Abiding in belief (1 John 4)

Are you sure you’re saved?  All of us, I suspect, have asked ourselves this question at some time or another.  If you’re anything like me, you might have prayed the “sinner’s prayer” a few dozen times just to make sure that one of your salvations “took,” kinda like sending that sweater through the wash again just to be sure that stain’s out.

We’ve been talking this week about “abiding.”  Abiding means staying close to Jesus, to immerse ourselves in his character and his teaching.  So how can we be really sure we “abide?”

YOUR OWN PERSONAL JESUS

No one, not even the Beatles, will ever be more famous or more widely known than Jesus Christ.  He is the central figure of all human history.  Even our calendars are organized around the periods of “B.C” (“before Christ”) and “A.D.” (annulus Dei, the “year of our Lord”).

But who is this man?  What do we say about him?  As much as religion has been pushed to the corners and margins of our society, it’s a pretty safe bet that your friends and neighbors might echo many of the cultural assumptions that circulate about Jesus.  From the “Jesus fish” on your minivan to the “Jesus is my homeboy” t-shirts sold at Urban Outfitters, Jesus stands somewhere between fashion statement and cultural icon.  Rapper Kanye West famously appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine with a crown of thorns, promoting his hit song “Jesus Walks.”

Years ago the question we were asking was: “Should we believe in Jesus or not?”  High-minded academics used to describe themselves standing at the edge of “an ugly broad ditch.”  On one side was the Christ of history.  On the other stood the Christ of faith.  They could believe in a historical man named Jesus, but…miracles?  Resurrection?  These proved too difficult to believe.  But today’s world has made the jump, it seems.  We’ve leapt across the ditch only to find ourselves in a hall of mirrors.  Everyone has “their own personal Jesus,” a personalized savior for a nation of rugged individuals. And so we find ourselves like the Roman guard of Oscar Wilde’s play about the life of Christ: “[Jesus] is everywhere,” he tells King Herod, “and we cannot find him.”

ABIDING AND BELIEF

We can’t possibly say enough about the similarities between our world and the ancient one. John was writing from the city of Ephesus.  But even the believers living in the city understood only the teachings of John the Baptist:

And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” (Acts 19:1-3)

They had the part, not the whole.  Paul had to explain to them that John’s baptism only pointed toward someone greater—Jesus himself.  It was this sort of halfway-religious world that John found himself in, though John would see both Peter and Paul die while he carried on.  Perhaps motivated by this, perhaps urged on by friends, John penned a biography of Jesus that we now know as the gospel of John.  But John wrote other parts of our Bibles as well, such as the enigmatic book of Revelation and a series of letters we know as “1, 2, and 3 John.”

The first letter John wrote was about this exact topic.  The people in John’s world believed in Jesus, yes, but their image of Jesus was shaped by cultural forces and personal expectation.  If you read 1 John, you see that much of what John writes is a swirling meditation on the unity between proper belief and Christian conduct.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. (1 John 4:13-15)

You’ll notice, of course, that John uses the same image here of “abiding” in Christ.  And what evidence does John give for knowing we abide?  Because we have the Spirit, he tells us; the same Spirit the believers that Paul had encountered didn’t even know about.  But John continues.  He emphasizes that proper belief in Jesus is the key to abiding.  To believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man—this is, according to John, the starting point of an abiding relationship with God.

Christianity is a religion of belief, not works.  We know this, and yet we may often feel tempted to think ourselves unworthy of God’s love because we lack the right credentials, or because we just don’t feel spiritual enough.  Maybe we even wrestle with repeated sins, feeling disqualified from active faith because we can never seem to get it right.  All of these things are worthy to address as we mature in our faith.  But they are not the measurements of our faith.  The assurance of our salvation is not the quality or quantity of our faith; it’s the object of our faith.  Understanding who Jesus is—that is, knowing him to be God in human skin—this is the essential foundation of our faith.  Why?  Because only God could go to the cross to offer an infinite sacrifice to pay our infinite debt, and God must do this as a human being to atone for the sin of Adam.

Faith produces confidence.  Theology—the act of studying and learning about God—isn’t just an exercise of ivory-tower academics.  It’s for all of us.  Just as food means more to those who are hungry, just as air means more to those who are choking, so does faith mean more to those who are doubting. For doubt is not the opposite of faith.  No, the opposite of faith is actually speculation, the art of bending the truth to fit our own private assumptions and felt needs.  Doubt is not the opposite of faith, but its absence.  And so in the darkness of our mind’s eye, Christ’s truth shines with clarity, with radiance, with beauty.

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Love in the rWorld (1 John 4)

The promise of the iWorld was personal fulfillment, but instead it only brought self-interest and absorption.  An addiction, in a way, to love—or at least to some selfish version of it.  Though he was speaking of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville famously said his greatest fear was that “amid all the constant trivial preoccupations of private life, ambition may lose both its force and its greatness, that human passions may grow gentler and at the same time baser.”[1]  Is this not precisely what’s become of love?  The danger of the iWorld is not that we love too much; the problem is that we love too little.  And what we often call “love” is indeed “baser,” a cruel imposter of what God originally intended.  The human heart cannot find satisfaction within itself, or within a culture constantly insisting we “look within.”  It is the “rWorld,” the world of relationship, that our hearts will find their truest home.

GOD’S DEFINITION OF LOVE

John was one of Jesus’ earliest and closest followers.  For John, Jesus was a teacher, a mentor, a friend.  But most of all, Jesus was God in the flesh—a theme that would become a repeated emphasis in John’s writings.  Because Jesus was fully God yet fully man, he alone could demonstrate what love truly was.  So when John’s culture became saturated by various rival forms of spirituality, he would lift up the person of Jesus as the model by which we measure all religious claims.

With love it was no different.  Love takes a prominent role in John’s letter to the ancient Church.  Most significantly, John understood that human love could not be understood outside the context of God’s love.

Beloved,  let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:7-12)

If Simon May points us toward understanding love as “rootedness,” then nowhere else can the human soul find root than in its source, in the very character of its Creator.  In his commentary on John’s letters, C.H. Dodd writes that everything God does is sourced in love.  “If he creates, he creates in love; if he rules, he rules in love; if he judges, he judges in love.” [2]  Therefore, to know God—through the work of Jesus—is to become transformed by love.

THE TRANSFORMED SELF

We shouldn’t ignore the fact that John embeds such rich theology in his passage on love.  In verse 10 John specifies that Jesus’ role was “to be the propitiation for our sins.”  Propitiation, at its simplest, means to satisfy God’s anger toward human selfishness and sin.  Through the cross, Jesus died the death that we deserve so that we can receive the approval we don’t deserve.  That’s love, John says.  The cross, the horrific symbol of suffering and death—that’s the way that God shows his love to the world.

The “rWorld” begins and ends in the character of God.  Have you never wondered why God ever chose to create human beings in the first place?  The answer, says C.S. Lewis, is love. 

“The doctrine that God was under no necessity to create is not a piece of dry scholastic speculation.  It is essential….God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing…the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up….Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.”[3]

Can you see why this might be objectionable to an “iWorld?”  In a world ruled by self, I don’t want “propitiation.”  Such a word implies that I’m somehow unworthy “just the way I am.”  No; I don’t want mercy—I want affirmation.  I don’t want sacrifice—I want my significance to be recognized.

By now we’ve surely examined all the ways such self-interest leaves us empty and cold.  The iWorld was consumed with the discovered self.  The rWorld concerns itself with the transformed self.  The stark ugliness of the cross must therefore represent the crucifixion of the ego (cf. Galatians 2:20), as well as the promise that life does not consist of self-absorption.  While reflecting on this truth, a German writer once wrote that the cross “sets him free from his inhuman hubris to restore his true nature.  It makes the Homo incurvatus in se [man turned inward upon himself open to God and his neighbor, and gives Narcissus the power to love someone else.”[4]

We can’t help, then, to see that love is something of a paradox.  It anchors us, yet sets us free.  It makes the soul lighter yet more substantial.  It turns our focus outward toward others, yet multiplies our affections rather than spread them thin.

THE rWORLD AND HUMAN SEXUALITY

By now you’ve surely understood that our discussion of “love” has been somewhat introductory to the topics that follow.  Gender, sexuality, marriage, family—love is foundational to them all.  Though marriage and family is a gift given to all creation—and not just Christians—we believe with all sincerity of heart that without the love of God, we have no hope of truly understanding how human relationship could possibly work.  “We need God’s love, not just man’s,” writes Peter Kreeft, a Christian philosopher.

“Half our marriages are lies and betrayals…sacred vows sacrificed on the altar of the god of ‘I gotta be me.’  Family bonds break.  Nevertheless, even ‘when my mother and my father forsake me then the Lord will take care of me’ (Ps 27:10)…God cannot be pushed around.  God has no passions.  God is infinite activity.  His love is like the sun, like a billion burning suns.”[5]

Our aim is to turn the heat from these “burning suns” and magnify all that remains good and beautiful and true about human love.  For in the end we believe there to be an enduring design for all human relationships.  In their song “Awake my Soul,” the folk band Mumford and Sons tell us something true: “In these bodies we live; in these bodies we die.  Where you invest your love, you invest your life.”[6]  We believe that by investing our love in the way that God designed, our lives can be invested in something greater than our world’s every empty promise.

 

[1] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. 

[2] Dodd, 110.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 126-7

[4] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, p. 72-3

[5] Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1992. p. 77-8.

[6] Mumford and Sons, “Awake my Soul,” from Sigh No More, 2010.

My Annual Day of Perspective (1 John 4:7-21)

I really could write a book about our parenting and family experiences in a home of five boys. Among the chapters would be one entitled “My Annual Day of Perspective.”

Our first three boys are rather close in age. And being a good father during the years when they were very young (toddlers, preschoolers, early elementary), it was my annual duty to take them shopping for Christmas presents for mommy. OH MY! They were always so pumped up about this, whereas I just hoped to survive it. I had already about exhausted my energies just thinking up what we might actually buy for Diana. And they would have a few ideas of their own … not exactly normal present ideas, nor something you could do with one-stop shopping.

So, off to the malls we would go. This of course required at least two car seats and a stroller. So there was the confusion of getting younger ones out of the seats without the older ones running into parking lot traffic. Next was the challenge of getting through multiple layers of the airlock doors at the store. One of them fell down inside the door, while simultaneously the door blew shut to knock the other two on top of the first one. This, of course, engendered a fight – as the boy on the bottom was angry that his brothers piled on him, while the guy on top was offended that the bottom one did not understand it was the door’s fault. But the result was that all three were crying and yelling.

Eventually, we would find something to buy and we would take it to the checkout counter. There I would ask, “So who is going to pay for this?”  Six eyes would look back at me as if to say, “Oh wow, we never thought about that until now!”  So, dad would say, “I’ll take care of it for you!” (And we would go home – the boys with presents for mom, and me with a perspective on what Diana went through every time she went to the store!)

In our reading today we see the second of the passages in the New Testament where the word “propitiation” is used (and again translated as “atoning sacrifice”). In both the sermon on Sunday and in the writing yesterday, we have spoken about how this term speaks of the idea of “satisfaction” – that God’s wrath toward sin was satisfied by the payment of Christ on the cross. BUT, it is even more amazing than that. The Father has not only been satisfied with the payment, HE made the payment possible through the sending of his Son! We could not pay. We possessed no currency to cover the price – having nothing more in our “moral pockets” than my boys had dollars in their britches. The one being satisfied also had to be the one who made the satisfaction possible. Certainly you have to agree with me that THIS.IS.AMAZING!

I have pulled out of this passage the portion that deals with the theological “cross word” we are studying – propitiation. But, do not miss the teaching of the context in which this concept was used as an example: the duty of Christians to love one another. Here is the main idea of this section: If you will consider the great love of God that He has first lavishly displayed upon us, certainly there is no reason why all of you who have received such grace should not, it turn, be committed to love one another!

The passage teaches that our love for one another had not only “ought to be,” but that it is the measure of the reality of the Spirit in us, it is what makes us complete, and it is what demonstrates whether we are people who are truthful or liars. Notice the ending where after such an argument is given, there is nothing remaining to write but to give it as a command – verse 21:  And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

God’s Love and Ours

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

Let us identify two more words in the word search:

“Love” and “Agape” – You might say, “Well, I know that that is the same thing.”  Yes, it is – agape is a Greek word for love. But this is one of those occasions where the Greek language (of the New Testament) has several words that can be translated into English as “love” – there is eros which speak of a sensual love (hence like “erotic”) and philia which depicts a brotherly love (hence like “Philadelphia”). But agape is used of selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love – such as God has displayed for us. It is the glue of the cross words – love held Christ to the cross, not the nails.

Puzzle day 3