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1 John 4:7-21; Acts 9:1-20The Baptism of Saul

This is the passage that makes me think of 1 John as the “love book.” God is love, and perfect love drives out all fear. Today’s long Acts reading is two stories of love driving out fear.

First, there’s Ananias. He’s scared of Saul, who is a danger to the integrity of the Christian community. He’s a danger to Ananias’ personal safety, to sure, as he’s full of “murderous threats.” But this is not just a danger to Ananias, it’s a threat to the whole community because they’re Christian; Saul is opposing “any who follow the Way.”

And then there’s Saul himself. He’s not so different from Ananias. He was threatened by what God was doing (although he didn’t know God was doing it yet). He’s threatened by the idea of Jesus as a new revelation of God, and by this community’s openness to people who didn’t live by the Jewish laws and customs. It’s not that he’s closed-minded; he’s a Jew living under Roman oppression, and he knows that a clearly defined identity is the best defense for his people.

And we’re not so different either. So many of us, holding our line is how we’ve survived. This fear is built deep into our political and work relationships (especially on the Range): you have to speak loudly for your group because no one else might. Our fear functions differently now than Paul’s or Ananias’. Our challenges come from the crush of technology, or from the economic power of the Twin Cities to lure away our people and define our lives from afar. So we’re torn: we want the benefits of what others have, without giving up ourselves. We want economic opportunity for our kids, but we want them to live closer to home.

Faced by these fears, it’s tempting to draw a line (any line) and warn anyone else back from crossing it. The sadness of this approach is that it cuts us off from each other. Neighbors become possible threats, and the circle of people we can trust gets smaller. And more, it allows forces outside our own circles to define our life; we react to what’s “out there,” not decide what we truly want “in here.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. Saul listened to the voice of Jesus who called him beyond his fears. He recognized immediately that this is divine: he answered, “who are you, Lord?” Later, he learned all about this Jesus, beyond what his fears of difference thought they knew. In his God-imposed blindness, he came to see. He rose up and began life again. And we know him better by his later name, the Apostle Paul.

And Ananias went when the Lord sent him. He followed the divine choice even before it was safe, while Saul was still hanging out with other friends of the chief priest. He was received and heard, and was protected in the face of this threat to the Christian community. His risk paid off – he baptized and taught one of the single most influential people of all time.

The risk pays off for us, too, when we allow God’s love to free us from fear. When we sit and eat with someone we didn’t know before. When we allow someone else’s spiritual life to question our assumptions. When we offer our life to someone else so they can grow and prosper. Then we recognize new life and possibilities where we couldn’t see them before.

What it looks like is my kids with their grandpa, or really like him with them. One of the biggest surprises for me as a parent was to see how my dad adores being with Ian and Ben. When he’s with them, love just takes over. It transforms him; any anxiety, self-consciousness, and rough edges fall away, and it’s like seeing him all over again. Of course all our parents love and adore their grandkids, but this change is especially cool to see.

That’s a piece of what it looks like when love casts out fear. It frees us to share, serve, and be made new. In Jesus’ name, amen.