“…PERFECT LOVE CASTS OUT FEAR…HE WHO FEARS IS NOT PERFECTED IN LOVE” 1 John

Pastor Mark Anderson, Lutheran Church of the Master, Corona del Mar, California


The little letter of 1st John has a lot to say about love. Some of what it tells us is pure Gospel. It tells us that God is love. It points to Jesus Christ as the great expression of that love for us. It tells us that before we loved God, God loved us and that we may love only because God first loved us. This kind of talk can get the faithful heart to skipping!

But… and there is a but… 1st John also lays down the law. “… if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Or this, “And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.” ‘Ought’ and ‘should’, the very essence of law language. And then there is that section that titles this piece for today,“…perfect love casts out fear…he who fears is not perfected in love”. That one pretty much puts the nail in the coffin for me. If the absence of fear means loving perfectly, and if perfected love is to be my project in this life, that is a mountain I am not prepared to
climb.

Speaking for myself, fear to one degree or another has been an unwelcome companion on my life’s journey as far back as I can remember. And I suspect you are not much different. If I am to measure how loving I am by the absence of fear, well that seems to me to be a prescription for never quite arriving. So when John starts in about perfect love casting out fear and being perfected in love we need to do some thinking about what this actually means. We need to distinguish law and gospel.

Should we, ought we be more loving? Of course! To love God and the neighbor as the self fulfills the entire law. If we were all perfected lovers this place would be the Garden of Eden. But I know of only one perfect love and that, of course, is God’s love.

If we are speaking of God’s love casting out fear so that faith may abide, that is something I can get behind. The pressures and demands of the moment, my shortsightedness in the face of the daily distresses of life, churn up fears like a blender at times. This is to be expected in this life. At the same time, there is a calm, a patience that faith gives which the Pandora’s box of the world’s fears cannot effect. At the heart of that faith is the love of God, that grace and mercy in Jesus Christ that we often
like to summarize as the ‘peace that passes all understanding’ – and calms our fearful hearts.


“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

“Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith;…” St. Paul

Friends in Christ,

Are you a righteous person? Which is to say, are you morally right, good and virtuous? You probably think so but how do you know? That’s the easy part. Your moral uprightness, goodness and virtue are always measured against some form of performance based upon laws, rules, standards, etc. They may be laws that govern conduct or even ideas. Do the ‘right’ things, hold the ‘right’ ideas and you are righteous, good.

There is a rather large problem, of course, with all this and Paul puts his finger on it. He writes of having “… a righteousness of my own, based on law,…”. Your brand of righteousness is based upon whatever assortment of laws, rules, standards, etc. that you have cobbled together to build your own personal brand of morality. Your righteousness is a relative righteousness based upon your own code of law. On the ladder of perfect righteousness, even by your own standards, you probably have quite a ways to climb but you probably think you have climbed high enough to settle into a comfortable, if mediocre form of righteousness. All you have to do is look beneath you at those on the lower rungs, or those climbing the wrong ladders all together, to validate your righteous place in the world. Once most people find that place of righteous mediocrity, they stay put. And from that safe, smug, self-satisfied place on the ladder, it is hard, very hard to hear the Gospel.

Both Paul and Martin Luther were Olympic champions when it comes to ladder climbing. No mediocre morality for them! Paul was the Pharisee’s Pharisee. He could proudly boast that he kept the law as no other. Blameless was the word he used.
Martin was recognized by the Augustinian order of friars, a group of professional religious ladder climbers, as one of the best high climbers they ever saw.

But it was not their success in righteousness and virtue that made them Christian. In fact, it was their moral striving in the law that finally broke them. For Paul, who in his righteous indignation breathed threats and death against Christians, that breakthrough came when the Risen Christ (God Himself) appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus. And, in effect said,
“Paul, in persecuting Christians according to your version of Law, your self-righteous pride in your moral uprightness is making you an enemy of God.”
Martin climbed and climbed the ‘make yourself righteous’ ladder until the effort increasingly exposed his sin, broke him and he collapsed into a despairing heap.

There was something necessary about their efforts. Paul and Martin climbed way beyond mediocrity on the righteousness ladder. One ended up in pride, the other despair. And it was only then that God could expose the futility of their efforts in the law and revealed to them, in the Gospel, what the late Alvin Rogness once called the “glorious alternative”.

Through the gift of God’s grace and mercy in Christ, Paul and Martin were liberated from being fake caricatures of righteousness into the righteousness of Christ and the freedom of a living faith. Martin gloried in Paul’s words, and so may we:

“Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…”

THE LONG ARC OF HISTORY: WHERE IS IT HEADED?

Pastor Mark Anderson, Lutheran Church of the Master, Corona del Mar, California

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was known for quoting a line from a 19th century sermon. That sermon was delivered by an avowed abolitionist preacher, Theodore Parker. Parker was a Unitarian, transcendentalist and anything but an orthodox christian. The quote follows: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

The quote, as attributed to King, is actually a condensed version of the reference in the sermon. But whether in the original or the ‘Cliff’s Notes’ version, both are wrong.

The widespread use of this quotation and its variants among Christian groups is a window into the classic, ongoing problem of distinguishing the law from the gospel. Both reverends mentioned above held out justice as God’s goal in the world. And this attractive analysis has been given moral standing by aligning it with slavery and racial injustice. It just sounds right. It feels right. Wrongs should be righted. Inequities should be addressed. The imbalances of the world should be set right. And all of this is in the realm justice. And the only mechanism the world has to bring about any of this is the Law.

Now, if the reverends Parker and King were speaking as citizens in an effort to influence legislation toward a more just society, fair enough. Societies, all societies, have a stake in making laws that are just as possible. That is what the law is for in its civil use.

But Parker and King were not speaking simply as citizens. They were putting themselves forward as preachers of God’s Word. And in that role they made the wrong turn, effectively saying that what God cares most about in this world is justice. But the proclamation of God’s Word in history does not bend toward justice. The arch of history bends toward mercy. What God cares most about is mercy, the mercy He has revealed on the cross of Jesus Christ.

Of course, in certain Christian circles, where Jesus Christ has been transformed into the arch typical social reformer (where, at least in the law he seems to be of some good), the best we can say about Jesus is, “Go and do what Jesus did,” my words hit the ear as heresy. But the word heretical actually belongs to those who have demoted the crucified Christ to the role of benignly packaged moral example.

This is not to say that preachers do not preach the law. We do. But the law is preached not to goad the Christian into social action, give life advice or opine on the latest issue in the headlines. The purpose of the Christian proclamation is straightforward and two-fold: to expose and name sin and to give away, in Jesus’ name, the forgiveness of sins.

The Gospel of God has been given for no other purpose.

May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in

Christ Jesus our Lord.”

God’s Word Apart from the Law

Pastor Mark Anderson, Lutheran Church of the Master, Corona del Mar, California

I have written before and included in many sermons the observation that the endless cycle of the demand for justice – seeking is the legal cycle within which the world is trapped. The fundamental error, the wrong move we make here is in thinking that the law is actually the remedy for injustice. It is not. For the law cannot change the one thing that actually would make a difference: the human heart. For the human heart goes its own way and insists on a free will that pursues “the right” within the law and demands justice, but it never arrives.

The problem is not that hard to see. If the law is the vehicle by which we realize justice then what drives the free will is the pursuit and the demand that life should be something that it currently is not. The assumption here is that the pursuit of perfect justice, righteousness and so forth is what life is for because, in the end, God, life itself, is to be equated with pursuing the fulfillment of law. Even the die-hard secularist who is passionate about justice but has no time for God, has made of the ideal of justice a god of law. The free will values the law above everything because it seems to be the tool for the pursuit and fulfillment of life itself. Either way, religious or not, seeking justice or righteousness in law assumes that this is what finally matters. Then the Gospel shows up.

And what happens? Another word from God enters the world of ‘free wills’ pursuing justice in the law and declares that justice is to be found, apart from and outside the law! And that justice is not an ideal to be pursued. That justice is located in a person, Jesus Christ. God has pulled a fast one on sinners who pride themselves that their freely willing wills are what establish them, and done some free willing of His own. For Christ’s sake and for no other reason, God wills that sinners are forgiven – apart from the law. The apostle Paul made it about as clear as it can be:

For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.”

The sinner, in the initial hearing of this external word of God’s gracious promise, hears only a word that intrudes on the so-called free will. In fact, throughout life, the old Adam and Eve in us are constantly offended, annoyed, miffed at this gracious Word from God. So God must deliver it again and again in the external word and sacraments in order to keep us in faith.

In Jesus, God has bestowed Himself upon sinners, opening, revealing His heart. And what we see in this revelation is that it is not holiness in the law (whether sacred or secular) that makes life worth living or justifies us, but the cross. For in the Cross, God refused to pull rank on us and bind us in the law. Instead, in the gracious forgiveness of our sin, He has removed the shackles of the law and set us free. This gracious freedom is a terror and offense to the world and free wills. But to those to whom it is given, it is the sweetest bliss and the most exquisite mercy.

May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in

Christ Jesus our Lord.”

HOPE THAT DOES NOT DISAPPOINT

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Through him we have obtained access  to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  More than that, we  rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

Romans 5:1-5

We need things to keep us alive (food, shelter, and the like) we also need a reason to want to stay alive. We need a reason or reasons to keep living in the face of life’s struggles and losses and our inevitable fate, which is death. The short-term hopes we cast into the waters of living, like the ever-hopeful fisherman – provide those reasons.

What do we do when hopes conflict, when our hopes for the future are actually locked in combat with the hopes of others? Republicans and Democrats have deep political hopes, hopes for what tomorrow will look like. Yet these hopes may not be OUR hopes but THEIR hopes. One party’s buoyant hope is the source of the other’s fearful dread. One party’s hope creates suspicion and mistrust, even hatred within the other. It is hard to see any hopeful future here. Yet this has been and is the story of history.

The proper analysis to apply to anything and everything to which you look for hope; personal fulfillment, family, relationships, money, political causes, career, you name it – is this: all these hopes will eventually disappoint. In fact, the human project is a history of all these proffered, unrealized, hopes. Each and all of them are ultimately a mirage in the desert. Which amounts to hope that disappoints, hope without rescue.

Paul speaks of a hope in which all who know it may rejoice. Rejoice! That is his word. We may rejoice now in a hope that is rooted not in the faulty assumptions and promises of the human project, but in a hope that has its source in the Living God who raised Jesus from the dead. This hope takes hold of the heart and fills it with the vision of a future beyond the mirages of this fallen world. That future begins now when we come upon the oases of Word and Sacrament, where the proclaimed Gospel Word sustains us on this journey of struggle and suffering through the desert. These oases moments of rest and refreshment, to use Paul’s words,

…produce endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”

Therefore, my friend, look to the hope that is in Jesus Christ. He is no mirage in the desert, but the very embodiment, risen from the grave, of that future which, in every way, will not disappoint.

May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in

Christ Jesus our Lord.”

“For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

Pastor Mark Anderson

It is no small thing that God has revealed Himself in the face of Jesus of Nazareth. Beings are in relation to one another, face to face. Persons and the creation itself are presented to us. We face them, they face us. Our management or stewardship involves a shaping and reshaping of the face of the world. The face is open to life, a mark of our freedom. The face is also reflective of our self-consciousness and our consciousness of others. Each face is unique, unrepeatable, made in the image of God.

The Christian confession is that “God was in Christ”. This is a literal statement. When those first century Jews and Gentiles looked into the face of Jesus of Nazareth, the were looking into the face of God. That is what we believe, teach and confess. And this presenting Himself to us, face to face, is entirely in keeping with the very nature of the God of creation.

But what can be said of those who look beyond or disregard the face, who seek to blot it out?

In some religious cultures the faces of women, for example, are covered in public. This effectively relegates them to a status which denies their individuality, inhibits their freedom, removes them from the immediacy of relations to other persons as persons. They become, in effect, caricatures. But cultures that encourage this practice are not interested in freedom and know nothing of what the face represents in relation to God’s intention for human beings.

Another manifestation of this effort to blot out the face is on our hands here, in western culture. We live in a time when the face, which is to say the individual, is being replaced by the group, by categories. We are now being prodded to not see persons but members of groups. If you are white, for example, you are said to be inherently racist. Your face, your identity, has been quite literally whitewashed. Who you are as a person is irrelevant. What and who you are is determined by your sex, ethnicity, age, tribal identity, all the other multiple categories that we are supposed to receive as defining today.

Christians, and all freedom-loving people, should resist these efforts because they are aimed at imposing a tyrannical, anti-human agenda on God’s creatures. Christians should actively reject all efforts to blot out the face. For to blot out the face, that unique mark of our God-given uniqueness and freedom, in the end reveals the attempt of an insidious evil to blot out both God and human freedom.

May the peace of God keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

BAPTISM: GOD’S DECISION FOR YOU

Pastor Mark Anderson

In Matthew 28 our Lord Jesus issued his final command and promise to His disciples. Sometimes these words are called the “Great Commission”. Significantly, baptism has a prominent place in our Lord’s command.

  The first thing to note about our Lord’s words is that they are a command. Baptism, therefore, is not an option the church or the Christian can take or leave. We are not to despise baptism or treat it lightly. Neither are we to speculate on what happens to those who are not baptized. As followers of Jesus, our job is to carry out His command. He will deal with the exceptions. After all, Jesus stated, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” Although this text is often quoted as a condition that people must meet to be saved, that is not what the text actually says. The text says that Christ will decide who has access to the Father. How Christ will handle those who do not receive baptism is His business. Our business is to baptize, as He has commanded.

  The most important words in Jesus command, however, are these; “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We baptize with water together with God’s name. It is not our word (our decision to repent and follow Christ) that is added to the water (as in what some call believer’s baptism). In baptism God adds His word to the water. That is why the Lord includes the Triune name of God along with His command to baptize. He wants the Christian to know and trust that in baptism God promises to give you His name. This is the central promise God gives you in baptism. This is the promise that we are called to trust. It is a promise given to comfort and encourage sinners.

  Though some may challenge it, and there may be times when you may question it, you don’t have to apologize for or doubt your baptism. In your baptism God has given you the promise of the Gospel. God has promised in baptism to be your God, to name you as His child and provide you with everything He has done for your salvation in Jesus Christ, to give you the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. In baptism, God has made a decision for you! 

May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in

Christ Jesus our Lord.”

WHERE TO LOOK

Pastor Mark Anderson

I knew a psychiatrist years ago who told me that one of the most difficult aspects of working with people was helping them to actually look at themselves honestly. He went on to say that this is not because we do not necessarily want to be honest about ourselves. It is because what there is to look at in ourselves can often be too painful and too convoluted. In facing the daunting prospect of self-evaluation, where do you even begin?

Some versions of Christianity tell us that the method for knowing whether or not our faith is real is to look inwardly at ourselves. These versions tell people to immerse themselves in the swamp of the inner life, to rummage around and look for evidence of faith in the midst of all the debris of the past and the present. This, it seems to me, is extraordinarily bad Christianity.

The beauty of the Gospel is that it turns us away from the self-examination project and shifts our focus onto Christ and His benefits. This is why we Lutherans (at least the ones who know better) rely upon the external Gospel given to us, from outside of us, in Word and Sacrament.

There have been plenty of Sundays when I have dragged myself to church in a state of real disappointment with my self. I have spent plenty of time during the week, looking inward and convincing myself that I am really not up to this Christian faith that I preach and teach and that perhaps an alternative form of employment would be preferable!

Then Sunday comes. I am able to return to the external promise of my baptism, confess all of this uncertainty and get it off my back. I hear the promising word of the absolution which actually sets me free. Law and Gospel proclaim my need for a Savior and the Savior I need. The Lord’s Supper is set for me and there I receive from the hand of Christ Himself, the gift of salvation.

Another self-doubting preacher, our dear brother Martin Luther who knew all of this as well as anyone ever has, once wrote,

“When I look at myself, I don’t know how I can be saved. When I look at Christ, I don’t know how I can be lost.”

This has to be the shortest, sweetest sermon he ever preached! Amen, Martin! Amen!

“…FOR THE LORD SEES NOT AS MAN SEES; MAN LOOKS ON THE OUTWARD APPEARANCE, BUT THE LORD LOOKS ON THE HEART.” 1 Samuel

Pastor Mark Anderson

  There must be a basic honesty about life, before God and others. Our society is consumed with the phony posturing of “image” and yet hypocritically claims to despise the phony. Yet, in some sense we are all posturing phonies, selling an image of ourselves that could not stand full exposure. And this is what finally matters as the stewardship of our lives is in put in the balance. God knows our actual motives far more intimately than we do. God sees the heart.

The “heart” as used in the Bible refers to what we might call the whole person. That’s what God cares about – the whole you. God sees all, sees behind the theatrical curtain of our lives, and still chooses to love, to have mercy. The outward appearance is only a part of you and you know it. Sometimes the outer appearance is better than “you”, sometimes it is worse.  We are fooled by people when we only see part of them. But God is not fooled – and God still loves.

God sees the terrible potential for evil which we overlook in ourselves and yet quite readily impute to others, putting the worst contruction of the words and actions of our neighbors. God also works to bring good from evil. This we often fail to see in others, for we love ourselves too much and our neighbors too little.

The gospel is the Good News that God is committed to us in Jesus Christ. In your baptism God has named you His child. God sees your life from the inside out yet remains firm in his grace and love for the sake of Christ. This is His promise to you.

Honesty in this life does not mean wearing your heart on your sleeve at all times for all people. If you do, you will pay a steep price. For the world, as a rule, does not reward innocence and honesty. At the same time we can dare to be honest with Christ Jesus.

He knows us as we are; fearful, selfish, posturing as good when our hearts know better. Yet Christ Jesus wants only our good. Therefore we can dare to trust Him even with the sobering, humbling knowledge that from Him no secrets are hid. In Christ Jesus God has closed the gap between Himself and our sin. What this means for you as a Christian is that you may face the disparities in your life and the world, even this day, in the light of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

THE ILLUSION OF PROGRESS AND THE FALSE PROMISES OF EMANCIPATION

Pastor Mark Anderson

My great-grandfather moved around his parish in Southwestern Minnesota with a horse and buggy. Over one hundred years later I visit my church members (at least before the Covid crisis) in an automobile that would leave him speechless, dumbfounded actually. The extraordinary explosion of technological progress in the last 100 years has served to create an illusion. And that illusion is that the human race is progressing toward an emancipated state of perfect equity and perfect social justice.

But you may have noticed something as we ‘oogle’ our iphones, enamored of the glories of science and the progressing technological age; people remain stubbornly self-centered, malicious and seem to be perpetually dissatisfied with themselves, others and the sluggish pace of a justice that never seems to arrive. Terms like ‘justice, equity, inclusive, and utopia’ are thrown around like so much cheap confetti, in defiance of what is, as if just saying them will speed things up and bring about a new world. But these terms stubbornly remain in the realm of abstraction. And when they have managed to touch down (as in Mao’s China and Lenin’s Russia) the result has been the catastrophic, murderous destruction of freedom and human rights.

Again today these abstractions are being shouted at us from the streets by people who have no real plan that they can positively put forward into the arena of rational thought and open discussion. Instead these utopian abstractions are being used, as they always are, to level annihilating, self-righteous rage against every attempt to create a world that is anything short of the perfection they dream of. And the problem with this is obvious. The abstract ideal negates, dismisses every flawed attempt at social organization that falls short of that ideal and serves to justify all hostility toward the prevailing, imperfect state of affairs, no matter how much good it may contain. The clenched fists and shrill voices are summoning us to support a movement that exists in an abstract world of slogans and idealistic dreams where progress toward the Utopian ideal will only be made after the we de-construct (destroy) everything as it is. Then what?

In a sense, those who march in the streets and seek to dismantle the prevailing order are a window into the greater human dilemma. The frustrated, errant world, trapped and bound in the closed, imperfect system of mortality, with the law as the only tool at their disposal, are unable to free themselves. There is no breaking out of the prison of mortality, law and death.

This, in large part I believe, accounts for the angry, existential panic we see all around us. You may feel it yourself. The mortality clock is ticking even as the world (and that normally means others) stubbornly resists the remedies that the self-righteous think will bring final emancipation of humanity and clean up the planet.

The abstractions and idealisms of Utopian dreamers are inappropriate substitutes for the authentic hope and future revealed in time and space in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. For the Christian faith, justice is not an ideology, it is a person. And that person is the incarnate God, Jesus Christ our Lord. On the cross of Jesus God announced that mortality, life under the unblinking law and death are not obstacles for us to overcome. They are our fate in this world. In the resurrection of Jesus God ushered in a new future, witnessed to in this world by the Gospel, and that one day will be revealed in a new heaven and new earth.

Jesus made quite explicit what lies at the heart of His kingdom’s ‘platform’ – the radical unfairness of Divine mercy and forgiveness, not equity and justice. Jesus Christ wants nothing to do with the oppressor\victim narrative. The gospel of God’s realm is not a bid for power among groups, not even a balance of powers. The gospel creates the only real freedom and makes possible honest, truthful, relations between people, the creation and God. The nourishment, stability and love that human beings claim to long for is not brought about by the endless transitions, the dangled carrots of false hopes that promise a fulfilled tomorrow. Those gifts are given now in faith, as permanent possessions in the Word of the Gospel; where the restless, anxious heart is led out of the ideological fog into the light, peace and rest of God’s forgiveness and mercy in Jesus Christ, even as we await in patient hope the authentic future that only God will bring.

So, here is a suggestion. If you or someone you know has an irresistible urge to take to the streets, with signs and slogans, try this. Let you signs proclaim the power of God’s mercy to reconcile neighbor to neighbor. Shout at the top of your lungs the name of Jesus Christ and that His ‘platform, has one plank, a plank that is inclusive of every race and nation – mercy and the forgiveness of sins.