I once again heard sad news of a Christian I know abandoning the faith because, she said, ours is a fear-based religion. Now, she says, she is free from fear and can live her life as she wants to live it, independent and proud. This is a very common, very woke, accusation against traditional Christianity, as if our religion puts the fear of hell into people in order to keep them in line and force them to live according to outdated Western heteronormative, patriarchal norms. Now I’m not at all opposed to keeping people in line by telling them that if they don’t obey they’ll be punished. It works very well. Parents have to do it with children and governments have to do it with people. That’s why we have laws and police. When people aren’t afraid of getting punished they start taking over police precincts, killing cops, burning and looting, as we’ve seen in the last couple weeks. Fear, as Machiavelli wrote long ago, is the greatest power the government has to keep order in society. And when it comes to us and God, it’s a very good thing for people to realize the terror of hell and fear God’s wrath and not want to do anything against his commandments. But with all that said, ours simply isn’t a fear-based religion. It’s love-based. If a person’s only reason for being a Christian is fear of suffering physical pain in hell, then he’s simply not a Christian. That’s like saying, I’ll pretend to believe in Jesus so that if on the off chance hell actually exists, I don’t have to suffer there. There’s no faith there, no love, that’s nothing but a sham.
It’s exactly the opposite. The Christian religion is based completely on love. And perfect love casts out fear. I don’t fear death because I know the love of my God who suffered death for me and rose in triumph over the grave. I don’t fear hell because I know the love of my God who suffered the horror of hell Himself and paid with His own agony and blood the punishment I owed. I don’t fear pain, because I know the love of the God who sends crosses to me, a love that compelled Him to bear His own cross and so to bless all my crosses and all my pain. This is what Christian faith confesses.
In fact, Christian faith as we experience it is love of God’s love. Faith justifies, that is, it makes us righteous, because it receives the righteousness, the perfect love, of Christ. So we are saved by faith. But faith acts out, and we feel it act in us as we learn Jesus’s love and love it ourselves. So you don’t just believe that Jesus died to take away your sins, you love him because his love has captured your heart. You don’t just believe that Jesus’ body and blood are present in the Lord’s Supper, you love the God who made Himself your brother, your flesh and blood, and gives Himself to you here to unite you to Himself. You don’t just believe that God created heaven and earth, you love the God who has blessed you with your body and soul and everything you have. Faith and love are simply inseparable.
And this is why love marks the Christian. Jesus says it, “By this the world will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” And St. John says it in his first epistle, “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar, for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his neighbor.”
It’s impossible in other words to love God’s mercy, his pity on us, his creating us, and bleeding for us, his giving us the honor and glory of bearing his name, it’s impossible to meditate on his love day and night, and then turn around and hate our brothers and sisters in Christ. If you love Christ’s sacrifice, then you will sacrifice for your brother, if you love his forgiveness and pity, you’ll love to pity and forgive your brother, if you love being reconciled to your Father by the blood of His Son, then you will seek reconciliation with brothers who have sinned against you.
That’s why we know the rich man wasn’t a Christian. Not because he was rich, but because he didn’t love his brother. It’s amazing here that Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus never mentions God. Not once. Because it’s completely focused on what life looks like without God. Despite all the enjoyments, the good things this rich man received in life, he was miserable, because he lived without love and so he lived in fear. Life lived without the love of Jesus is life lived under a fear-based religion. Look at this rich man. His religion is to please himself, to be free, to be independent. He didn’t help Lazarus, pathetic and sore ridden and begging at his gate, because he feared losing his own pleasure, feared that helping this poor man would cut into his drinking and eating and joking. And he had to enjoy life, you see, because he was controlled by fear of death. You only live once. Eat and drink and be merry now, because tomorrow you die. This is why the Bible describes unbelievers as people enslaved by the fear of death.
If the rich man had heard the Word of God, he didn’t show it. He certainly didn’t believe it. To believe in God’s word is to be a beggar from God. Where do you get your body, your food, your spouse, your children, your pleasures? From God, who gives it to you without any merit or worthiness in you, purely out of his fatherly goodness and mercy. And so you beg from him everyday, Give us this day our daily bread! And what else do you beg for? Forgiveness, pity, mercy, life, and God gives it for Christ’s sake. Christians know what it means to beg. It’s our daily practice. So for the rich man to walk by a wounded beggar on his doorstep is his confession of faith, a confession that he doesn’t need to beg himself.
When people reject God’s word they see the world differently, they see it in a skewed, sad way. The rich man’s dogs are having pity on Lazarus, licking his wounds. But the rich man can’t even understand that he’s being outdone by animals. Thank God you’re a Christian. Thank God you can look at the dogs licking a man’s sores and see reflected there the mercy of your God. Thank God you can look at the mother bird defending her children and see there a reflection of how God defends you, like a mother hen, and how you should protect your own children. The unbelievers are robbed of this joy, of seeing traces of God’s love for us everywhere, in everything. But Lazarus knew. He knew God sent those dogs to comfort him. And even as his stomach groaned and his body yearned to be fed with the crumbs the dogs had eaten from the rich man’s table, his soul longed to receive mercy and rest from this sinful world. He begged not simply for bread but for God’s mercy promised in Christ, he reflected on it every day, and so he, the beggar, is our model of how to live the Christian life. We beg from God.
It’s a beautiful contrast between heaven and hell. Lazarus never says a word. The rich man talks and talks. But still no mention of God. He begs from Abraham instead. He appeals to him as father because he knows he’s got an earthly relationship with Abraham, that Abraham is his ancestor. But Abraham can’t give him what he wants. No man can redeem his brother. Only God can, the God in whom Abraham trusted and the rich man denied. But there is no faith in hell. There is no crying out to God for mercy. There is only self- absorption and ignorance of God’s love. Notice that the rich man, even in hell, not only never calls on God but specifically denies and despises God’s Word, “No!” he says, “My brothers won’t repent by listening to the Bible. Let a man rise from the dead! Give them a sign!” And notice that it’s precisely because he despises the Bible as God’s own word that his religion remains fear-based, that’s the only reason he has for wanting his brothers to repent, so they don’t suffer this pain. The man’s in hell and he still doesn’t understand what hell is, because in a sense he’s never experienced anything else but hell – he’s always been separated from God.
But to know God’s Word means to know His love and so to know what hell really is. Hell is not knowing God’s love. Our carnal minds focus on the fire when we think of hell, but that pales in comparison with the rich man’s attitude, his willful separation from Love itself. This is why we sing that Heaven itself were void and bare without this love, without our Jesus. To be self-obsessed, to have no thought of God, to hold endless grudges, to feed our pride, that’s hell. It’s what the rich man got for himself on earth and what he inherited when he died.
Our inheritance in heaven corresponds to the life we live on this earth. The beggar’s name is Lazarus, which mean God helps. He begs from God and God helps in his mercy, comforts him in his pain and sends his angels to escort him to everlasting peace and rest, eternal contentment with God and His love. So we beg from God. We have not loved as we should. We have feared what we had no business fearing. We have held grudges. Our flesh has resented helping others because it meant the loss of our own enjoyment. So we beg from our God. Take away the fear. Show us your love. Forgive us by the blood of your Son and give, we beg you, your Holy Spirit to us. Let us love as you have loved us, keep us always from the evil of unbelief and the filth of sin, make us generous as you are generous and merciful as you are merciful, only do not forsake us, because our love is nothing without your love, our righteousness will never suffice, but your love is eternal and will at last bring us to see the glorious face of our Savior who has promised that He will never leave us or forsake us.
And all fear is cast out. Don’t be afraid of your sin, don’t fear death, don’t fear hell, don’t be afraid to love, to sacrifice, to forgive, to spend time on others instead of yourself, to be generous with what God has given you, because you beg from the God who’s love is perfect and will perfect you in the end, as you praise him forever and ever in heaven. Amen.