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:
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.
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
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
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
Who are you going to
trust? What is the basis of the testimony? What makes us
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
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
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
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
Will others find our
testimony credible? Well now that all depends, doesn't it, on how
well we live our lives.