A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Easter 7 ~ 1 John 5:9-13
Have you ever been a witness? Maybe at a trial, or at an accident scene? A witness shares their truth. A witness says what they’ve seen, or experienced. The Greek word for witness is marturia – where we get our word ‘martyr’. So to witness is associated with a sacrifice – a suffering – that to truly bear witness costs something – requires a certain depth and courage to speak your truth. If you were to visit a southern evangelical church you might hear someone call out, “Can I get a witness?” It means a testimony, a confession of faith, a sharing of how God’s Presence has mattered in your life. So, I’ll ask my first question again: Have you ever been a witness? Given your testimony about your faith?
Our reading today begins with a defence of the reliability of a witness. But it isn’t any old witness. It isn’t you or me giving our testimony. It’s God!
1 John 5:9-10 “If we take human testimony at face value, how much more should we be reassured when God gives testimony as God does here, testifying concerning God’s Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God inwardly confirms God’s testimony. Whoever refuses to believe in effect calls God a liar, refusing to believe God’s own testimony regarding (Jesus).”
Don’t just take my word for it; take God’s word for it. It’s not just me saying this stuff, God says it – and not just in a book but in your heart. God speaks God’s testimony about Jesus into your heart – not into your ears. We talked about this a bit last week – that believing in Jesus really means beloving Jesus. Whoever beloves Jesus inwardly confirms God’s testimony.
You can’t come to this understanding any other way. Your head is the wrong tool for the job. And if you want to dive into the mystery of something like how Jesus is both fully human and fully divine your head will only take you part of the way. The proper organ for contemplating the sacred is your heart.
Why did I bring up that whole fully human/fully divine argument? – Because that’s the conflict that provoked this book of the bible in the first place. That’s what all the testimony is referring to in today’s reading. 1 John doesn’t name it outright, but it’s talking about the divinity and humanity of Jesus. Followers of Jesus have been grappling with the meaning of his life since the day he died (well, actually since two days after he died when they started having mystical experiences of his living presence).
I need to get a little philosophical on you for a few minutes. We here in the western world have been immersed in a certain mode of thinking called ‘dualism’ for, oh, about a thousand years. Dualism reduces to primarily either/or choices. We are either this or that. Right or wrong. In or out. Conservative or liberal. Leafs or Habs. Dualism provides excellent clarity and reason and is a very good thing – for some things. Sadly, it’s very bad for spirituality.
The alternative system is called non-dual thinking. Non-dual thinking operates on the both/and scale. I am both father and son. We are both rich and poor (comparatively). I can be both right and wrong at the same time. Non-dualism requires the ability to hold in tension things that appear to be contradictory but are not. It’s about nuance and interpretation and shades of grey.
A non-dual mindset doesn’t eliminate either/or choices. If I’m driving a car I need to make a dualist choice when a corner comes – I have to go either left or right. I can’t go both/and! The idea is that there are other more complicated and sophisticated ways to view the world than this or that. The west’s inability to let go of strict dualism has led us to all sorts of conflicts.
In theology one of the most profound conflicts has been about the divinity of Jesus. Is Jesus divine or human? If it’s an either/or question like that then we get in a lot of trouble. We’ve inherited an orthodox theology that asserts he’s both fully human and fully divine – and if we’re totally honest we’d probably have to admit that we don’t really believe that. The more conservative among us probably think he’s actually more divine and the more liberal among us probably think he’s more human. But if we could see the problem with a non-dual mind we’d see something wonderful.
I believe Jesus is fully divine and fully human. There is no conflict in my position – just like I can be fully a father and fully a son at the same time. Now here’s the really interesting part. If we grew up in the eastern wing of the church (like say, the Eastern Orthodox church) rather than the western wing we would have grown up with a theological understanding called theosis. The spiritual goal of someone in the eastern church is to become ever more divine! That’s what theosis means – to partake of the divine nature, to become divine. That may even sound a bit sacrilegious to us.
You see, they understand a great spiritual truth that we mostly miss. Jesus is fully human and fully divine – and we’re neither one! Think about that for a second. We’re neither fully divine nor fully human! That means we are partially divine. We have divinity in us. Genesis 1 says we’re made in the image of God. We have Godstuff in us, and that Godstuff is designed to be grown and enhanced. Our wonderful, awesome, joyful task on this journey of faith is to become more divine, more holy, more like Jesus.
But think what else that says. It also says that we are not fully human! We are less human than we could be. Doesn’t that ring true? I think we in the west have tended to think of ourselves as ‘all too human’ or as seeing our humanness as being a barrier to spirituality. I’m suggesting that our problem is that we’re not human enough! We’re not all human and no divinity, we’re some of each – and that means we have room to grow in each. You can become divine! And you can become more fully human!!! Jesus was fully both – I’m fully neither.
And here’s the big payoff: as I become more divine I become more human, and vice-versa. The rising tide floats both boats.
For me that’s a really powerful way to envisage the spiritual journey – and that was precisely the problem in the context of 1 John. A group had decided that Jesus was all divinity and no humanity and that their job was to align with the one and not the other. The writer of 1 John tried to call them back to a both/and.
In a nutshell, the entire book of 1 John comes down to this one verse. 1 John 5:11 “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in God’s Son.”
So to understand this book, and arguably the heart of Christian theology, one first has to have an understanding of what ‘eternal life’ means and then what it means that “this life (eternal life) is in Jesus.”
Let’s start with the word life – which for us carries several meanings. Life can refer to the biological difference between being alive and dead, but that’s not what’s meant here. The Greek word for life in this passage is zoe. It means vitality, animation. It’s not the opposite of death; it’s more about the quality of the living. Abundant life!
Now, what does eternal mean? Never ending, always existing. So, eternal life doesn’t mean you never die; eternal life means your vitality and animation never cease. Your quality of being goes on and on. Some Christian theology suggests that eternal life starts when you physically die. I think that’s profoundly mistaken. Eternal life has nothing to do with my physical death – it has everything to do with my spiritual life. Eternal life starts NOW. And here’s the best part: You’ve already got it! You, as a follower of Jesus – as a belover of Jesus – are already immersed in eternal life.
Listen to the rest of that verse: 1 John 5:11 “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in God’s Son.” God gave us eternal life – so we have it, it’s ours, we possess it, it’s here – “and this life is in God’s Son”. What does that mean? Well, it doesn’t mean that it’s just in the person of Jesus, as if he was the only one who enjoys eternal life.
So what does “eternal life is IN Jesus” mean? It’s a curious phrase. I think it means that if you want to know what eternal life looks like you should look at Jesus because he utterly and completely embodies it. What does eternal life look like? – Jesus! Fully divine as the quintessential embodiment of the Spirit of God (we call that incarnation) – and fully human as he lived out that God-infused life. Both/and.
If Jesus is just human he’s nothing special and his Way doesn’t matter to me. If Jesus is just divine I could never hope to be like him so his Way is impossible for me. But if he’s both, and I am too (although not fully like him), then his Way can be my Way – in fact, his Way must be my Way.
You too have eternal life. But it’s not something to be possessed or saved for later; it’s something to be lived in the here and now. Divine and human. Spiritual and practical. Prayer and outreach. Eternal life in Jesus means abundant life for you and me in the here and now. Fantastic! Now what shall we do with it?
One of my mentors accidentally said one of the most profound things I ever heard. He was preaching a message similar to this one and he wanted to emphasize that Jesus acted on his spirituality. On the image projected onto the screen at the church he had meant to type the words “Jesus lived it out!” – but he had a wonderful typo and what was projected was “Jesus loved it out!”
That’s what eternal life looks like in Jesus – he loved it out! And his Way is supposed to be our Way. So we are called to love it out too! We started with the idea of testimony. Living out your faith – Loving out your faith – is the greatest testimony and example of eternal life!
Our lifelong, ever-deepening journey of faith – our striving to become both more fully human and more fully divine (like Jesus) – is encapsulated by the idea that we need to ‘love it out’. We follow the path of Jesus, emulating both his divinity in his oneness with God, and his humanity in his passion for serving others.
I haven’t used the word Easter very much this Easter season, but I’m hoping that you can see that Easter – renewed life in Christ – is exactly what this has been all about. These five weeks have been a celebration of the transformative power of the love of God for those who open themselves to the blessing, respond to it, realize where it comes from, stand under its authority, and embody it by living out their transformation. That’s about as Eastery as I can get!
If we can learn to open ourselves to God’s love and let it transform us then we embody Easter. And as Easter people, becoming both more fully human and more fully divine, we take our testimony to the world as we breathe in God’s love and then love it out.