Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 6, 2018
1 John 5:1-6 Commentary
A friend of mine who teaches preaching says that whether we can see it with our physical eyes or not, a whole lot of people come to church each week spiritually bent over at the waist. They come with so many burdens on their shoulders. They are weighed down by them. What burdens? A spouse dealing with chemotherapy. A child in college 1,000 miles away and who keeps writing home about how lonely he is. A dead-end job 40 hours a week. Or no employment at all and no end meaningful prospects in sight, either. Pending lab results. Fractured family relationships. Sorrow over the death of loved ones.
The last thing people like this need, my friend notes, are sermons on Sunday mornings that pile a bit more onto their already burdened shoulders. True, some people seem to enjoy what we could call a kind of DIY Christianity. They like sermons that end with “To-Do” lists because it gives them something tangible to work on and so somehow assures them that they are clearly on God’s good side the way invisible grace often fails to accomplish. I cannot SEE grace. Ah, but I CAN SEE my good works so . . . So give me six ways to grow my compassion, five ways to pray better, four tips on raising successful children, three things I can do this very week to increase my mercy quotient in life. If I can observe myself doing all that this coming week, then surely God sees it to and so I know we are good with each other.
Aside from the fact, however, that such “tips for successful living” type sermons do not sound like very Good News, to a lot of people it actually sounds like a whole lot of Bad News. “Great, I am worried sick about my wife’s breast cancer and now I have all this other stuff to do too or else God won’t like me so much anymore!”
As noted in also this week’s Gospel Lectionary sermon starter article here on the CEP website, preachers should proclaim grace, hope, joy.
However . . . that does not relieve preachers—or the church generally—from the need to emphasize that we are called to be disciples. We are called to follow Jesus. We are called to have Gospel-shaped lives and all of that ought to show up in how we behave, how we talk, what we do as well as what we refrain from doing. The Apostle Paul talked about it all the time. His epistles are loaded with Gospel imperatives. The Letter of James is 60% sentences in the imperative mood: command after command on how to behave as believers in Christ.
And now here is the Apostle John at the end of his first letter doing the same thing. The whole letter—as we have seen in recent weeks—is about love, love, love. Love is the hallmark, the sine qua non, of our identity as believers. We love God above all but if that love does not spill over into our ability to love all other people, then the claim to love God is de facto proven hollow as well. No Love, No Believer. Period.
But in these verses from 1 John 5 John expands that emphasis a bit to say that this love also results in something else: obedience. Obedience to what Christ commanded us to do (see again John 15 for this same day in the Lectionary cycle). Like his fellow apostles, though—yes, even James—John has got the cart and the horse in their proper order. This obedience is the fruit of God’s grace in Jesus, not its root. This is result, not cause. And that is why John is able confidently to declare that the kind of obedience he is talking about is not in the least “burdensome.”
The Greek word John uses there is not terribly common in the New Testament. In its adverb form it can be used to indicate something “hard” in the sense of being “hard of hearing.” Hearing is difficult for some people due to age or physical damage to one’s eardrum or something. People like that want to hear well, wish they could hear well, but it can be a ton of work when your ears just don’t work the way they should. A burden like that is also very frustrating, even infuriating, and finally very saddening. You wish you could hear better but . . . you just cannot no matter how hard you try.
If we do not already have within us the Spirit of Jesus Christ as a gift of grace, trying to obey Jesus’ commands and God’s law generally is like that. It’s hard. It is infuriating. And if you believe that your eternal future depends on whether you get it all right or not, it can also be terrifying and so deeply burdensome to your heart and soul. Such obedience is also finally exhausting. Who can stay morally vigilant every, every second of every day? And when each day is over, it would require more than a little mental gymnastics to convince ourselves we did it all right the whole day long. No lapses here. No mistakes. No out-of-place words. Not even a stray bad thought directed someone’s way. “Today I was . . . perfect.”
Even if you could convince yourself that your Tuesday went down that way, well . . . then there’s Wednesday to deal with. Good luck keeping that up forever and anon.
Rules and obedience are burdensome when they feel foisted onto us from the outside, when we feel that our whole life depends on perfection, when it is something we feel we have to DO as opposed to just getting set loose to BE who we have already been made into by grace alone. But when both the motivation to obey AND the ability to do so are generated on the inside of us by the indwelling Spirit of God, then the sense of burden melts away. The presence of that Spirit is already proof that this is not a Pass/Fail test. This does not make us cavalier about obeying. In fact, it is energizing for us to realize that we are living off the overflow of abundant grace.
Interestingly John uses the language of “overcoming the world” in connection with this talk about obedience. But what does that language—rather redolent of conquest and battle—have to do with obedience to Christ? Perhaps this: the things to which Christ calls us to do are all about living in the ways God intended for us in the beginning. In that case the “world” that needs overcoming are all those forces that pull us in other directions. The “world” keeps offering us pleasures and short-term fun and substances and copious amounts of this, that, or the other thing on the premise that THIS is where real life is to be found! More sex! More booze! More drugs! More money! More stuff! And, of course, mostly pursuing all of that means NOT obeying, not leading the better life of the Beatitudes and of the kingdom that Christ holds out to us.
It’s all powerful and alluring and in a media-saturated culture these worldly seductions are also omnipresent. But Jesus overcame the world and so now, by his Spirit, we can too. Obedience is possible and it’s not burdensome: it is where true joy is found. The world wants us to “have fun.” But we prefer something a bit longer lasting: deep joy. And if in the end “fun” comes from delighting in how God intended things to be, well then that’s the cherry on the top. In the meanwhile, it remains our real joy and delight simply to do what Jesus calls to us again and again: “Follow me.”
In his Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis ponders this connection between being saved and being obedience/doing good and here are a few of his typically trenchant observations:
“Only a bad person needs to repent; only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it . . . But the Christian thinks any good he does comes from the Christ-life inside him. He does not think God will love him because we are good, but that God will make us good because he loves us; just as the roof of a greenhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it . . . We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules; whereas what He really wants is people of a particular sort.”
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