The Contrast Society: From Fear to Love

January 13, 2013


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Jan. 13, 2013

“The Contrast Society: From Fear to Love”
Philippians 2:1-4, 12-18

Is it possible to be scared to death? During the January 17, 1994 Los Angeles earthquake, more than one hundred Californians literally died of fright, according to Robert Kloner, a cardiologist at the Good Samaritan Hospital in LA.

His research has shown that excessive fear can cause sudden cardiac death. In many cases the terrorized brain triggers the release of a mix of chemicals so potent that it causes the heart to contract fiercely and it never relaxes again.

In another study, this time in Cleveland, coroners studied the hearts of 15 assault victims who died even thought their assailants had not wounded them badly enough to be fatal. Charles Hirsch, chief medical officer for NYC, determined that 11 of the 15 had torn fibers and lesions in their hearts most likely caused by mortal fear.

Fear is equally dangerous to our spiritual lives. Fear is a prison – often a prison of our own making.

The apostle Paul – in about 49 CE – started his first European congregation in Philippi. We have several stories about his work in Philippi…
• The conversion of Lydia and the baptism of her household
• Paul’s exorcism of a demon from a slave girl who supported her masters by practicing spiritual magic
As a result, Paul and Silas were dragged before the city magistrates and charged by the Jews with being anti-Roman, for which they was imprisoned.

Now, I don’t know about you, but being a Jesus-follower in a Roman prison in the first century, might have made me die just from fright. On top of all of this, there was an earthquake. Paul and Silas could have easily escaped during the earthquake. But they chose to stay in prison, and in the end, their jailer and his family were converted to following Jesus because Paul & Silas showed such tremendous faith.

Scholars agree that Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi was probably written while he was imprisoned. Modern scholars tend to believe that Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus and that the scripture I am going to read originated from there. As I read, I’d like you to consider his words as compared to the fear he must have been facing. Read Philippians 2:1-4, 12-18.

When Jesus walked on earth, he tried to teach a new way of life. He called it the “kingdom of God”. That phrase occurs:
a. 4 times in Matthew
b. Fourteen times in Mark
c. Thirty-two times in Luke
d. Twice in John
e. Six times in Acts
f. And eight times in Paul’s writing.
This “kingdom of God” was a significant metaphor for how Jesus believed we
should live. Baker’s Dictionary of Theology says that the Kingdom is dynamic. In
other words, it is not an abstract principle. It is actively invading the kingdom of
human rulers.

In modern terms, you might call his ideas “a contrast society”… one in which people
replace normal human tendencies with alternative ways of being in the world.
Much has been written about this contrast society. Literalists would assert that this
Kingdom is in heaven after we die. But Jesus spoke of the Kingdom in present tense – that it would come into history when people followed his teaching and did his mission.

In Philippians, Paul appeals that they have “the mind of Christ”… that we replicate Jesus’ teaching in our own lives… to bring about the contrast society God envisions. The Greek translated “in you” has a double-entendre here. It means you, personally, and you, collectively: among you, in your relationships, in your society.
IVP New Testament Commentaries

For the next several weeks, I am going to be preaching on this alternate society envisioned by Jesus. Each week, I will compare a human vulnerability with a value Jesus taught. Today, we are looking at fear turning into love.

Preacher and scholar Marjorie Thompson wrote, “Paul understands that what is needed is a radically different way of thinking about ourselves in relation to others – a way that sets us free from self-absorption so we can respond to the needs and concerns of others. It is the mind and spirit of Christ who enables our attitudes and behaviors … to change.” This is a shift that occurs when we model the “contrast society” of Jesus. Marjorie Thompson, “The Parabolic Love of God”, pp. 304-5

No one in Philippi, we must remind ourselves, used the cross as a symbol for their faith; there were no gold crosses embossed on Bibles or worn as pendants around the neck or lighted on the steeple of the local church. The cross was God’s (and their) scandal. The idea that the One they called “Christ” was crucified as a state criminal at the hands of the government… well, it was obscene. This is the scandal of Jesus’ ethics: that he was sent from God to teach us how to live in a way that could get us killed! Jesus took the values of our world and turned them upside down. He took fear…. And turned it into love. We can be imprisoned by our fear, even die from our fear, or we can turn it into love.

Where is there fear in your life?
• Are you afraid of growing old and becoming incapacitated?
• Is there fear in your life about money? Financial security?
• Or children/ grandchildren and their decisions?
• Perhaps it’s fear about what people think.
• Or fear of the unknown.
What prisons have you made for yourself?

Jesus takes our worldly understanding and turns it inside out. What is the inside- out version of fear? Love. In verse two of our text today, the commentators define “having the same love” as being equally disposed to love and to be loved. By our faith, we are made for the giving and receiving of love… not fear. What would it look like if we trusted the Divine beyond our fears? This is what fear looks like in a “contrast society”:

On April 6, 2000, Ricky and Toni Sexton were taken hostage inside their Wytheville, Virginia, home by a fugitive couple on a crime spree. Toni had taken her poodle outside when an unknown couple roared into her driveway, pointed pistols at her, and yelled at her to get back inside the house.

Inside the house, the Sextons turned their hostage experience into an opportunity to demonstrate Christian love. The Sextons listened to their captors’ troubles, fed them, read to them from the Bible, and prayed and cried with them.

During negotiations with the police, Ricky Sexton refused his own release when the captors suggested that they might end the standoff by their own suicides. The standoff had an unusual ending. Before surrendering to the police, one of the captors left $135 and a note for the Sextons that read: “Thank you for your hospitality. We really appreciate it. Wish all luck and love. Please accept this. It really is all we have to offer. Love, Angela and Dennis.”
Preaching Today, 2002, pg. 167

Most of us will likely never have such a dramatic experience. Our fears may seem to pale in comparison. Our fears may never literally “scare us to death”, but how we handle our fear is ultimately a matter of faith.

Marianne Williamson writes, “Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn. The spiritual journey is the unlearning of fear and prejudices and the acceptance of love back in our hearts. Love is the essential reality and our purpose on earth. To be consciously aware of it, to experience love in ourselves and others, is the meaning of life.”

Bible References

  • Philippians 2:1 - 4
  • Philippians 2:12 - 18