How Will They Know We Are Christians? Part VI
A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist
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
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
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
Richard J. Foster, “Salvation is for Life,”
Theology Today 61 (2004), p. 297.
For those not steeped in the evangelistic
tradition, here is one example of the sinner’s
“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”