“In Truth and Love”

EPISTLE | 2 JOHN 1-6

1The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth, and not only I but also all who know the truth, 2because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever:

3Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, in truth and love.

4I was overjoyed to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we have been commanded by the Father. 5But now, dear lady, I ask you, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but one we have had from the beginning, let us love one another. 6And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment just as you have heard it from the beginning — you must walk in it.

“…in truth and love.” (v.3)

In his second letter to his churches, John the Pastor has very little to say. This is the second shortest epistle (letter) in the New Testament (second only to John’s third letter), kept concise and clear. I am amazed that John has distilled his pastoral exhortation to two key points: truth and love.

What is more amazing to me is that John does not see truth and love in tension. I have been taught and trained that “telling the truth in love” is an impossible ideal. Instead, I have to choose one over or against the other. I can stand for truth, but I will hurt others; I can love others, but I will sacrifice the truth. For John, though, Jesus is both truth and love: the two are paired, shared gestures of God toward us in his Son.

He writes, “to the elect lady…whom I love in the truth” (v.1). John writes that “all who know the truth” love her also, “because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever” (vv.1-2). Truth motivates and compels us to love. The question remains then: “Which truth?”.

The only truth that could teach us to love and would motivate us to love, is the Truth, Jesus Christ. My theological education teaches me this has to be the right answer, but my overly academic mind rebels, demanding a more complex answer. After all, isn’t Jesus always the simplistic, “Sunday School” answer? But if my following Jesus on his the Lenten Journey to the cross has taught me anything, it’s that Jesus is anything but simplistic, anything if not complex. And then Easter morning opens with Jesus’ resurrection, which seals his radical complexity for all time.

Because Jesus is both the Truth and the Love, John sees God’s command to “[walk] in the truth” (v.4) to be part of, or partnered with, His command to “love one another” (v.5). My call to learn from Jesus and respond in faith does not end at the cross, precisely because Jesus does not end at the cross. At the empty tomb, my call is renewed and revitalized along with Christ’s life. If Christ is really alive, and I am really made a part of him, then truth and love both will have to be part of my discipleship.

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“Mortal”

EPISTLE | 1 JOHN 5:13-21

13I 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. 14And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him. 16If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one — to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that. 17All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal. 18We know that those who are born of God do not sin, but the one who was born of God protects them, and the evil one does not touch them. 19We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one. 20And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 21Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

This is the end of John’s first letter to his churches. But what a complicatedly long end!

I feel like John wrapped it up at “eternal life” (v.13), and then “boldness in him” (vv.14-15) came as a bit of an afterthought, or implication of “eternal life”, which leads him to give an example of “boldness in him”, but that example was way more complex than he anticipated, so he gives a last-minute excursus on “mortal sin” (vv.16-18), and, shoot, now he’s made us all anxious again, so he assures us that “we are God’s children” (vv.19-20); phew! finished. OH, wait! “Keep yourselves from idols” (v.21). Okay, send it out!

This is a playful way of connecting with John as he writes, but I doubt this emotional frenzy is actually how the Spirit used John to craft the Word of God. Honestly, as I read and re-read this text for today, this is how I feel.

I feel like I am unraveling. I have reached the end of my rope, and I see it frantically fraying, so all my thoughts and assignments and to-do lists and responsibilities are becoming less and less coherent. I see many long-time projects coming to a close, and I feel less like a craftsman enjoying the bliss of putting those finishing touches on a labor of love, and more like a runaway train with too much coal and too little track.

And I come to the text exhausted and manic, desperately needing the Word to ground me and settle me and tie me back together. Come, Holy Spirit.

But John wants to write to me about “mortal sin” today. I looked at the Greek, and this phrase literally translates “sin to death.”  This is not a non sequitur or a random excursus after all, but a thread within John’s discussion the eternal life we have in light of our Lord’s resurrection. I have been given life; any “sin to death” would be a blatant rejection of that life. And John’s warning about idols is not a random afterthought, but another thread in the eternal life discussion. The life we have is “in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life” (v.20). Any chasing after lesser goods is another rejection of eternal life.

God has offered me new, abundant, everlasting life in the Easter resurrection of his Son Jesus. The death I feel all around me is ultimately defeated, dead, vanquished. Lord, give me eyes to see your life in spite of death, and always give me this life.

“Agree”

EPISTLE | 1 JOHN 5:1-12

1Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. 2By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, 4for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. 5Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

6This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. 7There are three that testify: 8the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree. 9If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. 10Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. 11And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

“There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree.” (vv.7-8)

Ah, the privilege and burden of attending seminary. I can no longer hear the text without hearing all the theological resonances in it. This morning is no different. I hear here (because we covered it again yesterday in Systematic Theology) a working theology of the sacraments.

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper share the same role with the Word in the church’s life, according to Calvin. The Word of God and the Sacraments both hold forth Christ, ultimately. “And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son” (v.11). John the Pastor asks his churches to see how the Holy Spirit, the water of baptism, and the cup of communion (of suffering?) all worked together in Christ’s life to verify his identity as the Son of God while he was on earth.

The same Holy Spirit, the same water, and the same cup speak to Christ’s life in our midst when we gather together to worship. This is radically and ultimately what happens when we hear the Word preached, when we are baptized, and when we partake together of the body and blood of Christ, all through the illuminating and animating work of the Holy Spirit. This is why sacraments are so important in worship, and why a proper understanding of what the sacraments “do” is so vitally important (and how fitting to examine and explore them during Eastertide!): “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (v.12).

Lord of Life, Lord of Love,

Share with us again your resurrected life

in Your eloquent Word,

in Your articulate bath,

in Your loquacious banquet.

Send Your Spirit upon us

that our eyes may be opened,

that our ears may be tuned,

that our noses may be trained,

that our palettes may be cultivated,

that our fingers may be softened,

in order to better receive Your life in us

and abide in You more and more.

Alleluia!

Amen!

“Love”

EPISTLE | 1 JOHN 4:10-19

10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

13By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 

“We love because he first loved us.” (v.19)

This is a very familiar passage; so familiar, it takes a quiet heart and a still mind for me to fully embrace this passage and give it my full attention. When I finally did, there resonated in me a quote I love from N. T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope:

Love is not our duty; it is our destiny. It is the language Jesus spoke, and we are called to speak it so that we can converse with him. It is the food they eat in God’s new world, and we must acquire the taste for it here and now. It is the music God has written for all his creatures to sing, and we are called to learn it and practice it now so as to be ready when the conductor brings down his baton. It is the resurrection life, and the resurrected Jesus calls us to begin living it with him and for him right now. Love is at the very heart of the surprise of hope: people who truly hope as the resurrection encourages us to hope will be people enabled to love in a new way. Conversely, people who are living by this rule of love will be people who are learning more deeply how to hope.

This is the message that underlies the gospel command to forgiveness–which is also, of course, the command to remit debts…But forgiveness is not a moral rule that comes with sanctions attached. God doesn’t deal with us on the basis of abstract codes and rules like that. Forgiveness is a way of life, God’s way of life, God’s way to life; and if you close your heart to forgiveness, why, then you close your heart to forgiveness…If you lock up the piano because you don’t want to play to somebody else, how can God play to you?

~ N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church

Wright’s piano analogy is profound, and I find that it fits for all the fruit of the Spirit:

  • How can God give me his love if I keep others at arms length, or across battle lines?
  • How can God give me his joy if I refuse to enjoy and celebrate what is around me?
  • How can God give me peace if I am held captive to anxiety?
  • How can God bring about greater patience in me if I insist on immediate gratification?
  • How can God bear his kindness in me if I feel oppressed or victimized by everything or everyone?
  • How can God foster a generous spirit in me if I am fixated on prejudice, scarcity, and entitlement?
  • How can God make me more faithful if I live in a world of voluntary associations?
  • How can God lead me to be gentler if I see the whole world as hostile and severe?
  • How can God help me control myself if I believe that the greatest good in the world is excess, more, limitlessness?

The good news for us–the Easter Gospel–is that each of the “if” statements above were conquered at the cross, and we now live in the world of immense potential because Christ shed his shroud, folded it up, set it aside, and walked out of the tomb forever. Praise God!