A sermon on 1 John 5: 9-13 & John 17:6-19 by Nathan Nettleton, 24 May 2009
One of our former pastors, Garry Deverell, once told me about how he was visiting a bloke who was a member of another congregation he pastored, when with brutal honesty, the bloke said to him, “Look, I don’t want to grow in my faith. Go away and leave me alone.”
Now unfortunately, the only thing that is really unusual about that story is the bloke’s honesty. Embracing the Christian faith and committing ourselves to ongoing growth in it are not things that come naturally to any of us, and it is one of the strange paradoxes of the Church that ever since going to church became acceptable to polite society, going to church has been one of the common ways to conceal a choice to avoid the claims of Jesus Christ on our lives.
Throughout the writings of the Apostle John — and we have just heard from two of them — there is a strong theme of people being for or against Jesus, for or against God, and for or against light, truth, and life itself. This for and against are portrayed in stark, black-and-white terms; there is no half way, no lukewarm still deciding sort of option. This can sound rather harsh and unreasonable to us. Why should we not be able to reserve our judgement for a little while? After all, in most areas of our lives, making a hasty decision without being sure we had fully come to terms with all the necessary information would be considered foolish and dangerous. And all the more so when the decisions involve committing ourselves to something or someone for life. We don’t encourage our young people to make hasty, all-or-nothing decisions about who to marry. We want to see such commitments made on the basis of extended sober consideration. So why is John dividing us all up into those who are for and against without allowing us some time in the undecided category? “Those who believe in the Son of God have God’s testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe have made God out to be a liar.”
To understand where the Apostle is coming from here, we need to realise that when he talks about believing, he is not asking us to evaluate and decide on a philosophy or a set of ideas. He is not saying, “Here, read the fine print quickly and give me a signature on the line at the bottom before I take my foot out of the door.” There is no fine print, and there is no argument to be gone over with a fine tooth comb before a decision can be made. Because John is not talking about our response to a doctrinal position or a theological theory. He is talking about our response to a person, our belief in a person: Jesus the Christ. In the thinking of the Apostle John, the final judgement of every individual and the final judgement of the world itself takes place in their response to Jesus, to his words and actions and the way he goes about his life and ministry.
Perhaps it would be easier to understand this distinction if we think about what it would mean if we used this language in reference to someone other than Jesus. If we were to talk about whether you believe in the Prime Minister, we wouldn’t be talking about whether you accept in principle certain theories about him and about the nature of his office. We would be asking whether you trust Kevin Rudd, whether you have faith in him. We would be asking whether, when you encounter this man and see the way he operates and exercises his office, whether you perceive yourself to be in the presence of goodness and truth and integrity; whether you find yourself admiring him and wishing there were more people like him in the world, and perhaps wishing you could become more like him. We would be asking whether he inspires your allegiance; makes you want to get on side and back him all the way. Do you believe in Malcolm Turnbull? Do you believe in James Packer? Do you believe in Nelson Mandela? Do you believe in Eddie McGuire? Do you believe in Ang Sung Suu Kyi? Do you believe in Britney Spears? Do you believe in Sarah Palin?
As I ask those questions, do you notice how you have a gut reaction to each of them? In most cases, you could have answered yes or no without having to think much. You see it is not about complex theories or careful weighing of the evidence. Based on however much or little we know about them, they each stand for certain things in our mind. And those who seem to represent things we value and admire thereby evoke a positive response in us. We believe in them. We trust them. We wish that we and others around us could become more like them and embody the values and characteristics we associate with them.
Do you believe in Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, the Son of God? Do you see the point of the question now? John is not asking you what doctrines you believe about Jesus, although that’s not altogether unimportant. He’s asking whether, when you realise who Jesus is and what he stands for, you want to side with him and devote yourself to his cause and back him all the way. Or whether you find yourself, in your words or your actions, saying, “I don’t want to grow into that. Go away and leave me alone.”
John makes clear that when we respond to Jesus, for or against, the stakes are a lot higher than when we make our response to Kevin Rudd or Sarah Palin. When we respond to Jesus, for or against, we are responding for or against God. Believe in the Son and you are accepting what God says. Do not believe in the Son, and you are calling God a liar, John says. And he reports Jesus as saying that he has personally made God’s name known to us; that is to say that he has let us in on who God really is and what God is really like. And when we respond to Jesus, for or against, we are responding for or against life itself, for John says that true life is in God’s Son, and those who accept the Son have life, and those who reject the Son reject life.
So perhaps John’s all-or-nothing attitude begins to make sense. When we encounter Jesus, we are encountering the truth about God and the truth about life as it was created to be lived. We are seeing the truth about what we were created to be and what we are destined to become. And you couldn’t delay responding to that if you wanted to. The responses will stir in your guts as instantly and unavoidably as did your responses to those various names a few minutes back. Each time you gain an insight into who Jesus is and what he was on about, you will either find yourself responding with in internal “Yes, that’s what I want to stand for too,” or a “No, that must be vigourously opposed in order to protect the things I hold dear.”
And John says that Jesus pulled no punches about the cost of siding with him. Say Yes to Jesus and you will no longer fit comfortably in this world, and the world will turn against you. That, of course, sounds like overblown hyperbole to us. The world doesn’t hate us, it just regards us as a harmless irrelevance and ignores us. This however is not because Jesus was overstating the case, but because we have so understated our witness to Jesus and so meekly surrendered to society’s demand that we give up our expectation of bringing fire to the earth and just occupy our socially prescribed role of benign chaplain to polite society, satisfying the consumer demand for little religious ceremonies to accompany births, deaths and marriages.
No wonder most people around us do not have any strong reaction to Jesus, for or against. They have not been given the opportunity to see Jesus, but have instead been offered a hollowed out, toned down, domesticated, salt-reduced Jesus: an innocuous kind of figure who wouldn’t inspire a dog out from behind a warm stove. And we, gathered here in his name, cannot avoid the blame for this, because we are the body of Christ. We are the ones who have committed ourselves to following in his footsteps and being his sacramental body, his living presence in and to the world. But we have preached a tamed gospel, lived out a flaccid discipleship, and coveted a cosy friendship with the world.
But there is good news. Christ will not be mocked. The church that has so failed to follow his call is now falling apart and in rapid decline. And Christ is bigger than us and will not be confined to our paltry efforts to embody his truth, but will rise again in new communities of faithful people who will take the light that has been handed to us by the Apostles and not hide it under a bushel. And we are not excluded. Christ’s call is to all, and unless we stubbornly cling to the anchors of death and go down with the ship, we can yet be caught up in the new winds of the Spirit that blow who knows where. Just as Christ was raised into heaven so as no longer to be confined by the spatial limitations of one body, so again will he break free and fill the earth with his presence. And so again will God pour out the Holy Spirit and set the earth on fire so that no one can remain unmoved by the truth of Jesus. Some will still dig their heels in and say, “No, that’s not a faith I want to grow in. Go away and leave me alone,” and they will go on living out the work-buy-consume-die script that the world prescribes for them. But those of us who are saying “yes” to that truth, and exposing ourselves to the refining power of that fire, will be saying “yes” to the truth of God and “yes” the the fullness of life and love for which we were created and to which we are destined.