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 Sinless Love

Sermon - 4/29/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 John 3:1-11

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are Godís children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

4 Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. 7Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. 8Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 9Those who have been born of God do not sin, because Godís seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. 10The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.

11 For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.

I want to start this morning with a paradox. And the paradox is this: can a sinner be sinless?

It's a silly question, right? I mean, can a circle be a square? Can the Pope be Jewish? Can a cat be simultaneously alive and dead at the same time? Well, if you're SchrŲdinger's cat, evidently you can. That's an old quantum-physics problem (if you've not heard that before, find a high-school student to explain it to you, because I can't :).

And I ask that question because we just heard in our text from 1 John that no one who abides in him sins. Those who have been born of God do not sin because God's seed abides in them. They cannot sin, because they have been born of God. Did you know that? You cannot sin! Hallelujah!

But this same author, in the first chapter, says "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we say that we have not sinned we make him a liar and his word is not in us".

So which is it? Is this some kind of trick question? Is it a philosophical riddle hidden in the text?

Claiming that the followers of Jesus are sinners who do no sin sounds about as plausible as suggesting that Congress is made up of politicians who do not lie :) As you ponder that possibility, I want to explore with you some of the background of this tax from the first letter of John. And I invite you this week to read the entire text, because we are going to spend the next couple of Sundays in it. So read 1 John -- it's not a long text, about 5 chapters, takes about 4 pages of your Bible. So read that, and meditate with me this week as we reflect on this letter.

Now, a little background. There are 3 letters of John, very cleverly named in the New Testament -- 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John :) And after much scrutiny, scholars over the last 100 years or so have concluded three things about these three letters, particularly about this first letter of John.


First of all, they're not arranged chronologically. 1 John is not necessarily the first of the three that was written, but it's first because it's the most significant of the three, the longest of the three. Secondly, the first letter of John has none of the standard conventions of a letter. Compare it to the Apostle Paul's letters, which typically start out with "I, Paul, an Apostle of the Lord, greet you, the church in Corinth", etc. 1 John has none of those standard conventions of an ancient letter, so scholars have concluded that it's not a letter at all. It's more of a religious tract on the meaning of Christian love. Third, the author is anonymous. Nowhere does it actually claim to be written by John. It's come to be associated with John in the late 2nd century because of the similarities of the themes of the text to the Gospel of John.

So, if you're paying attention, though we call it the 'first letter of John', it's none of those things. But fortunately the authority of scripture does not depend on the titles given by the later editors who assembled our New Testament for us.

We also know a few other things about this religious tract, written anonymously for the ancient as well as the present church. First of all that is was quoted by other Christian authorities in the 2nd century, which gives evidence indicating it's acceptance by the early church as an authoritative witness to the Gospel message.

And as I indicated earlier, there are many similarities to the Gospel of John, which would suggest that if not written by the same author, that it came out of the same community, what scholars often call the "Johannine school", or tradition, or community. A school of John's people, so to speak. Quite likely a community formed around that beloved Disciple named in the gospel of John (actually not named in the gospel of John, just called the 'beloved disciple', who we assume to be John the Disciple of Jesus). And then a community formed around this group and developed this literature.

There are a few scholars that even believe this 'non'-letter of John actually might be older than the Gospel of John. It's hard to tell, the letter never quotes the Gospel of John, even though it has many similarities. Most scholars, however, have concluded it's more likely a decade or two after the Gospel of John was written. So probably right around the year 100.

Most importantly, though often ignored, is that it is written within the context of the Greco- Roman world, not the context of Jewish Palestine with which we're typically more familiar because of the Gospels. And that is significant, because within that world (as those of us saw on our World of Paul pilgrimage a year ago), the worship of other gods in that world -- Mars, Jupiter, Apollo, and most importantly, Augustus -- that that was not simply a matter of religious preference, as one might choose a church because you really like it's music. Or you might choose a church because you like the liturgy and the ritual and the mystery. Or you might choose a Disciple church because you're drawn to the charisma of the preacher :)

Well, in the 1st-century Mediterranean world, one's loyalty to the Roman Empire was closely connected to one's loyalty to the Gods. Now, it's a good thing we have nothing like that today :)

So in other words, the church rose as an alternative to, and quite likely in opposition to, the organized religion of church and state of that time. Thus, when John writes "The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know God", he is challenging one of the basic foundations of that society -- everyone knew their Gods. Just not this one.

By the way, it's in that context -- and only in that context -- of the late 1st-century that the Revelation of John (which also comes out of this Johannine community or tradition), makes sense. Whereas Revelation was written to counter the corruptive power of the original evil empire (so to speak), the Roman Empire, 1 John appears to be directed not at those opposing forces outside the church, but rather those inside the church.

Namely, what John calls the 'antichrists' (and note it's plural in this text, not singular). There's not one evil being that's out to destroy the world and us, but rather those who were a part of the followers of Jesus who, John says, have now corrupted the message and have turned against Christ. Hence the "antichrists".

Does that sound familiar at all? You know, those who take Jesus' message of love and acceptance and turn it into a message of hate and judgment against gays or immigrants. Those who take Jesus' message of peace and nonviolence and turn it into a war against other religions and nations. Such do not belong to us, says John.

And so he writes, because of these deceivers, he calls them, who have corrupted the message of Christ.

Now, granted when we read a text like this non-letter of John, we have to keep in mind we're only hearing one side of the debate. We're just hearing John's perspective. It's like deciding you know what President Obama believes because you've listened to the Republicans tell you what he believes. Or you know what Mitt Romney believes because you listen to what the Democrats tell you he believes, right?

We all know the truth lies somewhere in-between. But those who are on the winning side of this debate from the 1st-century church are the authors of the New Testament. And unlike politicians, I do take their word for gospel, even as I read carefully between the lines for some of the nuances and suggestions of what their opponents might say.

So here is the opposing argument, as best as we can surmise, that John is refuting: by taking away sin, they say, Christ has made sin meaningless. And therefore how one lives their life is basically unimportant. See, what one does in the flesh does not matter. All that matters is one's belief. Possessing the correct doctrine. So their motto might be: "Believe in Jesus, and do as you please".

Sound good to you? In other words, faith has nothing to do with morality. Now, that's not as wild and far-fetched as it sounds. Because in the ancient religion of that Roman world, whether or not one succeeded as a merchant or a warrior -- even as a criminal -- was determined by paying sufficient homage to the Gods. If you paid the homage, then God would protect you, look out for you, no matter what it was that you did.

So how else do you explain why the good suffer and the bad prosper? It's because they paid their dues to the Gods. So success is determined not by 'right living', but by backing the right God. And I ask you -- is that really all that different from what many people believe today? That being right with God is not about how we live, but where we worship. It's not about what we do, but about what we say.

Now, it's not unusual for social issues to appear in the Sports pages. Have you ever noticed? Drug use, sexual misconduct, racism. You read about those things in the sports pages from time to time. But I have to tell you, I was rather surprised this week to read in the sports section that world peace has been suspended for 7 games by the National Basketball Association! Did you see that?!

I didn't know that we had achieved world peace, let alone that the NBA had the power to suspend it! I mean, if you thought that professional basketball games were rough before, wait until you see how they're played now, without world peace. Thank heavens it's only 7 games, I mean, where would we be otherwise :)

Come to find out, "World Peace" was formerly the Defensive Player of the Year known as Ron Artest. Yeah, changed his name. He plays for the Lakers. He gave an opposing player a concussion with a rather vicious elbow to the head. He changed his name in September, he said "To inspire and to bring youth together all around the world". How nice.

I suspect that James Hardin (they guy who took the elbow), who was the victim of his ballistic elbow, would probably prefer that he inspire his body to come together all around the basketball court. This would be, by the way, the same player who holds the record in the NBA for the longest suspension for on-court misbehavior. You may remember this, about 5-6 years ago in a game with the Indiana Pacers, there was a big brawl. The refs had to actually stop and cancel the game, it was never finished. Then Ron Artest punched-out a fan who had thrown a drink at him. Only, the fan he punched-out was not the one who had thrown the drink, he was an innocent by-stander. At any rate, suspended 86 games. This is the same player suspended 10 times in his career, also sentenced to 20 days in jail for domestic violence. So his off-court behavior is evidently similar to his on-court behavior.

And he says in his own defense he was raised in a rough neighborhood in Queens, and he once witnessed a fellow player stabbed to death on the basketball court at a YMCA game. And therefore he's used to playing rough, it's just part of his culture. His name-change to "World Peace" last fall was supposed to signify a new image, he turned over a new leaf. World Peace is his last name, his first name is "Metta", which is a Buddhist name meaning "Loving, kindness, and friendliness toward all". Yeah.

Asked what the Lakers would do without World Peace, my cousin, Kobe Bryant (you have to know Kobe to appreciate the humor of that :), said "We have reactivated Global Harmony, formerly known as Shaq O'Neal". I'm not making this up! OK, I made up that last part about Shaq. But the rest of it is all true.

You'd think if you were going to adopt a name like "World Peace", you'd want to walk the talk. And that is precisely the point of this text. Sure, we all have our sins, like World Peace. We're human. But if we are going to be children of God -- and John says we are, we are children of God -- we have to live by a higher standard. His claim that those born of God do not sin is not a statement of fact, it is an appeal to conscience.

Now, whenever you hear some leader proclaim "Such and such is not what we do here", you can bet it's because "such and such" is what someone did there, right? Members of the Secret Service are held to the highest professional standard. Except when they're in certain countries of Central America, right? Marines do not engage in conduct unbecoming of Marines and the U.S. Government. Except when they get a little over-zealous when celebrating a kill of their Taliban opponents.

Christians born of God do not sin. Except, when they do.

The point is not that the followers of Jesus are any better than anyone else, but rather that when we adopt Jesus we adopt the way of Jesus and accept the responsibility to live by that higher standard.

And what is especially striking this text from this non-letter of John, in all of the authors efforts to convince us to live by this higher standard free of sin, though he speaks of the devil, he never speaks of hell. Though he speaks of eternal life, he never speaks of eternal damnation. Read it for yourself, check it out.

The worst he can say for the world and its sinful ways is that it will pass away -- not that the world is going to come to an end, but that the sinful way of the world will pass away, the Kingdom of God will come.

And the motivation, then, that he gives for avoiding sin is not the fear of judgment, but love for others that comes from God. What kind of a world do you want to live in? One that is motivated by fear? Or one that it is motivated by love?

I'm convinced ethics driven by fear of consequences to oneself are morally bankrupt. They are rooted solely in one's self preservation. And that's the biggest problem I have with the philosophy of Ayn Rand that is behind so many of the anti-tax activists calling for smaller government, is the ethical model is driven by self-interest and material gain, which I find contrary to the Gospel as expressed in this text.

John gives us another model -- ethics driven by love instead of by fear. As children of God, we do the right thing not for our own benefit, but because of love, following the example of Jesus.

Sin is inconceivable to us, then, because sin is foreign to love. When you love someone, you will not harm them. Like that bumper-stickers says, "When Jesus said Love Your Enemies, he probably meant do not kill them".

"See what love God has given to us. That we should be called children of God. For this is the message we have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another."

If we do, if we truly love one another, we will not harm our brothers and sisters, be they Christian or Muslim or Jew or Buddhist or Hindu or Atheist.

If we love one another, we will work to end the practice of torture by this government and by all governments.

If we love one another, we will find a safe place for the homeless to be, to eat, and to sleep in this community.

If we love one another, we will put an end to the bullying and harassment, and treat each person with respect and dignity as a child of God.

We will do this not just for ourselves. We will do this for God, because of the love that God has shown us in Christ.

 


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