Our New Testament lesson this morning comes to us from the first epistle of John chapter 5 verses 1 through 5. Now, the community to whom John was writing was facing a crisis. They were caught in a culture where the people were challenging what they believed. People were labeling what they had seen and heard as fake or untrue. As a result, their community of faith was confused afraid and unsure of what to do.
Even though this letter of First John was written centuries ago, these words are as relevant today as it was when this epistle was first written. For the author invites the believers to remember who they are and whose they are, and by doing so they could focus on living their faith instead. From First John chapter 5 verses 1 through 5 this is a word from the LORD.
1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, 4 for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. 5 Who is it who conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
Friends, this is a word from the LORD for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
This morning, as we begin, I would like to invite you to join me in a brief exercise of how well we know the superheroes from our youth and in our culture. After all, for these crime-fighting figures of truth, justice, and the American-way, there is a slogan or phrase that is ordinarily used to identify these mythic marauders of morality. For example, we know that the one who is noted for being faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound is superman. And, of course, the one known as the Caped Crusader or the Dark Knight is Batman. We must not forget the legend of the fellow with the silver bullet about whom grateful citizens would ask, “Who was that masked-man.” For we know they are referring to the Lone Ranger. At the same time, we must not ignore the animated shows that we in our children watched. “Here I come to save the day,” means that Mighty Mouse is on the way. And, there was a quartet of really interesting creatures, who not only had names of famous artists Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello, but they also had catch phrases such as, “Kawabunga!” and, “Pizza Power!” Obviously, [I am] referring to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And, then there was the cartoon, canine, shoeshine boy, who, when villains threatened, would be transformed into a superhero with the help of his super vitamin pill. And, suddenly with the speed of lightning and roar of thunder, fighting all who rob and plunder, there would be Underdog.
But, one of the problems begins to emerge when we notice the great amount of collateral damage that underdog often caused. Whenever someone complained about the damage, underdog lyrically replied, ‘I am a hero who never fails. I cannot be bothered with such details.” But, what does that teach us as we seek to confront the forces of the world? Collateral damage doesn’t really matter, as long as we conquer? And, what do these cartoons and superheroes teach us about the faithful ways to deal with difficulty in our world, and into this culture of superheroes who can’t be concerned with details of collateral damage?
And, into our national culture that has more guns than we have people, comes a letter to a community of faith that presents a different understanding. The author of First John has been challenging his church to self-examination. Which God do you believe in, the gods of the world or the God we know in Jesus Christ? It was a question that probably caused them to squirm, because life in their world was not easy.
They were having to make difficult choices. How do we relate to a world and society that threatens us? How do we as children of God live out our faith, when people around us prefer to adopt the cultural standards rather than the way of Christ? How do we speak in a world that closes its ears to God’s word of truth and transformation? To these questions the author simply states, “Obey Christ’s commandments.” That’s it. Obey Christ’s commandments.
For according to First John the commandments are not burdensome. The commandments don’t burden us but they do convict us because in John’s Gospel when Jesus was teaching his disciples he gave them only one commandment that would identify them as his disciples. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I’ve loved you, you also should love one another.” That is the commandment that the community of faith was called to obey, and not because it was just a nice, kind, charitable thing to do. They were called to obey the commandment of love because that was the way of Jesus Christ. And for those who believe in Jesus Christ, that is what conquers the world. It’s not superheroes or power or privilege. It’s not mythical mavens or righteous warriors. It’s not the concept that might makes right or security through strength. It is believing that the way of Jesus Christ actually conquers the world.
The writer of First John tells us, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey His commandments.” And yet, the children of God, that we love, are being killed. The children of God in Uvalde, Texas are being killed. The children of God in Buffalo, New York are being killed. The children of God in a Taiwanese Presbyterian church in California, are being killed. Even the children of God in Akron, Ohio are being killed. The children of God from nearly every imaginable slice of American life are being killed: a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, a government-funded, non-profit center in San Bernardino, California, a gay nightclub in Orlando, a country music festival in Las Vegas, a high school in Parkland, Florida, a Walmart in a Hispanic area of El Paso, an Asian-American business in Atlanta. And, if we ever want things in this world to change, then the church of Jesus Christ must find its voice.
It is time for the church to stop quibbling about membership or the deficit that we might have occurred last month or the most recent problem with our aging building and
instead confront the idols of our culture and conquer the world with the transforming truth of Jesus Christ. For as the letter tells us, who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes Jesus is the Son of God.
After all, being pro-life encompasses so much more than a decision about Roe v. Wade. And God is calling us, just as God called Jeremiah to make a difference in the world where we live, because we cannot avoid the issues in front of us. When we, like Jeremiah, may say, I can’t do this, because I don’t have the ability and I don’t possess the courage, and my age is working against me. God says don’t be afraid of them for I am with you to deliver you, and I have put my words in your mouth, and I have appointed you over nations and over kingdoms, because you do not belong to some culture that is so indifferent to human life that we turn a blind eye.
You do not belong to some community that accepts violence and has become numb to brutality. You do not belong to some society that is only interested in individual prosperity and ignores the common good. On the contrary, you belong to Jesus Christ, who constantly reminds us through his life and his teachings that the present arrangements are not good enough. And, they are not the way that God intends them. It is not the way that God intends when children, who are only a few inches taller than the AR-15 rifle that took their lives, are gunned down. It is not the way that God intends when there will be no more backpacks, no more books, no more end-of-school picnics and slip and slides. When parents see not their child’s footprints on the sidewalk but the bullet casings on the ground. And, they will be forever unable to watch their child make a three-pointer, or go to a piano recital or dance with their child on their wedding day. And why? Because in this one nation under guns, in our land of the free and home of the brave, we are neither free nor brave.
We are not free, because we are held hostage by a well-funded gun lobbies and well-funded politicians who only desire to stay in power and we are not brave because we feel that we must carry guns to protect ourselves from one another. We are not brave because through our silence and in our inaction, we permit those well-funded politicians to concoct stand-your-ground laws that allow those of us who have been taught to love our neighbor to instead pull our guns and kill our neighbor if we fear bodily harm. And even then, the National Rifle Association, advertising a room of 14 acres of guns and gear that everyone can purchase and hyping everyone’s right to carry a gun, shows its utter hypocrisy at its convention in Houston, by refusing the right of anyone at the NRA meeting to carry a gun or a knife or a weapon into the convention center. Because they wanted a gun-free zone. That’s cowardly. Perhaps those folks in Texas at the NRA meeting are the most fearful, and those of us who adopt their way of fear bow at the throne of the trigger. And when we do, when we bow at the throne of the trigger, we are complicit whenever inhumane evil is inflicted on others especially children. And yet, if we believe the Bible, if we believe in the one who is the child advocate extraordinaire and said let the children come unto me, if we believe the writer of First John, we know
what conquers the world.
Do you remember it from the passage we read this morning? The author said, “And this is the victory that conquers the world, your faith.” So, through faith in Jesus Christ we work to conquer the world, not with weapons but with a word. By speaking God’s word of truth and love into a culture that is saturated with illusions concocted by political propaganda and irrational rhetoric. Through faith in Jesus Christ we endeavor to conquer the world, not with violence but with a vision. With God’s vision of turning away those idolatrous attractions of political partisanship or popular policies or personal prosperity that lure our allegiances. And, we instead follow the path of Jesus Christ, that promotes life, enhances humanity, and leads us from the present and into the future. Through faith in Jesus Christ we seek to conquer the world, by living in it without succumbing to its lure, without being governed by it, and without accepting its standards. Because, we, instead, infuse God’s gift of life into a deeply wounded world. The author of First John was truly challenging the Church. Which god do you believe in?
In the fifth century, there lived a monk, who spent most of his life in a remote prayer community raising vegetables from a cloister kitchen. When he was not tending to his garden spot he was fulfilling his vocation of study and prayer. Then one day this monk, named Telemachus, felt that the Lord wanted him to go to Rome, the capital of the empire, the busiest, wealthiest, biggest city in the world. Telemachus had no idea why he should go there, and he was terrified at the thought. He didn’t know why he was going, but obediently he went to share God’s love.
Telemachus arrived in Rome during the holiday festival, and in the midst of a jubilant commotion the monk looked for clues as to why he had been called to go there. So, Telemachus let the crowds guide him, and the stream of humanity soon led him into a stadium, a coliseum, where the gladiator contests were being held. He could hear the cries of the animals in their caves beneath the floor of the great arena, and the clamor of the contestants preparing to do battle. The gladiators marched into the arena, saluted the emperor and shouted, “We, who are about to die, salute thee!” Telemachus shuttered. He had never seen the gladiator games before, but he had a premonition of awful violence.
The crowd had come to cheer for men who, for no other reason than amusement, would murder each other. Human lives were being offered for entertainment. As the monk realized what was going to happen, he realized he could not sit still and watch the savagery neither could he leave and forget it. So, he jumped to the top of the perimeter wall and cried, “In the name of Christ, forbear.” But, the fighting had begun. No one paid the slightest heed to the puny little voice. So, Telemachus pattered down the stone steps and lept onto the sandy floor of the arena. He made a comical figure. A scrawny man in a monk’s garment dashing back and forth between muscular armed athletes. One gladiator sent him sprawling with a blow from his shield, directing him back to his seat. It wasn’t a rough gesture though, almost a kind one, and the crowd roared. But, Telemachus refused to stop. He rushed between the gladiators, who were trying to fight and shouted again, “In the name of Christ, forbear!” The crowd began to laugh and cheer him on, perhaps thinking he was part of the entertainment. Then his movement blocked the vision of one of the contestants, and the gladiator saw a blow coming just in time.
Furious now the crowd began to cry for the monk’s blood. “Run him through!” they screamed. The gladiator he had blocked then raised his sword, and with a flash of steel struck Telemachus, slashing down his chest and into his stomach, and the little monk gasped once more, “In the name of Christ, forbear!”
Then a strange thing occurred, as the two gladiators and the crowd focused on the lifeless form on the sand, suddenly reddened with blood. The arena fell deathly quiet. In the silence, someone in the top tier got up and walked out. Another followed. And, all over the arena spectators began to leave until the huge stadium was emptied.
Who would have guessed that the innocent figure, lying in the pool of blood, crystallized opposition to that barbaric practice? For that was the last gladiatorial contest in Rome, and never again did men kill each other for the crowd’s entertainment, in the Roman arena.
Tiller Marcus, the superhero ? I don’t think so. Telemachus the faithful one, who conquered the Roman Empire through faith in Jesus Christ. And, for those of us who have faith in Jesus Christ, The Savior continues to overcome the world, by working in us, through us, and among us.
Through faith in Jesus Christ, we can change the world by sharing Christ’s love with all people. Through faith in Jesus Christ, we can change the world, by advancing the
dignity of all people, by practicing a form of justice that liberates, reconciles, and heals, and through faith in Jesus Christ we can change the world. By fashioning a church that, through its life and action, represents a radical alternative to the plethora of images that are constantly paraded before us. Indeed, through faith in Jesus Christ the world does not have the last word.
“Who is it that conquers the world?” The author First John asks. It’s the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. That doesn’t sound like a call for a superhero. It sounds like a job for us.