Sermon for Evensong on the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, 1st October 2017

[Ezekiel 37:15-end], 1 John 2:22-29

Please click on for the readings

You remember the ‘comfortable words’, in the Communion service. ‘Come unto me, all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you’ – and, ‘Hear also what St John saith: If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins’. I’m going to talk about the things that ‘St John saith,’ in his first Letter.

There could be a sermon just about that phrase in the Comfortable Words, what it means for Jesus to be the ‘propitiation’ for sins. Some theologians say that it means a ‘ransom’, ‘paying the price to get us out of jail’: others would argue that, for that understanding to be right, you would have to think of God as a kind of terrorist taking hostages – which doesn’t seem to fit with the idea of a loving God. Another translation of this word, which is ίλασμος in Greek, has been that it is a ‘remedy for the defilement’ of our sins. It almost has the connotation of a ‘solution’, a solution to the word translated as ‘sin’, but which literally means ‘missing the mark’, making mistakes. A ίλασμος is a fix, a solution. But I’m not going to talk about that, tonight.

This little letter, the first Letter of John, is supposed to have been written by the disciple whom Jesus loved, the author of the fourth gospel. The same John, in his old age living in Ephesus, wrote this letter, which is where our second lesson came from, and it is pretty full of well-known passages. Indeed it’s a pretty good revision guide to some of the most important questions and teachings in Christianity.

Even in the short passage which was our second lesson, St John deals with who Jesus is: how He relates to God – and what is true in this area; he goes on to explain how a believer should react to this theological truth – and what it means for a theological proposition to be true, how to tell it’s authentic.

You will recall at the beginning of the service that I have read to you one or two passages from the Bible which are known in the Prayer Book as the ‘sentences’. It says, in the stage directions, in the ‘rubric’, in the Prayer Book – you can find it on page 16 – ‘At the beginning of evening prayer the minister shall read with a loud voice some one or more of these sentences of the Scriptures that follow’: and there’s another quote from this important letter.

The last one which comes up, which I read out before the service tonight, is, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us: but if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. That is also from the first letter of St John.

In the communion service, after the sermon, in the bit called the ‘offertory’, when the collection is taken up, there are more sentences.

It starts “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven”, from Saint Matthew’s Gospel; and, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the Earth where the rust and moth doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven;…”

There are a number of sentences, all of which go to point out the difference between spiritual and worldly wealth; but a couple of the sentences bring to mind Jesus’ teaching about love. And then the most important one comes, from St John’s first letter.

“Whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother hath need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” [1 St John 3, BCP]

Put another way, “If a man has enough to live on and yet when he sees his brother in need, shuts up his heart against him, how can it be said that the divine love dwells in him?” [1 John 3, NEB]

Chapter 3 goes on, ‘Love must not be just a matter of words and talk, it must be genuine and show itself in action’. [verse 18]

So this little letter, the first letter of Saint John, contains some very important theology. It gives you a big clue about the nature of God, what God is and how God works. Like a lot of the letters in the Bible, it’s a bit like overhearing somebody on the telephone. You don’t know what the other person is saying.

It’s clear from the context that St John may have written this letter because he disagrees with somebody. Indeed he disagrees with them so much that he calls them the ‘antichrist’. The opposite to Christ, opposite, because, according to St John, his opponent is denying that Jesus is Χριστός, anointed: denying that Jesus is the Messiah, the chosen one of God.

John’s argument is that the liar, the antichrist, the person who is saying something that is not true, is saying that Jesus is not the chosen one of God – not indeed God himself, in human form, God incarnate. So John reasons like this.

God has anointed Jesus as his son, as the Christ.
God and Jesus are two aspects of the godhead, as it is sometimes called; two aspects of being God, inseparable.
Antichrist denies that Jesus is part of the godhead.
Therefore, if he is right, there is no godhead;
you can’t have Jesus without there being also God.

In the passage in 1 John 2, in verse 23, “To deny the son is to be without the father: to acknowledge the son is to have the father too”.

There was a huge fuss in the early church about what precisely the relationship between God the father and God the son is. The relationship described as father and son in, for example, this letter of St John. Does that mean that Jesus is really God, or whether instead Jesus was created by God and therefore somehow Jesus is lower than God and not actually part of God himself? That was the argument a scholar called Arius put forward In the fourth century, and it’s one reason why the Orthodox Church differs from the Western Church, Protestant and Catholic.

We in the Western Church understand God as the Trinity, father, son and holy spirit, in the way in which we say, in the creed, ‘I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.’ In the Eastern Church, they just say that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father’.

After the Council of Nicaea and Council of Constantinople in the fourth century, the western churches added the words ‘and the son’ – in Latin, ‘filioque’, to make it plain that it wasn’t a chain of creation, from the Father to the Son to the Holy Spirit: but that the Father and the Son were consubstantial, part of the same Godhead.

Actually we might be tempted now not be hugely bothered about this argument. For instance, I can’t help thinking that the nature of God must be far more complicated than you could describe simply as involving being a father, or being a son. We might well find it quite compelling instead to think of all this language as being a myth, a picturesque way of describing something that is beyond description. You could say that you only get into trouble, philosophically, if you take it literally that God had a son. If on the other hand, God and Jesus are two expressions of the same, ineffable, thing, then the question doesn’t arise whether one created the other.

But again, as St John points out, if you don’t believe in Jesus, you can’t really get to God. Think about how you would describe your belief in God, your faith, if you didn’t know about Jesus. Think about what the Jews and the Moslems, who both say they worship the same god that we do, but who deny the divinity of Jesus, think how they justify their belief.

They look to prophets to be conduits of communication between the deity and mankind. There’s no real direct contact. There’s always an issue, whether the prophet in question is genuinely passing on the words of God or not. Running through the Bible, especially the Old Testament, before Christ settled the argument, very commonly there is the question, ‘Is it true?’

Christians have a great advantage. The question need not be, ‘Is it true?’ Instead, it’s just, ‘What did Jesus say?’ or ‘What would Jesus do?’ To know Jesus is to know God.

And in an important way, once Jesus ‘abides’ in you – ‘abides’ is a sort of church ‘railway word’; you know, like ‘alight’; ‘Alight here for Stoke D’Abernon’: you never see the word except on the railways – well, apart from rugby matches, singing ‘Abide with me’, you only come across ‘abide’ in church – if Jesus abides, stays, in you, once you’ve come to faith in Christ, there’s no risk that your faith will need to be revised or corrected or changed in some way. ‘.. the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you’ – verse 27 of chapter 2. You need not chase after the latest fashionable fad. (I nearly ended that sentence, ‘.. like mindfulness’, but perhaps that’s a bit hard).

This theological wisdom is all in this little letter. If you read all through St John’s first letter, you’ll come across many of the points which the church has spent so much time on in the past. ‘What difference does it make?’ you might say.

The difference, a big fundamental truth of Christianity, is in the last line of tonight’s lesson.

‘If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him.’

Christianity has a practical effect. You believe, and this leads you to action, to doing. By doing good, you show that you are a child of God.

The Prayer Book again, in the ‘sentences’ in the Communion service [page 243], quotes a slightly longer version of this practical gospel, which appears in 1 John chapter 3: “Whoso hath this world’s good and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up … his compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”

A real Christian understands that Christ was, is, God incarnate. He was, is, both God and human.

A real Christian can’t claim to have fellowship with God, while still ‘walking in darkness’, as the 1st chapter of the letter puts it. Faith, if it’s genuine, if it’s true, leads to action. Go and read all five chapters – they’re short. It won’t take long. Then you’ll know what is the Christian thing to do – and why.