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Witness to Life

Sermon - 5/28/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 John 5: 9-13

The text for our reflection this morning comes from the first epistle of John, the 5th chapter, verses 9-13.  And as I read this, I would invite you to listen for the emphasis made in this text on testimony:

9If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. 10Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. 11And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.


Question:  how do you judge a person's testimony?  Can you look someone in the eye and tell whether or not they're telling the truth?  Or is it by their manner of voice?  Their mannerisms?  Or do you seek some other outside verification?

When you serve a downtown church like this one, you learn, as a matter of survival, creative ways to verify the stories you hear from people who come in seeking help and assistance with various things.  I was walking to the church, downtown, not too long ago when a young man came up to me and told me he'd run out of gas and asked if I could help him buy some gas for his car.  I said 'sure, do you have a gas can?'.  He said "Yes, I do, it's in my car".  And I said "Where's your car?".  And he said:  "Just a couple of blocks away".  And I said:  "Great, let's go get your gas can, we'll go get my car, and I'll go fill it up for ya".  He said:  "No, that's OK, I only needed another dollar more", and he was off.

Trust and verify, as President Reagan used to say.  And I always do what the President says, so . . . . . J

If Tiger Woods says that Nike has a better golf ball, you know, travels farther than Titleist, you might believe him (never mind the fact that he's paid by Nike), but you might believe him because he's a golf pro, so he knows what he's talking about.  But why would you believe him when he says that Buick is a better car?  Is it because playing golf for a living makes you an expert on cars?  But yet, that's the way we do our advertising, we pay the celebrities to advertise for us.  

If Kenneth Lay, former CEO of Enron, offers to sell you stock in a new startup company, would you buy it?  Have you been paying attention to the news?  You know, he's not exactly a credible witness.  Indeed, it was interesting hearing the jurors talk about what sealed the case was when he got up and testified -- they found him to be so arrogant, so confident, so in control, they couldn't believe that he didn't know what was going on in his own company.

I thought the scripture this morning from Psalm 1 was a great scripture -- 'happy are those who don't follow the way of the wicked' -- for anyone who didn't buy stock in Enron, they're probably happy.

Did you see his quote, after that conviction when he was found guilty of fraud?  He actually said:  "We believe that God in fact is in control and indeed he does work all things for good for those who love the Lord".  Isn't that nice.  And I wonder, among all of those 5,600 former employees of Enron, who not only lost their jobs but lost their pensions, how many of them love the Lord and thought that gosh, all things will work for the good.  Isn't that reassuring to hear.  Not to mention all the investors -- $2.1 billion dollars of worthless stock because of Lay and Schilling and the company's immoral, unethical, and illegal activities.  But he loves the Lord.

Why is it that rich, powerful people, business leaders, politicians (last week I mentioned Tom DeLay's great quote after his indictment), why is it that in their moment of greatest public disgrace, suddenly confess their love for Jesus when they should be down on their knees confessing their sin and begging for forgiveness?  I mean, I don't get it.  These are the public witnesses we have, is it any wonder that so many people think that Christians are just a bunch of hypocrites?

So who are you going to trust?

I served on a jury for a medical malpractice case a couple years ago, and it was a fascinating experience.  A woman who had carpal-tunnel surgery that left a couple of her fingers paralyzed.  And so she was suing the surgeon for malpractice.  And we heard all kinds of expert testimony, and we were swayed one way and then the next, for two whole days.  And then finally on the 3rd day, at the end of the day, the attorney for the insurance company brought in his star witness.  And this guy had star quality just oozing out of his pores.  He was the team physician for the Portland Trail Blazers.  That alone made me want to puke.  Except for the fact that this guy actually knew what he was talking about.  He had such confidence and spoke with such authority -- clear and precise -- and just laid it all out for us and totally blew the case out of the water, destroyed it.  In fact, the woman threw in the towel.  We found out afterwards that they settled the case for a lot less than what the insurance company had originally offered before the trial, because they could see they had lost.

Who are you going to trust?  What is the basis of the testimony?  What makes us credible?

If you find human testimony credible, says John, then you must find God's testimony even more credible.  Why?  Because of the life of Jesus.  This epistle begins "We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life".  In other words, concerning Jesus.  Jesus is the testimony of God to us.  And as we saw in the text we looked at last week from the first part of chapter 5, in Christ we find the means to conquer the way of the world, the way of death.  And therefore it is in Jesus that we find the way of life that is eternal.  And so the author concludes that those who have Jesus have life in God.  

And countless are the ways that we can name to affirm this truth.  People whose lives have been changed by the gospel.  Those who find life here in the community of disciples.  People who have found healing even when they could not find a cure of their disease.  Victims of injustice and discrimination and harassment, who find in the church equality and acceptance.  Truly, many are the ways that Jesus gives us new life.

But what about those who don't believe?  The author only sees one possibility -- they are excluded, they're condemned, they're doomed.  They don't have life.  If you've got Jesus, you've got life.  If you don't, well, too bad.  It's that simple.  Or is it?

Maybe in the context at the end of the first century when this epistle was written, it makes sense.  When it was Christians against the world, or Christians against the lions.  And you can see how the whole world was against you, and only those who had faith really had the true life.  But what about today?  I have to tell you, I struggle with this text.  How do you preach on such a text if you are a progressive Christian who believes God's love is greater than our hate, than our prejudices, than our limitations and exclusions?  As Paul says, in Romans 8, that nothing on earth or under heaven -- nothing at all -- can separate us from the love of God.

And I was still struggling with the text on Wednesday evening when I went to hear retired Bishop John Shelby Spong.  Well, interesting that the conviction of Kenneth Lay came out at the same time.  You know, you've got to choose among your witnesses -- Kenneth Lay or Bishop Spong?  It was in Columbia Hall, on campus, seats 550 people -- packed, standing-room only, they had to put another 100 people in a separate room with a T.V. monitor.  He received 2 standing ovations.  There were about 25 of us from this congregation who were there.  Definitely hit a chord with the crowd.  Scott Russell said afterward 'There was enough material in there for 20 or 30 sermons'.  

Well, I've only got 1 this morning, so you can relax J.  Now, he may be a heretic for denying the virgin birth, or the physical resurrection of Jesus, and for suggesting -- some 12 years before Dan Brown wrote the Da Vinci Code -- the possibility that Jesus may have been married to Mary Magdalene.  Yeah, heretical.  Yeah, so what.  That's one man's opinion.  

Set that aside, he still has a lot of other things to say that make a lot of sense.  And I think he is one of those prophetic voices who needs to be heard today, especially when it concerns the future of the church.  His lecture on Wednesday night was about the nature of God in the 21st century.  And he began by listing a long litany of the sins of Christianity -- the crusades, support of slavery, anti-Semitism that led to the holocaust, sexism and oppression of women, homophobia and discrimination against gays and lesbians, numerous wars instigated by Christians, and on and on and on.

And to that, he added a long list of the sins of scripture, the title of his most recent book.  The murder of all the first born children of Egypt.  You know, how do you react to that story if you're an Egyptian, in the story of Moses and the Exodus?  The day the sun stood still so that Joshua could annihilate all men, women, children, and livestock of the Amorites as he had done to the people of Jericho -- that nice little children's story, you know, 'we fell the walls of Jericho'.  And we have a name for that -- you know what it's called?  It's called genocide.  Right there in our text.  And by the way, that's the story that the church used to oppress Copernicus and Galileo (actually condemned Galileo) for teaching that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way around.  The story of Noah's flood -- that wipes out all living things except for those on the boat.

And then there's that fascinating little story of Lot in Genesis, when Lot offers his 2 daughters to the men of Sodom, to do with as they please.  And yet he's supposed to be the righteous one?  These stories are there, they're part of our text.

And if that were not enough, for good measure, he threw in sins of the Bible belt.  My good friend Chris Whitehead is from the Bible belt, could speak to it very well.  Things like which states defended segregation up until the very end, when they were forced to give it up?  Those were the states of the Bible belt.  What states have the highest divorce rates?  The Bible belt.  What states have the highest abortion rates?  The Bible belt  What states sell the most pornography per capita?  Alabama, one of the Bible belt states, and Utah.  Don't know why, draw your own conclusions about that, I've got no clue.  How is this that we are a Christian nation?

At this point in the lecture, that went on for 20 or 30 minutes, you began to wonder, does this guy have anything good at all to say about Christianity?  I mean, why is he a bishop?  Well, in fact, he did have much good to say.  His love of God and his love for the Bible, which he learned at a very early age, is what would help him to overcome all of those shortcomings of our history.

And his main point was that all of these sins of our past, of our present, and of the text, come from a false image of God.  A tribal God.  A God who is on our side and not on your side.  A God who fights for us, and against you.  The God who has a chosen people (meaning us), and therefore there are others who are not chosen.  And you'll find lots of support for such a God in scripture.  

But you will also find support for another image of God.  A God who loves all humanity.  A God who is on everyone's side.  A God who says (as put on the lips of Jesus in the story of a woman caught in adultery) 'whoever is without sin, throw the first stone'.  And when they all leave, says to her 'Has no one judged you?  Neither do I'.  A God welcomes the outcasts and the sinners to the banquet table.  A God who tells Hosea to not give up on his harlot wife.  A God who, when the immigrants were despised and unwelcome in Israel, made an immigrant woman by the name of Ruth the grandmother of David. 

The tribal God, says Spong, was the God of our religious adolescence.  If Christianity is to mature and to offer true good news in the 21st century, we must abandon that God for a more inclusive God who does not care about our race, our national origin, our immigration status, our gender, sexual identity, our physical ability, or even our religious preferences.  

What God cares most about is our full humanity.  That we may be fully alive to who we are, created in the image of God, created to love as God loves.  And this is precisely what Jesus reveals to us.  In him we see the fullness of our humanity, the fullness of life made possible in God.  

So it's not a question of who has Jesus and who doesn't, but who has found that fullness of life and who has not yet found it.  And thus, our task as followers of Jesus, is to help others find this fullness of life, just as we hopefully have found in Christ.  To bring others to the banquet table of God where all are blessed.  We are the ones who are now called in this generation to witness to this life in God.  

Will others find our testimony credible?  Well now that all depends, doesn't it, on how well we live our lives.

 


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