Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 9, 2021
1 John 5:1-6 Commentary
My colleague Judith Jones suggests that the community to which John writes his first letter was facing a crisis. Some former members of the community were denying Jesus was actually the Messiah, God’s flesh and blood, fully human, fully divine Son. So John’s letters’ readers seemed to struggle with whom they should believe, how they could know what was true and how they should live out their faith.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson the apostle lays out three basic teachings in response to that. Those who proclaim it will not only want to “unpack” those teachings, but perhaps also try to discern how they’re related.
1 John 5’s proclaimers might break down those teachings in this way: 1) “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God” (1); 2) “Love for God [is] to obey his commandments (3); and 3) “Everyone born of God has overcome the world” (4).
Throughout John’s first letter, the author emphasizes love for God and our neighbors. In chapter 5, however, the apostle talks more extensively about faith. He talks several times about “believing” (a verb), including in 5:1.
So those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might choose to explore the nature of such faith. It’s not generic. Jesus’ followers don’t, for example just have faith. We don’t even join some of our neighbors in simply believing in God.
No, Jesus’ friends’ faith has both a specific object and content: “Jesus is the Christ.”
Jesus’ friends’ faith is a consequence of being “born of God” (1). Verse 1 literally means, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” Yet “born of God” is in Greek past tense (gegennetai). This at least suggests that Christian faith is not the cause of believers’ new birth. Christian faith is, instead, the result of new birth. Christian faith follows rather than provokes our new birth.
Yet even as John seems to turn away from focusing on love in the first part of his letter, he doesn’t turn completely away from it. The apostle, after all, insists that Christians’ new birth, in fact, manifests itself in Jesus’ friends’ love for God and our adopted siblings.
Yet John’s talk about love for “the father” (1b) seems ambiguous. In fact, the Greek word verse 1 renders as “father” (gennesanta) almost always refers to human parentage. Perhaps as a result, the NIV doesn’t capitalize it. That at least implies that its translators believed the beloved “father” is a human one.
On the other hand, the noted scholar Eugene Peterson capitalizes “Father” in his biblical paraphrase, The Message. So perhaps 1 John’s proclaimers are safest when we suggest that the apostle is probably but not definitely using an analogy here. We might say that just as people who love their father also love their siblings, Christians who love their heavenly Father also love our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Verse 2 is more explicit about God’s adopted children’s love for God. Yet while it (again) ties love for God to love for God’s children, the apostle seems to reverse the typical “order” of that love. Usually, after all, the Scriptures insist that we love God by loving each other. Here, however, John says “This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God.”
It’s a good reminder that God’s dearly beloved people don’t just love our neighbors by working and praying for their best. John says that we also love each other by loving God and keeping God’s commandments. Yet that assertion is perhaps more unusual than surprising. After all, at least half of God’s law helps guide us toward loving actions towards each other.
Might 1 John 5’s proclaimers think about it this way? Jesus’ friends love our neighbors by obediently loving God. After all, the Scriptures consistently link those two loves. While some of our contemporaries may try to love God without loving their neighbors, or love their neighbors without loving God, God’s adopted sons and daughters know better. In fact, while we often hopelessly confuse what it means to love our neighbors, God’s law offers the best if sometimes somewhat frustratingly vague guide to neighborly love.
Yet even with that assertion, John isn’t done surprising his readers. He adds something perhaps even more striking in verse 3: “This is love for God: to obey his commands.” I don’t think often think of this way of loving God. I’m more like God’s adopted sons and daughters who link our love for God to feelings, or praying, or singing. But here John insists we love God by doing what God tells us to do.
Of course, we profess that Christians’ ability to love God by obeying God grows out of our new birth, out of being “born of God.” Yet loving God by obeying God may still seem like a tall order. After all, even Jesus’ most saintly friends find it hard to consistently obey God. We join the apostle Paul in lamenting that do what we don’t want to do and don’t do what we want to do.
Yet in verse 3b John insists God’s commands are “not burdensome.” God’s law isn’t hard, infuriating or exhausting. After all, it’s not just that God created us for obedience. It’s also that those born of God “have overcome the world.”
Misunderstandings of especially verses 4 and 5 have sometimes produced the noxious weed that is what we call Christian “triumphalism.” Among other things it’s the belief that Christians are always successful, whether in resisting temptation, earning economic security or even preventing their own suffering.
1 John 5’s proclaimers will want to address this misinterpretation of the Scriptures carefully. We might begin by noting that multitudes of faithful Christians have been unsuccessful by the world’s standards. Their experiences suggest that new birth doesn’t buy us a ticket out of any kind of loss or suffering.
Proclaimers will also want to explore what it means to “overcome” the world. God has given Christians the Spirit who empowers us to love God by obeying God. That Spirit graciously quips us to resist “the world,” that is, to successfully resist all that pulls and pushes us away from God’s will.
At first glance, verse 6 seems like an “add-on” to this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. After all, English translators don’t just put it in a new paragraph in many their translations of the Scriptures. Verse 6 also shifts to talk about the Jesus Christ who came by water and blood (another challenging concept that may nudge its proclaimers away from jumping too eagerly into verse 6).
Yet perhaps 1 John 5’s proclaimers might at least do this with verse 6: we might note how Jesus overcame the world, even though he did so by suffering and dying. By our culture’s standards he wasn’t a conqueror or victor. Jesus was an unsuccessful “loser.”
Yet in that loss, Jesus’ friends see victory. Jesus, after all, didn’t just perfectly resist “the world’s temptations.” He also earned the salvation that by God’s grace through the work of the Holy Spirit also equips his adopted brothers and sisters to conquer the world by resisting its temptations.
How might 1 John 5’s proclaimers tie together faith in Jesus as the Christ, loving God by obeying God’s commandments and overcoming the world? Is there, in other words, a coherent theme to this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson?
Those who proclaim it will want to spend some time contemplating that. This, however, may be one approach: those who believe that Jesus is the Christ love both God and our neighbors in ways that, by God’s grace, resist and perhaps even overcome the world’s unloving ways of doing things.
Frederick Buechner’s “Avarice” in his book, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith, may provide a properly provocative entrance ramp onto a proclamation of 1 John 5: “Avarice, greed, [lust], and so forth are all based on the mathematical truism that the more you get, the more you have.
“The remark of Jesus that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35) is based on the human truth that the more you give away in love, the more you are. It is not just for the sake of other people that Jesus tells us to give rather than get, but for our own sakes too.”
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