Love One Another and Do Not Be Afraid

Maria Barker

May 19, 2019

     Gospel of John: 13:31-38[i] 
     Acts of the Apostles 18[ii]

I have always had a soft spot for Peter and today we see him twice.

I don’t know how you guys were raised to think of Peter, but I, as a Roman Catholic, was raised, to know him as the first pope and the rock upon which the Christian church was built. Which has always made it interesting to me that Peter is so profoundly human that he is kind of a mess. And I think that’s exactly the point—he’s a loveable mess who learns and grows as his story unfolds.   

In the reading from John, we can see at once that Peter sincerely loves Jesus and yet Jesus predicts that he won’t be brave enough when the time comes to claim his association with Jesus in the face of danger.

And in Acts, Peter is challenged by some others in his community – How come you went and shared a meal with these gentiles? Well, Peter reports what it took to get him there: it took a trance with an intense celestial vision that had to be repeated three times, and then three big dudes who were sent for him plus six other brothers to escort him to this family’s home. Never mind the facts that Jesus had already modeled this behavior for Peter and the others throughout this ministry.

But Peter learns, he evolves, and he teaches the others in his community—Jesus is also a gift to the Gentiles. Who was I that I could hinder God?

Like Peter, we are capable of love, and of fear, and of learning.

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about how much fear and anxiety are influencing societies all over the world, and what our faith says about that. And, actually, I quickly saw that it is remarkably clear that there are two really consistent messages in the Christian scriptures: do not be afraid, and love one another. Now, I’m sure we’ve all grown up on these two things—they may as well be tattooed on our subconscious minds. At the same time, we’ve all noticed there are times when these are easier, and time when they are harder, and we’re living through times when not being afraid and loving one another are harder.

I’m going to borrow some ideas from a man named john powell. Professor powell leads the UC Berkeley Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. I’ve had the great pleasures to hear him speak a couple of times, most recently at a gathering about how to make schools equitable and places where all children feel they below.

Powell describes that the world is changing very quickly. Four big areas where the change is especially palpable are:

  • climate change,
  • globalization,
  • demographics, and
  • technology.  

Change in all those areas is very real. And there are real threats to some as well: automation is doing away with jobs, especially lower-skilled ones like manufacturing and retail. Climate change is creating more dangerous and expensive disasters and has already created scarcity that has contributed to conflict in other countries, causing people to be displaced from their homes.

And then there are changes that I would not call a threat, like demographics. In 2014, more nonwhite children were born in the US than white, and the expectation is whites won’t be the majority among babies born in the US again. Something to celebrate for some, a fearful rallying cry for others.

When things change so quickly, it is natural for people to feel anxious. And in times like these, the media, political leaders, and culture in general play a very important role in determining what might happen next.

Powell describes that in response to anxious times, we can either respond through breaking or bridging.

Breaking is when people want to isolate themselves, and attack others out of fear. When a state gets built on such a premise, of fear, the state sees enemies all around, enhances the ability to accuse, charge and punish, to the potential detriment to human rights.

We have seen an explosion of authoritarianism globally, not just here, taking advantage of this anxiety, amplifying it, and sometimes offering “easy” answers. 

Societies perceive that they are under assault, from things like immigration from outside, or religious difference among people who have lived side by side for generations. Right wing authoritarians promise going back to an imaginary past—isolation, purity and racial dominance.

Another way this anxiety can be channeled is to bridging, and instead of amplifying a sense of us versus them, creating a more expansive We.

Now, this is a hell of a lot easier to say than to do.

For example, what did it take for Peter to bridge with the Gentiles? A trance, an intense vision repeated three times, and nine dudes to escort him.

I think this is why we have to be reminded so many times in scripture to love one another. Because it is damn hard, but it is also an imperative of scripture.

I want to give you an example of bridging.  At the conference I mentioned where I got to hear Professor powell, I got to learn about a growing movement to make schools more equitable for all children. The principles of this movement are described: ABCD:

A – that academics be rigorous for all children,
B – that all children feel a sense of belonging in the school,
C – commitment to call out and confront racism and teach children to undo it, and
D – that schools are diverse and integrated.

I’m telling you, this is another thing that’s way easier said than done. As schools and communities are trying to effect these kinds of changes, it turns out it that even the first steps are difficult and take a long time, but it involves the teachers exploring their own conceptions of race, educating themselves about white supremacy and how it has played out in their lives. And then you can work on creating culturally relevant curricula, and how the school systems hires and trains people, involves the parents and students in decisions, etc, etc, etc. There are schools and communities committed to and doing this hard work, places from schools systems like Tucson, to Malden, Mass, to Baltimore County that wants to start the program, and schools from San Francisco to Harford, CT, to right here in DC. I took a lot of hope from what I saw there.  Bridging is harder than breaking, though.  Overcoming fear and being open to something new, something generative, take courage and take community. The first step for these teachers is to form supportive cohorts to go through this process together.

When I was a teenager, my mother taught me how to drive. My mother is a pretty high-strung person. She worried all the time, and as a driver herself, she would sit up close to the steering wheel and grasp it so hard her knuckles were white. However, as a driving teacher, she was very patient. She explained things slowly and in a soft voice, and when I screwed something up, she would gently explain how to fix it.

My mom was trying extra hard at this because she was smart. We all know that people make bad choices when they are anxious and responding out of fear. If my mom had conveyed anxiety and made me nervous or upset when I was behind the wheel learning to drive, it would have been seriously counterproductive if not dangerous, with my driving into something.

When we hear in scripture, “Do not be afraid,” it’s not always a message that you have nothing to fear. Sometimes, it’s a message “Do not be afraid because you’re going to respond poorly if you respond out of fear.”

So what is our role in the face of a growing culture of fear?

We have to contribute to a culture that responds out of love, and not fear.  One of the ways we have to do this is that we have to love those who are fearful of change, while at the same time welcoming a new, expansive sense of who we are as a community, a country, a society. We are, in fact, all in this together, for starters. How to we help create a large expansive ¨we,¨ where we all belong, where no group is better than another, where we will share and learn from one another and where we will change. That is the hopeful potential of this time in history, and if that sounds like the Kingdom to you, so be it. 

We must try bridging to people with whom we aren’t comfortable today, and even with whom we don’t agree.  When Jesus said “You must love one another – my followers will be recognized because they love one another,” he did not mean for it to be easy.

This whole “Do not be afraid” and “Love one another” thing is a lot easier when you’re already confident and comfortable. How to we practice love, not fear, in a riskier world that’s changing so fast it’s never going to be the same again.

So here’s my closing question for you:

How might you create a bridge with people in your life who are culturally different from you? Could be someone from a really different religious background, could be Trump supporters. Who do you consider the Other and what would it be like to relate to them out of all love and no fear?

[i] Gospel of John: 13:31-38
When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.  If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.  Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going, you cannot come.'  I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”

[ii] Acts of the Apostles 11:1-18
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.  So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying,
"I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me.  As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.  I also heard a voice saying to me, 'Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' But I replied, 'By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' But a second time the voice answered from heaven, 'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.'  This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.  At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were.  The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house.  He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, 'Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter;  he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.'  And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.  And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.'

If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?"  When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."