5/10/2015 (Mother’s Day)
It may seem that the heretics we read about in John’s letters are far removed from us. After all, they lived more than 2000 years ago, and a lot of theological water has gone under the bridge since then. We’ve had plenty of time to figure out what it means to be Christians.
Biblical scholars have written tons of books to explain the hard parts of scripture for us, and great leaders in the church have managed to refute most of the questionable beliefs that emerged during the early years of the faith. Those crazy ideas about Jesus being just a spirit who appeared to be human sound strange to us. It would never occur to us that Jesus was ever anything but fully God and fully human.
We live in a time when we don’t hear much about people standing their ground in theological debate. Our scholars and Christian leaders aren’t famous for hashing out the finer points of Christ’s identity as the Son of God. Instead of arguing about who God is and who Jesus is, we argue about who can be married in our churches or preach in our pulpits, or how we should respond to global warming, or what we should do about bigotry in all its forms.
That time seems far away, when Paul and John and Mark and Luke were still defining the very essence of Christian faith. And yet, the questions they faced were very much like the questions our culture asks today:
Who is God, anyway?
Why does Jesus matter?
What if I want to be “spiritual, but not religious?”
How can I know what lies beyond this life?
Who is going to love me, when I don’t love myself?
We are drawing near to the end of John’s first letter to his church. By now, we’ve heard a lot about abiding in God’s love, loving each other, and believing that Jesus really is the Son of God who died to save us from our sins. In fact, we’ve heard enough about these themes that it might be tempting for us to tune out and think about something else for the next few minutes. But just when we think we’ve heard it all before, thanks very much, John throws in a little surprise, to see if we’re still paying attention.
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. ( 1John 5:1-6)
We are already familiar with John’s themes of love and obedience. But now he brings up a new theme: victory. This must have caused some amazement among his first readers. They were feeling anything but victorious. They had been driven from their homes and suffered persecution. They had watched as members of their group argued that Jesus couldn’t have been a real human if he was indeed the Son of God.
Others had insisted that Jesus was a real human, all right, but that he had only become the Son of God at his baptism, and since it wasn’t possible for God to die, he must have given up his divinity just before the crucifixion. So the man who was born as Jesus, and the man who had died as Jesus, wasn’t really God’s Son. He was only God’s Son between baptism and crucifixion.
It was all so confusing, and people had begun to leave the church over these arguments. As the arguing increased, and members left to join one faction or another, no one thought they were conquering the world. It seemed more like the world was conquering the church. They weren’t sure what to believe anymore.
So John goes back to the beginning, back to their birth story. “If you believe that Jesus really is the Messiah, you’ve been born of God,” he writes. “And everyone who loves God also loves those who have been born of God. If you love the parent, you love the child.” The first step toward victory is loving your Father, and all your Father’s children.
When my family gets together, we have a good time. Now that our kids are all grown, it’s great to visit with them and catch up on their lives. I marvel at the way I can see my brother in his son, and my sisters in their daughters. I love these kids because I love their parents, and I can see the family resemblance quite clearly. When John says, “everyone who loves the parent loves the child,” I get it.
Then John twists things around a new way. We’ve already heard him say that, if we love God, we must also love one another, and we understand that loving one another is how we prove that we love God. But now, John tells us that we prove our love for each another by loving God and obeying his commands. Did you catch that? Listen to verse two again: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.”
The link between loving God, whose children we are, and loving our brothers and sisters, is so close, that John doesn’t distinguish one from the other. We love as God wants us to love only when our love grows out of our relationship with God, and that relationship establishes our connection to everyone else who is born of God by believing on his Son.
In the gospel lesson we heard earlier, Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). We often interpret that to mean we have to be willing to die for one another, as Jesus laid down his life for us by dying on the cross. It seems impossible to love someone that much. We may wonder if our love for God is really what it should be, since we fall short of loving others in such a sacrificial way.
In fact, to be honest, there are some people we don’t even like, let alone love so much we’d die for them. And admitting that we feel this way only adds to our guilt. We have to remember that John doesn’t think of love as affection, or even a feeling. Love is action. Even when we don’t feel particularly loving, John reminds us that our love for God is evidence that we do, in fact, love our brothers and sisters, who are born of God through faith in Christ Jesus, just as we are.
My grandpa was a country preacher with no formal seminary education. But he had a lot of wisdom. He used to tell newlyweds, “Don’t try to make your love hold your marriage together. Sometimes, it’s the marriage that has to hold the love together.” Even when we don’t feel love as an emotion, we can do love within the framework of our commitment. The love we show doesn’t depend on how we feel. It depends on our willingness to obey. And obedience is the second step toward victory.
Obedience comes hard for those of us who like to be in charge. We want to run things; we want to be in control. We don’t want to answer to anyone else or have them tell us what to do. And yet, obeying God’s commands is how we show our love for him, just as children show love by obeying their parents, and spouses show love by obeying their marriage vows.
By the way, did you know that the part of the traditional marriage vow that gets edited the most is the part that says, “love, honor, and …” agree? affirm? support? But there is a lot of power in two people promising to obey each other. And God calls us to obey his Word, to be obedient to his commands.
How do you know what those commands are? What is God asking of you, commanding you to do? The answer can only be found in regular, frequent engagement with God’s Word. If you depend on Sunday worship to provide you with enough scripture to get you through the week, you are starving yourself. How can you know if you are obeying God’s commands, if you don’t even know what those commands are? And how will you know what God says, if you don’t become so familiar with his Word that it speaks into your life?
The truth is that obedience isn’t really that burdensome. It isn’t a heavy load. Obeying God won’t squeeze the life out of you under its weight, like obeying the world will do. The world will weigh you down with its oppressive demands that never let up.
Jesus talks about this kind of burden when he says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Obeying God releases us from the burden of sin that we carry. You can hold onto those sins if you want to. You can let them weigh you down. But why would you want to hang onto such a heavy load? Those who have been born of God got that way by believing in Jesus, the Son of God, who died to take away our sins and give us victory.
John only uses the noun “faith” here, at this moment. He uses the verb “believe” quite a bit throughout his writings, but the word “faith” does not appear anywhere else in all of John’s letters, and you won’t find it in the gospel of John, either. Only here. “This is the victory that conquers the world,” John writes. “Our faith.” (v. 4)
Our faith in Jesus conquers the world.
Our faith in Christ frees us from the burden of sin.
Our faith in the Son of God makes it possible for us to become children of the heavenly father, deeply loved and loving.
Our faith gives us victory.
The Greek goddess Nike was the winged goddess of victory. She flew around the battlefield, giving wreaths of laurel to victorious warriors. Her image can be found on Olympic medals and Rolls Royce hood ornaments. She holds up the World Cup and rides as a logo on Honda motorcycles. She inspired an entire line of sportswear with a swoosh and a slogan, “Just do it.” That’s right. Nike is named after Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. The Greek word ‘nike’ means victory, conquest, overcoming an opponent or obstacle.
John writes, “Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (v. 5) John has written many words about loving God and loving our brothers and sisters. He has written about obeying God’ commandment to love, and abiding in love. He has written about laying down one’s life in love. And he has warned against any heresy that describes Jesus as anything other than the Son of God, who came by both water and blood, spirit and flesh.
Now, John says the result of believing is ultimate victory. Love conquers all. Faith overcomes the world. At the end of John’s gospel, he explains that he has written “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31) This is the final victory, the ultimate ‘nike’ – life in Jesus’ name.
So when our culture asks “Who is God, anyway?” We can victoriously answer, “God is the one who loves you more than you can imagine.”
When this world wonders ”Why does Jesus matter?” we can say, “Because he loved you so much, he died for you, so that your sins could be forgiven.”
When people of this day and age insist, “I just want to be “spiritual, but not religious” We can ask, “Why would you want to miss out on the peace Christ offers through obedience to his commands?”
When a troubled soul says, “How can I know what lies beyond this life?” We can confidently tell them, “By trusting in the one who has overcome death.”
And when someone asks, “Who will love me, when I don’t love myself?” we can say, ”Get this straight: God loves you. God will always love you. The children of God will love you, whether you love yourself or not.”
Being God’s kids, loving God’s kids, means claiming the victory that has already been won, by believing that Jesus is the Son of God, who died and rose again so that we could have eternal life. If you aren’t already experiencing that victory in your life, I invite you to claim it now.