Easter 5 – Series B (May 3, 2015)
“Clearing Away the Debris” (1 John 4:1-11)
Last week we prayed for the people of Nepal. All across the country, people were buried – many still buried – under the rubble of toppled homes, businesses, and workplaces. The death toll is approaching 6,000 and could go as high as 10,000. 19 people also died on Mt. Everest from avalanches caused by the earthquake. Rescuers now are digging through the wreckage, trying to recover survivors and the remains of those who died. But those with some breath left in them can’t help themselves. They’re stuck. They’re gravely injured. They need someone to clear away the debris for them. If not, they will die, too.
Without minimizing the pain and suffering of the people of Nepal, consider how people in our world today are buried under a different kind of debris, but a debris that debilitates nevertheless. People are buried under the debris of depression, loneliness, addiction, abuse, and poverty. People are buried under the burden of guilt over behavior which they know is contrary to God’s will. People are buried under the debris of false teaching which points them away from the truth God has revealed to us in his Son Jesus Christ. We are all buried under various kinds of debris that proves to us we live in a world of dis-ease and dis-order, a world that is desperately broken with hearts that are desperately broken. We are disconnected from each other because we do not live fully in the life and love that God desires for us.
The revelation of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus clears away the debris of false teaching – the spirit of error which John mentions – so that we can know the truth. When we know and believe the truth, we are filled with God’s life and love so that we can love one another as he loves us.
Knowing the truth begins with confessing that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. This is in opposition to those in John’s day and in ours who would make certain false claims about him. They might say that Jesus was not truly Man but only appeared to be. He was a phantom of sorts. Others might say that he was not truly God, even though he claimed to be. C.S. Lewis famously claimed that this would put Jesus on the same level of someone who claimed he was a poached egg. The portrait of Jesus in the Gospels, however, is not of someone who was out of his mind. There are yet others who claim that Jesus never truly existed in the first place. Honest historians, though, do not refute he existed, but they will argue over the meaning of his life and his claims.
When John says “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh,” this is shorthand for the whole story. Saying he has come in the flesh also implies that he existed prior to being born of the Virgin Mary. He is the eternally existent Second Person of the Holy Trinity. It also includes that fact that Jesus came to save sinners. John says, “God sent his only Son … so that we might live through him” and “to be the propitiation for our sins.” That means that God’s anger over our sin was appeased at the cross. Now, Christ’s shed blood covers over all our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds that are opposed to God and his will for our lives. “How do I know this is for me?” someone might ask. 1 John 2:2 says, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” It’s not just for a select few. It’s for the whole world. It’s for you. And remember John’s words that we speak often in the liturgy, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
“Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” Just believing he was born is obviously not enough. You need to know the reason why he was born. You need to know his divine identity. You need to know he is your Savior. You need to know that he works through his Word and Sacraments to reach down and clear away all the sinful debris under which you have been buried and rescue you. Your sinful nature was buried with Christ in the waters of Holy Baptism. You were raised to new life with Christ when you came forth from the font, just as Jesus came forth from the tomb, and you entered into a new life full of faith and hope and the promise of everlasting life. And the same flesh of Jesus that entered this world for you in his Incarnation still enters this world for you in the bread of Holy Communion. His very body is put into your hand and your mouth, and his resurrection life fills your soul.
Yet John reminds us that there are many false teachers, false prophets, who bring uncertainty, confusion, and fear into our ranks. He chalks it up to “the spirit of error” because really every false teaching finds its source in the old evil foe from whom we pray to be delivered in the Lord’s Prayer. He the spirit of antichrist … not one final apocalyptic character, but all that is and ever will be against Christ.
But John also encourages us that we have nothing to fear. You are of God. You believe that he came in the flesh … along with all that that means as we just heard. Nothing can overcome you, even though the fight is great. You struggle mightily. Defeat seems imminent. Yet Christ has overcome for you, for his Bride, the Church. Greater is he who is in you than the spirit of all that is opposed to Christ. In his commentary on this text, Luther brings up the criminal on cross who confessed faith in Jesus. He believed in spite of the cross, in spite of all the blood, in spite of all the mockery, in spite of impending death. Still, he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Likewise, in spite of all the suffering we endure, in spite of all the suffering and opposition that the Church faces in our world today, we look to our Crucified and Risen Savior in faith and hope.
Amel Shimoun Nona is the archbishop of Mosul, Iraq … although currently he lives in exile as do the rest of his fellow Christian citizens. ISIS attacked Mosul last June. The armed forces and local police abandoned their posts and left the citizens to suffer at the hands of the enemy. Before the violence reached Mosul, Christians elsewhere in Iraq were being persecuted, and Archbishop Nona wrote an open letter to Christians in the West. I wanted to share some of it with you as an example of faith in the face of bitter opposition:
The greatest challenge in facing death because of our faith is to continue to know this faith in such a way as to live it constantly and fully — even in that very brief moment that separates us from death. My goal in all this is to reinforce the fact that the Christian faith is not an abstract, rational theory, remote from actual, everyday life but a means of discovering its deepest meaning, its highest expression as revealed by the Incarnation. When the individual discovers this possibility, he or she will be willing to endure absolutely anything and will do everything to safeguard this discovery — even if this means having to die in its cause. Many people living in freedom from persecution, in countries without problems like ours, ask me what they can do for us, how they can help us in our situation. First of all, anyone who wants to do something for us should make an effort to live out his or her own faith in a more profound manner, embracing the life of faith in daily practice. For us the greatest gift is to know that our situation is helping others to live out their own faith with greater strength, joy, and fidelity.
Strength in daily life; joy in everything we encounter along the path of life; confidence that the Christian faith holds the answer to all the fundamental questions of life, as well as helping us cope with all the relatively minor incidents we confront along our way. This must be the overriding objective for all of us. And to know that there are people in this world who are persecuted because of their faith should be a warning — to you who live in freedom — to become better, stronger Christians, and a spur to demonstrating your own faith as you confront the difficulties of your own society, as well as to the recognition that you too are confronted with a certain degree of persecution because of your faith, even in the West …
Still, we are happy … We are happy because we have the opportunity to make our freedom concrete — by defending with love the one who attacks us with rancor and hatred. Ultimately, persecution cannot make us sad or despairing, because we believe that human life deserves to be always embraced in a perfect manner, as Jesus showed us — even if death stares us in the face and we have no more than a minute left in this world. Saint Paul says that “where sin abounded, grace did still more abound” (Rom. 5:20). With him, we may also say that wherever there is persecution, there too will be the grace of a strong faith — and therein lies our salvation.1
Buried under the debris of opposition, persecution, hardship, suffering, exile, and even death, Archbishop Nona not only gives us an example of faith, but an example of love. “Defending with love the one who attacks us with rancor and hatred.” This is what Jesus said to do: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). I’m not sure I fully understand how to do this. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit can we be enabled to do so. Only by knowing that “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us” and sent his Son for us, can be begin to love one another, including those would seek to take our freedoms away from us, perhaps even our lives.
“If God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). Our love for others is motivated by what God’s love for us in Christ Jesus. It’s a love that’s freely given. It’s a love that never considers if it’s advantageous for you, never considers “What will I get out of this?” It’s a love that is fueled by Christ the vine to whom we are grafted by faith.
Remember the words of Archbishop Nona, who – when facing the destruction of the Church in his country – could say, “Still, we are happy … because we have the opportunity to make our freedom concrete — by defending with love the one who attacks us with rancor and hatred.”
Remember the words of Jesus, who – in the face of denial, betrayal, mockery, rejection, and crucifixion – could still look out and say “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Remember Stephen, the first New Testament martyr, who was stoned to death for his confession of faith in Christ. Just before he died, he fell to his knees and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
And who knows what the Ethiopian eunuch may have endured when he returned to his homeland after Philip instructed and baptized him. We don’t hear any more about him in the New Testament. But the second century church Father Irenaeus wrote that he returned to Ethiopia and preached that the Son of God appeared in human flesh and was the lamb led to the slaughter to die for the sins of the world.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” You have been born of God. You know God. So love one another as God has loved you, in a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, will clear away the debris of fear and hatred and animosity, and work the love of God in you to accomplish his purposes when and where he wills … on roads that go from Jerusalem to Gaza, or wherever the Lord takes us … whether it be in Mosul or Marysville, Ethiopia or Everett … wherever the Lord plants us to bear fruit for him, to love one another, and so prove to be his disciples.