1 John 4.7-21
It was some time ago but just as memorable nevertheless. It was at a Lenten study group when a lady from another church said something that still sticks in my memory. She told us that her son had just died. When we all commiserated, she said that the worst thing was – they weren’t sure where he had gone. At first, I was confused until she went on – You see he had not given himself to Jesus and so we don’t think he went to heaven. At first my breath was taken away. Then rather cack-handled, I suggested the decision as to who gains eternal life was ‘above our pay-grade’.
But was she in error and if so, what was it?
Well, I hope you will be relieved for me to suggest she was indeed in serious error. If that was not the case why did John and the Elder who was the author of the letter from John make such a song and dance about love. Surely, a loving parental God will hug his children close to his heart in a sense of overwhelming forgiveness and acceptance. Would we not do the same if a son or daughter pitched up at our doorstep even if they hadn’t phoned home recently?
But still, we remain uneasy about that section of John’s Gospel. Let me refresh your memory. It went – ‘but whoever does not believe in him stands condemned’.
How then do we square that with these other scriptural protestations of love?
Well, it comes down, as is often the case, to the translation of the Greek text. We tend to see believing as some sort of agreement to a theological proposition. Put more simply, we can see believing as signing up to a specific agreement with God over the role of Christ Jesus. In other words, we subscribe to some doctrinal statement or other. But that is making belief into a noun. Yet here we are dealing with a verb – a doing word as my primary teacher used to say.
Believing then is an action. It is the action of trusting in Jesus to see us through. It is the action of being open to Jesus helping us here and now. Moreover, it is the action of letting his spirit guide us into a future which has no backstop.
Yet maybe we remain uneasy with that term – condemnation. Or, more pointedly, what is the status of those who do not trust in Christ for whatever reason?
It’s a fairly classic scene from a situation comedy. The employee goes in to his boss ready for a battle royal. He threatens unless he gets a day off, he’ll resign! The superior
says – carry on, we won’t miss you. Where upon the crestfallen underling – quickly goes on – let me finish, I will have to resign myself to work that day. The pivotal point in the humour is the meaning of resign. And that is helpful here. Since the act of condemnation can have many consequences. Indeed, it could indeed mean not receiving the fruits now of being saved. In other words, not living by trusting in Jesus can condemn us to anxiety, unfulfillment even despair. It can result in us feeling worthless and our existence as meaningless. Or, in different terms, such a ‘condemned’ person is still loved by God, it’s just he or she doesn’t know it. Moreover, in many cases, an unbelieving person doesn’t want to know God’s love. And that is some condemnation indeed.
Yet Chapter 3, Verse 17 of John’s gospel leads us into even deeper theological waters. In fact, it opens up oceans that have been fought over by Christian communities for centuries. Since it introduces a role in salvation for good deeds and the dangers of bad deeds.
Why is this such a contested matter? Simply put, it is a ground rule that we cannot save ourselves. To some of our own Calvinist persuasion, good deeds have no ultimate input in our life’s outcome. But that rather leave out again the leavening of love. The love God has demonstrated for us in his gift of his son. The love we find in believing in him through trust and hope. The love we then feel honoured to return in trying to do something truly good. And it is these acts of goodness, that can be given the catchphrase of ‘love one another as I have loved you’.
Now I know I have made a bit of a bog of a Sunday’s sermon when someone at the door says – you’ve given us a lot to think about!
Today, our lesson indeed gives us a huge amount to think about.
Perhaps then we should take a breather and let the moment pass. But that would reject the opportunity that the struggling with this gospel passage offers.
To illustrated, a few weeks back I was out on my bike. I had decided to tackle one of the locality’s steepish hills. All went well until about half way up when I had to stop to get my breath back. Then it was back on the cycle. But after a few more wobbly yards, again, gravity overcame me. So, I ended pushing the blessed machine to the top.
In some ways I was disappointed by my power failure but not surprised. However, shortly after this attempt at being the King of the mountain, I encountered a number of less steep gradients on my way home. These I sailed over with confidence if not aplomb.
If then we do the heavy lifting of really getting to grips with the idea of God’s love being expressed in the giving of Jesus to us then something similar will occur. We will find it easy to show loving concern to each other. We will find it easy to find compassion for ourselves. We will indeed put under our wheels all of life’s mountains that can seem so daunting. Then we will roll on – roll on into deeds of light – roll on along the straight if arduous road – in fact, roll on to our sure and hoped for destination.