April 12, 2015 First Sunday After Easter
Isaiah 43:1-12, Psalm 66, 1 St. John 5:4-13, St. John 20:19-23
A historian summed up the world in a paragraph:
The average lifespan of its great civilizations, he said, was about 200 years. Virtually without exception, they passed through the same cycle: from bondage to spiritual faith, from spiritual faith to great courage, from great courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to leisure, from leisure to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence to weakness, from weakness back to bondage.
In the beginning, bondage; in the end, bondage. Such are the state and the fate of a world that spins on an axis of evil.
But take heart, Christian, “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith.”
We have it from no less a personage than the Apostle John. And it bears notice that he is believed to have lived the longest of the 12, into the last decade of the first century. And so he saw more of the post-crucifixion, post-resurrection, post-ascension world than any of his colleagues; he saw more of the rot of sin after God’s departure from His creation than the others . . . and yet he did not despair.
Nor may we. For we are born of God, and whatever is born of God overcomes the world. The forlorn state of the world around us should provoke in us neither panic nor bereavement but greater patience . . . for God’s victory is in the books and it will not be reversed.
Our epistle lesson today is one of those passages for which many trees have died to advance the publication of scholarly opinion. Faith overcomes the world and leads to eternal life. Water, blood, Holy Spirit, God the Father so testify.
Faith in what? That Jesus is the Son of God. Here it is again, the first creed of the church. Bulletin, right? But in the age of the apostles this truth was just beginning to settle into the soil. Far more, proportionally speaking, needed convincing than in our day.
John’s particular concern in his first letter is a party called the secessionists. They were gentiles who carried a history in the mystery religions into the church. They taught that the divine sperma – seed – had descended on the man Jesus at His baptism, and only then did he begin to share in the divine nature.
They believed that they, too, had received that divine nature in their baptisms and were immune to sin. For them, Jesus’ baptism was the critical event of His life on earth, His incarnation and crucifixion of lesser importance.
While they had already seceded from the church, they continued to press their heretical teachings on those who remained in the church. John‘s purpose in his letter is to erect a firewall of truth around this so-far faithful remnant.
So, did this Jesus come by water, as the secessionists claim? Indeed He did. He did undergo baptism and, using His apostles as His agents, He baptized others. But we must not stop there. He came “not only by water, but by water and blood.”
This is God incarnate, the deity who entered the world in human form – flesh and blood – and shared the human condition with us. To defeat death He had to die, and so He did, shedding blood as red and real as yours and mine.
By this blood shed on His cross, He made atonement for our sins; John will not allow the secessionists’ repudiation of the atonement to go unchallenged. If he had, you and I might never have heard the gospel.
But wait, there’s more. The Holy Spirit is another witness. In 1 John the Spirit’s role is to testify to believers of the truth they have heard from the beginning.
The water, blood and Spirit agree in their witness. But wait, there’s more. God – speaking now of the Father – testifies as well, and His witness is greater than man’s. He testifies through human witnesses; the testimony believers have inside them is the truth they have heard from eyewitnesses and internalized.
The secessionists do not believe God’s witness that the Son has come by water and blood. This is the fifth time in the letter that the apostle calls them out as liars or for making God a liar. They reject the witness of God Himself, who has given eternal life, and this life is in His Son.
We have the Son? How? By believing in Him.
But there’s more here than meets the eye. We must consider truth, beginning, witness, life and eternality.
Pontius Pilate asked famously, “What is truth?” He suffered from myopia. Our first concern should be of our readiness to contend with truth. In “Momma,” a comic strip, Mrs. Hobbs is entertaining her perpetual suitor, Mr. K. Frankly.
Frankly, Mr. Frankly’s chief attribute is persistence. As they sit on the couch, he says, “Mrs. Hobbs, I am at a low ebb, psychologically. My ego is flattened.”
Mrs. Hobbs says gently, by way of affirmation, “Let me hasten to state that you’re a fine, interesting and attractive man.”
At this, he perks up and asks, “Oh, Mrs. Hobbs, is that the truth?”
“No,” she replies truthfully. “There’ll be plenty of time for the truth when you’re emotionally stronger.”
Nowadays, truth is what tickles your fancy, trips your wire, floats your boat. Truth is not imposed from above but experienced within. It supplies the answers . . . not the answers that save us but the answers that serve us.
Truth is our ageless puppy, forever licking our hand, never maturing into the snarling dog which bares his fangs and confronts us.
In the Bible, truth never sits on the fence, seeks your approval, tries to seduce you. She’s as dazzling bright as the desert sun at noonday, scorching away all impurity until only God’s word remains, beckoning the faithful heart and accusing the pretender.
And in the Bible, truth is that which was in the beginning. Like Paul, John is at pains to refer his readers early and often to that which was in the beginning. In the church’s infancy, her teachers were the apostles, those men who had slogged the dusty roads of Palestine with our Lord, absorbing His wisdom.
They received and published the gospel in its purest form. Only later did innovators like the secessionists appear with their heresies. Those who teach a different gospel are not to be trusted; their teachings must be rejected for the welfare of the flock.
Our heritage as Anglicans is the truth that was in the beginning, viewed through a Reformation grid. It matters what took place in the beginning. It matters that we are connected to it.
Follow your shepherd – but only insofar as he remains faithful to the apostles’ teaching. The secessionists claimed enlightenment by the Holy Spirit . . . but this enlightenment of theirs refuted the truth of Christ, a truth to which God Himself testified.
The truth that was in the beginning is worthy of our witness. A little boy attended Sunday school for the first time. On the way home after church his mother asked him who his teacher was.
“I can’t remember her name,” said the wee one, “but she must be Jesus’ grandmother because she didn’t talk about anybody else.”
We must bear witness. The Greek word underlying “witness” is “marturia.” We get “martyr” from it because in those early days to bear witness was often to be martyred. This word and its verb form appear 113 times in the New Testament and more than half of those occurrences are in John’s gospel and his letters.
In the letters, its purpose is in ferreting out the errors of those such as the secessionists by holding them up to the mirror of truth preached from the beginning and attested by God Himself.
In the world, the cycle keeps rotating: from bondage to spiritual faith, from spiritual faith to great courage, from great courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to leisure, from leisure to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence to weakness, from weakness back to bondage.
To overcome the world we must have faith and faith comes through the witness of the truth, the truth that was in the beginning. This overcoming is expressed in the original by the verb “nikao,” from which we derive “Nike,” the name of the lovely Greek goddess of victory and obscenely overpriced American sneakers.
The verb occurs twice in v. 4, in different tenses, indicating both an in-the-moment rejection of false teaching and an ongoing process of flexing our faith in Jesus as God the Son. This is the truth the world must hear through our witness.
In this truth is our life. In 1 John, eternal life is not merely an extension of this life beyond the grave but our being in Christ and our having Christ in us today and for all our tomorrows. Last week, we listened as Paul taught us in his letter to the Colossians about “Christ who is our life” and that “your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
It is not yet fully revealed but it is no less real today. John would have us know that “he who has the Son has life.”
How do we “have” Him? By believing in Him. This is how we experience “having” Christ . . . but there’s more to it than that. Because He is in us, this Son who is life, His life is ours. Because His life is ours we are not only fellow heirs of the kingdom of God with Him but partakers in His victory over Satan, sin and death.
Because Christ the Victor dwells within us, His triumph is our triumph.
And so it is that we have eternal life. But, like life, eternality is a complicated proposition. We can get dewy-eyed thinking of eternal life but let’s pause for a reality check. Eternality is as readily a curse as a blessing.
All will know it. Some will experience the resurrection unto salvation and some will pass through the resurrection unto damnation. Eternality is not a never-ending roller-coaster ride at the world’s fair.
As John deploys them in his letter, “life” and “eternal life” are synonyms and they refer to the very life of God that is ours today and for all our tomorrows. We find some clues to this understanding in the “abiding” texts John’s gospel, beginning with 6:51:
“He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.”
Those are the words of Jesus, this Jesus who arrived as the Son of God. The secessionists were among the first to challenge that claim but they are far from the last. Everyone from President Jefferson to a cast of ayatollahs have joined their dissent.
And so this is the faith that overcomes the world, belief that Jesus is God wearing flesh. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who was a believer, developed a story to explain the incarnation.
“A certain king was very rich. His power was known throughout the world. But he was most unhappy, for he desired a wife. Without a queen, his vast palace seemed as empty as a courtier’s praise.
“One day, while riding through the streets of a village, he saw a fetching peasant girl. So lovely was she that the king’s heart ached. His desire for her flared at once into passion. On succeeding days, he would ride by her house on the mere hope of seeing her for a moment in passing.
“He wondered how he might win her love. He thought, ‘I will draw up a royal decree and require her to be brought before me to become the queen of my land.’ But as he considered he realized that she was a subject and would feel compelled to obey. He could never be certain he had won her love.
“Then, he said to himself, ‘I shall call on her in person. I will dress in my finest royal garb, wear my diamond rings, my silver sword, my shiny black boots, and my most colorful tunic. I will overwhelm her and sweep her off her feet to become my bride.’
“But as he pondered the idea he realized he would always wonder whether she had married him for the riches and power he could give her.
“Then he decided to dress as a peasant, drive to the outskirts of the village and have his carriage let him off. In disguise, he would approach her house. But, somehow the duplicity of this plan did not appeal to him.
“At last, he knew what he must do. He would shed his royal robes. He would go to the village and become one of the peasants. He would work and suffer with them. He would actually become a peasant. This he did.
“And he won his wife.”
So wrote Kierkegaard.
Beloved, our King condescended and made Himself one of us to lift us up from the dust and to make us, the church, His bride. Yet He never ceased to be God. Our trust in that truth is the faith that overcomes the world. Amen.