May 03, 2021
The Easter 6B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 15:9-17 from the Lectionary Gospel; Acts 10:44-48 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 98 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 John 5:1-6 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Old Testament Lectionary: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 74 (Lord’s Day 27)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Every week the sermon proclaims the Gospel. Or at least in some fashion it should. Every week. Every sermon.
Yes, there is always a small-t preaching text (Psalm 23, John 15) on which the sermon is based. That’s the text projected onto the screen or printed in the church bulletin. But that text is always also in service of getting at the big-T Text that just is the Good News about Christ Jesus. The Gospel is why preachers are in the pulpit in the first place. And so especially today preachers need to be reminded that preaching is not about dispensing Good Advice but proclaiming Good News. Preachers are not supposed to come across like Dr. Phil giving tips and ideas for more successful living. Preachers proclaim how God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and that Jesus has done it all for us. As we proclaim any given Sunday’s text, we also always bring in and declare the Text of salvation through grace.
That’s what we teach (or try to teach) our students at the seminary where I work. There is far too much moralistic preaching afoot in the land as it is, we tell students, so resist the trend of preaching what my friend Meg Jenista calls “shouldy” sermons that always end with long “To Do” lists that tend to prop up the latent legalism that altogether too many people harbor in their hearts already as it is. Too often people tend to believe that what gets them in good with God—or at least what keeps them in good with God—is the sum total of all their morally good deeds. The difference between me and my unbelieving neighbor is not grace alone but the fact that I lead a superior life of good works, and God notices.
Don’t aid and abed such preaching, we tell students. Point to Christ alone. Point to the Gospel.
Well and good.
And then along comes a passage like John 15.
“If you do what I say . . . then I will love you.”
“You are my friends . . . if you do what I say.”
It’s the “if” part that nettles. Is salvation conditional after all? Is it up to us? If we don’t behave well, will Jesus diss us? Will he stop being our Lord? Stop loving us? Would we have to sing “What a Friend I Had in Jesus”?
Obviously a good deal of what makes the gospel GOOD news would cease to be so good if, as a matter of fact, we are constantly being evaluated and graded by God. In fact, if the soundness and consistency of my love is the key to being in good with God and with Jesus, then I have good reason to be afraid of my eternal destiny. I could not get saved on that way of reckoning things and I cannot stay saved that way either.
Thankfully that is not the case. Jesus’s words—indeed, Jesus’s command—that we be loving makes no sense unless he is addressing that to people who have already been graciously grafted onto the True Vine by a sheer gift of faith through the Holy Spirit. These injunctions to love are for insiders, for those already in the love of God.
That returns the good part of the “good news” that just is the gospel but it doesn’t wash out what Jesus has to say here. The need to heed what Jesus says is every bit as important as the need to take care to do certain things within the context of what is a really good and loving marriage. Being married—and being genuinely in love within that marriage—does not absolve one of the need to stay faithful, to do loving acts, to tend and nurture the marriage relationship in very active ways. The solid marriage and the carrying out of vital marriage tasks are not at odds with each other. Only a fool would say, “Because my marriage is sound, I don’t have to do a blessed thing to nourish and nurture the relationship.”
Apparently we human branches in Christ, unlike real grape vine branches, need to do some self-cultivation through the Holy Spirit. We need to hone skills like forgiveness (without which we sooner or later will find reasons not to love most everybody). We need to nurture kindness and gentleness, without which the hard knocks of life will eventually make us hard-edged and bitter like a sour grape. We need to grow compassion in our hearts so that we can reach out to those in need even as we see people we don’t particularly like in ways that remind us that they, too, are flawed folks like ourselves and that they struggle and hurt the same as do we all.
Above all we need to be students of God’s Word so that the words of Jesus can abide in us. We need to rehearse and enact the great stories of Jesus, recognizing how the parable of the prodigal son repeats itself a thousand times a day all over the place, including some days in our own lives when we are alternately the waiting father who is hoping for the best or the prodigal loping back home and expecting the worst. We need to rehearse the drama of the shepherd looking for that one lost sheep and so see again our own need to stick with even wandering folks over the long haul. We need to hear the beatitudes echoing in our minds and pray the prayer our Lord taught us. The words of Jesus must abide in us but that cannot happen if we neither know those words nor rehearse them often.
Because if we do, the result, as Jesus says in verse 11, is nothing short of pure joy. Capturing the spirit of that joy, and wanting it to hyper-abound to all people, is the goal of being a branch in Jesus’ vineyard. Throughout the Bible the principal thing you did with grapes was make wine, which is described throughout the Old Testament as one of God’s great gifts to humanity to gladden the heart and bring joy. Christ is indeed our true vine but a vine without branches produces no grapes. It is our holy calling to produce fruit for God–fruit which can be turned into the sweet ambrosia of a love distilled, decanted, and delighted over to the complete joy of all God’s people.
That’s the kind of thing that can be commanded of us. It’s also the kind of thing that those who truly love Jesus already are only too glad to do.
Of course, we could wonder about the question “Can love be summoned by decree?”
We pastors know better. Across the desk sits the husband and the wife. They are sitting within 15 inches of each other but each person’s body is turned about 30 degrees away from the other. They may as well be in separate countries. There’s too much blood, sweat, and tears that have been spilled in this marriage gone awry. Whatever love once flickered in their eyes for one another has long since departed. As pastors, we can counsel with such people, pray for and with and over such people, we can listen to such people.
But the one thing we cannot do is stand up from our chair behind our desk, raise ourselves up to our full stature, and declare, “Listen, you two: This is my command: LOVE EACH OTHER for goodness sake!! Just do it! Feel love! Feel it NOW!”
No, no, that won’t do the trick. You cannot order up love. As the old song says, “You can’t hurry love, you just have to wait.” You can’t hurry it and you can’t order it, either.
So what in the whole wide world is Jesus doing in John 15 ordering us to love? Well, first we can state the merely obvious: Jesus is not talking about a particular set of feelings or emotions. He is not telling his disciples to concoct some particular combination of dreaminess and quickened pulses at the sight of a beloved. It is clear here that “love” means service, means action, means a life of self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.
But, of course, you have to be pretty favorably inclined toward others to do that. You maybe don’t need to feel romantic love or the kinds of fierce feelings of affection a parent has for a child but you have to BE and FEEL something very positive to extend yourself into the lives of others (even all the way to the extreme point of giving up your very life for those others).
Probably, however, you can’t order that, either. Not really. You can’t come up to some surly, self-centered narcissist of a human being and COMMAND that he start living like Mother Teresa or something. No, Jesus’ words in John 15 make sense only if, as a matter of fact, you are already a branch living off the true vine that just is Jesus. You’re going to have to have the “sap” of Jesus flowing into you already because only this bends your life into the kind of shape—and makes you into the kind of person—who already has such a fundamentally Christ-like attitude that hearing a “command” to love will make sense. Jesus has to assume our being grafted onto him or else the command to love is one of the emptiest, silliest things anyone has ever said.
We preachers do our congregations a disservice in case we proclaim John 15 as though it were a generic “To Do” list that most any reasonably well functioning human being could accomplish if only he or she tried hard enough. Jesus’ words don’t exist in a vacuum. They come to those already on the vine.
Theologically literate people know something about the age-old controversy surrounding what is known as the “filioque clause” in the Nicene Creed. It’s been a sticking point between the West and the East in the Church for over a millennium now (though some years ago Pope Benedict XVI had some fruitful dialogue with the Orthodox church on this very point). Is the Holy Spirit sent to believers ONLY by the Father or is the Spirit—as the Western version of the Nicene Creed claims—sent by the Father “and the Son” (filioque in Latin)? Whatever one makes of that particular question/controversy, one thing one should not miss in John 15 is that when it comes to love, this is definitely something that comes to us from the Father AND the Son. Jesus sketches here a kind of wonderful sequence: the Father loves the Son. The Son loves us. We love each other. In other words, when we are loving to one another in deeds of humble service and sacrifice, we can draw a straight and direct line from that love all the way back to the great God of the universe. There is a holy pipeline of love that connects us right to the Holy Trinity of God. When we realize that this is what is flowing into the Church all the time, our estimation of what goes on in our Christian living gets mightily magnified!
I’ve not known nor worked with any vinedressers or vineyard owners in my life. But at various times I—like perhaps some of you—have watched on TV or in movies what all goes into growing grapes and tending to vines. It’s a lot of work and a lot of tender work at that. I’ve seen vinedressers using strips of cloth gently to tie up parts of the vine even as the grape clusters themselves are handled with care and monitored with care. Some of you may remember the scene from the movie (often profane but still an interesting movie) Sideways in which the main character, Miles, waxes eloquent on how hard it is to grow the pinot noir grape, how that particular varietal needs constant care, exactly correct weather conditions, and delicate handling given its thin skin.
It’s a good, well-written scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCS1Gnwbtp0
I mention all this because often when we think of farming and growing things, the images that come to mind are of big John Deere tractors tearing up fields or giant combines sucking up the wheat from a field. But the images more associated with vines and branches and the production of good fruit are more tender, more personal, more involving. Somehow I like that—it just fits John 15 and Jesus’ own image so very, very well.
Author: Stan Mast
We are swiftly coming to the end of the Lectionary’s celebration of the mighty acts of God in Christ. Ordinary Time is nearly upon us. But first we commemorate Christ’s Ascension next Sunday and Pentecost the Sunday after that. Today our focus is on what many scholars call “The Gentile Pentecost.”
Our text is one of the shortest readings in the RCL, but it’s also one of the most powerful, sort of like an exclamation point to the series of firsts we’ve been tracing the last few weeks of the Easter season. There was the first Christian sermon at Pentecost (by Peter), the first named miracle of healing (the cripple at the Temple), the first persecution (of Peter and John), the first martyrdom (of Stephen), the first non-apostolic preaching culminating in the first witness to a Gentile (by Deacon Philip).
That last event was the first step of the church’s missionary journey to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). It was like the spark that started a forest fire. (I’m borrowing imagery here from F.F. Bruce’s famous history of early Christianity, The Spreading Flame.) Our text records how that spark turned into a wider blaze that would become a raging inferno through the missionary work of Paul who has just been converted and called in Acts 9. Here is the head apostle, Peter, reluctantly at first and then with growing conviction bringing the Gospel to a Roman centurion and all his family and friends.
As the folk hymn put it, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going.” But Peter wasn’t eager to spread the flame where Jesus wanted it to go. In fact, it took a bizarre vision and a strong word from Jesus to move him out of his comfort zone towards the ends of the earth. As a strictly observant Jew, Peter kept kosher religiously, never eating or touching anything unclean. That included not associating with Gentiles (10:28). He lived behind the holiness wall that God had erected around his chosen people.
Thus, it took God himself to break down that wall for Peter and his fellow Jewish apostles. As Peter waited for lunch one day in Joppa, he fell into a trance and saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth. It contained all kinds of creatures, many of them on the forbidden list of unclean food. A voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” To which the well-instructed Hebrew replied, “Surely not, Lord. I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
Note that he knows he is being addressed by the Lord. But his convictions about clean and unclean are so deeply ingrained that he is willing to argue with Jesus. He does this three times. And three times, the Lord drums home the same message. “Do not call anything impure that God made clean.” What a powerful message! Yes, I gave you those rules about purity, but I have the freedom to make the impure clean. Those rules were for the meantime; the fullness of time has now come. And I am doing a new thing.
At the same time the unclean Roman centurion, Cornelius, has also received a vision about Peter. God tells him to invite Peter to his home and listen carefully to what he will say. So, this most unlikely and historic meeting was arranged.
When Peter meets Cornelius, it is clear that Peter has learned the lesson the Lord was teaching him. Almost rudely he greets his host with the new revelation God has given him. “You are well aware that is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit with a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.” With that, the wall that had stood for hundreds of years was demolished (cf. Ephesians 2) and the fire leaped the barrier to the ends of the earth.
Peter’s message begins with the stunning revelation that God has people in other nations than Israel, accepting “men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” That doesn’t mean that God accepts all moral and religious people into his kingdom without regard to their faith in Christ. It means that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (10:43).”
In between the universal statement of verses 34 and 35 and the call to faith in Jesus in verse 43, Peter preaches the standard apostolic message—the promise of Shalom through Jesus Christ who is Lord of all, an explanation of Jesus’ earthly life in the backwater country of Israel, the proclamation of his cruel death and miraculous resurrection, the prediction of his ultimate judging of the living and dead, and the promise of forgiveness to all who believe in his name.
That message had been preached before—to vast crowds of Jews, to hostile Jewish authorities, and even to a single African official by a layman. But never had one of the apostles spoken the Gospel to a representative of the Empire who had gathered a large crowd of Gentiles. This was new territory, a first in the history of the infant Jewish/Christian church. Yes, Peter claimed that he had seen a vision and heard a voice, but there were centuries of tradition based on the authoritative revelation of the Law and the Prophets.
That’s why our text is so crucial in the history of the church. Peter can say that God has declared formerly unclean people to be clean and that God accepts people from every nation. But is that true? How do we know? How do we know whom God accepts?
As another old folk song put it, “The answer, my friend, is blowing the wind.” “While Peter was speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.” The circumcised believers who were with Peter recognized the wind, because they had heard it on Pentecost when tongues of fire had appeared on the heads of the disciples. Here the Wind of God blew that flame into the Gentile world, much to the astonishment of the Jewish Christians. The “gift of the Holy Spirit has been poured out even on the Gentiles,” even on them, on the unclean, the outcasts banned from the holy places of the Temple. Now they are part of the Holy People, as attested by the Holy Spirit himself.
But how did they know the Holy Spirit had been poured out on these Gentiles? You can’t see the wind. No, but you can see its effects, hear its sound. And here the sound of the Spirit was “speaking in tongues and praising God.” This reminded the Jewish Christians of the first Pentecost, where ordinary uneducated Galileans spoke in the multiple languages of the Pentecost crowd, witnessing about Jesus. Here the tongues weren’t other human languages used to preach; they were unknown languages used to praise God.
We should not get lost in the details of speaking in tongues. The point here is that the Holy Spirit demonstrated that the Gentiles were as much a part of the church and as saved as the Jewish Christians. Peter caught that right away. “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” Those last words are crucial for the future of the church—“just as we have.” We cannot make a distinction between us and them, because they have had exactly the same experience as we have. “They have received the Holy Spirit….” The Gentile Pentecost ushered in a new and lasting era in the mission of God.
So, the story ends with an immediate baptism, the sacramental cleansing of the formerly unclean. They received the sign and seal indicating that they now belonged to Jesus; that’s why they were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. These newly Christian Gentiles were so moved that they invited Peter to stay with them for a few days. Which he did. A nice ending to a stunning story. The exclamation point is followed by a quiet ellipsis.
Except it wasn’t quiet at all. When word of this revolutionary development reached the church back in Judea, there was a bit of an uproar– not because Gentiles had come to Christ, received the Spirit and been baptized, but because Peter “went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” You have broken the laws of Kosher, the centuries old laws of cleanness given by our Holy God. You can’t hang around with the likes of those people.
This ruckus led to the first Jerusalem Council (see Acts 15 for the second, which dealt with the same issue). Peter re-told the whole story including his explanation of the Gentile Pentecost. He ended his presentation with this question. “So, if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who was I to think I could oppose God?” With that the critics were not only silenced, but they also joined the whole church in praising God for this new outpouring of the Spirit and the resultant spreading of the flame. “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance until life.” Now, the ends of the earth are open to the proclamation of the Gospel.
Except that didn’t quite settle matters for the early church. As that Second Jerusalem Council would reveal, there still remained the question of how we shall receive formerly unclean folks into the church. How many of the old rules must we impose on them? How much must they change their former lives? How do we balance grace with law? Can we fully accept the unclean if they still have habits and behaviors from their former life?
That is a burning issue in the contemporary church. Are there some people whom we just can’t accept into the church? What about sexually unorthodox people, or radical racial protestors, or members of non-Christian religions who maintain some old practices, or, depending on the political bent of your church, far right Republicans or socialist Democrats? What is the standard by which we judge people for membership?
The mission of the church depends on our answer. If the church and all its benefits are limited to people like us, the spreading flame will die down. This story reminds us that the ticket to admission is the reception of the Holy Spirit as demonstrated by the faithful acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and baptism in his name. In our painfully divided time, one version of I Thessalonians 5:19 issues a stern warning. “Do not extinguish the Spirit!”
When I was appointed executor of my mother’s estate, I discovered over and over that I had to prove my right to her inheritance. I knew about Power of Attorney and notary publics. But I had never heard of the “Medallion Signature Guarantee.” That’s the highest level of authentication, absolutely necessary for the transfer of certain kinds of funds. I had to go to banks with all kinds of proof that I was who I said I was and that, therefore, I had a right to those funds. As I read this story of Peter and Cornelius, it struck me that the gift of the Holy Spirit is God’s “Medallion Signature Guarantee.” He is the final proof that we are God’s children and heirs to the riches of Christ (cf. Ephesians 1:13,14 and Galatians 4:4-7).
Author: Scott Hoezee
Reading Psalm 98 is like uncorking a well shook-up bottle of champagne. The cork rockets upward and the bubbly inside the bottle fountains forth in exuberance. We’ve all seen those locker rooms after a team wins the World Series or the Super Bowl when players spray each other with such bottles—some years ago someone finally had the good sense to outfit everyone with goggles after too many players discovered that champagne in your eyes doesn’t feel real great (not to mention the odd errant cork flying around the room). But those are scenes of intense joy and celebration.
Psalm 98 is like that when it comes to the praise of God. The psalmist just cannot contain himself. His praise of God sprays holy froth over the whole creation by the time this poem is finished. It’s a kind of “everybody in the pool” sort of thing as the praise moves from people to musicians with every conceivable type of instrument and then onward to include the very earth itself. Seas, rivers, mountains, trees, and every last person anywhere are all brought into the divine choir. Nevermind that the psalm invites what we otherwise regard as inanimate objects to sing: it doesn’t matter one bit to this poet. God’s praise can never be exhausted and it is as though even our finest human efforts to sing are not enough: this song won’t be complete until every last creature and thing contributes its own kind of musical praise.
But then comes the rather surprising conclusion. Yes, yes: everyone: you are hereby ordered to praise God, to praise specifically Yahweh in the Hebrew imperative hallelu yah! Why? Well, the first part of the psalm gave a brief litany of God’s faithfulness to Israel. But the capper to it all comes in verse 9: why praise God? Because he’s coming to judge the whole world.
Now it’s just possible that some might find that prospect to be something just shy of a cause for exuberance and thanksgiving.
Being judged might sound threatening to a lot of people. Indeed, as pastors we frequently counsel with people—sometimes dear saints in the final days of their lives—who despite their lifelong devotion to Christ, will share with us that the prospect of Judgment Day scares them. “What if I don’t measure up? What if I am one of those people Jesus talked about who will cry ‘Lord, Lord’ but who will be sent away empty after all?” Indeed, few people are not at least a little unsettled by Jesus’ quasi-parable about the Sheep and the Goats.
In history the church has often used the specter of Judgment Day to frighten people into behaving. Medieval cathedrals used to put graphic depictions of Judgment Day over their front doors as a veritable giant finger wagging in people’s faces as they entered God’s presence. “Shape Up or Else!” seemed to be the message.
So how is it that this exuberant psalm thinks it is a good idea to cap off a universal call to praise God with the prospect of being judged? Well, there may be several things to observe in this connection.
First, the prospect of judgment usually IS good news to those who exist on the underside of history and society. Victims and the victimized, the exploited, those living under the sting of the injustices of racism or sexism or other forms of abuse regard judgment pretty positively. The only people who genuinely need to fear judgment are precisely those who have a sense that they will be shown as being on the wrong side of things. (And probably it is the case that quite a few of the people who for now wield all the power would be loath to praise any God in any event.)
Second and related to this first idea: most everyone ought to have a deep-seated hope that at the end of the cosmic day there will be the revelation that there is such a thing as right and wrong, as justice and injustice, as good and evil and that all of the books of justice that are for now out of moral whack will get balanced out. Those who have gotten away with murder their whole lives ought not get away with it fully and finally. And those who have been the victims of such people ought to be vindicated somehow. Very few people—except just possibly those who are profiting from unjust lives—look at the world as it is at any given moment and conclude that everything is working out pretty much the way we all deep down think it should.
A final note: despite those dear saints who tell us pastors that they fear Judgment Day, we now are armed with the Gospel and the Good News that there is nothing to fear. All of the judgment that might ever descend upon any of us—not to mention all of us collectively—definitively descended upon Jesus on our behalf. If we are in Christ, then even judgment does not cause us to fear. One of the gems of the Reformed tradition is The Heidelberg Catechism. Faced with those Medieval attempts to frighten people with the prospect of Judgment Day, the authors of the Catechism took the line from the Apostles’ Creed “he will come again to judge the living and the dead” and they framed it up exceedingly positively in the question and answer that begins “How does Christ’s coming to judge the living and the dead comfort you?”
Comfort in the face of judgment? Yes. Exactly. That is the Gospel. So come on, everybody, and you rivers and seas and everyone else too: praise the Lord!
When Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., wrote his award-winning book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, he got the inspiration for the book’s title from a scene early in the Lawrence Kasdan movie Grand Canyon. A well-to-do white man named Mack has his Lexus breakdown in a Los Angeles neighborhood where one most definitely never wanted to be stranded. Predictably he is soon accosted by some gang members who threaten his life and are preparing to jack his car. Just then Simon shows up, an African-American tow truck driver who makes it clear that gang intimidation or no, he is going to tow this car away and take the driver safely with him. As you can see in this compilation scene, eventually Simon tells the gang members that “everything is supposed to be different than what it is.”
Wise words. And true. Things are out of plumb. Injustices abound and go unchecked. Maybe that is why the idea that a good and loving God is going to come by and by and judge all things really is precisely the motivation for praising God that Psalm 98 claims it to be.
1 John 5:1-6
Author: Doug Bratt
My colleague Judith Jones suggests that the community to which John writes his first letter was facing a crisis. Some former members of the community were denying Jesus was actually the Messiah, God’s flesh and blood, fully human, fully divine Son. So John’s letters’ readers seemed to struggle with whom they should believe, how they could know what was true and how they should live out their faith.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson the apostle lays out three basic teachings in response to that. Those who proclaim it will not only want to “unpack” those teachings, but perhaps also try to discern how they’re related.
1 John 5’s proclaimers might break down those teachings in this way: 1) “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God” (1); 2) “Love for God [is] to obey his commandments (3); and 3) “Everyone born of God has overcome the world” (4).
Throughout John’s first letter, the author emphasizes love for God and our neighbors. In chapter 5, however, the apostle talks more extensively about faith. He talks several times about “believing” (a verb), including in 5:1.
So those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might choose to explore the nature of such faith. It’s not generic. Jesus’ followers don’t, for example just have faith. We don’t even join some of our neighbors in simply believing in God.
No, Jesus’ friends’ faith has both a specific object and content: “Jesus is the Christ.”
Jesus’ friends’ faith is a consequence of being “born of God” (1). Verse 1 literally means, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” Yet “born of God” is in Greek past tense (gegennetai). This at least suggests that Christian faith is not the cause of believers’ new birth. Christian faith is, instead, the result of new birth. Christian faith follows rather than provokes our new birth.
Yet even as John seems to turn away from focusing on love in the first part of his letter, he doesn’t turn completely away from it. The apostle, after all, insists that Christians’ new birth, in fact, manifests itself in Jesus’ friends’ love for God and our adopted siblings.
Yet John’s talk about love for “the father” (1b) seems ambiguous. In fact, the Greek word verse 1 renders as “father” (gennesanta) almost always refers to human parentage. Perhaps as a result, the NIV doesn’t capitalize it. That at least implies that its translators believed the beloved “father” is a human one.
On the other hand, the noted scholar Eugene Peterson capitalizes “Father” in his biblical paraphrase, The Message. So perhaps 1 John’s proclaimers are safest when we suggest that the apostle is probably but not definitely using an analogy here. We might say that just as people who love their father also love their siblings, Christians who love their heavenly Father also love our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Verse 2 is more explicit about God’s adopted children’s love for God. Yet while it (again) ties love for God to love for God’s children, the apostle seems to reverse the typical “order” of that love. Usually, after all, the Scriptures insist that we love God by loving each other. Here, however, John says “This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God.”
It’s a good reminder that God’s dearly beloved people don’t just love our neighbors by working and praying for their best. John says that we also love each other by loving God and keeping God’s commandments. Yet that assertion is perhaps more unusual than surprising. After all, at least half of God’s law helps guide us toward loving actions towards each other.
Might 1 John 5’s proclaimers think about it this way? Jesus’ friends love our neighbors by obediently loving God. After all, the Scriptures consistently link those two loves. While some of our contemporaries may try to love God without loving their neighbors, or love their neighbors without loving God, God’s adopted sons and daughters know better. In fact, while we often hopelessly confuse what it means to love our neighbors, God’s law offers the best if sometimes somewhat frustratingly vague guide to neighborly love.
Yet even with that assertion, John isn’t done surprising his readers. He adds something perhaps even more striking in verse 3: “This is love for God: to obey his commands.” I don’t think often think of this way of loving God. I’m more like God’s adopted sons and daughters who link our love for God to feelings, or praying, or singing. But here John insists we love God by doing what God tells us to do.
Of course, we profess that Christians’ ability to love God by obeying God grows out of our new birth, out of being “born of God.” Yet loving God by obeying God may still seem like a tall order. After all, even Jesus’ most saintly friends find it hard to consistently obey God. We join the apostle Paul in lamenting that do what we don’t want to do and don’t do what we want to do.
Yet in verse 3b John insists God’s commands are “not burdensome.” God’s law isn’t hard, infuriating or exhausting. After all, it’s not just that God created us for obedience. It’s also that those born of God “have overcome the world.”
Misunderstandings of especially verses 4 and 5 have sometimes produced the noxious weed that is what we call Christian “triumphalism.” Among other things it’s the belief that Christians are always successful, whether in resisting temptation, earning economic security or even preventing their own suffering.
1 John 5’s proclaimers will want to address this misinterpretation of the Scriptures carefully. We might begin by noting that multitudes of faithful Christians have been unsuccessful by the world’s standards. Their experiences suggest that new birth doesn’t buy us a ticket out of any kind of loss or suffering.
Proclaimers will also want to explore what it means to “overcome” the world. God has given Christians the Spirit who empowers us to love God by obeying God. That Spirit graciously quips us to resist “the world,” that is, to successfully resist all that pulls and pushes us away from God’s will.
At first glance, verse 6 seems like an “add-on” to this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. After all, English translators don’t just put it in a new paragraph in many their translations of the Scriptures. Verse 6 also shifts to talk about the Jesus Christ who came by water and blood (another challenging concept that may nudge its proclaimers away from jumping too eagerly into verse 6).
Yet perhaps 1 John 5’s proclaimers might at least do this with verse 6: we might note how Jesus overcame the world, even though he did so by suffering and dying. By our culture’s standards he wasn’t a conqueror or victor. Jesus was an unsuccessful “loser.”
Yet in that loss, Jesus’ friends see victory. Jesus, after all, didn’t just perfectly resist “the world’s temptations.” He also earned the salvation that by God’s grace through the work of the Holy Spirit also equips his adopted brothers and sisters to conquer the world by resisting its temptations.
How might 1 John 5’s proclaimers tie together faith in Jesus as the Christ, loving God by obeying God’s commandments and overcoming the world? Is there, in other words, a coherent theme to this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson?
Those who proclaim it will want to spend some time contemplating that. This, however, may be one approach: those who believe that Jesus is the Christ love both God and our neighbors in ways that, by God’s grace, resist and perhaps even overcome the world’s unloving ways of doing things.
Frederick Buechner’s “Avarice” in his book, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith, may provide a properly provocative entrance ramp onto a proclamation of 1 John 5: “Avarice, greed, [lust], and so forth are all based on the mathematical truism that the more you get, the more you have.
“The remark of Jesus that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35) is based on the human truth that the more you give away in love, the more you are. It is not just for the sake of other people that Jesus tells us to give rather than get, but for our own sakes too.”