How Will They Know We Are Christians? Part VI

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
May 20, 2012

The Seventh Sunday of Easter

1 John 5:9-13 

We accept human testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony. Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life (NIV).

A few years ago a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, produced a television commercial that shows a man is getting ready to bungee jump off a bridge.  The music is blasting as he hooks himself up to a long, elastic cable, hops up on the rail, downs an entire quart of milk, tosses the carton away, and then dives over the side.  You watch as that long bungee cord follows him over the rail and only at the end do you realize it’s not attached to anything.  The music stops.  Everything gets quiet.  You hear a thud.  And then these words flash up on the screen: “Got Jesus?” (It’s only after that that you hear the man say, “Ouch!”).  I thought of that commercial when I was looking at today’s passage from 1 John, because right there near the end it says, “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  Whoever has the son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” It made me wonder two things: 1) What does it mean to “have” the Son? and 2) What does it mean to have eternal life?

If you’re just joining us, this is the last sermon in a series called “How will they know we are Christians?”  For six weeks now I’ve been preaching from 1 John, claiming that it was written in the context of a church split, that it’s more like a sermon than a letter, and that it was probably written for those who remained in the church after the others had left.  The preacher of 1 John is trying to correct some false teaching that has crept into the church, trying to keep his hearers on the path of true Christianity.  And so he tells them to walk in the light as Christ is in the light, and if they should sin not to deny it, but to confess it, so that God can forgive their sins and cleanse them from all unrighteousness.  He tells them how important it is to love one another as Christ has loved them—to the point of laying down their lives for one another, and how important it is to believe that Christ came in the flesh—that is, to believe that Jesus of Nazareth really was the beloved Son of God. 

These others, the ones who have left the church, are apparently saying they have no sin and don’t need to confess.  They are walking around in the darkness.  They don’t love their brothers and sisters in the church and they don’t believe that Jesus is the Christ.  They don’t see how he could be.  They have been seduced by some early form of Gnosticism that has convinced them the flesh is evil while the spirit is good; they don’t believe a pure and perfect God would have come in wicked and sinful flesh; they say it must have only appeared that way.  In today’s reading from 1 John the preacher makes one more effort to convince them.  He says, “You accept human testimony, don’t you?  When someone stands in the courtroom and swears to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” you believe them, don’t you?  And if they point their finger at the accused and say, “That’s the one who did it!” the case is closed, isn’t it?  Then why can’t you believe God, who tore open the heavens at the Baptism, and pointed his finger at Jesus, and said, “That’s my beloved Son”?

You have to wonder why is it so important to this preacher to convince these people that Jesus is the Christ.  It’s not that they aren’t believers.  They believe that Christ has come down to give them the secret knowledge that will liberate them from their sinful flesh, release the divine spark within them and return it to the heavenly realm.  As I said last week they are not so different from those people in our own time who seem to be interested only in their own salvation.  They don’t want to follow Jesus, they just want to be saved, and if saying the sinner’s prayer will do it—if that’s the secret password that will unlock the gates of heaven and let them in—then that’s really just about all the religion they want.  Jesus?  The one who said “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me?  Uh uh.  Christ?  Who died on the cross to save us from our sins so that when we die we can go to heaven?  Uh huh!  But that kind of thinking offends the preacher of 1 John.  These people don’t want Jesus; they just want salvation.  They want just enough of Jesus to keep them out of hell.  And maybe that’s why he labors so hard to convince them that Jesus is the Christ: because he knows that He is the source of all true salvation, and that without him there is no eternal life. 

In today’s Preparation for Worship statement (there on the front of your bulletin) I quote an article by Richard Foster called, “Salvation is for Life,” in which he says that Jesus and the early Apostles “preached a salvation radically different from the kind of salvation being preached today.  They spoke of a life in the kingdom of God encompassing all of human existence both here and hereafter….  This understanding of salvation stands in stark contrast to the two views of salvation that reign supreme today,” he says.  “The first is a theology from the right, which thinks of salvation primarily in terms of heaven after we die.  The second is a theology from the left, which understands salvation primarily in terms of social and economic liberation on earth.  These fragmentary half-gospels miss the heart of the salvation that is in Jesus Christ, which is a radically new life—a daily life we receive from God.”[i]

On the first Sunday of each month I climb the stairs to the second floor and go to the Connections class, where I teach a session called, “A Christian Way of Being Human.”  I often begin by saying that Christianity is not a matter of believing things about Jesus, but believing in Jesus.  And I say, “Think about it: when Jesus called those first disciples he simply asked them to follow him, and they did.  Somewhere along the way—by listening to him preach and teach, by watching him help and heal—they became convinced that this carpenter from Nazareth was none other than the Christ of God.  I think about John in particular, the one we think of as “the Beloved Disciple.”  Tradition has it that after Jesus ascended into heaven John went to Ephesus where he started a church, maybe the same church that was split apart by false teaching after his death. 

Think how it would grieve him to learn that there were some in his church who didn’t believe that Jesus was the Christ.  He would say, “Oh, no!  He was.  He is!  That’s what I’ve been telling you all along.”  The opening verses of 1 John say, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched —this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.  The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us” (1 John 1:1-2).  You see, I believe John discovered eternal life in Jesus, and I think that life started for him long before his death.  And I don’t think John was the only one. 

I once preached a sermon about that time Peter got in trouble for healing a crippled beggar.  Do you remember that? It’s in Acts, chapter 3.  Peter and John are going up to the temple to worship and they encounter that beggar lying there at the Beautiful Gate.  Peter says, “Silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give to you: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk!”  And the man did.  In fact, he did more than that.  He walked, he leaped, he praised the Lord.  He created quite a stir.  The elders and the chief priests brought Peter in for questioning and asked, “By what power or what name did you do this?”  And Peter said, “If I’m being prosecuted for an act of kindness, for healing a man who was lame, then know this: it is by the name of Jesus Christ that this man was healed, for there is salvation in no other name” (Acts 4:9-12).  But when he uses the word salvation he seems to use it in the same way Jesus used it when he said to those he healed, “Your faith has saved you.”

Why do we always assume that when we talk about salvation we’re talking about eternal salvation?   Why do we assume that salvation means being saved from the everlasting torment of a fiery Hell?  Have we heard too many sermons that tried to force a decision out of us, and was the threat of Hell and the promise of Heaven the most effective way to do it?  If you could ask Peter what he meant when he said there is no other name under Heaven by which we must be saved he might say that he wasn’t talking about Hell at all: he was talking about Jesus.  And when you asked him why he used the word salvation he might say, “Do you have a minute?  If you do, I’ll tell you my story: 

“I was a fisherman, and Jesus invited me to follow him and ‘fish’ for people.  I did.  I went with him everywhere he went, listened to every word he said.  When he asked us who we thought he was I told him, ‘You’re the Messiah, the Son of God!’ and I was right.  When he told us he was going to be killed I couldn’t believe it.  When he tried to wash my feet I wouldn’t let him do it.  When they arrested him in the garden I lashed out with my sword.  And when a servant girl asked me if I knew him I denied it—three times.  I wouldn’t have given a widow’s mite for my life after that.  I couldn’t believe I had done that to him.  But he wasn’t finished with me yet.  After he rose from the dead he found me, and forgave me, and I’ve never been the same since.  I’ve felt a power in my life that I can only attribute to the Holy Spirit, a fearlessness that comes when you’re not afraid to die anymore.  Who knows, maybe that kind of fearlessness only comes after you’ve really lived, and thanks to him, I have.  I don’t know all the answers about Heaven and Hell.  I’m not really sure what comes next.  But I can tell you this: if my next breath is my last one I can die a happy man because of Jesus.  I’ve looked for salvation everywhere else, but I found it in him.”

I think John would say something very similar.  He was just a fisherman when Jesus called him, but in the end he was the Beloved Disciple.  I’m not entirely sure what that means but let’s assume it means that of all Jesus’ disciples John was the one he loved best and trusted most—that he was his best friend.  And then think what it would mean to be Jesus’ best friend, to walk beside him on the road, to hear his inmost thoughts and share his deepest concerns, to feel his arm around your shoulder, to hear the sound of his laughter, to be “in” on the inside jokes.  Don’t you think that John, too, would say that in Jesus he found his salvation?  That he really hadn’t had a life before him, but afterward his life was so rich and full and deep he couldn’t even put it in the same category?   It was like drinking that living water Jesus once talked about, the kind that bubbles up from the inside and overflows in abundant and everlasting life: it quenched his deepest thirst.  Think of that and then imagine how offended you would be if someone suggested that you didn’t really need to know Jesus to have eternal life—that you just needed to know the secret password, just needed to say the sinner’s prayer.[ii]

Listen again to what Richard Foster says: “Jesus and the early apostles preached a salvation radically different from the kind of salvation being preached today.  They spoke of a life in the Kingdom of God encompassing all of human existence, both here and hereafter.”  Foster says the problem with those half-gospels we often hear—the one that thinks of salvation primarily in terms of heaven after we die and the one that thinks of salvation primarily in terms of social and economic liberation here on earth—is that “both of them fail to address the means for transforming the human personality into Christlikeness, and neither gives attention to the radical fellowship-forming power that comes from rightly understanding and proclaiming the everlasting Gospel of Jesus Christ.”[iii]

That’s what the preacher of 1 John is talking about.  He wants his hearers to believe that Jesus is the Christ because he wants them to be like Jesus.  He wants them to lay down their lives for one another because that’s what Jesus did for them.  If you don’t think Jesus is the Christ—if you think he was just a Jewish carpenter who, for a little while, had the spirit of Christ inside him—then you won’t try to become like him, you won’t immerse yourself in his life, and as a result you may never have that abundant, overflowing, and everlasting life he talked about.  Last week I said that if I could sum up the message of 1 John in two words I would say believe in Jesus and belove one another.  But here at the end of the series I think I might add one more word.  Don’t just believe, don’t just belove—be alive!  Identify yourself so closely with Jesus that his resurrection becomes your resurrection.  Let your eternal life begin here and now. 

In all that talk about testimony at the beginning of today’s passage the preacher says, “This is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”  Notice that he doesn’t say, “Whoever has the Son will have life”—future tense—but, “Whoever has the son has life”—present tense.  He means that it begins here, it begins now, and it begins by “having” Jesus.  If you asked the Beloved Disciple how to do that, how to “have” Jesus, I think he might say you do it the same way he did: by following Jesus, by straining your ears to catch his every word, by watching his every move and by learning his every way, by soaking yourself in the holy Scriptures and offering up the prayers of your heart, by loving God with everything in you, by loving your neighbor as yourself, and by loving one another just as Jesus has loved you.  When you do this, he might say, the living water begins to bubble up and overflow.  So don’t wait until your death to begin living, don’t wait until your bungee cord breaks:  Begin here.  Begin now.  How will they know we are Christians?  Because we believe in Jesus Christ, because we love one another, and because we are living the life—abundant, overflowing, and everlasting.                                

—Jim Somerville 2012

[i] Richard J. Foster, “Salvation is for Life,” Theology Today 61 (2004), p. 297.

[ii] For those not steeped in the evangelistic tradition, here is one example of the sinner’s prayer: “Father, I know that I have broken your laws and my sins have separated me from you. I am truly sorry, and now I want to turn away from my past sinful life toward you. Please forgive me, and help me avoid sinning again. I believe that your son, Jesus Christ died for my sins, was resurrected from the dead, is alive, and hears my prayer. I invite Jesus to become the Lord of my life, to rule and reign in my heart from this day forward. Please send your Holy Spirit to help me obey You, and to do Your will for the rest of my life. In Jesus' name I pray, Amen” (from www.sinner-prayer.com).

[iii] Ibid.


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