How Will They Know We Are Christians? Part V
A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist
May 13, 2012
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Everyone who believes
that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves
his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by
loving God and carrying out his commands. In fact, this is love for God: to keep
his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God
overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our
faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus
is the Son of God. This is the one who came by water and blood —Jesus Christ. He
did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who
testifies, because the Spirit is the truth (NIV).
I want to begin by thanking those of you who offered up
prayers and good wishes for my daughter’s wedding last weekend.
They worked. The wedding was
perfectly beautiful and beautifully perfect, and God even blessed it with a
sprinkle of rain. But I couldn’t
quite figure out how to pull off a family wedding on Saturday and still be ready
to preach on Sunday, and so, weeks beforehand, I asked
if she would step into the middle of this sermon series from 1 John and preach
She said yes.
I had a chance to listen to the sermon last week and I
did an outstanding job of summarizing the series.
In fact, when she was finished, I understood better than I did before
what it’s all about: it’s about how “they,” out there in the world, will know
that we, in the church, are Christians.
One of the ways—as Lynn made clear—is by our love for one
another. Jesus said it himself in
John 13:35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have
love for one another.” But the
other way the world will know we are Christians is if we believe that Jesus is
the Christ. In fact, if I could sum
up the message of 1 John in two words I would say
belove: believe in Jesus and belove
one another. Last week Lynn talked about beloving;
this week I want to talk about believing.
Our text for today begins with a verse about believing that
Jesus is the Christ, and that sounds easy enough.
Of course Jesus is the Christ!
Who else could it be? But
when 1 John was written it wasn’t that obvious.
There were some in the church, apparently, who had been seduced by some
early form of Gnosticism. They
believed that the flesh was evil while the spirit was good.
They couldn’t believe that a good and holy God would come in wicked and
sinful flesh; they said it must have only
appeared that way. Some of the
Gnostics believed that the divine Christ was an apparition who left no
footprints when he walked on the earth.
Others believed that when the human Jesus was baptized the spirit of
Christ descended on him and remained with him until his crucifixion.
They would say that it wasn’t
Christ who died on the cross; it was Jesus.
And it wasn’t Jesus who rose from the dead; it was Christ.
Now, if you said to those people, “Do you believe that Jesus is the
Christ?” they would say, “Of course not.
There is the human Jesus, and there is the divine Christ.
But the two are not one and the same.
In fact, they couldn’t be.”
You can see how a church might split over an issue like
that, and apparently this one did.
The more I learn about 1 John the more it seems clear that it was written as a
sermon for those who remained in the church after others had left.
And the more I learn about the Gnostics the more it seems sure that some
of their views were the dividing issue.
I haven’t learned everything, but let me see if I can give you a brief
and general summary of Gnostic beliefs:[i]
They believed that there was a God, somewhere, a
“transcendent and ineffable deity” who was pure spirit.
Because God was spirit, they concluded that the spirit
was good while the flesh was evil.
This kind of dualistic thinking was common in Gnosticism; things were not
“both/and,” they were “either/or.”
They believed that the material world in which we live
was created by a lesser god they called the “Demiurge,” since the God who was
pure spirit wouldn’t have dirtied his hands with something so physical.
Nonetheless, they believed that a spark of the divine
was trapped within the flesh of every human creature.
They believed this spark could be released, and returned
to the divine realm, through enlightenment, or illumination.
They believed that Christ came to share the secret
knowledge (gnosis in Greek) that
would release the divine spark.
They believed that salvation came about as the result of
obtaining this secret knowledge.
You may have noticed as I read that there are some things
in that list that sound familiar, especially if you have spent some time in the
Gospel of John. That first thing,
for example, that God is pure spirit.
Didn’t Jesus say in John 4:24 that God is spirit, and those who worship
him must worship in spirit and in truth?
And what about the idea that Christ came to reveal the secret knowledge
that would release the divine spark within us?
Didn’t Jesus say in John 8:32 that we will know the truth, and the truth
will make us free?
This seems to be one of the problems: there are a lot of
things in John’s Gospel that sound sort of…Gnostic.
And it’s possible that some of the people in his church twisted his
teaching in a way he never intended, especially when he was no longer around to
correct them. The research that
I’ve been doing suggests that Gnosticism grew out of the Jewish-Christian
tradition and here in 1 John we may be getting a glimpse of how it happened.
Someone might have taken something good from John’s Gospel like, “God is
spirit,” and pushed it further than it was meant to go.
“If God is spirit,” they might have said, “and God is good, then spirit
is good and flesh is evil.” It
sounds reasonable enough, but as the old song says, “It ain’t necessarily so.”
You see, unlike the Gnostics, we believe that God (not some Demiurge—God!)
made the earth and everything in it and called it good, that he made human
beings—both men and women—and called them
very good. How can we say the
flesh is evil if God made it?
Frederick Buechner says the doctrine of the Incarnation suggests “it was a
uniform even God wasn’t ashamed to wear,” and the Gospel of John—the same one
that says God is spirit—insists that the Word that was God and was with God
“became flesh and lived among us” (1:14).[ii]
And so we do not think of Jesus as one thing and Christ as
another; we do not separate his divinity from his humanity.
When we put those two words together in one breath we are making a
statement of faith: we are saying that this man Jesus of Nazareth—who was born
in humble circumstances, who plied his trade first as a carpenter and then as an
itinerant preacher and faith healer, who died a criminal’s death on a cruel
cross—this man was none other than the Christ of God, the long-awaited Messiah,
the beloved and only begotten Son of his Heavenly Father.
And so when we read the first verse of today’s passage from 1 John 5 our
faith is affirmed: “Everyone who
believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God,” John says, and we say,
“That’s us!” But do you see how it
changes your understanding of that verse to know a little something about
Gnosticism, to know that there were some people who were saying Jesus was
not the Christ?
Let’s take a closer look.
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of
God,” John says, “and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.”
Here he is talking not only about Jesus, but about all of us who have
been born of God and are the children of God.
And as you know, one of the ways the world will know we are Christians is
by the way we love one another.
John says, “This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God
and carrying out his commands. In fact, this is love for God: to keep his
commands. And his commands are not burdensome.”
God’s commands in this letter are to believe in Jesus and to belove one
another, as I said earlier. Those
are not burdensome, but according to John they do identify us as the children of
God. He goes on to say, “For
everyone born of God overcomes the world.”
Let me say a little more about that.
The Gnostics believed that they were stuck in this material
world, that the divine spark within them was trapped in human flesh, but they
also believed that that spark could be liberated by knowledge (Gk:
gnosis), that if they learned the
secret knowledge the Christ had come to bring then the spark within them would
be released and returned to the divine realm.
This would be their salvation.
This is how they would overcome the wicked and sinful world.
But listen to what John says to these Christians.
He says, “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our
faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only
the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.”
You see? It’s not secret
knowledge that saves us; it is our belief that Jesus is the Christ, that those
two are one and the same, and that they are inextricably bound together.
John says, “This is the one who came by water and blood
—Jesus Christ,” and that probably needs a little more explanation.
John is saying that the spirit of Christ didn’t descend on Jesus in his
watery baptism and then depart from Jesus in his bloody crucifixion.
He is saying that Jesus was the Christ when he was baptized and he was
the Christ when he was crucified.
“He did not come by water only,” John says, “but by water and blood. And it is
the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.”
So, take that all you Gnostics.
Now, you may be feeling pretty smug at this point.
You’ve learned a little something about Gnosticism and a little something
about 1 John and you may be sitting there thinking, “Well,
I believe that Jesus is the Christ,
and according to John that means I have been born of God.
It means I’m a child of God, and since he says that ‘everyone who loves
the parent loves the child’ it must be true:
I love all of God’s children and all of God’s children love me.”
But let me tell you a story.
Last fall my niece Sylvie came to live with us and she brought along a friend
named Kristy. They were both recent
graduates of the University
of Richmond and some of
the most committed young Christians I have ever met.
They were always going out to teach a Bible study somewhere, or to
counsel a troubled friend, or to work with disadvantaged children.
We talked theology at the dinner table and the breakfast table until I
could no longer tell where work ended and home began.
But one night a friend of theirs named David came over and he was just
gushing. He’d been talking to his
brother about Jesus for two hours.
Jesus! For two hours!
His face was flushed with the excitement of it all.
But later I asked Sylvie and Kristy: “How much does your
friend David really know about Jesus?”
And they said, “Oh, he knows the Book of Romans backward and forward.”
And that’s when I wondered: How much would you know about Jesus if all
you knew was the Book of Romans?
And here’s what I discovered: there’s nothing in there about the earthly life
and ministry of Jesus. There’s a
lot about how we are justified by grace through faith, and not by works, lest
anyone should boast, but Paul doesn’t say anything about what Jesus did before
his death and resurrection. He
doesn’t mention him calling the disciples, or teaching the crowds, or welcoming
children. Now, you might say that
it wasn’t Paul’s intent to write a gospel, that that had already been done.
But if you simply ask how much someone would know about Jesus if all they
knew was the Book of Romans the answer is not very much.
And for this young man, David, that might not be a problem.
He might not care that Jesus healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, raised
the dead, and cast out demons. He
might not care that he went around preaching parables of the Kingdom and trying
to bring heaven to earth. He might
only want to know, “What must I do to be saved?”
And in Romans 10:9 Paul tells him: “If you confess with your mouth that
Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you
will be saved.” “Well, there you
go,” David might say. “That’s all I
really need to know.”
Only last week did it occur to me how much that approach
sounds like Gnosticism. The
Gnostics believed that Christ came to share the secret knowledge that would
release the divine spark within them and return it to the realm of the divine.
They believed that in this way they could be saved from their own sinful
flesh and the wicked world in which we live.
But they didn’t want to have anything to do with Jesus.
He was too earthy for them, too human.
He spent his time with sinners and tax collectors.
His enemies called him a drunkard and a glutton.
And so the Gnostics separated Jesus from the Christ.
They decided they didn’t need him anymore.
Is there a kind of Christianity today that does the same?
A kind of “Neo-Gnosticism” that says, “Really, all we need is salvation,
and we can get that from the risen Christ.
We don’t need the earthly Jesus.”
I’m afraid that there is, and I’m not the only one.
N. T. Wright says there is a kind of Christianity among us today that is
almost completely self-centered, that seems to care only about individual
And he says that if the 16th century Reformers had paid as
much attention to the Gospels as they did to the epistles we might not have this
problem. We might have learned that
Jesus was up to something bigger than our individual salvation, that he was
trying to redeem all of creation, and that he was inviting us to join him in
that effort. Maybe that’s what he
meant when he said, “Come, follow me.”
I wish N. T. Wright were here to explain that to this young
man, David. Or maybe the author of
1 John would do it. Maybe he would
say, “Son, you can’t separate Jesus from the Christ.
The two go together. They
have always gone together. And so,
if you want to know Christ you’d better get to know Jesus.
You’d better root around in the Gospels until you come face to face with
him, until you see the fire in his eyes, and feel the strength of his grip, and
smell the sweat on his skin. And
when he turns and heads off toward the next big challenge, leaving very real
footprints on the ground, you’d better go with him.
You’d better come to understand that if you don’t know Jesus, you don’t
know Christ.” Maybe that’s what the
author of 1 John has been trying to tell us all along—that this fellow Jesus who
got nailed to a cross? He was the
Christ, and he is the Christ, and he will always be the Christ.
You’d better believe it.
—Jim Somerville © 2012
[i] From the
“Gnosticism” article on the BibleOne web site.
Words, p. 168.
the Introduction to