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