May 04, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
Every week the sermon proclaims the Gospel. Yes, there is always a small-t preaching text (Psalm 23, John 15) on which the sermon is based 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.
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 called “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 friend? Stop loving us?
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.
Thankfully that is not the case. Jesus’ words—indeed, Jesus’ 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 here 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 love a la 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. 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.
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: Scott Hoezee
It sure was a lot easier to get baptized back then. Last week we saw Philip spend a relatively brief period of time explaining to some Ethiopian a passage in Isaiah and next thing you know—at the stranger’s request no less—Philip is baptizing him and the man went “on his way rejoicing.” Now in this passage—again after Peter has spent a fairly brief time with a bunch of Italians who are about to serve him his first-ever pizza with ham and pepperoni—Peter gets all exuberant and starts throwing water around willy-nilly to baptize every last person in the house of a man named Cornelius, whom Peter had only just met.
Good thing they had not yet developed New Members and Inquirers Classes or come up with rubrics and Books of Order by which to regulate the careful administration of the sacraments or I’d guess that most of the people who get baptized in the course of The Book of Acts would have had to wait a good long while.
Of course, I’m poking a bit of fun here but still . . . when the Apostles sensed the presence of true faith—however new and under-developed that faith may have been—they baptized. Whenever they could see evidence that the Holy Spirit had moved into the hearts of others just as assuredly as at Pentecost that same Spirit had taken up residence in their own (surprised) hearts, they baptized. They baptized people in towns where there was no faith community subsequently to receive the new baptizands. They baptized people they were unlikely ever to see again. The Apostles would get no follow up in years’ long catechism classes or through a series of sermons on the basics of Christian doctrine. Nope, they just baptized wherever they encountered the simple confession “Jesus is Lord” and then went on their way, trusting (apparently) the same Holy Spirit who prompted the new faith in the first place to take care of all the other details.
Now it’s true: the Apostles being the Apostles we could assume they had a greater, Spirit-given insight into such matters than most of the rest of us have had in subsequent church history. It may also be true that the explosive era of those earliest days of the still-forming Church represent an era that has to be considered in many ways to be unique, though, of course, there is an age-old debate among Christian folks as to just how unique one ought to consider that early church and how much we ought actually to expect that same power and those same gifts and insights today. Maybe it’s less that the Spirit stopped offering certain things and more that we stopped being open to receive them.
Perhaps. I’m not going to touch on all that in this post and I doubt that my fellow preachers who read this would be very much tempted to use one of the Sundays after Easter to tackle all that, either.
Still, there is no denying that the Apostles baptized fast and furious in Acts and without coming anywhere remotely close to waiting for the kinds of maturity or manifestations of understanding that we would wait for today vis-à-vis an adult. Yes, many traditions baptize the infants of believers very readily and there may be an analogy there to a willingness to be pretty liberal and effusive with the waters of baptism. But things are different with others whom the church encounters. Maybe this is part of the reason why in some places baptisms—especially adult or believer baptisms—are comparatively rare. I’m not saying we should always have a bottle of water with us, ready to pour it onto anyone who makes even modest positive noises about Jesus.
But there was something about the Apostles and the events reported in Acts that made baptisms happen much more quickly and a whole lot more often than is often the case today. Maybe part of what was behind all that was not just the uniqueness of the era reported on in Acts and not just that the Apostles were so much more reliable as spiritual barometers than the rest of us might tend to be. Maybe part of what was behind their effusive willingness to baptize was the fact that they had a much higher expectation that the Holy Spirit was on the move than we sometimes have today.
As time went on in the Book of Acts, that expectation of the Spirit’s work was soon married to also a whole lot of surprising twists and turns. After all, the disciples-turned-Apostles who had for so long had such a narrow focus of wanting Jesus to restore the kingdom to Israel alone could hardly have anticipated Ethiopian eunuchs and Gentiles living in Caesarea to be the leading candidates for receiving Jesus’ Spirit into their hearts (and even Peter, as we know from subsequent chapters in Acts, has a little ways to go in getting this all the way through his thick skull). Nevertheless, the expectation that the Spirit was on the move churning out new candidates for baptism had a lot to do with the apostolic willingness to baptize fast and often.
In these weeks after Easter and with Pentecost coming up again soon, it’s not a bad question to wonder how open we are to seeing the Spirit on the move today and how open and willing we would be quickly and gladly to respond to new faith whenever we then encounter it as we try to keep step with that very busy Spirit of the Living God!
There is no single feature to the Christian church that reveals our unity with Jesus and all Jesus’ people than the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist or communion). In his memoir, Open Secrets, Richard Lischer employs a most lovely image at one point. In the church he first served following his graduation from seminary, the wine chalice used for the Lord’s Supper was a fairly large goblet made of a shiny silver. Each time when he presented the wine, he would lift the cup up high over his head. A few people in his staunchly Lutheran congregation didn’t like that move–they thought it looked too Roman Catholic. But Lischer says that the reason he did this was because when he lifted the cup up, he could see on the curved underside of the chalice the entire congregation reflected. It reminded him of the fundamental truth of the sacrament: when we eat the bread and drink the cup of our Lord, we thicken our union with him but we also become members one with another. We are all one in the cup we share.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 98 is a stirring call to joyfully (and boisterously!) celebrate God’s reign over all creation. It’s very similar to Psalm 96. After all, both invite the listening congregation to sing a new song and each ends with God’s righteous judgment being a reason for jubilant singing. Each psalm is also part of the cluster of “kingship psalms.” However, psalms 96 and 98 are also subtly different. Psalm 96 focuses on God’s glory. Psalm 98 focuses on God’s salvation.
The psalmist invites the listening congregation to join her in singing a “new song.” Since she doesn’t identify what new marvelous thing God has done, we’re not sure if she’s referring to some specific new act of salvation. In some ways, however, that doesn’t really matter. After all, God is always doing some new work of redemption. Whether it’s leading them out Egypt, into the land of promise, back from exile or some other dramatic act, God constantly intervened in surprising ways on behalf of God’s Israelite children.
This provides those who preach and teach Psalm 98 with a wonderful opportunity to reflect on what new things God is still doing that might inspire even more new songs. We may invite modern worshipers to ask themselves how they’re experiencing God’s salvation, not just in the sense of salvation from sin, but also from various dangers. What sorts of new songs might we able to write, even if they’re just for singing in the shower or car?
Psalm 98 includes two reasons for offering such new praise. Verses 1b-3 and 9 direct our attention to God’s salvation, to the ways God has intervened in our world in marvelous and unexpected ways. In fact, Psalm 98 places a particularly strong emphasis on God’s work of salvation as a cause for jubilant singing. Verse 1b’s reference to God’s “right hand and holy arm” point not to God’s ability to sling a baseball or football but, instead, evoke images of God as the divine warrior whose victory over God’s enemies points to God’s kingship over all of creation, over even those who oppose God and God’s good purposes.
In fact, verse 2 asserts, God is such a mighty king that God doesn’t just save God’s needy sons and daughters. God also lets people, including both Jews and Gentiles, know about that salvation. So as the NIV Study Bible notes, God serves as God’s own evangelist. God’s saving works themselves testify to God’s righteous rule over the whole cosmos. In fact, as a result of God’s royal acts, not just Israel but “all the ends of the earth” have seen those acts of salvation. By God’s grace ministered through the Holy Spirit, people from every part of the world can see God’s mighty hand at work on behalf of God’s children.
The psalmist asserts that God has not forgotten God’s children who so naturally forget the Lord. Israel may forget to be faithful to God. Yet God remembers to be faithful to Israel. In that way God is like a wife who remains faithful even when her husband is persistently and even serially unfaithful. God remembers God’s love and faithfulness to not just “the house of Israel,” but to God’s people everywhere.
Yet Psalm 98 doesn’t just see God’s activity in the past as cause for jubilant singing. The psalmist recognizes that God is also sovereignly at work even now, judging the earth. God punishes sin not just at Christ’s return, but already now. In fact, James Mays notes that the psalmists and prophets saw the exodus and return from exile as part of the “coming” of the Lord to judge human affairs.
However, as the psalmist peers into the future he also anticipates God’s further judgment. He anticipates a day when God “will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.” While humans may execute and hand down unjust judgment, God judges righteously. God is just when God judges.
Those who read Psalm 98 through the lens of the New Testament see its talk about judgment as referring, in part, to Christ’s return at the end of measured time. After all, then God will come to judge everyone, believers and unbelievers. Those who have received God’s grace with their faith will hear God’s gracious verdict of “not guilty,” for Jesus’ sake. However, those who have persistently rejected that grace will put themselves in danger of hearing God’s just pronouncement of “guilty.”
That’s one reason why the psalmist can call the whole creation to join her in singing a new song to God. God’s sovereign activity isn’t limited to just the people of Israel. God is the Savior and Judge of the whole world. So the psalmist invites “all the earth” to join her in singing a new song. In other words, she calls people from across the world to join their voices to Israel and hers in happy singing and joyful shouting. She even invites people everywhere to employ a whole cacophony of instruments – harps, voices, trumpets and the ram’s horn — in offering such jubilant song.
In fact, the psalmist beckons not just people across the whole world but also the whole creation to join him in singing a new song to the Lord. He invites the seas, earth, rivers and mountains to lend their “voices” to the cosmic choir of praise to the Lord.
Of course, while the seas and what are in them may literally “roar,” rivers don’t literally clap their hands and mountains don’t literally sing together for joy. So what’s the psalmist saying by inviting them to do so?
Raymond Van Leeuwen suggests that in ascribing human actions to creation, the psalmist is implying that the cosmos’ very existence, its doing what God created it to do, is a kind of song of praise to the Lord. So it’s as if the very oceans, rivers and mountains’ existence and actions testify to not only God’s creative work, but also God’s loving care. As a result, when we do things that harm that creation or prevent it from doing what God created it to do, we’re silencing part of the mighty chorus that sings God’s praise.
If the seas, their contents, the earth, rivers and mountains can sing a new song to the Lord, how much more able are those whom God created in God’s image with hands and voices to do the same? God created us to glorify God and enjoy the Lord forever. What more appropriate response, then, is there than to devote our lives to praising God, not only in what we sing and say, but also in what we do?
Most Christians don’t think of Psalm 98 as a Christmas psalm, even though it’s the appointed lectionary psalm for Christmas Day. Yet it’s the inspiration for Isaac Watts’ beloved Christmas carol, “Joy to the World.” That hymn celebrates Jesus’ incarnation as God’s coming into the world to rule it with “righteousness” and “equity.” Reading Psalm 98 through the lens of the New Testament, Watts saw Jesus’ nativity as the kind of earth-shaking event to which the psalm points ahead.
“Joy to the world! the Lord is come: let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing (italics added). Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns: let all their songs employ, while fields and flocks, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy” (italics added).
1 John 5:1-6
Author: Stan Mast
Comments and Observations
This is a hard text to preach in our day, not only because of the complexity of John’s argument, but also because his argument runs counter to the prevailing cultural currents of our age. That’s precisely why we should preach on it. Here’s what I mean.
The postmodern philosophy that dominates the thinking of our day has no use for absolute truth claims. All truth claims are seen as products of a particular culture promoting the values of that culture. Such truth claims are often/always used to oppress members of another culture. In this intellectual climate, all we can say is that something is true for us, not that it is true for everyone. In response to that philosophical perspective, many Christians have stopped talking about the truth claims of Christianity. Instead, they describe the Christian faith as a relationship of trust or as the practice of a certain way of life. Doctrines are out, devotion is in. Instead of preaching the truth claims of the Christian faith, many preachers focus on creating a community of love and justice where we practice the ancient disciplines of the church and follow its liturgy for worship. Now, of course, love and liturgy, community and creation care, trust and devotion are good things, extremely important dimensions of the Christian faith. But de-emphasizing doctrinal truth runs counter to the message of our text, which is a sample of the truth claims of apostolic Christianity.
Indeed, our writer brackets this passage with strong truth claims. “Everyone who believes that (emphasis mine) Jesus is the Christ is born of God….” “Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” It is important to note that John begins with a universal word—pas in the Greek, meaning all or everyone. There should be no cultural or racial or social exclusivism in the Christian faith. It is for everyone on earth, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, everyone. But there is an exclusivity to the Christian faith as well. “Everyone who believes… is born of God” and is a child of God. While we might argue (correctly) that everyone on earth is a child of God by virtue of being created in God’s image, John makes a distinction between those who believe and those who don’t. The world is divided into light and darkness, between those who are of the world and those who are of God, between those who are children of God and those who aren’t, between those who believe the right things and those who don’t.
John is very insistent about what we must believe. His firm use of “that” in verses 1 and 5 is not by accident. He is battling Gnostics who have challenged the apostolic teaching by introducing new ideas about Jesus that were based in contemporary philosophy. In the face of the uncertainty and confusion those Gnostic truth claims have produced, John takes pains to help these Christians be sure about the Gospel and about their own faith. So, he says, here’s a test of assurance. What do you believe about Jesus? True children of God believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Those words echo the conclusion of the resurrection story in John’s Gospel. “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) Of course, those words in John’s Gospel are the echo of Peter’s original confession back in Matthew 16:16, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
In the face of the Gnostic heresy, John is even more precise about the content of the Christian faith. He opens his letter by claiming that Jesus is the Word of Life, the eternal life who was with the Father, and that the apostles had actually seen and heard and touched that eternal Word of life in the body of Jesus. In I John 2:22, he connects the claim that Jesus is the Christ with a reference to the relationship between the Father and Son. Denying that Jesus is the Christ amounts to denying both the Son and Father. In 4:2 John skewers the Gnostic claim that the divine Christ could not have become truly flesh by saying, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.” In other words, what you believe about Jesus matters a great deal.
Perhaps a little lesson in historical theology will help here. Many scholars believe that John is tilting at Cerinthus, a very early Gnostic who taught that the divine Christ descended on the man Jesus at his baptism. But then, because his philosophy insisted that the divine cannot die, Cerinthus insisted that the divine Christ left Jesus before his death. Only the human Jesus died, not the divine Christ. The Christ was in the flesh only for a time, not permanently. John knew that if Jesus were not fully human and fully divine from birth to death, the whole idea of hilasmos (cf. 2:2 and 4:10), of atoning sacrifice that expiated our sins and propitiated God’s wrath was destroyed. These truths are probably behind the perplexing words of verse 6. “This is the one who came by water and blood. He did not come by water (baptism) only, but by water and blood (crucifixion).” What seems like theological hairsplitting to us was in fact a battle for the heart of the Gospel. The effectiveness of Jesus death for our sins depends on whether he was the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Many in our congregations may be uneasy with John’s claim that what we believe about Jesus is what makes us children of God or reveals that we are. That implies, of course, that those who don’t believe the “right things” about Jesus are not God’s children. Such a claim seems counter-productive in an age of interfaith dialogue. And it might seem downright dangerous in the face of terrorism committed in the name of exclusive truth claims. How can we possibly engage in honest dialogue with devotees of other religions if we are convinced that they are simply wrong about the most central elements of our faith? And how can we make such exclusive claims when we see what other “extremists” do in the name of their exclusive religion. ISIS says, “If you are not part of us, we will kill you.” And they do, even as the Christian crusaders did in the Middle Ages.
As we preach this text, it is important to admit that there is some truth in the charges against religious exclusivism. Christian warriors did abuse many people in the name of Christ. And the abuses of the crusades are no more justifiable than the abuses of the jihadists. But, even as most Muslims insist that Islam itself does not call for such violence in the name of Allah, so we Christians must insist that our adherence to the truths of the Gospel does not necessarily lead to violence. The crusades were an aberration, a distortion of the Gospel. Love for the “other” does not require dropping our fundamental convictions. Rather, if we really believe that the Gospel is true, love for the other requires proclaiming that Gospel to them so that they can become disciples of Christ (as per Matthew 28:19). Interfaith dialogue is a good first step toward reconciliation in a hate filled world, but there can be no true peace until all human beings are united under the one head, Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10). And, according to our text here in I John 5, that requires faith in Jesus as the Christ. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” Thus, in spite of abuses that can arise from exclusive truth claims, we must share these truths about Christ out of love for all humankind.
That having been said, we must point out that John does not preach a doctrinalism that cares more about propositions than people. Indeed, John goes on to show that true faith must issue into true love. His argument in verses 2-5 is so complicated that some have called it arguing in circles. But it is really a very sophisticated interweaving of the tests he has talked about throughout the letter. The Christian faith is not only about the truth; it is also about love. It is not only about love for God, but also about love for others. It is not only about doing the right thing, but also about being spiritual.
John is not confused; he is trying to help confused people find assurance. (“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”) That assurance lies not in a single slogan: “all you need is love,” “be filled with the Spirit,” “love God and do what you want,” “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved,” etc. We can be sure of our salvation when we believe essential truths about Jesus and live out that faith in love for God and others, as the Spirit enables us and bears testimony with our spirits that we are God’s children (more on that next week).
Watch how he interweaves the four tests. After talking about believing that Jesus is the Christ and, thus, being born of God, he says, “and everyone who loves the Father (begetter in Greek) loves his child (begotten) as well.” Is he talking about Jesus there? No, the next verse talks about loving the children of God. How do we know that we love God’s children? In the previous chapter, John has said that you can’t claim to love God if you don’t love his children. Here John turns that around and says that you can’t claim to love God’s children if you don’t love God. The love God calls for is not mere humanitarianism. There is a theological dimension to it.
Further, this love for God is not an emotion or an idea. It is obeying God’s commands. John does not substitute law for love, being righteous from being loving. In John 14:15, Jesus had said it very clearly. “If you love me, you will keep my commands.” Because we have been born of God, God’s commands are not burdensome. They are not easy, but we are able to keep them precisely because we have been born again by the Spirit of God. Everyone born of God overcomes the world, that is, all the forces that war against God and his children.
This is not a call to jihad, to kill our enemies. It is a call to overcome the sin within ourselves. How can we do that? “This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith.” What is that overcoming faith? Is it mere trust, having a loving relationship with God, depending on God, regardless of how we think of God? John returns to the thought with which he began this section. “Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” Every child of God will be characterized by orthodoxy and orthopraxis born of the Spirit.
There are at least three ways to preach this text. You could focus on the importance of doctrinally sound faith. In a world that disparages such faith, such a sermon would be a bracing and challenging word, and even a call to share the Gospel with our “enemies” of other faiths. Or you could focus on the interweaving of the themes, showing how John wants to take away our uncertainty about our salvation by giving us sure tests. Rather than that doubting our own salvation or simply presuming that we are saved because we are in church, we can know for sure that we have eternal life. Yes, it’s a bit complicated, but then so much of life is that way. John isn’t trying to give us a snow job.
Or you could focus on that bracing message about overcoming the world. This would call for some careful distinctions, so that people don’t think John is calling us to some kind of culture wars in which faith gets mixed up with politics. But many Christians are deeply discouraged about living according to God’s command to love. We would be doing our congregations a real favor by assuring them that they really can overcome, and that the secret to overcoming is not sheer teeth gritting effort, but mere faith in the truth of the Gospel. Jesus is, indeed, “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and that means victory for God’s children. When that confession was first made in this world, Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church. And the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) In a sermon on that text an old friend of mine claimed that Jesus was talking about an offensive war in those words to Peter. He entitled that sermon, “Let the church go to hell.” We shall overcome.
As a way of highlighting John’s words about the relationship between having faith in Jesus and being children of God, it might be helpful to talk about the contrary idea of “anonymous Christianity” first proposed by Catholic theologian Karl Rahner. “Anonymous Christianity means that a person lives in the grace of God and attains salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity… Let us say, a Buddhist monk… who, because he follows his conscience, attains salvation and lives in the grace of God; of him I must say that he is an anonymous Christian; if not, I would have to presuppose that there is a genuine path to salvation that really attains that goal, but that has simply nothing to do with Jesus Christ. But I cannot do that. And so, if I hold that everyone depends on Jesus Christ for salvation, and if at the same time I hold that many live in the world who have not expressly recognized Jesus Christ, then there remains in my opinion nothing else but to take up this postulate of an anonymous Christianity.” How does that comport with the words of I John 5:1 and 6?