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 The Eternal Life In You

Sermon - 5/06/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 John 3:11-18

For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. 14We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. 16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 

I want to continue in a little mini-series that I began last week on 1 John. And I won't repeat everything from last week, but I do want to share just a brief summary of some of the conclusions on the background of what we know about this text that we call the first letter of John.

First of all, the author is anonymous, it never claims to be written by John, but rather became associated with John in the middle of the second century. The editors of what we now have as the New Testament are the ones who gave us that title.

Secondly, that most likely it was written somewhere around the turn of the century. So about 60 to 70 years after the crucifixion. And as such, it gives us insight into to the early church as it moved from sort of a Sunday school class, if you will, or more accurately -- a Sabbath class -- in the Synagogue, a messianic movement within Judaism, into Christianity, what we know today as it's own religious tradition.

And third is that the geographical context of this text is the Mediterranean world of the Roman Empire, and not the Palestinian world of Jewish Israel. What is significant for us this morning is the way in which that world, the Roman Empire, dealt with new religious traditions (of which this is one), or with foreign religious traditions. And there were basically three ways that the Empire could do this:

One was incorporation. When Rome conquered a foreign country, rather than disposing of the local deities and installing their own (which was a frequent way that the ancient world operated) they instead incorporated (many times) those local deities into the Roman tradition. So, for instance, if you travel through the Mediterranean world, you can see today many temples to the Egyptian goddess Isis. For instance, in Pompeii, there's a beautifully well-preserved temple to Isis in an area in Italy just a little ways outside of Rome where the Egyptians never ruled. But here we find this Egyptian God because the Egyptian merchants, you see, would come to those places. And as a way of creating harmony and encouraging cooperation and unity across the Empire, they just simply incorporated those foreign gods into their tradition, welcomed them into the pantheon of the Roman gods. Of course maintaining Jupiter, or as we also know as Zeus in the Greek, as the chair of the divine council of the Gods. You know, the one God over all the other little Gods. So that was one way of dealing with a foreign tradition.

Another way was toleration without inclusion. And Judaism is the perfect example of this. There were very few religious traditions that were accepted as legal and legitimate that were not then including as part of that pantheon. One of the benefits

of that recognition is that it allowed Jews to be exempt from military service. Sort of the original conscientious-objector status, because you could not count on Jews to be good soldiers because they were not faithful to your God, the God of Rome, and therefore couldn't be counted on to fight for that tradition. That kind of privilege extended to a foreign religion was very rare in the Roman Empire. And you can understand why -- it was not to their advantage.

But the third way was to ban it, to make it illegal, and illegal cult. And we have a famous example from the early second century, when Pliny the Younger was Governor of a province in Asia Minor (what is today modern Turkey) and he wrote to the Emperor Trajan in the year 112, about his investigation of a new cult, whose members "prayed to Jesus as to a God". And so he investigates this cult and reveals what he finds to the Emperor, and he says "Under the threat of death, they refuse to pay homage to the Roman gods and to the statue of the Emperor" [considered to be one of the gods]. And even though he could not find them guilty of any other criminal act, he decided to execute them anyway just for their sheer obstinance.

Now, even though there are some of us who think obstinacy should be reinstituted as a capital crime for some people :), you know, it still seems like a pretty harsh standard. So when this elder of the early Christian community writes this text: "Do not be astonished that the world hates you", you understand this just isn't a casual dislike for foreigners. We're talking about some serious hate here, with some power behind it.

It is within that context, of a world which views any new religious tradition with great suspicion, that this message of 1 John is so striking. Much as Martin Luther King taught nonviolence as the only way to defeat the violence of oppression and discrimination, so too John here teaches that love is the only way to overcome this hate and hostility directed against these followers of Jesus.

You see, you cannot kill hate with a drone, try as we might. Only love can truly overcome hate.

And so echoing the new commandment given by Jesus in the 15th chapter of John's Gospel, three times we are told in this short text of 1 John to love one another. That it's not optional for followers of Jesus -- it is a command. But how does one command love?

As I've noted before, parents don't love their children because they're commanded, children don't love parents because they're commanded, you don't love your spouse because of a command -- you love them because you love them. It's not about a command, you see, if it's love you don't have to command it, and if you have to command it, is it really love?

So this elder of the church, quite possibly someone who sat at the feet of John the Disciple of Jesus and heard him tell those stories, of the love of Jesus, gives us another incentive to love that I think is quite remarkable. He says, in essence, this: you want eternal life? Then fill your life with love.

Now, that's not just the remarkable part, because we hear Jesus say many similar things. In the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, remember Jesus tells that story of the judgment day, and dividing the sheep from the goats. And there's only one question, just one question on the final exam: have you fed me when I was hungry? Did you clothe me when I was naked? Did you visit me when I was sick and in prison?

And so too here in this text we are asked: 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? How indeed.

And what I find remarkable in this is that this notion, that the author speaks of, of eternal life is not about something we achieve after death. Now, let me repeat that so it can sink in -- I've learned through advertising the more often you say it, then it must be true, right? Just listen to all those political ads and then you'll believe whatever they tell you :)

Eternal life is not about something we achieve after death. Eternal life is available to you now. In the act of love, in any and every act of genuine love, you reveal that eternal life that already abides in you. Did you know that? That you have that now?

John, citing the example that you heard April read for us, of the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, notes that murderers do not have this abiding in them. He does not say that they're not going to have it at some future time, that they'll never inherit it, he says that they do not have it now.

In contrast, we see that eternal life in Jesus who laid down his life for us. Jesus, who sacrificed his life, has it. Cain, who sacrificed the life of his brother, doesn't. The point is that it is one's act of love that eternal life is manifest. And if love, then, is the evidence of that eternal life in us, hate is the evidence of its absence.

And so John concludes that hate is no different than murder. That's pretty strong stuff. Now, the victim of murder may beg to differ :) I mean, if someone were given a choice: I can hate you for my entire life, or I can kill you now, which will it be? Hmmm, let me think about that for a minute. . . . do I want to be hated, or do I want to be dead? It's not a hard choice, people! I'd take life -- I can live with hate, I'd get over it. But at least I'll be alive.

So even though John says, spiritually there is no difference between hate and murder, we have decided as a society that there really is a difference. But we have also decided, especially in recent years, that hate in fact is more than spiritually damaging. It carries real consequences, harmful to the freedom and well-being of others. Now we've extended it to bullying, right?

Now, opponents of that kind of legislation that we have created, legislation around hate crimes, say that hate is a form of speech, that is protected by the First Amendment -- we may not like it, but it's part of our ethos, of who we are, and it's important for us to protect freedom of speech in all its forms. And so, for instance, we cannot prevent the so-called Reverend Phelps and his small band of believers from Kansas from putting up their signs of hate at the funerals of U.S. service personnel, as a way of demonstrating to the nation that we are being punished for our sinful ways, for allowing the big sin of homosexuality to run rampant. That that's a form of free speech, we cannot prevent it. So whether one's hate against gays, or Jews, or Blacks, causes them to harm someone is irrelevant. If you injure or kill someone, you should be punished the same regardless. That's how the argument goes.

But that argument fails to acknowledge what we have learned from the history of genocide. That there is something especially heinous when a crime is motivated by hate for your religion, or sexual orientation, your race, or any other defining characteristic. For it is precisely such hate, when left unchecked and unchallenged, that leads to holocausts big and small.

And so we have such hate crime legislation. And even as important as that is in a civil society, it of course will not eradicate hate itself. That requires a change of heart. And hence John's notion of eternal life that abides in us, to appeal to that motivation. Because eternal life is something you can only find within you. And you're not going to get there through hate, or anger, or bitterness, or fear.

I'm a member in a group called Murder Victim Families for Reconciliation, and last week I was in Corvallis participating in a panel on the death penalty. In opposition to it. And on that panel with me was a woman that I've met before doing this work, by the name of Abigail, whose daughter was murdered when she was just 19 years old. One of those tragic stories of someone caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. An innocent victim. And Abigail has this remarkable story of a long and painful journey toward healing. And I want to share with you this morning just a portion of it, as she told it in an ABC online news show on faith and values. It's hosted by a priest, Father Tom Beck, that you'll see in the video. So let's watch:



So I want to share with you a part of that letter that she sent to Mr. Mickey:

"Two months after her 19th birthday, Catherine left her earthly body and her spirit transitioned to her next stage of life. The violent way she left this earth was impossible for me to understand. I was saddened beyond belief, and felt that I would never be completely happy again. And indeed, my loss of Catherine became the point of reference for my entire family. I was very angry with you, and wanted to see you punished ot the limit of the law. You had done irreparable damage to my family and my dreams for the future. After 8 long years of grief and anger, I started my journey of life. I was surprised to find that I could forgive you. This does not mean that I think you are innocent or that you are blameless for what happened. What I learned was this: you are a divine child of God. You are surrounded by God's love even as you sit in your cell. There is no devil, there is only the goodness of God. The Christ in me sends blessings to the Christ in you".

Now, I think most probably will find it difficult how a mother could write that kind of letter. And I'm not suggesting that to be a true Christian, every person has to follow her example. But here's the thing I've discovered from my own experience as well, as well as from getting to know Abigail: she has found eternal life in the love of God, abiding in her. And it is so powerful, she wants everyone to know that that life she found in that love is available to them too. Even to that man who killed her daughter, and of course, even to each of us.

To know that love, that is so great it overcomes hate, and even death, is to know the eternal life possible in God available to each and every one of us. And that we are then called to share, with each and every one in our life, that love. That possibility of life there for them.

Jesus showed us how. People like Abigail have showed us when. But there's no time like the present to know that life. To live in that love.
May we all.


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