1 John 5:1-5
From time to time, a good thing for us to do is to check our identity. Usually when we think of making an assessment of our identity, the first question that arises is, “Who am I in this world? Where do I fit in this big, round chunk of rock that is spiraling its way through the universe?” And the answers to that question of our identity can be as varied and as numerous and as broad as the number of people gathered here this morning. And that’s because while we are all created in the singular image of God, we are also created as unique individuals to reflect the broadness of God’s image within us. There is not one of us here this morning who is exactly like someone else. There’s no one in this sanctuary this morning like us, no one in this town, this county, this state, this country or in all of this world who is our spiritual, emotional or physical twin. We all have different hopes, dreams, aspirations and even fears. And we all have different ways in which we identify ourselves. Some of us identify ourselves in terms of our jobs. Go to any social gathering where there are people that you don’t know, and the first question that you’ll get asked after the name-swapping thing, is, “What do you do?” That’s a terrible question, of course; there’s a lot of things that I do that don’t have a thing to do with my job. And unless our identity is truly wrapped up in what we “do”, we’re sometimes hesitant to answer that, because immediately the other person forms an opinion of us. Suddenly our value and our worthiness as a human being is up for evaluation by someone who doesn’t even know a thing about us except for our name and our job.
Some of us might identify ourselves by our heritage or by our history, or by our social status or by our economic status, or by our marital status. All of these, and many, many more, tend to add up, or combine into the way in which we identify ourselves. All of these things contribute to how we name our place in this world. But like the world, all of these ways that we find place and significance and identity, are passing away. They are only temporary, and even now they are subject to sudden change and alteration. Tomorrow, everything about us could be radically different. We don’t wish that for anyone, of course, but it could happen. A sudden change in worldly identity is almost always frightening and traumatic.
Our passage this morning opens with a different, far more permanent, eternal way in which to define our identity. It is often used as a test of true faith, and it is, of course, just that, but it is much, much more than just a test of faith. It is a matter of ultimate assurance and peace. It goes far beyond the ways in which we normally identify ourselves, and it will eternally outlast all of them. John says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God…” Yes, that works as a test of true faith. If we are to be Christian, if we are to be followers of Jesus Christ, if we are to have our sins forgiven and if we are to have eternal life, we must believe that Jesus is the Christ. “Christ” means Messiah, it means savior, it means that we believe that Jesus came into the world, out of the heavenly realms, to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
But, having believed that, having put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ, we gain an entirely new identity. John says that we are “born of God.” That simply means that we become the children of God. And that will never, ever change. It is permanent. It is eternal. Everything else about us can change, but that never will. It is our true and lasting identity. This world can crash and burn, and it will, someday, but we will always be the children of God. Everything else about us will fade and pass away, and it is already doing that. And over that we have very little control. John says, speaking of Jesus Christ, in the prologue of his Gospel, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” There’s comfort in that, there’s strength and power, there’s ultimate peace and hope. We may think that we are many things, but we can know that we are the children of God, and that we will be for all of eternity, no matter what.
Interestingly, it becomes impossible to discuss becoming the eternal children of God, without talking about love. It is, after all, a loving God who made it possible for us to become his children. It was God’s absolute, unmitigated love for us, long before we even knew the definition of true love, that gave us this new birth; this new identity. The Apostle John is absolutely overwhelmed by love. He is awed by it, stunned by it and humbled by it.
And he tells us, that “everyone who loves the parent, loves the child.” But he’s very unspecific about that. Who is the parent? Who is the child? On the one hand, the parent can be God, and the child can be Jesus. And that makes sense. If we love God, we will also love his son. It was, after all, Jesus who first introduced us to God’s love for us, and made it possible for us to become the children of God. But for John, love flows in multiple directions. And perhaps what John is saying is this: Yes, we love God, he is our true parent. Yes, we love Jesus, because he is God’s Son, but really, and included in all of this is the idea that because we love God, and because we love Jesus his Son, and because we also are the children of God, we will also love all of God’s other children. We all share a parent who loves us completely and equally, we have this in common, and so in imitation of our parent, we do our best to love our siblings as equally and as completely as God does. That’s an awesome concept! But it’s one that will take us the rest of our earthly lives to accomplish. But think of it this way: As the old world is passing away, and as our old identities are passing away, our new identities as the children of God are steadily emerging into greater reality. And as our new identities emerge and grow, so does our love for one another. The world is going to pieces, but the pieces of our love for God and our love for one another are assembling and coming together. As the temporal part of our lives deteriorates, the eternal part of who we truly are is growing and maturing until that day when our love for one another and our love for God is as perfect as God’s love is for us.
And that’s where obedience comes happily into the picture. And I say “happily” because properly understood, obedience is never a drag. I grew up in a very strict religious environment where obedience truly was a drag. There was much emphasis on Christians being a “peculiar people.” And sadly, that was interpreted to mean “really strange.” Christian life was too often defined by adhering to a set of rules and regulations that rivaled even the traditions of the scribes and pharisees. I didn’t learn how to play cards until my first year of seminary when I first started dating my wife in earnest. She taught me to play a shockingly evil sounding card game called “gin rummy.” Obedience meant that we don’t do this and we don’t do that and we don’t go to places where people do these things. For some reason, a particularly evil place was a movie theater, not to mention a restaurant where alcohol was served. And so, yes, obedience was a drag. It was even worse to find oneself in an environment that extolled its identity in being “peculiar” or “really strange.” I now know, and I hope we all know that that kind of obedience is an immature obedience. It is a distraction away from true obedience.
So then, what is true, or mature obedience? What is the obedience of which John speaks in this passage? Curiously, its still “peculiar” and its still “really strange.” In the context of this passage, obedience is loving one another. It’s supporting one another, it’s caring for one another. And quite frankly, in the world in which we live, loving and supporting and caring for one another in a community environment is indeed peculiar and really strange. The rest of the world certainly does not operate this way. We have a really good kind of peculiar and a really good kind of really strange. And if it works well, it is attractive to other people. John says, “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” What is the greatest commandment of all? To love God and to love one’s neighbor. That’s not a drag. It can be challenging and exciting, but it will never be a drag.
Finally, John speaks of faith being the victory that overcomes the world. And really, John has come full circle, back to our identity as the everlasting children of God. Everything, except for our status as children of God, is passing away. The world itself is passing away, our old identities are passing away, but perhaps most importantly, the world that dwells within us is passing away. I think that is is interesting and instructive that all of this “passing away” language is also a metaphor, or perhaps a euphemism that we use for death. As our new identities as the children of God continue to emerge. and as our love for God and our love for one another grows and matures, there is less and less room for for the things of the world within us. For what are the things of the world? The things of the world are temporary things, like the things that our old identities are wrapped up in, but even more insidious than that, the things of the world are self centeredness and self-righteousness and greed, and hate and death. When these things fade away and pass out of our lives, the world within us is defeated. And that’s when we become truly peculiar and really strange. Faith is indeed the victory that overcomes the world.
And word gets out about people who are peculiar and really strange. And when word gets out that there is an active community of believers who take their faith seriously, who truly believe that their real identities as the children of God are continually emerging, people will be attracted to that. And when people learn that there is a safe, loving, caring and accepting environment, into which they will be joyfully welcomed, the world will be absolutely overcome by the loving power of God, one person at a time. Love conquers all. Let’s proclaim that love, but more importantly, let’s live that love.