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Conquering the World

Sermon - 5/21/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 John 5:1-5

The text for our reflection this morning is from the first letter of John, the fifth chapter, verses 1-5::

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. 2By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, 4for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. 5Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

Just a word of background on this text, the 1st letter of John:  I had intended to actually do an entire series on the Sunday's after Easter on 1 John, but life got in the way and I got a little detained, so that didn't happen.  So we'll have to suffice with a little mini-series on just the 5th chapter of John, this Sunday and next.

But I do want to make a few comments in general about the nature of 1 John and some of the other material we find there.  We call this the first letter of John, but in fact it is neither a letter nor written by John the apostle of Jesus, so far as we can determine.  So don't be confused if I refer to the author as John or I call it a letter because that's simply the tradition of the name.  But in fact the text itself makes no claim as to authorship.  Nowhere in the text does it say who is the author.  It's simply by virtue of the fact that the themes of this text are so similar to the gospel of John that it became associated fairly early in the tradition of the church with the author of the 4th gospel.

All we can say with any certainty today about the author is that it comes from that same tradition as the 4th gospel, and was therefore written by someone who must have been very familiar with that gospel, probably in the late first century.  And hence this may have been part of what scholars often call the Johannine community, a part of that tradition around the 4th gospel.

And we can say with even more certainty that it's not a letter.  Because it doesn't have any of the standard forms of a letter that we find, for instance, in the letters of Paul.  He always begins by naming himself -- I, Paul, an apostle of the Lord -- to the church of Galatia, or Corinth or Philemon, or whatever the case may be.  Paul always tells to whom his letter is addressed and then he has a thanksgiving, concludes the letter with a blessing, etc.  There's standard forms for letters.  And this text has none of that.  So it's not a letter.

It reads more like a sermon addressed to a large community rather than to a specific community.  And so John Wesley, the famed Scottish preacher and reformer, proclaimed that "First John speaks to the whole church and all succeeding ages".  I'm lucky if my sermons speak to a couple of Sunday class members on the following Sunday, let alone to the whole church for all ages J.  

So what does this 1,900 year-old sermon have to say that could possibly be relevant to us today?

Martin Luther said of 1 John -- "This is an outstanding epistle.  It can buoy afflicted hearts, furthermore, it has John's style and manner of expression so beautifully and gently does it picture Christ to us".

But the most, perhaps, famous saying out of 1 John we find in chapter 4:16 where John says "God is love".  This is a major theme of the entire work.  Precisely because love is the chief characteristic of God, the author tells us that our love for one another is not optional, but it is central to our identity as Christians.  And in the two preceding verses prior to this text, in chapter 5, at the conclusion of chapter 4 we read:  "Those who say 'I love God' and hate their brothers or sisters are liars.  For those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen.  The commandment we have from God is this:  those who love God must love their brothers and sisters as well".

Hence we cannot love God and not keep God's commandments because God's command, from which all other commands derive, is love.  And we all know, I think, I hope, John 3:16 -- for God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son.  Well, do you know the other John 3:16?  1 John 3:16?  How come nobody holds up a sign in the stadium at football games that says 1 John 3:16?  It's also a beautiful passage that mirrors John 3:16, and we read there:  "We know love by this:  that he laid down his life for us and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.  How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?" 

That pretty well sums up Christian responsibility, don't you think?  And maybe even a bit of word of judgment on all of us for our own failures.  There are two stories that I'd like to use to illustrate this text.  One in the negative, one in the positive.  

Some of you may recognize the name of Tom DeLay, been in the news a little bit lately.  A little bit of trouble.  Former majority leader of the House of Representatives, he was fingerprinted and photographed for his indictment on corruption charges.  You may remember that picture, that mug-shot with a big smile on his face?  Very atypical of folks in that situation.  Well, here's what DeLay told the press after that event.  He said:  "I said a little prayer before I actually did the fingerprint thing and the picture, and my prayer was this:  let people see Christ through me and let me smile".  Smile he did.  How nice.

Can't leave it at that.  Forget the money-laundering charges against him.  American justice demands that we presume the former representative DeLay innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.  That is the way it should be.  My point is not what he did to change the political map of Texas, legally or illegally, but what he did to preserve the economic exploitation in the Marianas.  Have you heard about that?  It's a rather alarming, disturbing case.  The Marianas is a U.S. territory in the Pacific near Guam.  Because it is a U.S. territory, clothing is made there, and carries a "Made in the USA" label.  And hence a lot of textile companies have moved their shops to Marianas because they can make clothing there and claim it's made in the USA.  And they have the advantage of not having to abide by standard U.S. labor law because labor law doesn't apply in the territories.  Hence, there's no minimum wage.  The minimum wage there is just over $3.00 an hour.  There's no limit on the # of hours people can work -- the typical worker would spend 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.  We think we have an immigration problem (those who think immigrants are taking American jobs), 90% of those textile workers in the Marianas are guest-workers brought in from China, Bangladesh, the Philippines.  Folks who live in poverty, desperate for work, willing to do anything and pay any cost in order to get a decent job, brought to the Marianas under false pretenses, forced to live in labor camps behind barbed wire without internal plumbing, most of them women, and when many of the women have become pregnant have been forced to have abortions so that they could continue working.  And if they lose their job for any reason, they're often brought to the Marianas under false pretenses and forced into prostitution in order to pay off the fees of their handlers who brought them there.

This is the situation that we have created in the U.S. territory.  Now, in the year 2000, Republican Senator Frank Murkowski, who is currently the governor of Alaska, visited the Marianas because it was part of the jurisdiction of the committee that he chaired.  He became so enraged at the working conditions, he came back and introduced a bill in the Senate to make U.S. labor law apply to the territory of the Marianas.  Now what's interesting about this is Senator Murkowski is no friend of Labor.  The AFL-CIO rates him a big fat ZERO in terms of labor causes.  And yet here he is advocating that our labor laws apply to that region.  He was so eloquent in defending the need and protection of these workers, his colleagues supported him 100% -- unanimously, Republicans and Democrats alike voted for his bill.

It never became law.  Why not?  Because it never saw the light of day in the House of Representatives.  Why was that?  Because the majority leader, Tom Delay, would not let it out of committee.  A lobbyist, hired by the government of the Marianas, sent DeLay and his family on a nice little Christmas vacation -- snorkeling, golfing, in a beautiful tourist area of the Marianas.  And asked him to make sure this bill never saw the light of day, and it didn't.  That's what he as done.  The lobbyist who did that?  You know his name, too -- Jack Abramoff.

Now let me read again this verse from 1 John:  "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need, yet refuses help?".  I think that sums it up.

In contrast to the sad story of a politician so corrupt that he cannot even see how he has betrayed the very Christ for whom he smiles, I give you this positive example.  No, make that two.

Alcena Boozer was a rising star in the Portland public schools.  African-American, she had a special gift of working with inner-city children.  And so they made her principal of her school.  She left that job at the height of her career, walked away from the good money in the public school system (that retirement system) and became an Episcopalian Priest, and now serves at an inner-city church in Portland where she can live out her love for Jesus on a daily basis without any of the restrictions that might have been placed upon her in a public school.  I was privileged to hand Alcena the gavel as the incoming President of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon just the week before last, and many of you were there at that dinner in Portland.

Alcena will be followed in the same position by the Reverend Kent Harrop, pastor of an American Baptist church in McMinnville.  At the EMO board meeting this week (they happened to meet right next door in our chapel) the Reverend Harrop shared the story of the youth from their church, who, like our youth, have spent their Spring Break in Mexico.  Gave up their vacation to go and build homes for others in Mexico.  And when they returned they told their pastor "We aren't Christians, we are just followers of Jesus".  

And by that, Kent understood what they were saying is that it's not about being part of an institutional religion, it's about being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.  And that is precisely for whom 1 John was written.  For those who seek to do just that.

But the author uses a rather startling phrase that conjures up images of world powers, superiority and domination such as that displayed by the former representative of Texas.  So listen again when he says:  ". . .for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.  Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?"  Sounds like a verse written for our foreign policy.

What does John here have in mind.  Now before you take this as an endorsement of either an American or a Christian empire, consider this:  who was known in the first century as the conqueror of the world?  I'll give you a clue, it wasn't Jesus.  Who was the conqueror of the world in the first century?  Caesar.  The Roman Empire, right?  Dominating the ancient city of Priene, now in modern-day Turkey, was a temple built for the goddess Athena.  Larger than this church, it's a magnificent marble structure which of course now is in ruins, is slowly being rebuilt.  And you can walk up and touch the enormous marble beam as I did on my pilgrimage in 2003, that stood over the entrance to that temple.  Proclaiming for all the worshipers gathered there in that sanctuary, that people dedicate this temple to Athena and to the world conqueror Caesar, the son of God, the God Augustus.

Now I was curious about that word, conqueror, because there it was etched in marble, here it is in our text.  And I wondered is that the same word in Greek?  There, etched in marble, the word is "imperator", from which we get the word Emperor.  But the Greek word, much to my surprise, behind this text, was a different word, even more familiar to us.  Anyone want to guess what the Greek word for victor is?  Conqueror?  Nike.  Spelled N-I-K-E.  Nike!  But not the shoe, but rather the goddess of victory, the Greek goddess of victory.  The same word.  

And hence in Greek, this text reads:  "This is the nike that conquers (nikes) the world, our faith".  In other words, instead of a justification to dominate the world for Jesus, this is a rejection of world domination by the Gods of the empire.  Victory belongs, not to Nike, not to the world-conqueror Caesar, not to the empire then or to empires now, but to those who place their faith in Christ as the son of God.  Now, you tell me, does that have any relevance for today?

The author of 1 John saw the world primarily as a place dominated by evil.  And in the context of the late first century, when Christians were heavily persecuted by the world empire, that makes sense.  Their experience of the world was evil.  How then, do we conquer, that is, how do we overcome such a world?  Our experience of the world, however, may not be the same as that.  Depending on whether or not our bills have been paid, the sun is shining, and the Ducks are winning (speaking of good vs evil J).

The concept of conquering the world, here in this text, through faith in Christ, simply means that we will rise above the corrupt ways of this world.  That we will not let outside forces control our lives.  That we will we succumb to no one other than God as revealed to us by Jesus Christ.

How then do we differ from the terrorists, who make similar claims?  And then fly planes into buildings.  For that matter, how do we differ from politicians who smile for Jesus while they protect the exploitation of the poor and the weak by the rich and the wealthy?  

If we are to have any hope of being any different, it can only be in the character of the God we worship.  Who, John says, is love.  To be a child of that God means that love dictates our lives and therefore it is love that conquers the world.  To conquer, or to overcome, the way of the world by any other means is to succumb to its Nike, it's victory, rather than to God's will.  Hence to be born of God is not some privilege that gives us the right to build empires, it is a responsibility that should cause people to see Christ through us in the way in which we lay down our lives out of love for others.  

This, then, is the message of 1 John:  Just do it.  And don't forget to smile.


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