Sunday, 10 May 2015

Love and Obedience- 1 John 5:1-6

We have been spending the last number of weeks dwelling in the first letter of John. It’s not the easiest letter to read. There is a lot of repetition and it can be complex, so we really need to slow down to be able to read it. We almost have to read it like poetry- letting each line soak in before moving on to the next, and then reading it over again and allowing the last line to shed light on the first line.

This letter uses a lot of the same themes as the Gospel of John, which is at least one of the reasons the letter is associated with John. It seems to be written by a wise elder to those who were under his care and guidance- in other words it was written to his spiritual children.

In the letter the elder gives a number of insights into common topics that marked the Christian community. In particular, the elder is concerned with teaching about love. The elder teaches us in the letter that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8), and “If anyone says, ‘I love God’, but hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 Jn 4:21). He defines love not merely as a feeling or as words saying, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18). There is a unity between loving God and loving your fellow Christian (and we would extend that out to our neighbour and enemy as well). And “loving” includes action, and the elder might say loving action is even more important than loving words or feelings.

In the part of the letter we are looking at today the elder is dealing with what it means to love God. We have already learned from earlier parts of the letter that our love for God is intimately connected to our love for one another if it is to be authentic. The elder continues saying that to be a child of God- to be born of God- means believing that Jesus is the messiah. To love God means to love the Son of God. If you love me you will love my children. Essentially the elder is defining which God we are talking about. We are not talking about a vague divine “force” out there. We are also not talking about Zeus. No, we are talking about God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The elder goes on saying that to love God also means to be obedient to God’s commandments. This part might surprise us because we don’t usually define love this way. The elder is saying that to love God means to allow yourself to be led by His guidance. To love God is to keep his commandments. We see this teaching in the Gospel of John too. In Chapter 14 Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15), and “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (Jn 14:21). Jesus gives a similar teaching in the Gospel of Matthew where he says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mat 7:21). This teaching is also found earlier in the letter we are studying. In the second chapter of John’s first letter we read, “And by this we know that we have come to know him [God/Jesus], if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:3-6). Just as love for our fellow Christian has to have an action involved to be authentic, so love for God has to have an action involved for it to be authentic- love of God should be observable by the way we live.

The commandments we are to obey are the teachings of Jesus and his interpretation of the Law. Specifically his command to love each other as he loved us (John 15) and using that love as a lens to read the rest of the bible. We find them especially in places like the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), but also throughout Jesus’ words in the Gospels. The elder is suggesting that we need to not only read and study Jesus’ teaching, and the scripture that Jesus himself learned, but we need to also put those teachings into action if we hope to know God. The elder is teaching that until we have put those teachings into action we don’t really know God. If we get a PhD in Koine Greek and New Testament theology and teach in a seminary we will still not know God until we put what God says into action.  

In a healthy parent-child relationship there will be a level of trust and obedience. When we talk about obedience, we don’t mean blind and unthinking obedience. That’s not what God is after. In chapter 4 of the letter we are studying we read, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 Jn 4:1). So we are not to have a blind obedience, but a discerning obedience- an obedience tempered by wisdom. This is the kind of obedience wise parents want for their children. Parents want their children to have strong wills, but they also want their wills to be directed. They want them to have strong wills because it takes a strong will to stand up against peer pressure. Parents want their children to be able to stand up for themselves and for others even if it is against the flow of their peers. But, wise parents also want their children to follow their direction because they have more experience and understanding and want to guide them both into good and away from evil. Parents hope that their children will be obedient, but not mindless.

The first thing the elder says after saying that loving God is obeying His commandments is, “And his commandments are not burdensome” (vs. 3). Why does he say this? … it is a funny things to say, isn't it? .... It's likely because many of us felt the burden when we heard him teach that loving God is obeying His commandments. That’s why he brings up feeling burdened.

There are a few reasons we might feel this way. For example, we might be overly-literal when reading Jesus’ commands and we might think that we are failing unless we visit the sick, and the homeless, and those in prison, every week. Meanwhile, you also have 3 children and a sick parent in hospital. So we might over-burden ourselves by not applying the teachings of Jesus with wisdom and the leading of the Spirit. (This is actually a subtle version of what I'm about to talk about next).

But, I think the main reason we feel this way is because we have competing idols. Our love for our idols competes with our love for God and it creates a tension in us that weighs us down and feels like a burden. The author and pastor Timothy Keller defines an idol this way, 
“[an idol is] is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give… An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I ‘ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.’ There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship”.[1] 
When we love something more than God it will become obvious when we are asked to follow the teachings of Jesus and we suddenly we feel an incredible tension in us and have to decide if we will follow it or not. When we try to follow Jesus and an incredible tension arises in us we should pay attention because an idol might be competing with our love for God. The Pharisees felt the tension between following Jesus and following their traditions. The rich young ruler felt the tension between following Jesus and serving his wealth. Pontius Pilate felt the tension when he had to decide between not killing Jesus and pleasing the crowds and the ideology of the empire. The love of an idol and trying to obey God at the same time will fill us with tension. We will struggle to make a decision between our love for _____ and our love for God. It might be wealth, or physical pleasures, or power, or a job, or a relationship, or any number of things. The ancient world was full of statues to the gods of money, love, war, and you name it. We aren’t so obvious as to name these things “gods”, but that doesn’t mean we don’t act like they are gods. These things have become gods when they move into the center of our lives and we begin serving them rather than placing them in our lives properly so that they serve us as we serve God.

We would be wise if we would take account of the idols that might be competing for our love and worship. In our world idols function best when they are secret. We can gain some power over them if we can name them and recognize them when they rear their head. If we are aware of them, we are more likely to be able to make wise decisions when the tension arises while obeying God.

We are not alone in this task. We have the Spirit present with us to help us discern the way to go. The Spirit’s power active in us will show us the joy of following the teachings of Christ. In John 15 we actually see that the end goal is joy, for Jesus and for us.  We will eventually see that following these teachings is not a burden, but as the elder says, it is “conquering the world” (1 Jn 5:4). So we don’t have to worry about dropping our idols. Ultimately they cannot save us. They make false promises that they ultimately can’t fulfill. If we can drop them, even destroy them, then we will know the freedom of obedience to God. And the elder teaches us that in obedience we will know God, and will then know love of God.

[1] (pages xvii and xviii of Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters)

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