A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Easter 6 ~ 1 John 5:1-7
Jesus didn’t teach outside of his own small geographic region. His unique gift was a spiritual reform of his own religious tradition – Judaism – a reform that eventually took its own form and grew. One of the problems for us though, and this can be a real danger for us, is that we are light years away from 1st Century Jerusalem. The lives we lead in Europe and North America are totally removed from the ancient cultural roots of the life and context that Jesus knew.
It used to be (at least, this is what people always say, I’m not so sure it ever really was) that this was a Christian country. That meant that apparently, once upon a time, everyone here was Christian – and you became Christian by osmosis – you just soaked it in culturally.
But here’s the thing. You can’t become a follower of any faith by osmosis. It cannot happen willy-nilly and by accident. To be a Christian, to be a follower of the Way of Jesus, requires a decision, a reorientation of your life, a moment when you say, “I do.” A cultural Christian isn’t a Christian at all – they’re just Christian-esque. You know the old joke – standing in a church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than standing in a garage makes you a car. A follower of Jesus has to choose to follow.
I don’t mean that you have to have a lightning-bolt experience of awakening to God’s presence with angel choirs and lots of cool special effects in order to be a Christian. Lots of people never experience a big bang – they have more of a slow burn. But again, you have to choose to burn.
Why am I making such a big deal of this? – Because it makes all the difference in the world. You can read any philosophy or teaching and take it or leave it, but to be a person of faith is to give your life to something, and some-one.
In the Christian faith the defining moment is called a confession of faith. Since the earliest days people became part of the church by doing 2 things – being baptized and making a confession of faith. It doesn’t mean you have all the right answers, it simply means you’re choosing to give your life to a certain type of journey, defined by a certain journeyer named Jesus.
Don’t be scared off by that phrase ‘a confession of faith.’ Confession means to speak out loud what’s on your heart. It’s about honestly and openly saying, “Yup, that’s me. That’s what I feel. I’m all in!”
What would a confession of faith have looked like in the first century? There were no creeds yet to give assent to, no orthodoxy to adhere to, no denominations to become members of – so what makes a confession of faith? The church’s 1st confession of faith was only 3-words long. It went like this: Jesus is Lord!
Jesus is Lord; therefore Jesus has authority in my life. Lord is an interesting word whose meaning has shifted over time. It commonly means ruler or master, but a more nuanced definition includes the ideas of authority, a leader, a superior (as in mother superior), a person of high standing and therefore due respect.
The etymology of the word is really cool. In Middle English it was spelled loverd – and the oldest version literally means bread-keeper – the guardian of the loaf – an obvious association for us with the Eucharist. So our confession of faith is Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the bread-keeper.
In the beginning saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ was very rebellious and counter-cultural because it meant you were thumbing your nose at the powers that be who demanded you say ‘Caesar is Lord’. Curiously, for us ‘Jesus is Lord’ is once again a subversive thing to assert and claim. A confession of faith is laying claim to something powerful and life changing that makes you want to claim the teaching as your own. That’s why confessing your faith is a critical and important step on the journey.
What’s your confession of faith?
A problem that we run into in the 21st century church is that for too long faith has been too narrowly defined and understood as being all about intellectual assent to a set of theological propositions known as orthodoxy. Faith’s not about mental ideas – it’s about soulful yielding – a spiritual experience of sacred Presence… It’s about trust and commitment and love.
Faith’s not a head thing, it’s a heart thing.
Because the biblical times are so far removed from our current paradigm for living it puts extra pressure on trying to come to grips with that root culture in scripture. For example, as the earliest Jewish-based Christians sought to put language on their experience of Jesus they described him in the ultimate, highest terms they could fathom – a perfect sacrifice to God that wiped clean their entire sacrificial system – the lamb of God. It doesn’t get higher than that. But this is a problem for us because we have no clue what the sacrificial system was like. It just seems primitive and barbaric to us. So their main metaphors for describing who Jesus was for them and what Jesus meant for them don’t generally resonate for us.
So what do we do? We make it an intellectual exercise instead. We make it about theology because we don’t get their culture. We can’t easily put ourselves in their sandals. I think we’d be a whole lot better off if we focused less on what they said about Jesus and more on what Jesus himself said.
Now, after all that preamble, I can get to the main message of the scripture reading for this morning. It begins: Every person who believes that Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah, is God-begotten. (1 John 5:1)
That’s just another way of saying, ‘Jesus is Lord.’ That’s what it means to believe in Jesus. Believing isn’t about intellectual assent to propositions about Jesus – it actually originally means to ‘belove’. Believing is actually beloving. Beloving Jesus is to be in relationship with Jesus – and for us as followers of his Way that relationship is defined by claiming that Jesus is Lord – loverd, bread-keeper, the one we willingly yield to.
The constant refrain of 1 John is that loving God is fantastic – it’s great – it’s the foundation – but it’s not the end, it’s just the beginning. Claiming God’s love demands a response, and that response is to love. We’re moved to say, “God is Love, and because love first loved me, I love God!” Today’s reading says, “Ok, that’s nice – now prove it!”
1 John 5:3 The proof that we love God comes when we keep (God’s) commandments, and they are not at all (burdensome).
Here’s the main point of today’s message: To Love God is to obey the commandments. Obviously, we have to know what those commandments are! So, what are the commandments?
Well, there’s the 613 commandments in Jewish law (365 don’ts and 248 dos) – there’s the big 10 that Moses got that we talked about a month or so ago – and then there are the 3 commandments that Jesus himself taught: Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul; Love your neighbour as you love yourself; and to his followers he said Love one another as I have loved you.
In short: Love God, Love People, Love One Another – Love, Love, Love – which we emphasize all the time!
How do we show we love God? We keep God’s commandments – we love, love, love. Well, are you?
Are you loving God through worship, spirituality/prayer, and learning?
Are you loving people through outreach and compassion, justice work, and faithvertising/(evangelism)?
Are you Loving One Another through participating in church life, mutuality in relationships, and support of the church and each other?
That’s the test. The proof is in the loving. There are a lot of things in that list I just rhymed off. I hope that doesn’t feel like a burden. A labour of love maybe, but not a burden.
Although, it needs to be said, it’s one thing to say these things and another to actually, really, deeply do them. Take loving people, for example. Sounds simple – but in real life loving people ain’t easy! (Have you met some people???)
Another question may be floating around here. Why bother? Why should I? I mean, ‘keep the commandments, and love people’ sounds like pretty basic stuff. We know all this already. Hmm, if only knowing something was enough. Think beyond church.
How do you become healthy and fit? Eat less and move more, right? Everyone knows that. It’s a truism. If I piled a hundred diet or exercise books here in the end they’d all agree with that truism – eat less and move more and you’ll likely be healthier. So why aren’t we all buff? The message is true, but it isn’t persuasive for us for some reason. The authority isn’t strong enough for us to enact the message, even though we know it’s good and true. I suppose if our doctor told us to eat less and move more or we’ll suffer terrible consequences we might be more apt to listen – because the doctor has more authority for us.
The higher the authority the more likely the teaching is to take hold. That’s not about power and threats – it’s about respect and reverence. If you want to show that you love God you follow the commandments. Before we listen to Jesus’ teaching about commandments we need to accept his authority – his worthiness of being listened to. Confession of faith precedes following the teaching. It’s easy to say, “to love God is to obey the commandments”, but without a confession of faith, without that soulful yielding – that ‘Jesus is Lord’ – undergirding and enlivening your walk, it will be virtually impossible to do much obeying. We don’t like to yield authority. We like to be our own authority, thank you very much.
To obey the commandments – to love God, and people, and one another – means to conquer the world – which really means to overcome your ego.
1 John 5:4 Every God-begotten person conquers/overcomes the world’s ways. The conquering power that brings the world to its knees is our faith.
The world’s way is self-interest. While we need to look after ourselves, and love ourselves, when we focus on self-interest it usually means we’re not doing a great job on love, love, love. If we’re focusing on self-interest we are naming ourselves, our comfort, our finances, and our immediate needs and desires as the highest authority. And if we’re living the love commandments we’re probably finding ways to put the interests of others, or even our own long-term selves, ahead of the world’s ways.
You’d think churches would understand all this – and yet we see on the news examples of churches that are suing to stay open during Covid – supposedly so they can love God, but clearly failing to love others. But that’s pointing fingers out there – how about looking in the mirror?
How about some personal examples of overcoming the world’s ways: willingness to shoulder the higher initial costs of wind, solar, and electric power even though gas is cheaper – eating less meat because the environmental cost of the support network for meat is so high – naming and owning our privilege and society’s systemic racism problems even when it makes me feel uneasy and I could probably avoid the issue if I tried. Loving has to be much more than just a casserole.
Every God-begotten person conquers/overcomes the world’s ways. The conquering power that brings the world to its knees is our faith.
(And v.5) The person who wins out over the world’s ways is simply the one who believes (beloves/ gives their heart to/ trusts that, for them) Jesus is (authority/ teacher/ master/ guru/ sensei) Lord.
Every God-begotten person – that means you and me. As people of faith, people of spirit, we are born of God. We are born of love. We are born in love. And we are born for love. Being born of-in-and-for-love is how we overcome the world’s ways – and our loving is empowered by our yielding our own authority to the authority of Jesus.
Last week I ended my message with these same words I’m going to end this week’s, but today I’m adding one more. 1 John is all about helping us appreciate and know that God is love, and that we who abide in God and allow God to abide in us are love too. And love, which we are, must love. We are born in-of-and-for love. So here’s the big finish:
God is love! So love!
Why? Because Jesus!