Fear is the
path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, and anger leads to hate, and hate
leads to suffering.”Fear and anger and
hate cause us to build walls of separation, to exclude some to protect
ourselves.A 20-foot wall is better than
a 10-foot wall, we reason, because it can keep out more of the bad.But no sooner is it built than we wish we had
constructed a 30-foot wall.Turns out no
wall is high enough, no bomb big enough, no border secure enough, no law
restrictive enough to protect us from fear, because fear isn’t out there, it’s
The solution to this
fear?Love, of course.Dionne Warwick said (though I personally
prefer Burt Bacharat’s version) that “What the world needs now is Love, sweet
We’re not just talking
about any old love, but the perfect, full, complete love of God, the perfect
love which casts out fear.The church
should be a welcome and refreshing alternative to an ethic of fear.Our whole way of thinking and being is based
in the simple, timeless good news that God is Love, and seeks to perfect us in
love such that we love as fully and completely as God loves.
Indeed, the Scripture
we’ve read today reminds us that perfect love drives out fear – and low and
behold, the church of Jesus is based in, founded upon, saturated in, living out
that love in ways large and small.And
so, the church should be a powerful force in expelling fear, arguably the most powerful force, and yet, we
often find this is not the case.Great
corners and influential voices within the church are leading the charge
advancing an ethic of fear that sounds more akin to the message of cable news
and politicians than it does to the love-soaked Gospel of Jesus Christ.Throughout history, many fear-based campaigns
that spilled over into suffering and oppression were led by Christians, with
the blessing of the Church, and we still see it happening, today.
Friends, the Church is a
supposed to represent something different.One of the descriptors of the early church was “the called-out ones,”
meaning the followers of Jesus are singled out, to live differently than the
world around them.To be a different
kind of community that stands in contrast to the harsh realities of
business-as-usual in the world around them.Jesus called the church to be salt and light in the world – seasoning
and illuminating the dysfunction of things with something better, something of
God, something motivated by love rather than fear.
Even so, as you look
across the landscape of Christianity, you’ll see fear at play.The most popular strategies for inviting
people into the Christian faith use fear as a motivator, as pamphlets and
preachers alike ask, “If you were to die tonight, would you go to heaven or to
hell?”These tactics introduce us to a
big, bad, scary Go, ready to pounce and punish on not so much as a moments’
notice: fear-mongering and scare tactics wrapped up in religious language –hardly
a faithful motivator.
No one should have cause
to be afraid or scared of God.When
Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7,
9:10, Psalm 111:10), it’s talking about having a healthy respect and reverence
for God.Maybe we had parents or
grandparents or teachers or whomever who had a look or a way of talking to us
that was said to “put the fear of God in you.”They scared us all right, perhaps even to shape up and amend our
behavior, somehow, but in reality, they put the fear of themselves into us, not
the fear of God.
I’m sometimes asked why I
don’t preach about hell more often.Because
I’m not a fire insurance salesman.Because
I was ordained a minister of the Gospel, which is good news for all.Because the world can be scary enough without
the church making it even scarier.Because I refuse to use fear to manipulate people’s emotions or motivate
them to action.Because the Gospel is a
great story of a God who is Love, who loves us more than we can imagine, not
the story of a monster from whose punishment we need to be rescued.Because our task is to witness to God’s love,
to invite people to receive and grow and share in that love.Because the fear of hell would only introduce
people to a God who is a strict disciplinarian, rather than the God who is
We need not be frightened
of God, because God is Love.And if God
is love, and if perfect love casts out fear, it is infinitely better for us to use
love to introduce people to God than to use fear.So, we love our neighbors into God’s family,
into the kingdom of God, into heaven, rather than scare them out of hell.If we’ve got to lean one way or the other,
we’ll err on the side of love and grace rather than of judgment and fear.When your friends and family ask why you go
to a Methodist Church, or what is wrong with your preacher that he doesn’t
preach about hell more often, you just look them in the eye and tell them
proudly that you’re part of a church that would rather love the hell out of
people rather than scare the hell out of them.
Perfect love drives out
fear.We are people of faith, followers
of Jesus, filled with the Spirit, we are seeking to pattern our lives after the
love of God, to live and love like Jesus, to be so filled with his love that
there isn’t room for anything else.
I want everyone to close
their eyes and picture a house.That
house represents your soul, your heart, the essence and core of your
being.Now, it’s a rented house.It doesn’t belong to you.The house belongs to God.You are allowed to use it and benefit from it
and take care of it as God has entrusted it to you, but ultimately, it’s not
your house, it’s God’s house.
You have an unauthorized
roommate living with you in this house that belongs to God, and the roommate’s
name is Fear.Fear doesn’t pay rent, and
breaks things and messes things up in the house.Fear keeps you up at night, and robs you
constantly – stealing your time, your emotional energy, and even the cash out
of your wallet.
The owner of the house
isn’t any more pleased about it than you are.And so, the owner sends a new roommate, whose name is Love.Later that afternoon, Fear comes back to the
house to find his belongings on the curb, the locks changed, and an eviction
notice on the front door, announcing that Fear is no longer welcome.Love has moved into Fear’s room, and where
there is Love, there is no longer room for Fear.
Fear tries to get back in,
but you meet fear at the door and say you’re much happier living with
Love.You didn’t realize how happy until
you gave it a try, but now you have, and this is better.Given the choice between Love and Fear,
you’ll choose Love.
Friends, today is a great
day to say goodbye to fear. And not only fear, but all of fear’s nasty little
friends, too.It’s a great day to say adios
to anger.Sayonara, selfishness.Giddy-up, gossip. Hasta la vista, hate.Hey divisiveness, don’t let the door hit you
where the good Lord split you.Peace
Perfect love drives out
fear.Perfect love says to fear, “Turn
around now, you’re not welcome anymore.”Perfect love drives out fear.It
drives it far out into the middle of nowhere, opens the door and says, “Hit the
road, Jack, and don’t you come back no more.”
Let the world run be run
by fear and his friends.Here in the
church, we’ll do it different.
Friends, we are children
of God.We are the church.The body of Christ.The beloved, called-out community, defined
and driven by God’s unconditional love for all.Perfect love drives out fear, and God’s perfect love drives us.