Wednesday, October 26, 2011

1st John: Not Burdensome

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 10/23/2011

Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

1 John 5:1-5 NASB

Here’s the plan today:

1. Zero in on one key verse.

2. Unload its baggage.

3. Unpack its meaning for us.

4. Practical tips.

So many themes in 1st John are tangled up: Jesus commands about loving God, loving one another, trusting Jesus as the one-of-a-kind incarnation of God’s love in the world, trusting that we are born of God, that we know God, that he lives in us and we live in him, that we have already overcome evil through Jesus, that God is love, that he loves us and our love is a response to that love, living with confidence in the good news of his love, freedom from fear, the experience of God’s zoe-life that never changes even as our circumstances and perceptions and emotions and bodies change, and so on. John just keeps grabbing one strand after another, wrapping them around us, tying each one together with other strands, weaving them together, letting the colors and textures of one strand play off the colors and textures of the other.

The breathlessness with which he began is still present, even though his pace has slowed. It’s like a freestyle rap rather than a classical hymn.

[rap at Pastor’s Sabbath Retreat…]

The other day I took the Sabbath

It’s kinda like one of my favorite practices

I can go in and I try to do it but

It doesn’t flow right it’s not like fluid I

try to pause

I try to pray I try to play I

try to reflect but

It doesn’t go my way

It’s the way of the culture they surround me

They swoop on me like vultures

And they use busy

I get dizzy

I got a go off into a tizzy

I can’t keep going; I try to stop

But it doesn’t work; it’s like

hip hop to the beat

I don’t stop

I gotta be complete

With new wine and living in the spirit

I try to do the Sabbath I try to rest but

Somehow it doesn’t seem quite blessed but

that’s OK

I’ll rest in him: Jesus

J-e-s-u-s and he is Jesus

He with everything that he showers upon me

And it’s gonna keep going like it’s on me

Hip hop to the beat keep flowing in rest

It’s like alright, C’mon, I’m Sabbath takin’ and I’m


Today, we’ll zero in on one verse in the middle of this freestyle rap we call 1st John. Just one verse that brings this whole section to life.

For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.

Some comments about language that should help us unload some baggage we often bring to this passage.

We almost never use the word “command” in day to day life, do we? We don’t command waiters or accountants or lawyers or doctors other people who serve us, even for pay. We don’t command employees. We don’t command our kids (unless we’re angry or stressed out, etc. or are named Georg Ludwig Von Trapp).

“Command” used almost exclusively in military and computer settings. A set of orders or instructions. Generally impersonal.

If you’re not a programmer or in the military, the only time you speak about commands on a day to basis is if you are religious, and you talk about being obedient to God’s commands. Which is unfortunate, because it means we come to this kind of text with a whole set of emotions and assumptions that weren’t necessarily present with the people to whom this letter was written.

Two things to note:

First, the language of command permeated the culture in which this text was written. Parents commanded their children. Masters commanded their servants. Employers commanded their employees. Teachers commanded their students. The masses were having to follow the commands of the Roman authorities. Almost everyone was being commanded by someone.

Which means it wouldn’t have felt like exclusively religious or military language to talk about keeping commands. Emotionally, it might have felt more like we feel when we describe someone telling us they “wanted” something. My dad wants me to get my homework done before I go out to play. My teacher wants me to turn in that report on Monday. My boss wants me to go to Atlanta to meet with a client next week. The newlyweds at table 6 want their check now, and from the eyes they keep giving each other, I think the sooner I get it to them, the bigger my tip might be.

And the second thing has to do with the actual Greek words that are translated “keep his commandments.” The word for commands has a range of meanings from “commandment” to “teaching.” And the word for keep, which we spoke about at length several weeks ago, means more literally to keep an eye on, to guard, to pay close attention to.

So perhaps we’ll understand the heart of this part of the passage in a fresh way if we translate it:

For this is the love of God, that we devote our attention and energy to what he is teaching us; and what he is teaching us isn’t burdensome.

That said, let’s get to the unpacking so we can hear what the Spirit of God might be saying to us through this passage.

God’s teachings aren’t burdensome. Remember Jesus’ statement: My yoke is easy and my burden is light.

“Yoke” is a rabbinic phrase referring to a list of rules for living, a way of interpreting the Torah for a particular Rabbi’s talmidin, his disciples.

One way to determine the heart of a particular Rabbi’s yoke was to ask, “What is the greatest mitzvah, or commandment?” To which Jesus replied, essentially, Love God and love your neighbor. All of the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments…

So, for example, when it came to the command about observing the Sabbath and keeping it holy, there was a conflict between Jesus’ yoke and the Pharisaic Rabbis’ yokes. The Pharisees had a strict, legalistic view of what that mitzvah meant. So strict and legalistic that they considered healing somebody on the Sabbath to be a violation of God’s commands or teaching.

That’s a hard and burdensome yoke.

Jesus’ yoke said every other mitzvah should be interpreted through the lens of loving God and loving neighbors as one loved oneself. So his disciples could see that the Sabbath was meant to be a day rooted in creation, and rooted in deliverance, and therefore to love God and love one’s neighbors meant that one would only be obedient to the Sabbath command if one cooperated with God’s love by healing on the Sabbath when one was led by God to do so.

That’s an easy yoke. It’s not burdensome; it lifts burdens.

Which isn’t to say life in pursuit of God isn’t burdensome, of course. Life in this world is burdensome. There is the burden of suffering. Of hard work with sometimes little immediate reward. The burden of broken, sinful, wounded selves. The burden of only being able to see God’s good future through a glass darkly. The burden of so many lies and falseness permeating our thoughts. The burdens of loss and conflict and physical illness and injury and shalom-shattered relationships. The burden of seeing the suffering of others and not always being able to alleviate it. The burden of regret and guilt and shame and emotional pain.

“Come to me,” Jesus says, “All you who are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest…” All of us who come to Jesus start out with heavy burdens, and even though his promise is rest, we know that we will not fully enter that rest until our new creation is complete in Christ, and that is still some time coming.

Yes, there are burdens to bear.

But God’s teachings aren’t one of them.

God’s teaching, God’s commands, point us to a way of life and love that cooperates with him in lifting burdens off the heavy burdened, and in which we experience increasing freedom and joy and lightness of being. We may have to join him in the fight for it. But better to join him in the fight for our freedom than to unwittingly join the enemy in the fight for our destruction, eh?

[fighting for rest at the PSR: arranging to go, not doing work there, etc. God’s invitation / teaching / command was not burdensome. But wading through everything that stood between me and obedience, between me and accepting the invitation, between me and devoting myself and my energy to his teaching presented itself as burden until I was on the other side of it. And then I could see the difference – burdens crush you. Responsiveness to God gives you life.]

For the thirsty in the desert, it may be a burden to get to water, but the sign pointing to the oasis is no burden, and the invitation to drink is no burden. Conversely, sitting in the sun and dying may feel like no burden compared to summoning one’s remaining strength and pressing on, but the truth is that resignation to hopeless death is the heaviest burden of all. And exhausting one’s strength to drink the water doesn’t leave you weary, but refreshed.

Jesus in Gethsemane…

He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (Luke 22)

The burden isn’t God’s commands to Jesus; the burden is the weight of sin, the brokenness of creation that Jesus carries to the cross…but God’s commands lead to resurrection life and new creation, the lifting of all burdens.

God’s teachings, his commands to love him with the whole of our being, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, aren’t burdensome. They are the way to life. They are his love present to us as signs pointing to the oasis; his love present to us as invitations to drink. To drink freedom and joy and true rest from his stream of living water.

You don’t experience it that way? Perhaps you are obeying not God’s commands, but something else’s commands in the guise of God’s. Guilt’s commands, perhaps. Or shame’s.

If God’s teaching is burdensome to anyone, it’s not because they aren’t cut out for following God. It’s not because they are extra messed up. It’s because it’s not God’s teaching. Somewhere, somehow, their perception of God’s teaching has gotten twisted along the way.


Consider the way a child experiences a good parent’s teaching. Burdensome? If it is good teaching, if it is the parent’s love expressed in sign pointing to life, in invitation to drink from a stream the parent knows of that the child knows nothing of, and not something else, then it is truly not burdensome. No matter how much it looks like it before it is embraced, engaged, entered into, experienced, guarded, kept, followed…. [cleaning room example.]

Take something simple in the realm of God’s teaching/commands about loving one another. Not judging one another, for example. The prospect of not judging could seem quite burdensome, especially if it’s a way of life for you and yours. The vigilance about your own speech and thoughts. The way it seems to distance you from others around you who are participating in it. The guilt you feel for all the judgmental thoughts you never paid attention to before. And so on…

But begin to devote yourself and your energies to God’s invitation, and what do you actually discover? You discover that judging others is the source of the truly heavy burden.

Of having to weigh the actions and motives of every other human being on planet earth. And as you stop – even though it takes effort – the burden lifts.

Of having to make the right call, all the time, and figure out how you are going to respond. Which usually involves pushing them out of your heart in one way or another. And as you stop – even though it takes effort – the burden lifts.

Of having to choose between one person and another in conflict after conflict. And as you stop – even though it takes effort – the burden lifts.

And then you notice that what you thought was intimacy between you and others who shared your judgments wasn’t intimacy at all, but in fact a false intimacy with its own excruciating double burden. The burden of making sure you never got on the wrong side of their judgments, and your own, which you’ve come to know so well. And the burden of isolation in a crowd, of not having any true friendships, because no one will let themselves be truly known by others when they know judgment is in the air.

And as you stop – even though it takes effort – the burden lifts. Because they start to come to you with their real selves, safe in the awareness that you don’t judge like the others they know. And because you are free to reveal your true self to them, because there is no hypocrisy in your brokenness.

And eventually, your only concern for others is discovering what ways the Spirit might be leading you to love them, and that – even though it is filled with effort - is adventure and life. And the only actions and motives you are weighing are your own – and even that you are doing not out of fear, but out of anticipation that if the Lord has something to teach and correct in you, it is because he wants you to have more life, not because he wants to judge you. And although that is filled with effort, it always leads to a greater lightness of being, not the heaviness of guilt.

And you will find yourself welcoming others into your life who you might previously have kept out because of judgments. And you will discover that although relationships with them take effort, the payoff is that you become more than you were before, and not less, and there is no burden in that.

And you will find that as you are no longer choosing sides between people in conflict, you begin to experience God’s love in a new way and with a fresh perspective, as a love that he gives freely to you; not because he has chosen your side, but because he has chosen you.

It is this way with all of God’s teaching. All of it. Everything he says to us. Every invitation he makes to us. God’s commands are not burdensome. They are the love of God in signs pointing the way to life, the love of God in invitations to drink from streams of living water.

Which is why John links it all up, bookends it all, with trusting Jesus. With believing in Jesus. Jesus is the one who invites us to follow him. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. He invites those of us who are heavy- burdened to come to him so that he can give us rest. Rest for our souls. Which means so, so much more than simply not worrying about death because we are going to heaven. It means knowing fullness of life because in him heaven has come rushing to meet us right in the middle of our heavily burdened lives and is beginning to work its way through everything as we cooperate with him.

For this is the love of God, that we devote our attention and energy to what he is teaching us; and what he is teaching us isn’t burdensome.

Practical Tips:

1. Examen yourself. Try out the spiritual discipline of the Examen (consolations and desolations) to identify something God might be teaching you. (notes posted online at the end of the sermon.)

2. Burdened down? Get help. Talk with your small group or a spiritual mentor about any commands of God that feel burdensome to you. See if you can identify what’s been twisted.

// The Examen

Drawing from Ignatius’s (1491-1556) Spiritual Exercises, in which Ignatius described the Examen, a daily examination of consolations and desolations, Charles Bello outlines 3 simple steps:

TO BEGIN, find a place where you can relax and be quiet. Acknowledge God’s love for you and His involvement in your life.

// STEP ONE: (consolations) Ask God to bring to your awareness the moment today for which you are most grateful, gave you strength, where you felt the most energized and alive, etc.

After you locate the moment or event, step back into it and let yourself relive the joy of that moment. Thank God for the consolation you experienced.

Discernment: Ask God to show you what it was about that event that gave you life. What was said and done that made that moment so life-giving?

Sit still and wait for Him to respond. If you journal, you might want to write your dialogue down.

// STEP TWO: (desolations) Ask God to bring to your awareness the moment today for which you are least grateful, where you experienced sadness, shame, failure, anger, where you felt life and energy being drained, etc.

After you locate that moment or event, step back into it and relive the feelings without trying to change or fix it in anyway.

Discernment: Ask God what is was about the desolation that made you so mad, angry, sad…

Ask God to comfort you and fill you with his love and sit in silence for a few moments. Again, if you journal, you might want to write down your insights and conversation with God.

// STEP THREE: Give thanks for whatever you have experienced during the day.

Monday, October 10, 2011

1st John: God is Love

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 10/09/2011

7Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

1. Big picture.

2. Look at some key ingredients.

3. What’s it mean for us?

4. Practical Tips

So big picture…Gnosticism…The anxiety of secret knowledge. Am I one of the select few, the privileged elite? Do I have what it takes to attain salvation? How do I even know, because it seems like there is always someone ahead of me?

John’s message is simple. It’s not about secret knowledge; it’s about loving one another.

Are you doing that? Then you’re born of God. Salvation is yours as a gift. You know God. Keep learning to love, keep practicing; keep pressing into love (into God!). It’s not a level to achieve; it’s a wondrous, staggeringly beautiful landscape to explore, with more glorious treasures to find at every turn.

Are you not loving one another? Well, then you have lost the plot entirely. You don’t even know God at all – despite whatever “knowledge” you’ve attained. You may think you’re on the path to enlightenment, but you’re living in darkness, unseeing.

Let’s say you meet this woman. She’s beautiful, interesting, intriguing, challenging, inspiring. And she’s also a mystery. A mystery unlike any you’ve ever known. Just when you think you’re making sense of her, what makes her tick, what’s going on deep behind the scenes, she surprises you. Shows you something new. Proves your previous assumptions about her wrong.

Falling in love with her, you decide to ask for her hand in marriage, and she says yes.

Why do you want to spend the rest of your life with her?

Is it because you have determined to figure out the mystery? So that one day, she will make sense to you? So that one day, you can say, Aha, I have apprehended this mystery, and made her mine? And in that moment, somehow, you will have arrived…?

No, of course not. Because, for one, that will never happen. Anytime you think that that has happened, you will be wrong. And secondly, if that is your goal, you will have already missed the point. The point of you and her. The point of marriage. The point of exploring her mystery.

The point of exploring the mystery of her is so that you will be able to love her better; every bit of the mystery that you come to understand will give you new ways to love her. The point of marriage is to create a context in which the mystery can be freely explored and love can be freely expressed. The point of you and her is that by entrusting yourselves to the mystery that the other is, love would make you something more than you were before.

It is the same with every relationship. Including, and especially, our relationship with Jesus. The point of exploring the mystery of Jesus, John is saying, is love. The point of discipleship is to create a context in which the mystery can be freely explored and love can be freely expressed. The point of you and him is that by entrusting yourselves to the mystery that the other is, love would make you something more than you were before.

Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God…God is love.

Everyone who loves. From a Greek phrase meaning “everyone who loves.” Everyone who loves God? Yes, this includes that meaning. Everyone who loves people? Yes, this includes that meaning too. Everyone who loves fish and animals and lizards and insects? Yes. Everyone who loves the earth and flowers and trees? Yes. All those people have been born of God? Yes, that’s what this passage says. Yes, but! We say. Of course we do. We always say that when we hear things that challenge our preconceptions. But nonetheless, that’s what this passage says.

What are we to think or do in response to it?

Perhaps we should ask, what does it mean to be born of God? [gegennetai] = born of, fathered by, are sons and daughters of, have a genetic inheritance from. It doesn’t necessarily mean we aren’t estranged from him, or are in good relationship with him, or are full partners in the family business, or even that we aren’t actively working against his purposes in various respects. But it does mean we are his kids. That our love bears witness – in a way nothing else can – to our true identity as his children.

And it says that everyone who loves knows God. Ginosko knows him – in the sense of knowing that goes deeper than head knowledge, the kind of knowing that goes deep down.

Does that mean that everyone who loves has an intellectual understanding of God? That everyone who loves would encounter God in one way or another and say, Ah – I know you, you are the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. You are YHWH who appeared to Moses in the burning bush and delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt and came among us in flesh and blood through Jesus of Nazareth? No, not necessarily. But it does mean that everyone who loves knows God deep down as much as the most enlightened, religious religion expert in the world. And if God were to reveal himself to them, they would, just as authentically as anyone else on planet earth, regardless of religious background and training, be able to say, “Ah, you I know. I have known you my whole life, even though perhaps, I haven’t been aware of it.”

Because, John says, God is love.

Not God is like love, or God is a big fan of love, or a proponent of love. Not God recommends love, or commands love, or even has a lot of love.

God is love.

Where you see the word love in noun form the scriptures, you see God. Where you see it in verb form, you see the activity of God. Where you see love manifesting itself in the world, you see God manifesting himself. Where you see God at work in the world, you see love at work. Where God is present, love is present. Where love is present, God is present.

If we have trouble wrapping our minds around this, it’s for one of several possible reasons. Maybe we’ve got misconceptions about God. Or maybe we’ve got misconceptions about love. Or maybe our capacity to conceive just isn’t well developed enough.

In any event, when John says God is love, it’s an invitation to further explore the mystery.

What we learn about God will teach us about love.

If it doesn’t, we haven’t truly learned anything about God.

What we learn about love will teach us about God.

If it doesn’t, we haven’t truly learned anything about love.

Our experiences of God will be experiences of love.

If they aren’t, perhaps it wasn’t actually God we were experiencing.

Our experiences of love will be experiences of God.

If they aren’t, perhaps it wasn’t actually love we were experiencing.

When we hear the voice of God, it will be the voice of love.

When we hear the voice of love, it will be the voice of God.

And on and on. Each encounter deeper exploration of the mystery of a God who is love.

And almost as if John anticipates the momentary stationary panic our brains might go into trying to mesh what we know of God and what we know of love to make sense of what he’s saying (since John knows we have a limited understanding of both), John gives us a starting point.

This is how God showed his love among us [this is how the love of God (ephanerothe) is made visible, made actual, realized among us…] he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.

In other words, when John is talking about love, he’s talking about Jesus humbling himself and coming into our world – with all the pain and sacrifice that entailed – so that we might live through him. That’s what the love that God is looks like when we get to see it up close and personal. That’s what love made actual becomes when it materializes. That’s what love in its fully realized form is.

It’s as if we were told that God was gold, and we’ve got all these flecks of material that we think might be gold, and we’re wondering if what John means is that God is this stuff we are holding in our hands. So John says, here, here’s a bar of genuine God/Gold. Go ahead, examine it, and compare what you’ve got in your hands. If it’s made of the same stuff, then yes, that’s what I’m talking about. If it’s not, well, then you’ve probably got fool’s gold in your hand, and no, that’s not God.

Notice this phrase “his one and only Son” (sometimes translated “only begotten Son”). Which is a little confusing, isn’t it, since he just said that everyone who loves is born of God. The confusion is a function of translation.

The word translated one and only in Greek is monogene. Mono meaning one, and gene meaning kind (genetic, genus, etc.). All of us who love are children of God, are fathered by God, have our genetic inheritance from God, but Jesus is God’s one of a kind son. He’s unique among all of God’s children.

As those who’ve become Jesus’ disciples have come to understand it, Jesus and his Father are different persons but one and the same God. Jesus is God himself incarnated in now resurrected human flesh. An equal member with the Father in the three-personed triune God, Father/Son/Holy Spirit who has been with God from the beginning, long before his incarnation in the body of Jesus of Nazareth, who was present before creation itself, through whom and for whom all things were created, and whom all of creation will one day recognize as Lord and Savior.

At the risk of inappropriately deifying someone, it’s a little like the technology company, Apple. There are all kinds of people who work for Apple. Who make and design Apple products. But there has only ever been one person who is Apple. Steve Jobs. He has uniquely personified Apple, hasn’t he? It’s an open question as to whether or not he has deposited enough of his DNA into his company for it be what it always has been (or more) now that he has passed away.

It’s similar with those of us who love as God loved us. We are all children of God who love and bear his image in this world. But there is only one unique Son – Jesus – who is love, who is the image of the invisible God. And none of us can take his place. (He is, in fact, the one who has taken our place so that we might share in his place…but that’s another sermon).

So what do we do with all this?

Remember, 1st John is in some ways a commentary on the gospel of John. And this passage is specifically referencing a scene from John chapters 13 and 14, which takes place after Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, but before he has gone to the cross.

It’s during that conversation that Jesus says to his disciples, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this you everyone will know that you are my disciples.” Which sounds a lot like that last line in our passage today, doesn’t it: “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

A little bit later, when Jesus tells his disciples essentially that he is going to be leaving them (because he knows he’s going to be crucified), Thomas asks him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Thomas’s impulse behind this question is the same impulse driving Gnosticism, the heresy that said salvation comes from attaining secret knowledge, the heresy the people in this church John is writing to are wrestling with.

“What’s the way? Where are you going?” What are the secret truths we need to get where you are going, Jesus, to have the life you have?”

Jesus’ answer in John 14 is straightforward. I’m the way. I’m the truth. I’m the life. You can only get there (to the Father) through me.

Which is the same answer John gives here when he talks about God sending his son so that we can live through him.

The “life” in John 14 is zoe life. And the “live” in John 4 is zoe living. The life that runs underneath life, in other words. The life of God. The life that doesn’t change when circumstances change. The life that can’t be taken from us, even if we lose our biological life. The life of the ages that gives birth to all life. The life we can hold onto even when everything else is falling apart. Jesus came so that we might, through him, have it. Know it. Experience it. Be infused by it.

We can’t have it through learning secret truths. By getting our minds around the secret plan and executing it. The only way is by putting our trust personally in Jesus, God’s one of a kind son. The son who is showing us what love is, teaching us how to love, pouring out his love on us, inviting us to participate in his love, inviting us to enjoy the Father’s love for him as if it is for us, because it is.

Jesus is the way to get where he’s going. Follow him, not some complicated plan, no matter how detailed and well thought out it might be.

Jesus is the truth. Invest your energies in knowing him, not mastering some complicated theological system.

Jesus is the life. Trust him and him alone for everything you need, not some well-intentioned but ultimately inadequate strategy for successful life.

And along the way, let the growth of your love of others, and nothing less, be the measure of your discipleship.

Practical Tips:

1. Get specific with Jesus about your needs and desires. For 3 days, don’t express any needs or desires to anyone else, unless they ask you.

2. Try to do one thing a day for 3 days that Jesus leads you to do. You don’t have to be sure; just ask, and do what comes to mind if it seems reasonable, or even if doesn’t, do it if it’s likely to be at least harmless.

3. Commit yourself. Commit all of your life to Jesus. More than your work. More than your pleasure. More than your stuff. More than your money. More than your family. More than yourself. Entrust all of it to the monogene Son of God. And while your at it, entrust him with your sins, too.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

1st John: Pneumalyzer

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 10/02/2011

4 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

4You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 6We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.

If you’re irreligious, this passage sounds pretty much like religious mumbo jumbo. Totally useless for the real world.

If you’re especially religious, you’re already thinking of how this helps you have evidence as to why so and so is obviously heretical or of the devil, and reassures you why you are right in your beliefs. (Obama Heckler…)

Or maybe, if you’re both especially religious and especially practical, you’re taking notes for the next time you have to do an exorcism and need to test what kind of spirits are talking to you from the demonized person you’re trying to help.

Let’s set all of our preconceptions aside for a bit, and come at this passage with a clean slate, so that it can say what it means to say to us, nothing more and nothing less.

Here’s what we’ll do.

1. Define some terms, explore some of the original language so that we have a clearer picture of what this passage is actually talking about.

2. Look at the context of what was happening in the lives of the people to whom this was written, so that we can understand what it meant to them.

3. Talk about what it means to us today.

4. Finish up with some practical tips.

pneuma – wind / breath / spirit

Not distinct meanings, but a spectrum of meanings where the different senses merge into each other; Mysterious, dynamic, animating force of the world; mysterious, dynamic, animating force within a person, mysterious, dynamic, animating force within or emanating from God.

Sarx – flesh; material, earthly substance.

Heart of Christian faith is the good news of a God who didn’t abandon his creation in its brokenness and pain, but entered into the heart of it, inhabiting it, clothing himself in it, gathering all of it back to himself, becoming mysteriously and inseparably united with it in such a way that he could redeem, renew, and restore the whole of it so that it would share in his glory just as he shared in its shame.

Homologeo – “say the same thing as, confess.”

Kosmos – a word that can mean different things depending on context, ranging from the staggeringly beautiful creation that flowed from God’s generous, overflowing love to the disordered and ugly mess that has been corrupted by sin and death.

The world here is the sticky web of the systems and structures whose mysterious, dynamic, animating force isn’t love, but rather “not-love” – judgment, fear, anger, hate. The tar-ball of systems and structures that cause division and oppression and destruction, rather than intimate fellowship, freedom, and restoration.

Context of gnostic heresy / controversy.

Gnostic coming from a Greek word for “knowledge” (from that word, ginosko, that we spoke about last week). Basically that only a select, privileged few could attain salvation through attaining extraordinary knowledge and insight, especially self-knowledge. Included the idea of dualism: that because God was pure spirit, matter itself was fundamentally evil, and all truly good things were purely spiritual. And therefore there was a difference between Jesus – the man from Nazareth – and the Christ (the anointed one). That at Jesus’ baptism, the divine spirit of the Christ had come from heaven and descended on Jesus. But at the garden of Gethsemane, before his crucifixion, it had departed back to heaven. Because there was no way the divine could suffer as Jesus of Nazareth did on the cross. No way the evil material world could claim God’s life. And so salvation came by what Jesus illuminated or revealed, by not by his suffering.

So throughout this letter, John is speaking to people who are wrestling with this gnostic controversy. John tells them about eternal life, but he’s also saying it’s something he heard, saw, touched. It’s spiritual, but it’s also firmly connected to our sensory, material reality. John tells them about Jesus helping us see things as they really are, but that when we do, we will see both ourselves as we really are, and God as he really is, and the result will be that we know God. John talks about how we see love most powerfully in Christ Jesus dying for us on the cross, and that that is where true illumination comes from. John talks about how knowledge isn’t just for the select, privileged few, but for all of us anointed ones. That our goal isn’t some guru-esque, spiritual existence, but rather an existence firmly planted in the day to day earthly reality of loving one another as Jesus loved us, exemplified in Jesus washing our dirty feet.

At the heart of the gospel is an announcement that God is inhabiting, redeeming, renewing, and restoring his beloved creation. At the heart of the gospel is a sacred affirmation of God's joyous delight in people of all sorts and sizes and colors and political persuasions and languages and nationalities and hairstyles and athletic abilities and intellectual capacities, his joyous delight in trees and sunsets and oceans and animals and insects and mountains and rivers and floppy eared dogs and Giant Pandas and lizards and even mangy, arrogant cats. His joyous delight in Beethoven and Jay-Z and Ella Fitzgerald and dancing (even with the stars) and Ewoks and Michelangelo's David and snow boarding and basketball and 18 speed bikes and Dodge Chargers and Belgian chocolate and whatever that secret sauce is that makes PF Chang’s lettuce wraps taste so good.

That's why John writes that the way to tell if the mysterious, dynamic force animating a person or group or organization or philosophical system or even the voices inside your head is from God or not is to determine if it's saying the same thing as Jesus inhabiting sarx is saying.  Is it telling the same story about who God is and who we are and what God is up to that Jesus tells? If it is, that spirit is from him. If it's not, it isn't.

Think about the impact of gospel when you first receive it... the fundamental goodness of the universe affirmed. God is good and God loves you, smack dab in the middle of your sin and brokenness. Things are going to be OK because God is saving the world and you are caught up in his grace, too. You see everything with new eyes. New beauty at every turn, your heart full of God’s grace towards others.

Compare to what you sometimes learn along the way... The complexities of trying to get everything right, understand everything, new things that you always thought were good that now you’re finding out are actually bad, new guilt about things you never felt guilty about before, new fears about this threat and that threat and new enemies who are conspiring to destroy the world, and so be cautious about this and cautious about that, and look out for this and look out for that because it’ll mess you up if you’re not careful.

Since when is the gospel a new set of things to be alarmed about?

What does any of that have to do with affirming that Jesus inhabits sarx? What does any of that have to do with the joyous, jubilant announcement that God so loves this world that he has gone to the greatest length possible to begin restoring, renewing, redeeming, and rescuing it? What does that have to do with a God who isn’t afraid of anything, not even the most horrible suffering, because of the joy set before him?

Nothing. It has nothing to do with any of that. It has to do with the spirits that are from this world.

That all happens because we sometimes listen to the spirits from this world – the mysterious, dynamic forces animating the systems and structures of this world, instead of listening to the Spirit of truth. (Isn’t it ironic that the spirit that makes us fearful about the antichrist is in fact the spirit of the antichrist?)

You, dear children, are from God, and have overcome them because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.

What John was saying to these completely ordinary people was essentially, “You can do it.” You can tell the difference between the spirits that animate this world, and the Spirit of God that animates Jesus and now animates you. [Greek word translated “test” is the word used for examining a coin to tell if it was real or counterfeit. Like when someone pays with a 50 or 100 dollar bill.] We have everything we need to test them. One says the same thing as Jesus coming in the flesh says. One doesn’t. You can tell the difference. And if you encounter the fake one, no need to be afraid, because the real one is in you, so it can’t hurt you – in fact, you’ve already overcome it.

And John’s saying the same thing to us today.

Consider something like slavery or racism. Animated by the spirits of this world. By the ideas that some are superior to others in any number of ways, and the inferior out to serve the superior. That without the labor of the lower classes the whole economy would collapse. That some things just can’t or won’t change. Those are the spirits of the anti-christ.

Because the spirits that say the same thing as Jesus coming in the flesh say that The Superior one came to serve and dwell among the Inferior ones, in order to lift them up. That in the quest to set things right, no sacrifice is too great, not even death, because on the other side of sacrifice is resurrection life. That everything, even sin and death and evil, is subject to the redemptive purposes of God and will one day bend its knees to him and be transformed in welcoming his presence or be separated forever from his good creation. That is the Spirit of truth.

And the abolitionists and civil rights workers weren’t afraid of the spirit of the anti-christ. Rather, they listened to the Spirit of truth and allowed that spirit to animate their actions. Without fear, without hate, without paranoia. In fact, with extraordinary love. Because they knew that they were from God and in Jesus had already overcome the spirits of this world, and that the one who was in them was greater than the one that is in the world.

We hear whispers in our heads all the time, every day. Whispers about who we are, about who God is, about what God’s thinking or doing or not doing, about who this person or that person really is, about what the future holds, about what kind of hold the past has on us.

Where are those whispers coming from? Are they reliable, true? Or unreliable, deceptive, false? Which whispers say the same thing that Jesus coming in the flesh says? Listen to those. Dismiss the rest. [what would you do if someone gave you a counterfeit bill? Yell and scream, run in panic? No. You just wouldn’t accept it. Sorry, this isn’t real. Try again.]

We’ve got groups and organizations and companies and systems to join our energies and resources with. What spirit animates them? What’s the wind beneath their wings? What kind of air are they breathing? Is it a spirit / wind / breath that says the same thing Jesus coming in the flesh says? If so, join in. If not, move along.

We’ve got ideas and books and thoughts and philosophies and art and entertainment competing for our time and consideration. What animates them, what dynamic, mysterious force breathes life into them? Does that spirit say the same thing as Jesus coming in the flesh says? Then turn your face into that wind and breathe deep. But if it doesn’t, if it says the same things that the spirit that animates the systems and structures of this world says, well then maybe hold your breath in their presence, or wear a good HEPA rated filter at least, and if you start to develop asthma, maybe move to Arizona.

Practical Tips:

1. Take a hike. Pick a day to go for a walk or a drive in the midst of the fall color change, maybe at sunset or sunrise. As you soak in the beauty, thank God for filling the earth with his presence.

2. Soak in a song. Purchase the song “Brother Moon” from Gungor’s “Ghosts Upon the Earth” album and listen to it several times, writing down the lyrics by hand until you’ve got them all written out. Read through it and consider whether it is a song animated by the Spirit of truth or a spirit from this world. Consider how it might say the same thing as Jesus coming in the flesh says.

3. Take a Pneumalyzer test. Consider what spirit animates your life. Is your pursuit of Jesus preoccupied with attaining secret knowledge, or preoccupied with joining Jesus in the joyful, jubilant announcement that God has come right into the thick of things to gather all things to himself, to rescue, redeem, restore, and renew all of his good creation. Do some gardening as worship. Take your family and clean up a public space. Or serve the poor at compassion ministry. Or join the children’s ministry team. Or join the youth team as a relational youth leader.