May 07, 2018
The Easter 7B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 17:6-19 from the Lectionary Gospel; Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 47 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 John 5:9-13 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 61 (Lord’s Day 23)
Author: Scott Hoezee
“You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child.” That is a saying of my former colleague Ron Nydam. And he’s right. Worse yet, we all know that you cannot insure the happiness of your children, either. And that truth is married to another undeniable fact and that is this: the wider world in which we want our children to be happy most assuredly cannot be counted on to make that happiness a reality. In fact, the wider world has millions of jagged edges ready to tear into any given person’s happiness and success and stability at a moment’s notice.
Jesus is not the “parent” of his followers but his love for them is at least as fervent as a mother or a father. Thus as he looks ahead to his own departure, realizing that he’d have to leave his friends to keep working in the midst of a highly challenging world, Jesus knows that among the things he must pray for them is protection from the evil one, from the destructive forces of life that seem calculated to knock the stuffing out of us more days than not. Jesus knows, too, that the success of his mission depends precisely on the disciples’ not being transported out of this world nor cocooned away somewhere far away from society or from the people in this world who need to hear the Gospel message.
No, the only way this thing was going to work was if the disciples continued to labor smack in the middle of the very same world that was about to reveal its character that very night when no less than the Son of the Living God would get arrested and accosted and then nailed to a spit of wood. That was the world in which they’d have to work and that was why Jesus had to spend so much of this prayer begging his Father to give them all the help, all the protection, all the support he could provide.
If ever we in the church needed a reality check as to what we should expect in ministry and in service to this world, the fervency of Jesus’ prayer here should remind us that we should not expect smooth sailing. Yet so many people seem to expect just that. Too many in the Church are just shocked when they encounter resistance to the Gospel. It’s as though we simply cannot believe that there could actually be atheists around or people who would prefer we not pray in public schools or those who take a view of sexuality or money that just is so clearly at variance with what Christians regard as God’s own truth.
But why should any of this surprise us? Jesus knew what we’d be facing. Yes, he prayed for protection and strength but he did so precisely because he did not necessarily think the world was going to be any more receptive to God’s kingdom than it had been in his own lifetime. The truth is we need all the prayer we can get as followers of God but we need it because Jesus knew that the evil one still has some kicks. We ought to expect no less. But the Good News is that Jesus is—right now—still praying this same prayer at the right hand of his Father.
Of course, Jesus first prayed it in front of the disciples too and there was no doubt a reason for also this. Haven’t we as pastors occasionally prayed for our congregations—and prayed in front of our congregations—in ways that expressed both our genuine gratitude for these members of our flock and yet prayed somewhat aspirationally for a few things we wish were more true of that same flock? All things being equal, we’ve all surely prayed things about the congregation as a whole that we know full well are not true for the congregation in its every detail!
The truth is, Jesus was the only realist in that upper room that night. He alone was ready to face the events John will tell us about in chapter 18 and beyond. And he alone knew he’d face his trials alone—he knew not only of Peter’s impending implosion but of the failure of them all. Yet here is how he prayed about those very same people.
The good news is that post-Pentecost, everything Jesus expresses here about his band of followers would come true. But even at the moment, it was finally an act of love that Jesus prayed the way he did. When you love people, you want the best for them and you express this in also your prayers for them. You want to give thanks for the things worthy of gratitude and you also want to see them so singularly through a lens of love and compassion that you’ll say things that may not be totally accurate at the moment but that will be true by and by and that will be gloriously true when that comes to pass.
Jesus is about to be brutalized by this world. And his dearest friends on earth would do nothing to stop it or even to stand with him in his agony and dereliction. Yet far from rebuking them or being angry with them, Jesus prayed for them and he did so in the best possible light at that.
There are oodles and oodles of vignettes in the New Testament that display how much love Jesus had for his people and for his most devoted followers. But as displays of love go, this prayer surely counts as one of the finest!
In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Frederick Dale Bruner makes the claim that it’s possible to view John 17 as a whole as John’s expanded version of the well-known “Lord’s Prayer” that Jesus presents more straightforwardly in the Synoptic Gospels. Verse 1 contains the equivalent of “Our Father in heaven.” Verse 2’s talk about glorifying the Son that he may glorify the Father can be a gloss on “Hallowed be your name.” Verses 11-12 contain talk of the ongoing presence of the disciples in the world and this could be a version of “Your kingdom come” even as verse 15 can be seen as a “Your will be done” and also a “deliver us from evil.” Just beyond this lection in verses 20-24 one can also locate versions of “Forgive us our debts” and “Lead us not into temptation.” Whether Bruner’s idea works exactly here is open for debate but at the very least the similarities he notes shows that Jesus was indeed very consistent when it came to his own prayer life, his view of his Father, and what we need to pray for in this world.
I don’t know if this will mean anything to anyone all these years later but as I thought about Jesus’ concern for his followers in what is a rough world, I was reminded of a Youth Service sermon I preached at my former congregation a few weeks after 9/11 in the Fall of 2001. My text then was from Romans 12 and one of our young people (Christina) had in that same service made her Profession of Faith, her “confirmation” as it might be called in other traditions. But here is how I ended the sermon—maybe it has some resonance with Jesus’ own loving concern for his followers:
“We all wish we could tell you for sure that the world is safe, or will be one day soon. We’d all love to make you feel secure just knowing that the FBI is on the case and that our bombs are bigger than their bombs. But the images burned onto our brains from September 11 inevitably remind us what a fragile thing life is. But the gospel has something to say to us even so–something that no news headline can ever touch.
In a recent column in the Christian Century a writer reminded us of something C.S. Lewis preached at Oxford University sixty-two years ago tomorrow on October 22, 1939. Hitler had invaded Poland only six weeks earlier, and England was at war. The undergraduate college students there at Oxford were frightened–many of them would face death soon, and altogether too many would die. Here is what Lewis told them: “If we had foolish unchristian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven here on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are now disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.”
The world is a dangerous place. There is much that is good about this world and this life–we are surrounded by God’s gifts and we are right to take joy in them now and hope that we and our children can take joy in such things in also the future. But final security and ultimate hope are not going to emerge from what we or any nation can achieve this side of God’s kingdom coming in all its fullness. That hardly means that as Christians we have nothing to say, however.
There is something to say, and that’s why I want to invite all of you young people, 5th graders through 12th grade, to come up right now and join me by the baptism font–consider this a more mature form of the “Children’s Sermon,” if you will, but I really do want you to come up here.
For probably every one of you there was a time when your mom or dad or both brought you to this font or one like it in some other church. I don’t know exactly what was going through your parents’ minds back then or how precisely they pictured what baptism means. But when Christian parents bring a child to the font, we are admitting that on our own, we cannot guarantee the child’s future. So in baptism we let God claim you. We handed your soul over to God through Jesus, in whose hands alone you would be safe forever, in life and in death. The Jesus who met you in baptism is your and my only comfort. There is ultimately no other security in this world, not really. So we let God claim you. Today Christina answered God back some fifteen or so years after her baptism. In baptism God told Christina and every one of you, “I’ve got you!” Today Christina replied and said, “Thanks! And I’m staying put in your love, Jesus!”
It’s a rough world. So I urge you, young people of Calvin Church, in view of God’s mercies to you, not to conform to the roughness of this world, not to go with the flow of anger and revenge, but to be transformed from the inside out. Return every day to the love of God in Jesus that scooped you up at this baptismal font some years ago. Rest secure in that love. And then let it help you be loving, too. Let that love motivate you to do the hard work of figuring out what God wants out of us Christian people. Let love, not hate; good, not evil, guide you until that day when the love and goodness of Jesus is all in all. Remember: you’re baptized kids! And so whether you live or die, you are the Lord’s. Live in that hope, rest in that hope, and so go forward with courage, knowing that our world belongs to God and so do you.”
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Author: Doug Bratt
Where besides Acts 1 does Matthias’ name appear in the Scriptures? The answer is, of course, “Nowhere.” After all, as quickly as Matthias appears in Acts 1, he disappears again. Yet while that might render him as little more than a biblical footnote, it’s one of Acts 1’s details that may be an avenue to exploring an implication of the text the Lectionary appoints.
The day on which the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday falls may seem little more important than Matthias. It, after all, falls between the grand days of Jesus’ ascent to the heavenly realm and the Spirit’s descent on and into Jesus’ first followers.
Some of this week’s Old Testament Lectionary text’s key actors have just returned from watching Jesus ascend to the heavenly realm. In an upper room where they’re staying in Jerusalem, Jesus’ followers prayerfully await the gift of the Holy Spirit that their ascended Lord has promised them.
Yet in the midst of that life and creation-changing prayer something happens that may seem almost as mundane as Matthias. Peter essentially calls something like what my ecclesial tradition refers to as a “congregational meeting.” It’s the kind of meeting churches that follow a June-May “business calendar” may even be holding on this week.
On the agenda? Judas’ replacement. In attendance? What Will Willimon (Acts: John Knox Press, 22) calls an “unusual” community. After all, the group is made up of more than 100 believers that include not just Jesus’ surviving disciples, but also “the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and … his brothers” (14). It’s an eclectic bunch of people that includes some people we didn’t even know followed Jesus.
Those 120 believers, however, are missing someone who’d once been “one of” their “number and [had] shared in their ministry” (17). Judas had heard and seen Jesus teach, perform miracles and do so much more. In fact, he’d been with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry to near its very end.
But, of course, Judas had bailed out before the end – before the authorities crucified Jesus. He’d, in fact, facilitated Jesus’ demise by “serving as a guide for those who arrested Jesus” (16). While we struggle to fully understand why he did it, Judas had betrayed Jesus.
Of course, both Matthew and Acts 1 report that Judas did even more. Matthew 27:3ff. reports that Jesus’ condemnation filled him with so much “remorse” that he admitted to the religious leaders that he’d “sinned” by betraying Jesus’ “innocent blood.” When the religious leaders were unfazed by his confession, Judas heaved his blood money into the temple, left it and took his his life. However, the precise cause of his death seems so murky that Acts’ author and Matthew can’t even seem to agree on it.
Yet though Judas had arguably done more harm than good, Peter believes the Scriptures insist that those who have been praying for the Holy Spirit must also prayerfully replace Judas. The new apostle, however, can’t just be any person. He must be male. The new apostle must also provide continuity with Jesus’ earthly ministry. He has to be someone who’d been with the disciples the whole time Jesus went in and out with them. The new apostle must, in fact, have been with the disciples from the time John baptized Jesus until the day that Jesus returned to the heavenly realm.
So how do Jesus’ gathered followers choose Judas’ replacement? With his tongue planted in his cheek, my colleague Rick Morley in his blog “Matthias and his slick resume – a reflection on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26,” suggests “the eleven disciples polled everyone in the church to see what they thought their strengths and weaknesses were, and what they hoped for in a leader. They compiled those thoughts in a beautifully done, glossy, profile, and mailed it out to people who they thought would fit the bill. They asked for resumes and essay/answers of six questions.
“They did a series of phone interviews prior to going out and traveling all over Judea making visitations of prospective candidates in their local setting. They graded them on their preaching style, their administrative acumen, and their pastoral presence to those in need. Then, after compiling a final slate, they cast a deciding vote.”
“Oh, sorry,” Morley continues. “That’s not what they did.” While 21st century Christians may launch exhaustive (and exhausting) searches for new leaders, Acts reports those praying for the Holy Spirit offer up just two candidates for Judas’ replacement … and then pray about it. No interview. No whittling down of a long list of candidates. No vote. Just prayer.
Jesus’ first followers recognize that God knows Barsabbas, Matthias and, in fact, everyone’s hearts better than they do. Since they want their choice to align with God’s choice for a new apostle, they beg God to show them which one God chooses. Trusting that God will graciously show them God’s choice when they cast lots, they cast lots and find that they fall to Matthias. God adds him to the eleven apostles.
A couple of little details are striking about this account. It isn’t just that Matthias appears neither before nor after Acts 1:26. He may not even be in the room when he’s elected to replace Judas! We might infer that the apostles don’t even ask him if he’s willing to serve in that position. Just try that the next time your church is trying to elect new officers!
On top of that, Peter never mentions Matthias’ intellectual, theological or oratory spiritual gifts. He hardly has what Morley calls a “slick resume.” No, Matthias’ only two qualifications for being an apostle are that he was with Jesus from the beginning to the end, and that God chose him to be an apostle.
I recently had conversations with two colleagues whom I like, love and deeply respect. Both are struggling with their calling. The ministry of one is not turning out the way that person had expected. While that pastor had hoped to serve a church that was stable if not growing in both grace and numbers, the church that person serves is slowly dying. That minister asked me if I thought that minister’s calling was still valid. Was God calling that pastor, the pastor wondered, to essentially preside over the church’s “funeral”?
The ministry of the second colleague was evolving in a way that colleague hadn’t anticipated. In fact, that pastor’s church’s leaders were asking that pastor to temporarily take on a whole new role in ministry. That minister’s question for me was, “Is God calling me to this new work?”
My answer to both colleagues was something like, “I don’t know if God is calling you to these new ministries. But this I do know. Those God calls God always equips.” Just ask Matthias, I later thought.
Among the more intriguing details in William Manchester’s remarkable biography of Winston Churchill, A Lion In Winter, is the Englishman’s near maniacal preparation for and pursuit of leadership. Already as a child, Churchill dreamed of being a great leader of men as a soldier. Later he wanted to do little but follow in the footsteps of his mercurial father who once was a leading Member of Parliament.
Churchill did virtually everything he could to bolster his prospects for political leadership. He even enlisted the aid of influential people like his rather peculiar mother (and her assorted lovers!). Winston Churchill did, in other words, virtually everything he could to make himself a leader. What’s more, once he became England’s leader, he did virtually everything he could both to remain a leader and keep himself in the public eye.
In this way (and others!) Churchill stands in stark contrast to many leaders in the early Christian church. People like Matthias, for instance, seem to do little or nothing to pursue positions of church leadership. Most of them also virtually disappear once they’re given leadership responsibilities. Yet texts like this morning’s show that God had God’s own ideas about who would lead God’s young church. And those whom God calls to leadership God always equips to lead.
Author: Stan Mast
This is the last Sunday of the Easter season, but I want to focus on Christ’s Ascension, which some parts of the church celebrated last Thursday. If your church did that, you can skip what follows. But if your church is among the many churches that had no special service in celebration of that Ascension, I urge you to consider preaching on Psalm 47. (Yes, I know that the Lectionary reading for today is Psalm 1, but it makes more liturgical sense to deal with Psalm 47 which was the reading for Ascension Day.) Psalm 47 makes claims about the Ascended Lord that every Christian needs to hear, especially given the shape of the world today.
I want to focus on the Ascension of Christ because it is not a footnote in the Story; it is the climax of that Story. As one scholar said, it is the conclusion of the Christ event in Christian theology, because the Incarnate Son of God has been resurrected and glorified and has now taken his proper place at the right hand of God as the Lord of Creation. How can we treat such an event lightly?
The church has chosen Psalm 47 for its Ascension Day reading for an obvious reason—the occurrence of the word “ascended” in verse 5 of many translations. Even the alternate reading of “gone up” fits the day well. Purists will correctly maintain that the Psalmist had no idea that the Messiah would one day ascend into heaven after dying on a cross and rising from the dead. I can hear my Old Testament professor friend shouting, “Pay attention to the original meaning of the text.” To which I say, “Amen!” And I’m convinced that when we do that, we’ll see the Ascension of Jesus in an even brighter light.
Verse 5 alerts us to the fact that something has just happened, something that moves all Israel and, indeed, all the world to clap their hands, shout for joy, and sing God’s praise. “God has ascended.” But to what event is that referring? Many scholars think Psalm 47 was part of a liturgy at a New Year’s festival. Some go to elaborate lengths to describe that festival. They envision the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s presence, being carried up the Temple steps into the Holy of Holies, an enactment of God’s enthronement after his victory over his enemies. Think of David dancing with all his might before the Ark as it returned to Israel after a season in Philistine territory (II Samuel 6:15-19) as an example of such jubilation before the Temple was ever built. Other scholars are less specific in identifying the event that is alluded to in Psalm 47:5.
Whatever precipitated this Psalm, it led to an outpouring of praise, because it reminded Israel of what God had done for them in the distant past. Verses 3 and 4 remember the conquest and possession of the Promised Land; “he subdued nations under us… [and] chose our inheritance for us….” Israel was the special object of Yahweh’s love, “the pride of Jacob, whom he loved.”
But Yahweh’s kingship was not limited to little Israel. Indeed, the real point of all the praise in Psalm 47 is that Israel’s God is “the great King over all the earth,” a phrase that is repeated twice. God has gone up to his throne, not only in the Temple where he dwells symbolically over all Israel, but also to his throne in heaven where he rules over all the nations. “God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne (verse 8).” Indeed, “the nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham, for the kings of the earth belong to God…(verse 9). ”
There are a couple of interesting textual points in that last verse. For one thing, the little word “as” is not found in the Hebrew. If it were, it would suggest that the pagan nations will become part of the people of Israel. Not only will they be part of the praising assembly, but they will completely identify with Israel, having become part of God’s covenant people. Certainly, that is part of the Messianic hope as outlined in the latter part of Isaiah and spelled out in the New Testament (cf. Galatians 3 and Revelations 5 and 7). But here in Psalm 47, the lack of that word “as” gives a slightly less glorious vision. The nations will stand side by side with Israel in praising the Ascended One.
The other textual note on verse 9 has more potential homiletical punch to it. The word translated “kings” can also be read as “shields.” That suggests that all the weapons and symbols of power belong to God. Echoing the claim heard frequently in the Psalter, this reading urges us not to put our trust in princes or horses or the legs of man, that is, in military and political power. This reading of Psalm 47 will enable you to speak the Word to the powers that be, who seem bent on an arms buildup as our only hope for safety and security.
The memory of God’s favor to Israel and the certainty that their God is the great King over all the earth leads to one thing in Psalm 47—praise, loud, raucous praise. “Clap your hands, all your nations, shout to God with cries of joy.” That sounds like the kind of open throated, full bodied cheering we see at major sporting events around the world.
But it’s not just wildly enthusiastic adulation (though uptight Calvinists like me need to hear a word like this); it’s also singing, beautiful singing with full orchestral accompaniment (at least the brass). Four times in verse 6 and another time in verse 7, we are called to sing praises to God, to our King, the King of all the earth. This anticipates the mass choir of Revelation 5 and 7 praising the One who sits on the throne and the Lamb. Clap, shout, sing—what fun!
But the fun really begins when we focus on the Lamb of Revelation 5 and 7, that is, when we connect this Psalm to Jesus’ Ascension. The nations around Israel would have scoffed at the claim of Psalm 47 and its call to praise Yahweh as the great King of all the earth. At certain times in Israel’s history, many Israelites would have struggled with that claim and call as well. In the same way, many in our world laugh at the idea that Jesus is the great King. Even some Christians struggle to utter the kind of praise voiced in Psalm 47.
Where is the evidence that Jesus is the great King over all the earth? It is in his Ascension. In the lectionary reading from Acts 1, Jesus’ disciples asked the newly Risen Christ about his Kingdom. “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?” You said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand, and we have seen your victory over the forces of sin, Satan, and death. Show us the kingdom here on earth in action, in visible, political ways in Israel, among the nations.”
But Jesus gave them a surprising answer. “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth.” Then you will see my Kingdom come. You will see that I am the great King over all the earth. And then he demonstrated his Kingship before their very eyes. “He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” “God has ascended….”
That was, in fact, exactly what the early Christians confessed and what the church has continued to believe through the ages. The Yahweh of Psalm 47 descended into human history and became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. And now, after finishing his saving work, he has gone back to the throne from which he came.
The Ascension of Jesus points to the deep meaning of the events of Jesus’ life. This solitary Jew, rising into the sky like some modern-day fictional superhero, was literally God returning to the throne at the center of the universe. His ascension shows the world-wide, history-changing significance of that man named Jesus. Which is about as outlandish as the citizens of Sierra Leon or Nicaragua or the United States claiming that their ruler is the Great King over all the earth.
No wonder so many don’t believe the Gospel. The greater wonder is that so many do. We do, because, as Acts 1 says, they saw him go up with their own eyes. The Risen Jesus said to doubting Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
This Sunday, call your congregation to a renewed faith in the Ascended Jesus, the great King over all the earth. Encourage them to clap and shout and sing his praise. Urge them to be his witnesses to the ends of earth, so that the nations can join their praise. And in this frightening world, comfort them with Paul’s soaring expansion of this Psalm in Ephesians 1:20-23. God’s power has “raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”
Scholars have tried to reconstruct the event that led to the writing and reciting of Psalm 47. They envision some sort of procession, a religious parade with Yahweh at its center. That made me think of President Trump’s proposal that the United States needs a military parade like the one he saw in France and the ones we all see on TV from North Korea. Some applauded the idea as a fitting tribute to our military. Others blasted it as an extravagantly wasteful exercise in self-congratulation. Whatever we may think of Trump’s parade, it is surely optional. The U.S. will be just fine without it. The same cannot be said of the parade envisioned in Psalm 47 and fulfilled in Christ’s Ascension. His ascent before the eyes of his apostles was an essential part of the Gospel. We should stand at attention, clap and shout and sing, and acclaim him as King, at least once a year.
1 John 5:9-13
Author: Scott Hoezee
One of my kids once had an assignment for a high school religion class: they had to find at least one Bible passage in the New Testament that matched each one of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. There are probably multiple options for each of the commandments but most students—including my child—quickly settled on the very last verse of 1 John to match the Second Commandment’s prohibition on idolatry, on graven images, and on worshiping anything other than the Lord God of Israel.
“Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”
That is 1 John 5:21 and it is perhaps the oddest last line of any book in the Bible and certainly of the New Testament Epistles. You are tempted to turn the page to see if there is something more still to come. That verse is also about 8 verses beyond where the Lectionary stops this reading from John’s last chapter but I want to draw attention to this verse anyway because I think it unlocks a lot of what is both in this particular Lectionary reading and this entire Epistle generally.
Again, it seems like an odd, abrupt ending to a letter. It’s like some random new thought occurred to John and he scribbled it down just before sticking the letter into the envelope and licking it shut. Today if you got an email that concluded seemingly in mid-thought, you would wait for a follow up message that would begin “Ooops, sorry about that. I accidentally hit ‘Send’ before I finished the email!”
But let’s assume this really is how John wrapped up this letter. Why would he do that? Perhaps because as bottom lines of letters go, this one does a pretty good job of summing up what had been a concern of John’s all along: identifying and then worshiping the one true God and that God only. Throughout this letter John says God is love. God the Father is love and he sent his Son to this world out of love.
And that Son is love and everything he did was for the sake of love. And now the Spirit of that Son lives in us and so if we know and understand and perceive our God in Christ correctly, we will love all our sisters and brothers. Failure to display such love demonstrates merely that we don’t understand God at all. In fact, if we think we can lead hateful, spiteful lives in the name of God, then maybe it turns out we are worshiping a false god after all. An idol. Something we concocted but NOT the true God whose core nature got revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.
In this particular passage in 1 John 5 the emphasis is on being one with the Son of God because if you are, you have life. You have eternal life. And apparently it’s the only place to get such life, too. This is not some widely available commodity on the open market. You cannot buy knock-off imitations of this gift. The name-brand of “Life in Jesus the Son” will never have a generic alternative available on the cheap someday. Life eternal comes only when we “have” the Son.
That’s a curious way to put it if you stop to think about it. How could any one of us mere mortals “have” the eternal Son of God? That makes it sound on a par with “having” a car, a house, a spouse, a dog. “Do you have a dog?” we might ask someone. “Yes, I have a Boston Terrier.” Or, “I have a 2013 Honda CRV,” we could say in another setting. Or, “Back at my house I have the most gorgeous painting of the Sleeping Bear Dunes that a friend of mine painted for me.”
So is that the idea: in my life I “have” a CRV, a Boston Terrier, a painting, and the Son of God? Well . . . that last item on the list seems less “have-able” than the others. Surely they are not all on a par. Yet that’s how John puts it. Not, please notice, not the “the Son of God has you.” No, you have the Son. I realize this is just a locution, just a way of putting things, and yet perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to see John’s having put it just this way as itself another instance of the amazing grace of God.
Earlier in this epistle John made a big deal out of believing that Jesus really had been incarnated as a true human being. Indeed, if you deny that Jesus came in the flesh, then you are an antichrist. Affirming the reality of the incarnation is a very big deal for John (and may have been increasingly important as the first century wore on and the early heresy of Gnosticism started to take hold with its shunning of all things earthly and earthy and material). But, of course, the incarnation was also an enormous gift of grace. God the Son condescended to our level, took on our human flesh and frailty, willingly made himself into a being who could be tempted, who could get hungry, who could get sleepy, who could get hurt, and ultimately he willingly let himself become a being who could die. And he did.
Jesus, we read elsewhere in the New Testament, “gave himself up” for us. And he also flat out gave himself for us. He laid down his life for us and gave us his whole being, his whole self. And so there is a sense in which when the gift of faith comes to us by grace alone, what we receive is nothing short of Christ and all his benefits. Christ clothed with the Gospel. We receive Jesus. We have the Son and all the eternal life within him because that is exactly what Jesus wants for us.
What a revelation! What a truth to savor!
Dear children, keep yourselves from idols because really, when you know who the true God is and what his love has made possible for you in Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, why in the world would you want to turn to some other—to any other—fake god?
The writer Simone Weil once observed that when you read the creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 one of the most striking things you should notice is the revelation that the Almighty God of the universe is not self-centered. Despite possessing incalculable glory and righteousness and holiness within God’s own self, God is always interested in the other, in that which is not God. You see it all through the creation of the universe: God delights in making not a few fish but oceans brimming with life; not just a few birds but skies blackened with vast flocks of every kind of bird imaginable. And God takes delight in just staring at these creatures, reveling in their antics, clapping his hands together in joy. Indeed, the seventh day of creation as a day of rest was instituted not because God was tired but because it was a day when God could kick back and enjoy watching everything he had created across the first six days.
That is how the Bible begins. And God’s penchant to be invested in the other, of taking delight in others, climaxes in the New Testament when God the Son becomes a part of this creation by being born as a real human being whose sole purpose would be to extend himself into the lives of others, to give himself to others, to let the Life that was in him get shared with all who would believe.
Even as from all eternity the Father existed for the Son and the Son for the Spirit and the Spirit for the Father and the Son for the Father and . . . . so also God then took that effervescent life within his Triune Self and shared it with a whole universe of creatures. God is not God-centered. That is a thought worth pondering. A lot.