1 John

Children, There Is Truth

1 John 5:9-15 (NLT)

Since we believe human testimony, surely we can believe the greater testimony that comes from God. And God has testified about his Son. All who believe in the Son of God know in their hearts that this testimony is true. Those who don’t believe this are actually calling God a liar because they don’t believe what God has testified about his Son.

And this is what God has testified: He has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God’s Son does not have life.

I have written this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal life. And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for.


This is the final sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.


“What is truth?” This must be the question of questions. Pilate, the Roman governor in Jerusalem, asked it in the presence of the King of Kings, the source of all truth.

The scene, found in John 18:33-40, is particularly sad because Pilate doesn’t seem to want an answer.  I imagine the tone of his rhetorical question, aimed more at the air than at Jesus, to be weary and cynical.

We should do better. We at least need to take the question seriously. What is truth?

When I say “we,” I’m addressing Christians, of course. Non-Christians, like Pilate, have to wrestle with the question in a different way, beginning with the notion of whether there is any truth at all.

The Great Story

Christians sometimes forget what it means to have “Christ” as part of their religious moniker. Such forgetfulness is a little strange, if you think about it, but we also have to remember how we remain immersed in a world trying on a daily basis to ignore or challenge Christian versions of truth. Perhaps it is not surprising that we sometimes listen to those voices, rather than the voice of God expressed in the Bible through faithful writers.

Children of God-Communion LookhalfsizeThe author of 1 John certainly is one of those writers concerned with the notion of truth. He recorded the “what is truth” scene in the Gospel of John, and in the letter we’ve been studying, he asserts the answer to the question.

Understanding Who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ is doing lets us define truth. If you were in Life Groups last week, you talked about evangelism, the act of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. To evangelize successfully, you have to grasp the truth, which is rooted in a story you are called to relate to others.

Who is Jesus? He is the Son of God. To John, the word “son” means much more than a simple biological progression, a passing of genes from one generation to another. The spiritual essence of the man known as Jesus is God, and that aspect of God has always existed. The Word took on flesh to live among us. Again, see the opening of the Gospel of John.

What is Jesus doing? He is the fulfillment of promises made long before God took on flesh. These were promises of restoration and healing, assurances God would provide people a way out of sin even though we deserve nothing but condemnation.

In a great act of sacrificial love, Jesus fulfilled these promises by going to the cross and dying for our sins. Through the centuries, Christians have tried to describe how salvation works in more ways than I can count.

Jesus bore the punishment for us; he served as a ransom to free us from Satan; he accepted our shame; he bridged the divide between us and God—likely, every orthodox explanation takes us in the right direction, but alone, each also falls short of describing the magnitude of what God has done as Christ.

John is clear about the result, however. Instead of death, we have eternal life. Death is now but a veil, something we pass through to begin our life fully aware of the presence God.

This Great Story, and all the little stories that fill it out, are remarkably beautiful when we let them sink in. The Great Story has penetrated nearly every culture on the planet for a reason. God’s grace is something every human has the potential to understand.

And yes, the claims we make about Jesus’ identity and work representing truth are quite exclusive. To have eternal life, we must know God as expressed through Jesus Christ. As John writes in the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John, quoting Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.”

The Unevangelized

This brings us to a sticky point in Christian theology: What is the fate of people who never get to hear about Jesus Christ? It seems unfair for them to be condemned.

As Dr. Ben Witherington at Asbury Theological Seminary has pointed out, salvation is not about what is just or fair. Thank God! None of us would be very happy if we thought we were to get what we deserve when standing before God.

Salvation is about grace. God’s grace makes it possible for all people to sense the presence of God, the reality of God, if only through the limited ways we sense God in nature.

Says Dr. Witherington: “You are held accountable for what you know about God, and what you do with what you know about God.” It is reasonable to expect that God will give those who never heard of Jesus Christ the opportunity to respond to his work on the cross in some way we cannot currently understand.

Back to Us

Of course, not knowing about Jesus Christ is strictly theoretical for us. We’ve heard of him. We know the story, and by calling ourselves Christians we are accountable to the truth of who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing in unique ways.

As Christians we are truth bearers. I mentioned earlier how the non-Christian world approaches the question of truth differently, either denying there is some universal truth or debating what the standard for truth might be.

We don’t want to attack them; that kind of approach led to some of the great sins of the Christian world. But we also certainly should not ignore them. God calls us to go into the world and declare who Jesus is and what he is doing.

As Americans, we are particularly blessed to live in a place where we can enter what is supposed to be a marketplace of free ideas and explain what we believe. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we should learn to do this winsomely—we have the greatest love story ever told on our side!

Do you know the story? Can you tell the story in your own attractive way?

One of the great things about being in a church is we learn the story and celebrate its truth in worship until we can tell it well. It is a joyous duty, and I pray we all learn to take more seriously this call to declare truth.

 

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Children, You Are Conquerors

1 John 5:1-8 (NLT)

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has become a child of God. And everyone who loves the Father loves his children, too. We know we love God’s children if we love God and obey his commandments. Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome. For every child of God defeats this evil world, and we achieve this victory through our faith. And who can win this battle against the world? Only those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God.

And Jesus Christ was revealed as God’s Son by his baptism in water and by shedding his blood on the cross—not by water only, but by water and blood. And the Spirit, who is truth, confirms it with his testimony. So we have these three witnesses— the Spirit, the water, and the blood—and all three agree.


This is the fifth sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.


Before I went into professional ministry, my family attended Forest Park United Methodist Church in Georgia, and most Sundays we had a habit of eating afterward at a nearby Wendy’s. A lot of the church members ate there, as did other people we knew from the community.

One fellow we saw regularly was an older man named Steve. He and I volunteered at the same youth center. Steve and his wife attended what I thought of as a fundamentalist church.

Steve liked my son Charlie, who enjoyed talking about Bible stories even at the age of six. Steve always had some kind of Bible question for Charlie to see what the little guy would say.

One Sunday, Steve walked over to Charlie, held up his big black Bible and asked, “Charlie, what’s this book about?”

Charlie swallowed a bite of chicken nugget, studied Steve’s Bible cover for a second, and said, “Love.”

Steve pursed his lips and raised one eyebrow. “No, it’s obedience. Obedience!” He then walked away to order his lunch.

Charlie looked at me quizzically. “It’s okay, son,” I told him. “You’re both right.”

Children of God-Communion LookhalfsizeIf you’re paying any attention at all to our text today, you can see why this story came to mind. Two threads that have been dancing around each other in the letter of 1 John, love and obedience, twist together as one. Scripturally, they really cannot exist without each other.

The easiest way to understand what I’m saying is to imagine one without the other, although it really doesn’t take much imagination. Most of us at some point have tried to live as if one can exist without the other.

Love Alone

Love can be a good feeling, of course. It is good to love and be loved.

John has reminded us already in his letter that love is an action. Love is what we do. But love without obedience to shape our actions can quickly dissolve into something meaningless.

A husband might tell his wife, “I’ll always love you, but to be happy I’m leaving you.” Even if he’s telling the truth about how he feels, the effectiveness of his love has been destroyed by his wrongful action, his unwillingness to be obedient to the marriage covenant God asks us to live under.

Or maybe we love someone who lives a lifestyle clearly opposed to God’s will. As Christians, if we say “I love that person too much to speak the truth,” our failure to declare God’s will is a betrayal of whatever love we may be feeling. We have chosen to leave someone we love in a state we believe might ultimately separate that person from God for all eternity.

James, the earthly brother of Jesus, understood this: “My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins.” (James 5:19-20)

Obedience Alone

Obedience simply means that we listen to God’s guidance, particularly his guidance in Scripture, and align our behaviors with God’s will.

Obedience without love becomes something rigid and repulsive. Obedience without love is actually disobedience, because God is love, and love is the major part of his plan for salvation.

Religious obedience without love usually ends up being expressed as some form of legalism. Jesus spent a lot of time going after the legalist Pharisees for emphasizing rules while ignoring love.

Matthew 23:27 comes to mind: “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity.”

WWJD

I hesitate to boil all this down to what is now a Christian cliché, but “What would Jesus do?” was a pretty good notion back in the 1990s. The question can be applied to most situations, particularly if we’re willing to study the Bible with some seriousness.

The Bible is, of course, the ultimate source for understanding God’s will. Even when God’s will seems to be revealed to us in other ways—in prayer, in visions, or in holy gatherings, for example—those ideas have to be tested against what we find in the Bible.

In the Bible, we see Jesus was perfectly loving, and our best lessons are drawn from Jesus in action. Jesus was very welcoming to all who were drawn to him. He also was quick to say to forgiven sinners, “Go and sin no more.”

To War

John, having twisted these threads of love and obedience together, switches somewhat shockingly to the language of battle and conquest, as if he has fashioned a whip instead of a string. We have to remember the highly metaphorical nature of how he speaks. His churches had no worldly power, and were happy to get through the day without being persecuted.

He did, however, have great faith in the power of love and obedience working in tandem. He was saying that when we combine the two, we achieve something ultimately more powerful than swords, guns or even atom bombs.

Evil will be fully defeated by God’s obedient people working in the world in loving ways. Again, John’s language is startling. It is as if each of us, standing with God and filled with God’s love, has the individual potential to finish the job.

We conquer primarily by evangelizing, telling the world the truth about the God who loves us so much he would die for us, about the God we should seek to emulate in every moment of our lives.

Those of you in Life Groups will talk more this week about what it means to evangelize, to tell others of the Good News about Jesus Christ. Approach this lesson with both love and obedience in your hearts, and the Holy Spirit will lead you.

 

Children, Seek Perfect Love

1 John 4:7-21 (NLT)

This is the fourth sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.


Here in the fourth chapter of 1 John, the author builds toward an idea that John Wesley found very important, the notion that we can “move toward perfection.” A modern way of saying this might be, “More and more each day, we can grow in our ability to love.”

I think today it is best if we simply follow the path the author has laid down for us, a path toward perfect love. I’ll try to ensure at each milepost we understand what John is telling us.

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

Absent a context, the opening words of today’s Scripture can seem like a trite assertion. Yeah, Christian love—we hear that phrase over and over. Don’t forget what John’s church has been through, however. There have been sharp disputes, and after such conflict it is not hard for good people to fall into bitterness and anger, emotions that will hang on long after trouble has ended.

A people forced to fight for what they believe usually need healing once the struggle ends. Even among those who have stood together, trust may have eroded. In Ephesus, the ones who turned away from the truth about Jesus Christ had once been trusted members of the churches in Ephesus, pledged at their baptisms to the same concepts as those who remained faithful.

Let’s also remember what we’ve already learned from the author. Love is an action! When I imagine these people heeding their leader’s words about loving each other, I see them traveling house to house, worshiping together, serving the world side by side, and getting back to the basic business of being in church.

God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.

Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.

Now we’re really back to basics! First, we hear the core gospel message, an echo of John 3:16. Also, we hear that God first loves us before we love him. It has to be that way. If God were not constantly using love to penetrate the dark cloud of sin surrounding this world, we would not even be able to know on our own he exists. And through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, the cloud is being driven back!

That appropriate response to God’s gift, our obedience to his will, is best expressed as love. And we also hear the beginnings of where John is taking us. God is love, God lives in us, and that love inside us is a dynamic experience. It will grow toward “full expression.”

And God has given us his Spirit as proof that we live in him and he in us. Furthermore, we have seen with our own eyes and now testify that the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. All who declare that Jesus is the Son of God have God living in them, and they live in God. We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love.

This is an expansion on the idea of God living in us once we declare Jesus Lord and Savior. It also is clear evidence John thinks in terms of a Trinitarian God. It is true the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible, but the idea of God working as Father, Son and Holy Spirit comes up repeatedly, and particularly in John’s writings.

God works in us as the Holy Spirit. John is able to attest to having seen God at work in the world in flesh, as Jesus Christ. We cannot say we have seen God in the flesh, but we are reminded we can have just as direct an experience of God—more direct, in fact, if having God in us, whispering to our spirits, is a closer relationship than having God stand before us in the flesh.

I think we do have a closer, deeper experience! We are a blessed people, we who know God in the post-Pentecost era!

God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.

Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. We love each other because he loved us first.

We live in God and we move toward perfection. This is not an arrogant, obnoxious declaration that “we are perfect.” The word in a Wesleyan sense simply means it is possible to love others with the intensity Jesus showed when he went to the cross to die for the whole world.

As we move closer to perfect love, there also is great reward. Love drives out fear! In particular, we have no reason to fear God’s judgment, and that should mean our little fears are driven away, too. Most of those fears are rooted in a negative view of death, but Christians trust there is nothing beyond death but acceptance and bliss for all eternity.

I have actually been told by church people that it’s not wise for me to remind people they are going to die, but I decline to heed that advice. Unless Christ returns beforehand, I’m going to die, you’re going to die. People of faith, hear me: So what?

I invite you to confront the reality of your deaths boldly and without fear. I’m not asking you to invite death. Life in this world can be just as wonderful as it is painful, and it’s worth experiencing in full! But you will live this life so much better if you let your love grow, in the process becoming more fearless each day.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers.

Yes, John closes us out today with something like a test. It is a test many of us are going to fail from time to time, for we can become angry at fellow believers, at times even hating them. When we fail in such ways, we can at least feel confident our loving Savior will give us another chance. His grace is abundant and magnificent.

Anger, particularly anger with our fellow church members, is a signal we need to get back to basics. It may be that some legitimate dispute needs to be resolved—let’s never forget the model for dispute resolution Jesus gave us in Matthew 18:15-17. (There are some important concepts related to forgiveness right after those verses, too.) But to cope with our anger, we also need to be more intentional about loving God in worship and in prayer, and we need to immerse ourselves in God’s holy word.

In all those actions, we encounter God’s love, we are healed, and our love moves toward perfection.

Children, Make Room

1 John 3:16-24 (NLT)

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person?

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. Even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything.

Dear friends, if we don’t feel guilty, we can come to God with bold confidence. And we will receive from him whatever we ask because we obey him and do the things that please him. [goes to prayer life; perhaps something on how we avoid a breakdown in community]

And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. Those who obey God’s commandments remain in fellowship with him, and he with them. And we know he lives in us because the Spirit he gave us lives in us.


This is the third sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.


Last summer, during one of the sermons in our long series on the book of Romans, I made mention of the concept of hospitality. Reading our text today, I feel invited to further explore this tame-sounding concept that actually is quite radical.

John begins by telling us what real love is, pointing to the death of Jesus on the cross. This is the same author who wrote down the words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Later in the Gospel of John, in the 15th chapter, he also quoted Jesus as saying this: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

This action-based love John keeps discussing is also deeply sacrificial. In the church community, such love calls us to go so far as to die for each other.

Certainly, risk-taking is a big part of a love so deep that we are willing to give up our lives. The taking of risks undergirds this concept of hospitality. Hear what I’m saying: The Christian life is supposed to be a little dangerous.

Children of God-Communion LookhalfsizeIn my opinion, American Christians can be a little short on courage, in part because we are so affluent compared to the rest of the world. When you have stuff, you have to guard your stuff from others who might want it.

Our concern for our stuff makes our tolerance for risky interactions with others low, and we reach that low point before we even begin to consider risking our lives for others. I’m generalizing, of course, but I feel comfortable that I just described our group average, and I acknowledge I often am more a part of the problem than the solution.

A risk-averse people have difficulty solving many of their social problems simply because they cannot, as a group, step up and do the hard work that has to be done. Our discord over abortion in this country long has served as a good example.

Rights vs. Responsibilities

As a crime reporter in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I spent a lot of time covering anti-abortion protests. It quickly became obvious the opposing groups had no political middle ground, with one side calling for women’s rights and the other declaring life begins at conception.

About the same time, a theologian named Stanley Hauerwas wrote an essay that demonstrated how hospitality, properly practiced and understood by the church, offers a solution that could make the demand for abortion subside.

The essay, entitled “Abortion, Theologically Understood,” makes some startling assertions, at least if you’re a typical American Christian.  When we become Christians, Hauerwas says, we should stop thinking in terms of rights and instead begin thinking in terms of responsibilities. Christian thinking has little to do with politics. It has everything to do with seeking and following God’s will.

Forget about what Congress or the Supreme Court has to say about the issue. For Christians, what the state has to say about abortion is unimportant. What’s important for us is whether we function so well as Christ’s community that the need for abortion becomes irrelevant.

In the essay, Hauerwas embeds a sermon from one of his former students, and it is there we see a couple of examples of the church truly being hospitable. There is the black community church, where the people welcome a pregnant teenager into their midst, placing her and ultimately her baby with an older couple so both mother and child can have hope-filled lives.

There is another church where a divorced Sunday school teacher becomes pregnant, and rather than finding herself ostracized, she is instead cared for and even financially supported by the church. In both cases, the temptation to abortion is eliminated by community, and the babies in effect become “children of the parish.”

A Matter of Space

How we help the homeless is another example of where Christians could make decisions in our own lives to impact the lives of others. Individually, some Christians choose to have “Elisha rooms,” creating a simple space for people in need. The underlying Bible story is in 2 Kings 4:8-17, where we also see how those who offer hospitality are sometimes blessed by the people they help.

Again, there is risk, particularly when we engage with people we don’t know that well, and with risk comes fear. But one reason we can obey Jesus’ words, “Fear not,” is that when we live in well-crafted, Holy Spirit-inspired community, we can help each other with hospitality. If we find our homes too isolated for such outreach, it is best if we figure out how to be hospitable as a Christian community.

Sometimes the solution is as simple as modifying our church spaces with hospitality in mind. At my first appointment out of seminary, the church was expanding its facilities. On the advice of an older pastor who had been through a few such expansions, I limited my role to spiritual encourager. The church leaders did plop the blueprints down in front of me one day, however, asking if I had any input.

“Just one,” I said. “Maybe a shower somewhere? Then if people in the community have an emergency, we could use the building for short-term housing.”

The church members liked the idea so much they put in two shower facilities. They now regularly house and feed homeless guests through a program providing temporary help to displaced families.

The Church’s Call

Sadly, not enough American churches have a hospitable mindset. Many churches, perhaps most churches, have yet to fully embrace this very scriptural work. They even are willing to pass that responsibility on to the government, distancing themselves from the powerful call God places upon us in Scripture.

Where do we get the strength, personally and communally, to take such radical risks as we make ourselves more hospitable to each other, and even to the world at large? Well, we begin small, and we grow in strength.

The Life Groups we are starting at Luminary UMC are great places to better study and implement hospitality. When a church has enough such groups, they become a built-in rapid response system, and great works of welcoming can be done.

John also points out a cycle of growth we can experience as we demonstrate that love is an action. Our actions show we have accepted the truth of who Jesus Christ is and what he has done. As our work draws us closer to our savior, the guilt of our sin subsides, and we find ourselves emboldened to come to God in prayer, trusting he will protect and provide in the riskiest of circumstances.

It is my prayer that one day the American church at large, regardless of its denominations, will fully be the hospitable church described in the Bible. When that happens, the government’s intractable problems will prove to be no problem for God and his people.

 

Children, Seek the Light


1 John 1:1-2:2 (NLT)

This is the first sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.


Quick: In your mind, define what you mean when you say “God.”

Humans are bound by finite time and space, so none of us can hope to provide a complete definition of an eternal being. That doesn’t mean, however, that God is unknowable. People of faith believe there have been powerful revelations from God about God, and from those we can assert certain important truths.

We gather in church, a short word for a Christian community, primarily because we have a common understanding of these truths. If we are not gathered together because of a common understanding of God, we remain a community, but we cannot call that community “church.” We instead would be some kind of club or civic group.

Children of God-Communion LookhalfsizeThe author of 1 John understood in a most practical way the importance of church members having a common understanding of God’s nature. Later in this letter, it becomes quite clear the churches he led in the vicinity of Ephesus had divided because some of their members asserted a different understanding of God. In particular, a dispute arose regarding whether Jesus was fully God in real human flesh.

Those who disagreed, saying Jesus simply appeared human, eventually left. There was little point in people who couldn’t agree on God’s nature staying together in worship. For all practical purposes, each group would have been worshiping a different god.

Just as the author does in the opening to the Gospel of John, he gets directly to his point in this letter to the churches. Let me tell you some important details about God, he is saying. Let me tell you about those truths that bind us together as a church. Let us cling to the idea of who God is with our very lives, letting the truth about God shape our behaviors.

He speaks as one of the witnesses to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and also certainly as one who experienced the full presence of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  He speaks as one touched by the divine mind. This is deep stuff.

The message in the opening of 1 John is very similar to the message in the opening of the Gospel of John. Even before taking on flesh, the aspect of God we call the Word existed, “from the beginning,” an echo of the assertion in John’s gospel that the being we now think of as Jesus was present at the creation.

We also hear that within the being of God, there is fellowship—God is naturally relational regardless of whether we or any other intelligent part of creation exists. Through Jesus Christ, a full and complete relationship is offered to human beings despite our sin.

Living in that relationship is like living in light. There is no shame when we stand with Christ, and therefore, nothing needs to be hidden in the dark.

Because of Jesus’ atoning work on the cross, living in the light also cleanses us. The more we place ourselves in that light, the more we are purged from our sins. We are like sheets initially cleansed in the wash and then thoroughly sterilized while hanging on a line during a clear, sunny summer day. (Does anyone do that with their sheets anymore?)

In this letter’s opening, we also see how repentance is necessary for salvation. People who try to claim they aren’t really sinning have not yet reached this first step toward salvation. “Yes, what I’m doing is wrong, it offends God,” we have to say to ourselves. From there, we can begin to hand our sins over to God, trusting they no longer have power to make us repeat them or cause us condemnation.

As a sinner in the room, I pause when I hear this call to repentance. Have I thoroughly and completely examined myself—how I live, how I think—trusting God’s revelations in Scripture and prayer to guide me? Can I say I repeat this process from time to time?

This process of self-examination is the only way we can achieve the goal of John’s letter. The author wanted us to not sin, to put aside our brokenness. The author also was a realist, however. Even when we let Christ into our lives, we are human, and we are likely to continue sinning. Are we humble enough to continue to go before the throne, admit our mistakes, and let the light continue to do its work?

Whatever state of sinfulness or holiness we find ourselves in, we move toward eternal life through a relationship with Jesus Christ. There is no other way forward, there is no other path out of darkness and death and into light and eternal life.

Jesus Christ—who he is, what he has done, and what he offers us—is the central truth of the community we call church. As we move further in 1 John over the next six weeks, we will hear much more about how we live and grow into this truth together. We’ll do this as we are gathered in worship, of course. I’m also particularly excited about the deeper experience some of you will have in Life Groups.

Let’s be praying for vibrant life in our church as we go through this process.

 

The Last Episode

1 John 2:28-3:3 (NRSV)

And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming.

If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him. See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.


As in several other places in the New Testament, a reader can discover what seems to be a tension between ideas in 1 John.

First, the author is emphatic that belief in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the path to salvation. In chapter 1, verses 7 through 9, he writes, “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

But later in the letter—just beyond our reading for today—the tone changes, as if those who are in Christ cannot sin. “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. … Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.”

The two ideas pull at each other, but the tension is there to keep heresies from developing. If we forget salvation is an act of grace, an unmerited gift from God, we can start thinking we somehow earn our salvation on our own, and we begin to live like Pharisees. But at the same time, when people do not make a conscious effort to stop sinning, we can cheapen Christ’s sacrifice, saying to ourselves as we sin, “It’s okay—Jesus will forgive me.”

I think all of this is easier to process when we consider our text today. The author of 1 John is inviting us to live as if we know how our story ends. Why? Because we actually do know how our story ends.

If you’re standing on a train track, and you hear a whistle and feel a vibration under your feet, what do you do? You get off the track.

If you’re crawling out of a dark cave and you see a beam of light, what do you do? You crawl toward the light.

If you know your boss is going to walk through the door at any moment, what do you do? You work like you’ve been working hard all day. (That’s actually an extreme paraphrase of one of Jesus’ parables; see Matthew 24:45-51.)

If you genuinely believe you’re going to see Jesus face-to-face one day, what do you do? You put aside sin, those things displeasing to him. You certainly put aside those things that are recurring; if you keep reading 1 John, you’ll see the author seems particularly concerned about repetitive patterns of sin.

We know how to handle situations when the end result is clear. We change our behaviors so we are aligned with future circumstances.

Here’s what we don’t want to do. We don’t want to live like the people who are oblivious about the end result. I’ll give you an example: We don’t want to be like the characters on “Seinfeld.”

Most of you who are regulars know I have a deep affinity for “Star Trek,” and I’ve promised to limit my references to that show. But what many of you don’t know is that I also love “Seinfeld.” In particular, I think the show’s final, two-part episode in 1998 was deeply theological, whether or not the writer Larry David intended it to be.

For nine seasons, the characters on the show went about their lives without ever considering the consequences of their actions. Jerry, George and Kramer wrecked women’s lives with abandon; the toxic glue on cheapskate George’s discount wedding invitations killed his fiancée, for crying out loud! Elaine was just as adept at ruining the lives of men around her.

There also was the constant lying and deceit, whether it was Jerry trying to avoid visiting his parents at Del Boca Vista in Florida or the whole group trying to get soup from the soup Nazi. And those of us who watched the series throughout loved every minute of it. As long as we’re watching fiction, it’s amusing to see people living their lives as if there is no ultimate end in view, particularly when they are so hilariously sarcastic about everything.

It was the theologian in me, however, that made me think the final episode was brilliant.

In short, Jerry, Kramer, Elaine and George find themselves far from home, in a small town that actually has what most of us consider normal values. Fictional Latham, Mass., has even gone so far as to enshrine the need to help each other in the law, requiring people to come to the aid of someone in trouble.

Seeing a very overweight man being robbed, the Seinfeld Four choose to film the event rather than helping him or calling for help. They make fun of the victim the whole time, as they’ve always been prone to do. They end up under arrest for not providing aid, and being the first people put on trial under the law, the courtroom scene turns into a spectacle.

People they have victimized over the years arrive to testify against them. Jerry stole an elderly lady’s marble rye; she’s there, and she’s still angry. The Bubble Boy explains how they nearly killed him during an argument over Trivial Pursuit. (Moors! Moops!) Teri Hatcher shows up, and that’s all a pastor can say about her character.

An old girlfriend tells how George fled an apartment fire by pushing children and an elderly woman out of the way. There are references to uromycitisis poisoning, the puffy shirt, cockfighting, and how Jerry was “all the time mocking, mocking, mocking, mocking, mocking. Now it is Abu’s time to mock!”

And of course, they are all found guilty. The series ends with them in prison. The Seinfeld universe, as weird as it was, is put right in the last episode, with goodness affirmed and badness condemned.

As complicated as he can seem, the author of 1 John is telling us how the same principle plays out in real life. We have a last episode coming. It is already written. We know whom we see when we arrive in it. The good will be affirmed, even rewarded, and the bad will be condemned.

As people who already know the story, we are called to live our lives accordingly, no matter how much we might think we are entitled to that marble rye.


The featured image is Joos van Cleve’s “Final Judgment,” circa 1520.

Conquering the World

1 John 5:1-6

This sermon may sound a little old-fashioned.

Talking about the basics of Christianity will do that to a preacher. Lately, a lot of us are more prone to talk about new ideas—clever ways to connect with the lost, or new trends in communication, which is all good stuff, of course. We have to remember, however, that the core truth about Jesus Christ doesn’t change. The author of 1 John brings us back to that core.

First, there is belief, specifically believing that Jesus is the Christ, God’s chosen redeemer for the world. In particular, we are to believe Christ’s death on the cross defeated sin, and that the resurrection is both proof of that fact and a promise regarding what is to come.

People come to believe in various ways. It is important the converted remember the unconverted may come to Christ in ways we don’t expect. I’m reminded of the story of the man who went to a hotel room to commit suicide, but instead opened a Gideon Bible and met Jesus in its pages.

Another favorite conversion story is of a man sitting in a Chicago church as a worship service opened with a full processional down the center aisle. As the crucifer—for those of you unfamiliar with more formal worship, that’s the person carrying the cross at the top of a long pole—went by, the man looked up, saw the cross and believed. No sermon, no prayer, he said later. He just knew when he saw that cross. Sounds strange to me, but it worked for him.

What is important, of course, is that we come to believe, period.

Belief allows us to be incorporated into a new family, 1 John also tells us. Again, it’s a little old-fashioned sounding, but we are “brothers and sisters.” The family metaphor doesn’t work for everyone; if momma ran off when you were a baby and daddy was a drunk, the word “family” probably sounds terrible. We’re supposed to think of the ideal version of family, however.

Look at it this way. If you had a bad family experience growing up, you can always learn about God from the negative example. How would you have liked your family to behave? Through belief, God is offering you such a family, in this life through a spiritually healthy church and in the next life in God’s full presence.

The author of 1 John goes on. In a healthy family, we abide by certain standards; for Christians, it is the commandments, the Ten Commandments and the other guidance God gives us in Scripture regarding right and wrong. In summing up the law, Jesus kept matters simple. Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbors as yourselves. Right is still right, and wrong is still wrong, but love controls how we deal with sin when it is before us.

I thought about how love fits into the conversion equation when I drove by some placard-waving Christians in downtown Kingston, Tenn., last week. The signs covered a range of issues. One asked God to bless Israel; another said homosexuality is still a sin, while a third noted, “Drunkards shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Sitting at a red light watching the scene, I was struck by an odd dichotomy. Scripturally they were correct, but from a kingdom-building perspective, being right doesn’t always mean you are helping. They mostly appeared to be an example of like attracting like and repelling those who needed a deeper relationship with Christ. Right (or perhaps simple self-righteousness) was present, but I did not see love offered.

I do like the way we as Methodists handle some of the more difficult issues requiring a careful balance of law and grace. Human sexuality, for example—in our Discipline, we call sin a sin, and we recognize unrepentant sinners shouldn’t be leaders. At the same time, however, we acknowledge that in God’s eyes, all people are worthy of grace and need access to that grace through Christian community and worship. It’s a more complicated position than many Christians try to live out, but it’s easy enough to understand, if we try.

Abortion is another example. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas and a few other writers have helped me understand how we should stop thinking we’ve dealt with the contentious issue just because we’ve entered a voting booth or courtroom. A mother responding to her pregnancy by considering abortion is a mother experiencing deep fear—fear of family, fear for her future, fear about something.

Here’s a basic question for any church: If abortion is such a serious matter in God’s eyes, what are you doing to eliminate that fear so the mother will drop abortion as an option? Have you told her she has people around her who will help? Are you willing to put the time and money in place to help her rear the child? Can you make her part of the family of Christ, too?

Once we get all these core concepts right, there is much to celebrate. As 1 John tells us, there is victory; we win! We join with God in conquering the world, ripping it from the grasp of evil and restoring it to its original, holy state. That opportunity in itself should be enough to draw people to Christ.

Yes, these ideas are old-fashioned, but in them there is good news, the kind of news that can transform anyone forever.