Monday, January 17, 2011

Apostles' Tweets: Church of the Love-Truth

Preached on January 18, 2011
Scripture readings: 2 John 1-13; Mark 8:27-38

A philosopher once said, “Love is a state in which a man sees things most decidedly as they are not.” (Attributed to Nietzsche) I don’t quite agree with that.

I think that it happens sometimes, maybe at the start of love. When I was young (and maybe since then too) it only took a pretty girl smiling at me and touching my arm to make me crazy in love for days.

When I was serving my first church, after I was ordained, there was a girl I went out with a lot who apparently saw my interest as nothing more than friendship. And then she met a guy who had just gotten out of the state prison after serving a sentence as an accomplice in an armed robbery. They got serious about each other, and I ended up doing their wedding.

I think that love made them both rather unable to see things as they really were.
But I do believe that (with time) love takes a strange twist. With time love enables a person to see what nobody else may be able to see, and yet those things are the true things. Those things are the truth that matters. So, in the end, love and truth go together; or they ought to, especially in God’s scheme of things.

It is the problem of making sure that love and truth match up that is at the heart of the tiny Second Letter of John. It begins: “The elder: to the chosen lady and her children whom I love in the truth.” (2 John 1) Among the brothers and sisters in Christ, in the body of Christ that we call the church, love and truth are supposed to go hand in hand in what we believe, and in the way we live together, and in the way we serve God in this world.

Before we look at the marriage of truth and love in the church, let’s look at some of the mechanics in the letter. “The Elder” is the Apostle John. Sometimes apostles called themselves elders. (1 Peter 5:1)

The Chosen Lady, to whom John wrote this letter, was (as they say) no lady. She was a church, a congregation of Christians in some town, somewhere. We don’t know where. The pronouns and the verbs that apply to the lady are plural pronouns and plural verbs. She was not an individual.

She was a church, and her children were her members. Some of her children (her members) had come to see John, and he complimented her (the church) because he found those members “walking in the truth.” (2 John 4)

This letter was a short note, a tweet, from John to their church. He wrote the letter, or dictated it, and he put it in their hands, and they took it back home to their church (the chosen lady). This was how the whole church of many scattered congregations maintained itself, as one body, as one church, united together across the ancient world.

The peace and order of the Roman Empire, and its interest in trade and security, required the building of roads and the establishment of regular shipping and trade routes. People could communicate, and travel, and move freely from place to place over wide parts of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

The apostles were mostly scattered or dead by the time that John wrote this letter (probably toward the nineties of the first century). He doesn’t write as if he were still part of the circle of apostles who stayed in Jerusalem until just before the Roman destruction of that city in 70 AD. And John lived at least to the time of the reign of the emperor Trajan, who ruled from 98 AD to 117 AD.

Some apostles had been killed by the Roman authorities. Peter and Paul had been killed in Rome. Some had gone east to Persia and India. There were elders in each community who were becoming known as bishops. There were wandering evangelists, and teachers, and prophets. Churches (congregations) sent delegations and letters to each other and brought letters and visitors back.

When we read the documents of the earliest years of the church, we see that it was marked by a constant coming and going; constant letters and contacts. This unity was created by the commandments of Jesus, and it was an answer to the prayers of Jesus.

Jesus had commanded them to love one another. In the Gospel of John, Jesus said: “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35) The ancient church was motivated by love to keep in touch. It kept them one in the Spirit.

And, in the Gospel of John, Jesus prayed like this: “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:22-23)

The glory Jesus prayed about is the divine presence. The glory that makes God’s people one is the presence of the living God working to make his will known and to make his work possible. The love of God in Jesus opens our shared life together to the presence of God, who makes great things possible.

The early church scared those who did not know Jesus, because those who did not know Jesus could not understand the depth of interest, love, and sacrifice that kept them together all across the empire. All that the pagans could see was some sort of dangerous conspiracy.

There was no formal structure. I mean, by this, that there were no established lines of communication. There was no flowchart for the church. There was no organized hierarchy from bottom to top; or from top to bottom. There were no central or regional offices. There were no by-laws and no by-laws committees.

The Book of Acts and the Letters of the Apostles tell us how the oneness of the church was maintained. And the way it worked did not change much in the next several decades or even the next few centuries.

The unity happened because all the loose collection of churches worked hard to maintain the ties of love. An inspired love and a great deal of effort brought them together, by the power of the Holy Spirit. You can read the documents of the late first century, and the second century, and beyond, and see how it worked.

It worked, but it wasn’t perfect. The tweets of the New Testament (the four shortest books or letters of the apostles) are like informal snapshots that show us the world of the ancient Christians. They show their concern for maintaining the unity of their love, and how it didn’t always work; and they show their concern for maintaining the truth of their message, and how it didn’t always work. The tweets of the New Testament show how the church went to work on the problems that came up when things didn’t work. And, for our purposes, they show us how the early Christians struggled to make sure that, among the churches of the Church, love and truth would match; love and truth would stick together and not get separated.

The love of the church worked through hospitality. They would welcome any traveling Christian (whether an apostle, or an elder, or an evangelist, or a teacher, or a prophet, or just an ordinary, plain-old Christian). They welcomed all of these into their homes, and into the fellowship of the church that would meet in their homes. These people could speak, and report, and find eager, listening, loving ears.

The truth in the church worked through elders who had been taught either by the apostles (like John, or James, or Paul) or by partners of the apostles (like Timothy, or Titus, or Philemon). And the elders taught their congregations. They tried to stay true to what they had been taught.

Except when they didn’t! Sometimes they went wrong; and badly wrong. Sometimes someone would think they had found some better way. They thought they could improve on the message that had been passed on to them.

Sometimes those who went wrong took their new ideas with them on the road. They tried to spread what they saw as their improvements to the gospel. Love required the churches to receive them; right? How will anyone know that we belong to Jesus unless we love one another and welcome one another?

This is the problem we see in the tweet of the second letter of John. There were people that he called deceivers. In fact some of the members of the church to which he was writing probably were sent by that church to John, in order to seek his advice about this problem. What should they do about these people who did not seem to teach the message they had been taught, from their first acquaintance with Jesus?

John called them deceivers. We tend to think of deceivers, or liars, as people who know they are telling a lie. They surely knew that they were teaching something different, but they probably taught it because they thought they had found something better than the old message of Jesus that was going around the churches from the first apostles.

They were self-deceivers. They were antichrists because they found reasons to correct or oppose what John and the other apostles had taught about Jesus Christ.
John pinpointed the problem at this point. Their problem was the most basic problem of all. They had gotten it all wrong about whom Jesus was and what Jesus had done.

The fault of the deceivers was rooted in their teaching that Jesus Christ had not come in the flesh. The errors we are most to fear are the errors that lead us to misunderstand who Jesus is and what Jesus has done.

What they taught was that Jesus Christ was not really a human being. We know about these people in the history of the church. Some of them taught that Jesus Christ was really a spirit that only appeared to be human. The other way the deceivers put it was to say that there was a difference between Jesus the human and a spiritual Jesus Christ who sort of possessed the body of the human Jesus, like a ventriloquist controls a dummy, so as to be able to use him to speak to humans. And this spiritual Jesus abandoned the human Jesus just before Jesus was nailed to the cross. They believed that the cross had nothing to do with the mission of the real Jesus.

The purpose of this non-human Jesus, was to give us spiritual understanding and knowledge to realize that the world we live in and the bodies we live in were not made by God at all. For them this world was ugly, and our bodies only got us in trouble. The world and our physical bodies were all a mistake, and these false teachers wanted us to know that we were made for better things, and that we should be free from all ties and obligations in this world.

The upshot of all this is that we should know that (just like the non-human Jesus) we are not really created beings at all. We are really all divine beings, and we exist for the purpose of knowledge and understanding.

If Jesus Christ had come in the flesh, he would have entered the error of the material world, and the deceivers believed that this would have dishonored him and his message. This would have dishonored the true God, and served no good purpose.

Now, in what we, as Christians, believe, the world we live in has been made by the real God and it is not a mistake. Our world is messed up. It is a confused and fallen world, but it is not a mistake. Our world reflects the glory of God in spite of the ugliness of evil in the world. Our human life reflects the glory of God in spite of the ugliness that rears its head in us.

And, according to the Christian faith, God does not stand for knowledge and understanding, as important as those may be. God stands for love. And we, as humans, are made for much grander things than knowledge and understanding, no matter how important those may be. For instance, knowledge and understanding can devise cures for cancer, but there are much more important issues in life than the cure of cancer.
We have been created for love: to love and be loved forever. That is the truest truth. Truth is married to love.

The Christian gospel marries truth and love to each other. We say, with the New Testament, that Jesus is the Word, which means that Jesus is the self-expression of the God. Jesus is God (who is love) speaking himself. The Gospel of John says this. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:1-4)

God expresses himself (and speaks himself) through love, by entering the world he loves in the flesh, as a human being, in order to die for the sins of the world and in order to give all who trust in him a new life that will never end. And God rose from the dead, in his risen flesh and blood, in order to defeat a fallen world and make a new creation possible; a new creation that is yet to come.

All of this is summed up in what we read in the Gospel of John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

If Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh, then he did not come to die for our sins. If Jesus did not come in the flesh, then he came only to give us a message of knowledge and understanding. Maybe we could call this enlightenment and enlightenment is good.

But enlightenment is different, for us Christians. We know that the real enlightenment is that God loves us even though we are sinners.

The truth is we are rebels through and through, who are lost because we cannot set ourselves free. And we will perish in our lostness, unless we are set free from our sins by God, working in Christ, in our human nature, on the cross, to take our sins upon himself; to take our alienation upon himself and give us life, and make us new, by taking away our sins.

This truth is all about love and faithfulness. This is not the self improvement that comes from growing in knowledge and understanding. If it were all about this self improvement; the cross might serve as a noble example, but not as a necessity.

But, for Christian truth, God, in Christ, dying on the cross, is a necessity. It is truly a matter of life and death. It is a matter of love at its most basic level.

The deceivers denied the very nature of God as love. In denying this, they did not deny a religious doctrine or a set of morals. They denied God’s identity and God’s creation. They denied everything.

Now there are those who believe absolutely that God is love; but they also seem to say that if God is love, then nothing else that we teach really matters. This is also wrong; and not the truth.

The coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh means that very specific things become important. Every thing that you do, every relationship in your life, everything you say; everything is important.

Everything is important not just in the sense of being serious. Everything is important also in the sense of thanksgiving and joy, because God is love. But we also have to remember that all of our thanksgiving and joy are possible because the faithful love of God made a specific action to be an absolute necessity. God made specific actions matter by dying in the flesh on the cross.

There is something in us that does not love the cross. There is something in all of us that would like to live as if Jesus Christ had not come in the flesh to die for us.

If we think we are immune to this, or that we are safe from this, all we have to do is to look at the gospels. The gospels tell us that Peter could say that Jesus was the Christ, but that Peter did not want Jesus to be a crucified savior. Peter did not want Jesus to hang on a cross and die for his sins, or for the sins of the world. (Mark 8:27-38)

If God is a love that is so costly; if God is a love that will focus itself on a single life and live to be a sacrifice; then that love (living in us) may have radical consequences for our own lives. If the love of God takes specific form in flesh and blood, then our love will have to take specific forms and actions in our own flesh and blood.

The sacrifices of marriage and parenthood require this. The sacrifices of serving the church and the community require this. The sacrifices of serving our nation and our nation’s safety require this love in flesh and blood. These things require specific actions from us.

This is an awesome truth. The gospel of knowledge and understanding does not require this; but the gospel of the word made flesh does require it.

In the history of the Roman Empire, the supposed Christians who denied that Jesus Christ came in the flesh became known as the Gnostics. Gnostic is a Greek term that means people of knowledge. The Gnostics claimed to be the people who had acquired special spiritual knowledge through a spiritual being called Jesus. They were never persecuted for their faith, because their faith was not seen as dangerous. The consequences of their faith made no difference to the empire.

But the Christian faith, as we have inherited it, did make a difference in the empire and in the whole world. The cross and the resurrection bring truth and love together in action.

The sad fact is that Christians have often destroyed love, even in the church, for the sake of truth. Christians have often made their truth into an unloving weapon in the world at large; a weapon of judgment; a weapon of separation; a weapon of pride.
We have divided ourselves from others when the issues at stake were far less important than the flesh, and the blood, and the cross of Jesus Christ. We have divided ourselves from our brothers and sisters in Christ even when we and they both held to the cross where truth and love were equally at home.

The Jesus of the Bible insists that we must always keep truth together with love. The cross is all about this. Other people will only see Jesus and his truth in us when we stick together and do this.

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