Sermon: Easter 6, 6 May 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 6th May 2018

“FAITH THAT IS REAL”

Rev. Paul Weaver

(Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-12; John 15:9-17)

Over the past few weeks we have heard a number of passages from the First Letter of John. There are verses in this letter that would be familiar to many of us, including that wonderful statement that “God is Love” from Chapter 4 that we heard last week. But the letter as a whole is not really a well-known part of the New Testament.  It is traditionally believed that the book was written by the Apostle John as an old man in the closing years of the first century. And there are good reasons for believing that the tradition is true, although the letter itself does not mention the name of the writer. In many ways, it seems more like a sermon than a letter like those of Paul.

Some people might think that it sounds rather like the message of an old man. As I said a couple of weeks ago, Paul’s letters are clearly organized. There is a clear flow to his argument, and specific subjects are covered in particular sections of his letters. But John’s First Letter is not like that. It can seem to go round in circles. What John does is to take a number of themes and reflect on them and relate them to one another.

Themes like light: for this is where we find the great statement that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all”. And then there are themes like life, faith, truth, and witness. And of course, love.

If you haven’t already done so, let me encourage you to read through the whole letter yourself: it’s only five chapters, a few pages. We will actually have one more reading from the letter next week, although for some strange reason the five verses of next week’s reading include four verses from today’s reading! I’m not sure what that’s about: I wonder whether we will recognize them when we hear them again at St.Alban’s!

What is the letter about? John is aware of some ideas in the church which are causing confusion. He writes about Jesus Christ and who he really is. He writes about Christian faith and what it involves. He writes about Christian living and how it works. John wants to direct people to the truth of the Gospel, not just for the sake of having correct doctrine, but because what we believe is always worked out in how we live, and what we say and do.

It is true when you think about it. For instance, if you believe that infidels are God’s enemies and deserve to be wiped out, and that you will receive a heavenly reward if you help to do that, you will be able to justify becoming a suicide bomber. If you believe that God actually hates homosexual people, you will feel it is OK to act abusively towards them. If you believe that everyone who doesn’t hold exactly the doctrine you do will go to a terrible eternal hell, you might feel compelled to pressure people into your kind of faith. Our beliefs in all sorts of ways have a significant impact on our lives.

To help us think about the reality of our Christian faith, John indicates three things that are vital in our relationship with God through Jesus. One writer has described them as “the tests of faith”. I mentioned them a couple of weeks ago. There is the test of belief: and John insists that what we believe really matters, for otherwise we will take the path of falsehood and confusion. There is the test of obedience: John calls us to live lives of obedience to God and his laws, not in order to make ourselves acceptable to him or to win his approval, but rather as an expression of our relationship to him, and as a response to his goodness to us.

It is not enough for the child to say to mother “I love you”, if that child never listens, never helps, never obeys, never shows respect. So it is in our relationship with God. Of course we are far from perfect, but John calls us to ask ourselves: does obeying and pleasing God matter to me? Do I seek to take that path as I live my life?

And then, along with belief and obedience, there is the test of love. We heard Jesus’ powerful words in today’s Gospel, calling his followers to abide in his love. And we heard his message that love is uniquely demonstrated by the one who lays down his life for those he loves. Of course, the very next day after saying this Jesus himself would lay down his life on the cross, not simply as a victim or a martyr, but in order to deal with the problem of human sin and evil, and to restore us to full fellowship with God and bring us the fullness of salvation. Jesus did not just teach about love: he lived it out.

And here in Chapter 5 of his letter, John says some important things about Jesus, and some important things about the Christian life. True Christian faith means trusting in Jesus who is the Christ, the Messiah, the promised Saviour and King.

Faith means trusting in Jesus who is the unique Son of God: not just a special man, but one who shares the very nature of God, as a human child shares in the human nature of its parents. John wants us to know that in Jesus, God has come to us in person, sharing our human life and existence. And John insists that we can have confidence that this is true because of the witness that has been provided: not just human witness, but the very witness of God himself. We might find the three witnesses to Jesus mentioned by John rather strange, but John wants us to see that they have God’s authority.

These witnesses are the Spirit, the water and the blood. What is John getting at? The Spirit is the Holy Spirit, God present with us, to encourage us in the truth and to strengthen us in our faith. The experts are somewhat divided about what John describes as “the water and the blood”. Some people think John is referring to what happened when the soldier pierced Jesus’ dead body on the cross, and blood and water came out from his side. I think it is more likely that John is referring to the witness of God connected with Jesus’ baptism and his crucifixion.

You will remember that God spoke at Jesus’ baptism, acknowledging that Jesus was his Son, and that he was well-pleased with him. But then God’s witness to Jesus is also borne not simply in the awesome darkness of Good Friday, but in its sequel: the defeat of death in Jesus’ resurrection. How can salvation be assured, says John, if Jesus is not the Son of God, if he does not in himself bring together the holiness of God and the frailty of humanity? Salvation is found in him: and so John brings out the importance of believing the truth about Jesus.

But John is not just interested in what we believe. He is interested in how we live. Does having our doctrine right make us a real Christian? John makes clear that there is more to it than that. Does trying to obey God make us a real Christian? According to John there is more to it than that. We only have to look at the Pharisees to see how a serious attempt to live a godly life can be distorted intro legalism and judgementalism.

Well, does being a loving person make us a real Christian? We know sadly how often the idea of love is corrupted into sentimentality or into lust and greed: something far away from the love God seeks from us.

John wants us to see that it does matter what we believe. It does matter that we are serious about obeying God. It does matter that we love our neighbour. If our faith is the real thing, we shall love God, we shall love our neighbour, and we shall seek to obey God. True obedience is expressed in a loving life: as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “if you love me, you will obey my commands”. And so a true love for God will be expressed in love for our neighbour.

Faith, obedience and love: you can’t really have one without the other. They are all characteristic of the true Christian life. And so John challenges us. If these are characteristic of the true Christian life, how are we going? John is not calling us to judge others. Nor is he calling us to despair because we don’t measure up to how we think we should be going. The whole point of the Gospel is that we receive forgiveness of all our sins through Christ. But John is asking us: what road am I on? Is this the direction of my life? Am I trusting in Jesus, even with my doubts and questions? Am I seeking to obey him, even though I fall short, and continue to need his forgiveness? And am I seeking to show love in my life, doing what I can to serve and care for the one who needs my love?

We are not saved by correct doctrine, or by some NAPLAN score for obedience and love. We are saved by God’s grace, through his love shown to us in Christ. But as we respond to that love shown in Christ, let’s ask him to help us follow him as his people in faith, along that path of deepening obedience and love. Amen.

            Paul Weaver