First Reading Acts 10:44-48
Second Reading 1 John 5:1-6
Gospel Reading John 15:9-17
Sermon: “Living our Faith”
Benjamin Franklin was quite famous for his collections of proverbs and wise sayings. Though it is far older than he, one that he popularized demonstrates a step by step progression to a surprising conclusion. It goes like this:
“For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For want of a rider the message was lost
For the want of a message the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.”
Each step leads to the next, leading to a very real conclusion. We like things like that. Logical – linear – and common sensical. However John the elder is going to make us work quite a bit harder this morning. To understand the basic structure, We take the sequential pattern of Franklin’s proverb – Turn the pattern of successive loses upside down – into successive gifts and victories – and bring it into a never ending, ascending spiral and you have the pattern of our 1st John passage this morning. Each phrase links into the next.
In Benjamin Franklin’s proverb, it begins with a nail and step by logical step, it proceeds to lost shoe, lost horse, lost rider, lost message and subsequently a lost battle and ends with a lost kingdom. But in John’s wonderfully gracious yet confusing stepwise logic, we begin with faith in Jesus as the son of God and end with faith in Jesus, gaining victory on the way! Open your Bibles to 1 John chapter 5, verse 1, if you will, so you can follow along on this logic picture. We begin with Verse 1: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.”
Already, John makes us think. The first part is familiar enough – By faith in Jesus Christ we are given a great gift – we talked about this a couple of weeks ago when we were in chapter 3:1 “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” John takes this bedrock statement and begins to work with it – New life, through faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior – all the gracious gift of God and it comes with an additional gift – God claims us as God’s own. We are claimed as God’s children. Naturally, those so claimed, seek to return that love. And so John proceeds to add “and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.” Here immediately, we are presented with two possibilities. Obviously the parent is God, but Jesus is the son of God and we are also children of God through faith in Jesus. So whom are we to love? It seems here the intended answer is both. Love for our Savior is assumed and so John sends us down the branch we might possibly neglect – love for our spiritual sisters and brothers – the other children of God.
Verse 2 follows this branch: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” Now, previously, we have learned that John views love, not as an emotional state but rather as a pattern of behavior. Love is what we live. Loving is how we live and love is the rational behind our decisions. John tightly links love for God, the gracious giver of new life, with love for his children AND with obedience to God’s commandments. We love each other best and most truly when that love grows out of our relationship with and love for God. As John said before: “We love, because God first loved us.” In case we missed his point, he states it explicitly in verse 3 “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”
So then, loving God means honoring God’s priorities and directions for the sake of that love. The commandments point us to the proper treatment of others, (i.e. not lying or cheating, not coveting, honoring Mother and Father) its how we demonstrate our love. That’s why John can say – those commands are not burdensome. You may of course recall that some of Jesus’ sharpest comments during his ministry were directed at the Pharisees. Yet they were the very group most dedicated to trying to live out the commands of God. So what’s up with that? It seems we have a contradiction here.
What’s changed? The answer is Jesus, of course, and the new command we have from him: “love one another”. Jesus taught, as we mentioned last week, that the two greatest commandments are these: (Mark 12:29-31 NRSV) “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Those commandments are eternal, they have not changed. The Pharisees agreed with Jesus’ summary, yet they had missed the central principle. When St Augustine commented on these verses, he wrote these challenging words: “With love, the faith of a Christian, without love, the faith of a devil.” The devil absolutely believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. But it is not a saving faith.
Jesus told the Pharisees: (Luke 11:42 NRSV) “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.” They had gotten caught up in keeping the law for the laws sake, not for love. That’s why they were upset when Jesus healed on the Sabbath and failed to engage in the minutia of their religious traditions.
Let me pause here for a moment to let that sink in and to lift up our present days to this standard. What Jesus said to the Pharisees of old, he would also say to some aspects of the church today. When we value legality and over peace and justice for the lost and the least we neglect the law of love and our faith fails to bear fruit. When we value tradition over love we err. Our society faces division and endless strife because we endlessly invent terms and categories to separate and distinguish one group from the other and claim that this one (which we belong to) is better than all the rest. That is the pattern of our world and straight from the pages of scripture we know that to be a lie. We owe all our standing to one thing alone – not where we were born, not the color of our skin, not the balance in our bank account, not who we know – save only one – but only by the wonderful truth that we are claimed by God through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our response must be love for God and love for all his children.
Why did Jesus seek the will of His Father so earnestly? – for love – both for love of His Father, and for love of us. You see, those who know God, through His Son Jesus, have been made new – transformed – and so they are able and motivated to live a righteous life. That’s what Verse 4 speaks of when it describes the victory of the Christian life over the temptations and false priorities of the world: (1 John 5:4 NRSV) “for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. “
Verse 5 brings us back full circle: (1 John 5:5 NRSV) “Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” Saving faith in Jesus Christ was our starting point, the model and guide for the journey, and the means through which we are granted the power of the Holy Spirit to make Godly decisions and live according to God’s will. Faith is not a thing to itself. Faith must point to Jesus to have true power. Its an ever ascending circular path – revolving around the center of our lives Faith in Christ Jesus, bound tightly by the cords of love. Belief, belonging, love, obedience, and victory around flow around this center in a continuous never ending stream, driven by the grace of God. It might make us a bit dizzy trying to keep up with it, but I doubt that John is tempted to apologize for that, for no one can truly comprehend the grace of God in Jesus. All we get to do is to say thank you and live out that gratitude in love.
John finishes this section reminding us of the wonderful ways we are connected to Jesus – the one who comes to us through water and blood. First, the cleansing, claiming waters of baptism, with its literal symbolism of new birth as from the womb. Secondly, the saving death and glorious resurrection of our Lord which we celebrate again today. Fount and Table – a beginning and sustenance for the journey that has its end only in the presence of our risen Lord. We are claimed as we heard last week – just like the Ethiopian Eunuch, we abide in Christ as branches on the true vine.
One commentator asks this series of questions: Who is it that can take on the world? Who can live as Christ lived in faith and freedom? Who can persist through challenge and trial? Who can change things for the better for those they encounter from all walks of life? Who can dwell in love, mercy, and grace?
The one who believes and lives out that belief. And this can be each and every one of us, despite our insecurities, perceived faults, or any other mode of self-doubt. The atoning sacrifice of Jesus changes everything. He is the one who comes by water and blood, incarnation and forgiveness, and indeed transforms the world around us. But he also graces us with life, inspiration, and a calling to which we must respond.
The chain of events we began with (for want if a nail…) ends in disaster, but the sequence laid out for us by John begins with love, proceeds to grace, blossoms into faith, grows into obedience, produces fruit, which bears the seeds of love and by such a gracious spiral culminates in the Kingdom of God and life eternal. Thanks be to God.