1 John’s “love letter” approaches its “landing strip” with this Sunday’s RCL Epistolary Lesson. Yet it may initially seem as if this “flight” is veering off course. After all, in a letter that John packs with calls to love God and our neighbor, this text emphasizes testimony.
Of course, 1 John 5:9-13 is related to the verses that immediately precede it. Yet even verses 6-8 seem to veer a bit “off course” from not just 1 John’s first four chapters, but also from chapter 5’s first five verses. After all, after speaking about faith in the son of God there, John seems to swerve to speak about Jesus Christ as “the one who came by water and the blood” (6) and the three-fold “testimony” of the Spirit, the water and the blood (7).
The trustworthiness of that testimony is among 1 John 5:9-13’s subjects. In verse 5 John calls God’s testimony “greater” than any human testimony. The Greek word mega suggests that it’s greater in status. Eugene Peterson’s biblical paraphrase The Message suggests that means that God’s testimony is more reassuring than human testimony.
It’s, after all, “the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son” (9). This, insists John, is compelling evidence for God’s testimony’s trustworthiness. After all, while humans are natural liars, God always speaks the truth. While humans’ views of the things about which we testify are sometimes flawed, God sees perfectly. So, it’s as if the apostle suggests, since God offers the testimony about God’s Son, people can “take it to the bank.”
God, however, doesn’t, as it were, offer that trustworthy testimony from some sort of courtroom witness box or at the scene of a crime. No, John insists, God lodges God’s testimony deep within believers’ “hearts,” at the very animating center of Christians’ beings.
The content of God’s testimony is essentially this: “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” Jesus’ friends can rely on God’s gift to us of eternal life. God, after all, testifies deep within us that we enjoy that life only “in his Son,” in union with Jesus Christ, in a faithful relationship with him.
Of course, those God creates in God’s image and deeply loves naturally look for life in all sorts of places. People gladly give our hearts and lives to all kinds of things and people. But this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson insists that we’ll only know life as God created it to be in a faithful relationship with Jesus Christ.
But, of course, sadly, some people refuse to believe even God’s testimony. They try to reduce Jesus’ to something less than what he claims for and about himself. This, however, reduces God, mourns the apostle, to a “liar.”
To say that Jesus is something less than God’s only natural Son puts God on the same level as Eden’s serpent that convinced our first parents to believe its deadly lie. The lie that, ironically enough, God prevented our first parents from eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil precisely because God didn’t want those God creates in God’s image to be “like” God.
There are so many labels that people naturally try to affix to God: unfaithful, unpredictable, judgmental, etc. Yet is there any label that’s both harsher and less true than that God is a liar? If God is, in fact, a liar, God can’t be relied on. Nothing God says or promises can be trusted. That, says 1 John 5, is essentially what those who refuse to believe that life is found in Jesus Christ alone assert.
Those who proclaim this might want to try to imagine what such a life might look like. What would it be like to think of God as a liar? What might life be like for those who can’t trust God to keep God’s word, to be faithful to God’s own self and character?
Someone I know, I’ll call him Roger, is, in my thinking, a Christian. But Roger struggles to believe God’s promises. He finds it hard to trust God because he can point to countless things that he deduces show that God hasn’t been and still isn’t reliable. This, frankly, leaves Roger’s life quite miserable. While he genuinely wants to believe, he often simply can’t believe God’s promises. Perhaps partly as a result, he finds it hard to believe God’s people’s promises.
My friend Roger may, quite simply, fail to have life in its fullest sense. God has saved him by God’s amazing grace. But he doesn’t have the life to which God summons God’s dearly beloved adopted children.
Roger is lively in the sense that his heart beats strongly and his brain works extremely well. Yet he doesn’t have the kind of life that flows, by God’s grace through the work of the Spirit, out of relying on God to be faithful to himself, God’s people and the creation. It’s too harsh to label Roger as a walking dead man. Yet his failure to believe that God is trustworthy leaves him limping badly through much of life.
The apostle John ends this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson by insisting that he doesn’t want anyone to limp through life like Roger, struggling to believe God’s testimony. He writes not just this Sunday’s text but also his entire first letter, so that those who believe “may know that” they have “eternal life” (13).
Life that, Reformed Christians profess, doesn’t simply begin when Christians pass from life to Life in God’s eternal and glorious presence. It begins, instead, at the moment that God gives God’s adopted sons and daughters new birth that they receive with their faith in Jesus Christ. After all, the life with which God graciously gifts us is true life because it’s life as God created it to be. It’s life lived in harmony with God’s loving purposes and plans.
One might argue that “testimony” is perhaps an especially American fascination, dare I say, obsession. Americans even have an entire cable television network that’s in a sense devoted to it. CourtTV says it has “live gavel-to-gavel coverage of America’s biggest and most important trials.”
Among the trials the network recently covered was that of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. For several weeks at least some of us were riveted by the sensational trial. Witnesses for the prosecution included the 911 dispatcher who handled the call that sent police officers to the scene of Mr. Floyd’s arrest as well as a witness at the scene of Mr. Floyd’s murder. Witnesses for the defense included a use of force expert and a former chief medical examiner.
All offered what their allies called “expert testimony.” But those testimonies often sharply conflicted with each other. So jurors in both the courtroom and across the United States had to weigh whose expert testimony was more believable: that for the prosecution or that for the defense.
Ultimately, of course, the jurors in that Minneapolis courtroom found Mr. Chauvin guilty of several counts of murder. They, quite simply, trusted the testimony of the witnesses for the prosecution more than they trusted the testimony of the witnesses for the defense.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 16, 2021
1 John 5:9-13 Commentary