BY THIS WE MAY BE SURE
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I remember graduating from the MDiv program at McMaster Divinity College 6 years ago. After one of my last classes, I went out for something to eat with some classmates. I was around or slightly over the median age in most classes. One of my younger classmates asked me “If you had some wisdom to impart, what would it be?” I thought for a moment and told them “The older I get, the more I realize what I don’t know.”
I would still say that and I know we talk a lot around here about what we don’t know. We talk about the mysteries of God and human existence. The things we can’t quite get our minds around. They’re too vast for us. We talk about the things we don’t believe in being dogmatic about. There are times though that we need to focus on what we know.
This is one of those times. Let’s ask for God’s help as we continue to look at the writings of John.
“Now by this, we may know…” This is how John begins this section of his letter. We’ve talked about how John is writing to a group of Christians who have faced a schism. We’ve talked about how John is getting down to basics and how this affords us as a group of Christians to get down to basics too. We need to be very clear on what it is we can know. There’s a whole lot of uncertainty in the world. We have situations where entire groups of people view the same event through entirely different lenses depending on their political persuasion. There is a whole lot of uncertainty in our lives. There’s a lot of which we are unsure.
We hear these words “Now by this, we may be sure that we know him…” I hope these are welcome words to you today. John is talking about knowing. God? Jesus? It’s not specified and they’re really one in the same anyway. By this, we may be sure that we know him. This is the overarching question that’s being answered in this passage. How can we be sure that we’re in this thing? How can we be sure that we know him?
When we talk about knowing God or knowing Christ or knowing the Holy Spirit, we’re not talking simply about knowing facts about God. We’re talking about knowing who we are in relation to God. Knowing our identity. We sometimes talk about our relationship with Christ and we frame the whole Christian thing in terms of being in a relationship with Christ or that Christ wants to be in a relationship with us. It’s understandable why we do this - to stress the relationality of the love that God has for us and the right and fitting and proper response to this love. It’s not really adequate as an image or metaphor when we consider the ways that human relationships ebb and flow due to circumstance and proximity and feelings and all the things that make relationships ebb and flow.
We’re talking about the ethical side of knowing God this morning. What we do. How we love. It’s based on the truth of God’s relation to us. God’s unconditional love and mercy that has been extended to us in the person of God’s son. In this way, it’s probably best illustrated in the first relationship we ever know. The relationship with our parents. It’s why John describes us as children of God. Ideally, the love that a parent has for a child that isn’t influenced by circumstance or proximity or how badly children mess up or disappoint.
To live in relation to God is to become ever more aware of how God relates to us. God relates to us in love. We may know this – we may be coming ever more to know this – by obeying his commandments. “There are so many of them!” you say. They all come down to this for John. The one that Jesus said. John 13:34 – “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” John 15:12 – “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” To love as Jesus loves. Even unto death. How is it that we’re called to love? Jesus answers the unspoken question in the next verse – “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
To listen to this command is the first thing. To say that we are followers of Christ. To say that we are walking with Christ means to listen to him. “Let anyone with ears hear, listen!” was Christ’s call. To keep his commands. To attend to them. To say that I have come to know him without keeping his commandment is to make me a liar, and in me, the truth does not exist.
There’s a lot of talk about truth these days. Truth isn’t truth and all that. Your truth and my truth may differ. What John is saying here is that for the follower of Christ, truth is not just a matter for up here or up here. Christ as truth – Christ as God’s self-sacrificing redeeming reconciling atoning love – is to be borne out in our actions. These two things go together. Faith and ethics are inextricably linked. Truth is not simply something that Christians believe, it is something that we do.
We said last week that when Pilate asked Jesus “What is truth?” Jesus didn’t say anything note. He went to the cross and showed him. Showed the whole world what truth was and is and will be. Truth is an action. It’s kinetic. Truth is kinetic.
So is abiding. There are things that we can know in this Christian life. Thank God. By this, we may be sure that we are in him. I like that. Paul uses the same sort of language. To be in Christ. Are you a follower of Christ? Are you in Christ? Are you abiding in him? Then you ought to walk just as he walked.
Because abiding in Christ is not a static thing (though we’re called to rest of course as we keep saying). This word for abide means to continue to be present. Not to depart. To be held or kept continually. We are able to abide in Christ at all because Christ abides with us. This is how we’re able to know him at all. To come to know him. To know him is to love him. To know him is to abide in him as he abides in us as we walk. We ought to walk just as he walked. This is not “ought” in the sense of “you really should” or “why I oughtta”. It’s a requirement. The verb for ought has the same sense as a monetary obligation or goodwill that is due. To walk as he walked does not mean simply to try to mimic Christ’s actions to endeavour morally. It means to allow God’s limitless love to be born in us daily as we go through our days. To become more aware of Christ’s presence with us as we go through our days. Christ’s enabling presence. Christ’s advocacy for us when we fail. Christ’s great love for us.
Which is something new.
We have John here saying that this love commandment is no new commandment, but an old commandment. He also says “Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you…” How can it be both? The old commandment had been heard – Love the Lord your God with all your heart soul mind and strength and your neighbour as yourself. The commandment had been made new in the son of God who was its embodiment. The son of God who extended this love to his enemies. Who would call his followers to do the same. The new commandment is true in him and in you. It’s true in that it’s been born out in Christ’s actions. His death on the cross. His resurrection. His promised return. The initiation of a new age.
The initiation of something new in us. The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. The first streaks of a new dawning. Be part of this light is the invitation. We need to ask for God’s help with this you see. Coming up with this love stuff is not something we could ever do on our own. We need to be praying every day in the words of the hymn – Teach me to love, as thou dost love, and do as thou wouldst do. God will honour that prayer. Have you known this? Thoughts, attitudes, feelings about people or situations being changed in you? Have you known this to the point where you’ve said: “I know this did not come from me?” We need this every day. The alternative is darkness. Light and dark. Love and hate. John is very stark about the dichotomy between them and I think there’s good reason to be. Hate’s a strong word they say. There seems to be an awful lot of it going on out there. When it comes to anger we go from 0 to 100 in an instant. Would that it were the same for compassion. Imagine if we were to go from 0 to 100 in an instant when it came to compassion. We need God’s help with this. The love command in this writing is for the church, but we’re not to limit it to one another. We’re certainly required to make sure that we’re getting the love commandment right here so that we can take it out of here.
And I know that can come across as a little harsh. A little hectoring maybe. All this talk about light and dark and love and hate and it’s Thanksgiving Sunday! We’ve said from the beginning that John was writing this to a group of people that he knew so very well – a group of people that he loved so very well. We know each other too, don’t we? We see evidence of our love for one another all the time, don’t we? He writes to them like members of a family, because that’s what we are. Someone told me this past week that the congregation here has always seemed like a family. It doesn’t have to be if you’re not ready for that kind of thing, but it can, and it probably should. We’re adopted daughters and sons of God. We are about to gather around the family table and give thanks. John reminds them and us of the spiritual blessings that are theirs and how they encompass the whole family. He may be speaking figuratively or literally, they both work. Children. Parents – because there’s no reason to believe mothers are to be excluded here. Listen to the words… (1 John 2:12-14)
May we continue to know friends that we know him; that we are in him; that the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. May these things be true for us all.