Saturday, June 30, 2018

“Facing the Maple Menace” - July 1, 2018

Jonah 1:1-3, 3:1-5, 4:1-5

            The year was 1995.  It was six years since the Berlin Wall was ripped down.  Michael Moore produced and directed a movie called Canadian Bacon.  The story begins with a U.S. president, played by Alan Alda, realizing that life was simpler in the good old days of the Cold War, cannot convince the Russians to try again.  Then a fight between American and Canadian fans breaks out at a hockey game and his advisers show him how to play it up into a full-blown international incident.  Pretty soon the nightly news is running items like this:

It’s hard for some people to imagine a world without a constant state of suspicion among nations.

            One of those people was Jonah, the central character of a story written down sometime during the eighth century B.C., when the Assyrian Empire, with its capital at Nineveh, was throwing its ugly weight around the Middle East.  They invaded everyone repeatedly, including Israel, which they wiped out as a nation in the year 722 B.C.

            We often treat the story of Jonah as a children’s story.  One of the songs in Porgy and Bess scoffs at it.

                        “O Jonah, he lived in a whale.
                        Jonah, he lived in a whale.
                        He made his home in
                        A fish’s abdomen,
                        In a whale!”

In fact, Jonah only ended up inside the whale because God had told this faithful and patriotic Israelite to go to Nineveh and there, at the center of enemy territory, to declare repentance for their evil ways.  Jonah was trying to get out of that, and God wouldn’t let him off the hook, even if the hook was in a great fish.  At one point Jonah justifies himself to God and lays out the reason why, when God told him to go east, he went west.

“I fled to Tarshish at the beginning for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”  [Jonah 4:2]

Jonah knew his Bible.  Those are the words of the Psalms that speak of God,

“slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”.

That description of God in those exact words appears in Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8, and Psalm 145:8.  Jonah had been listening and taking them seriously.  He feared that God might have mercy on Nineveh, and he didn’t want that.  The official line is always that God is on our side, especially in time of war.  But what if, just what if…  ?

            Events seem to have justified Jonah’s misgivings.  They also pointed out God’s unwillingness to leave the Assyrians without a chance to change their ways, and God’s determination not to let Jonah’s opposition get in the way. 

Eventually, having been swallowed whole and then vomited up onto the shore again, Jonah decided that he had better do what he was told.  Grudgingly, he went to Nineveh, his people’s enemy.

“Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk, and he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ [Jonah 3:4]

and I suspect he enjoyed that.  It’s always gratifying to tell your enemy on God’s behalf that they are on the brink of destruction.  But then the rest of it came about, the part that Jonah feared.

“And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” [Jonah 3:5]

God relented.  God let go of his anger.  God forgave.

            Jonah did not.  He became angry at God as well as at the Assyrians.  He was bitter.  He cried,

“O Lord, please take my life from me now, for it is better for me to die than to live.” [Jonah 4:3]

So he sat down on the ground outside the city, totally despondent, hoping that God would see it his way after all, watching from a distance to see if God would destroy the city despite the people’s change of heart.  God took pity on Jonah as he sat there in the hot sun, making a bush grow up suddenly to give him shade, but God did not erase anyone from the map. 

            What God did was remove the bush whose leaves stood over Jonah’s head, and in so doing found (as small as it might seem) a soft spot in Jonah’s heart.  When the bush died as quickly as it had sprung up, Jonah’s bitterness increased.

“God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’  And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’  Then the Lord said,”

 – and here is the point of the story, and the very last words of the book, which stops right with this –

“’You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’” [Jonah 4:10-11]

Children.  One hundred, twenty thousand children.  And innocent animals, even, knowing nothing of human conflict. 

            Jonah?  Are you getting it yet, Jonah?  Bitter, angry, frightened prophet!  Shuddering not at God’s judgment, but at God’s mercy!  Made uneasy not by thunder and storm, but by the soft and gentle voice of the Lord, asking mercy from you! 

Jonah, Jonah!  Can’t you see the problem isn’t always them?

            No, this book is not a children’s story.  Be careful with it, because its pages are sharp and you may cut yourself.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

"When the Music Gets Out of Hand" - June 24, 2018

            The text of my sermon this morning is the book of Jude.  I know what’s going through everyone’s head, so let’s just sing it quickly and then set it aside, okay?  “Na-na-na…”  There you go.  Now let’s get back to business.  We’ll come back to the Beatles later.

            Jude is a very short and very odd book.  It’s a letter, but we do not know whom it’s addressed to; it seems to pertain to a particular church but its location is not mentioned and no people are named to help us pin it down.  The author calls himself

“Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James” [1:1]

but if that James is the brother of Jesus, as some suggest, why doesn’t Jude mention that?  If he’s the brother of James the disciple, then why doesn’t he call himself brother of James and John or the third son of Zebedee?  Furthermore, he never refers to himself as an apostle, which the leaders of the first generation of Christians tended to do. 

            The letter of Jude quotes the apocryphal books of Enoch and The Assumption of Moses, which is where it gets the odd reference to the archangel Michael and the devil arguing over Moses’ body.  If you thought that section sounded weird, you are in good company because each of those books was rejected by both the rabbis and the Church when the point came where they were deciding which books should be considered holy scripture and which should not.  That made Jude itself a somewhat questionable item and it wasn’t always included in the earliest forms of the New Testament.  On the other hand, the concerns the letter addresses are similar to some of the concerns in II Peter, and they use similar language, but whether or not one depends on the other, or which way they influence goes, is up in the air.

            Maybe some of it is familiar.

“Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever.  Amen.” [1:24-25]

That is sometimes used as a benediction at the end of worship.  I’ll be using it today, in fact. 

And then there is this verse, which encapsulates what the letter seems to have been written for:

“I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” [1:3]

Here “faith” suggests a system of belief, a framework of thought as well as of action, which is why some scholars put the time of its writing pretty late for a New Testament book, at the edge of a time when the Church was leaving its infancy and beginning to define its beliefs over and against those that might have a Christian-ish sound but were going too far in one direction or another and losing their anchor.  So Jude becomes downright condemnatory:

“Woe to them!  For they go the way of Cain and abandon themselves to Balaam’s error for the sake of gain, and perish in Korah’s rebellion.  These are blemishes on your love-feasts, while they feast with you without fear, feeding themselves.  They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the deepest darkness has been reserved forever.” [1:11-13]

We don’t know what they were teaching, but Jude is not happy about it.

            Now, let’s think about the Beatles song again.  It starts out with Paul McCartney singing the melody pretty clearly.  By the time you get toward the end, the music and the voices are a little more crowded (if that’s the word).  Everybody is singing the na-na-na parts together, but the instruments are going off in different directions, and it starts to sound like it might fall apart.  Then, out of nowhere, comes the part where you hear,

                        “Hey, Jude, now!  Judie!  Judie! Judie!  Judie!”

I’d suggest an analogy between this song and the development of the Christian faith, in two ways, one individual and one applying to the group.

Individually, Jude suggests that if someone’s thinking about faith is mistaken, their life will also turn out to exhibit some of the chaos that he describes.  It’s like when someone says, “If I’m forgiven, it doesn’t matter what I have done in the past.”  No, real repentance means wanting to undo any harm you may have done.  Maybe you can and maybe you cannot, but the sense of real regret will always be there and when the opportunity to make amends comes up, it brings a sense of relief.  Whoever the people were that Jude warned about, they took Christian freedom as a blank check rather than a clean slate, and this letter clearly says that is a mistake and that bad theology can lead to an unholy life.

That’s why, very early on, the Church developed a series of statements about the faith that we call the creeds, from the Latin word “credo”, “I believe”.  They developed out of a series of crises when one teacher or another would be the voice that just didn’t match with all the others in the chorus.  It isn’t that all voices always sang the same note, but that there were some singers who threw the others off and threatened the whole song.

There were people like Marcion, who said that the God described in the Old Testament was not the same God as in the New Testament (and you hear people say that sometimes today).  There was Arius, who said that God the Son was a creation of God, not a part of the Father from all eternity.  That meant that it wasn’t the eternal God who suffered on the cross, and it wasn’t God himself taking the consequence of our sin.  There was Pelagius, who said that sin doesn’t totally mess us up, but that we can fix ourselves once salvation has lifted the weight of sin from our shoulders.  There were the Donatists, who said that God’s grace cannot come to one sinner through another, but only through someone already made holy by the Spirit.  It goes on and on.

What the Church did was produce the creeds that outlined the content of belief as statements about the points that are non-negotiable.  They don’t say anything about some of the points where Christians have varied over the centuries.  They say nothing about what we mean when we say Jesus is present in communion or at what age someone may be baptized.  They don’t talk about what it means for the scriptures to be inspired by God, or even specify which books are to be included in the Bible.  (“Bible” is a word the creeds never use at all.)  They don’t lay out how the Church should be organized or conduct worship.

What they talk about is who God is, as Creator and as a human being named Jesus and as a Spirit that does some very specific things in people’s lives, like pulling people together into the communion of saints (or the community of the holy), declaring the forgiveness of sins, and preparing both body and soul for eternity with God.

The letter of Jude shows us what the beginning of that process looked like – and, no, it wasn’t pretty all the time.  But if we are made in the image of God, then how we talk about God is also in some way how we talk about who we ourselves are.  God didn’t ever stand apart from creation, so we cannot stay aloof from the people around us, even when love means the risk of rejection.  So

“anytime you feel the pain, hey [you], refrain;
Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders.
For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder.”

See, the gospel is about someone who carried the world upon his shoulders for us.  He sang our sad song and made it better.  He let us into God’s heart, and that’s he started to make it better.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

“A Family Matter” - June 17, 2018


            Let’s do some time traveling this morning.  We’ll start in the English colonies of North America around the year 1700, give or take fifty years.  Missionaries from England were having a problem getting permission from slaveholders to address enslaved Africans, despite the words of King Charles II to his subjects in 1660:

“And you are to consider how such of the Natives or such as are purchased by you from other parts to be servants or slaves may best be invited to the Christian Faith, and be made capable of being baptized thereunto, it being the honor of our Crowne and the Protestant Religion that all persons in any of our Dominions should be taught the knowledge of God, and be made acquainted with the misteries of Salvation.”[1]

Planters largely ignored and occasionally outright opposed this because they believed (and so did many of their slaves) that anyone baptized would have to be set free.  So Maryland passed a law denying that belief in 1664 and by 1706 was joined by at least five other colonies.[2]

Let’s jump back about a thousand years from there, to early medieval Ireland.  We have a letter from someone who identifies himself this way:

“I am Patrick, yes a sinner and indeed untaught; yet I am established here in Ireland where I profess myself bishop. I am certain in my heart that 'all that I am,' I have received from God. So I live among barbarous tribes, a stranger and exile for the love of God. He himself testifies that this is so. I never would have wanted these harsh words to spill from my mouth; I am not in the habit of speaking so sharply. Yet now I am driven by the zeal of God, Christ's truth has aroused me. I speak out too for love of my neighbors who are my only sons; for them I gave up my home country, my parents and even pushing my own life to the brink of death. If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples; even though some of them still look down on me.”[3]

Yes, we’re talking about that Patrick: Saint Patrick, the March 17th guy, patron saint of Ireland.  He was furious with a group of Christian soldiers and I’ll let him tell you why.

“The very next day after my new converts, dressed all in white, were anointed with chrism, even as it was still gleaming upon their foreheads, they were cruelly cut down and killed by the swords of these same devilish men. At once I sent a good priest with a letter. I could trust him, for I had taught him from his boyhood. He went, accompanied by other priests, to see if we might claw something back from all the looting, most important, the baptized captives whom they had seized. Yet all they did was to laugh in our faces at the mere mention of their prisoners.”[4]

The “baptized captives” were mostly women and were considered the spoils of war, to be kept as slaves or sold as slaves.

“Because of all this, I am at a loss to know whether to weep more for those they killed or those that are captured: or indeed for these men themselves whom the devil has taken fast for his slaves. In truth, they will bind themselves alongside him in the pains of the everlasting pit: for ‘he who sins is a slave already’ and is to be called ‘son of the devil.’”[5]

Maybe Patrick was especially sensitive to their plight because he himself had been born in Britain but had been captured as a child by Irish raiders, carried off to Ireland, and held in slavery until he escaped.  What makes him a saint was that he found compassion for his captors’ souls and returned years later to share the gospel with them.

            In Patrick’s life, there's an echo of something that had happened in Rome and in Greece about four hundred years earlier.  That is the story that we hear in the letter of Paul to Philemon.  A slave named Onesimus had run away from Philemon, who was a Christian and a slaveholder.  Somehow, Onesimus made his way to Rome and came to spend time with Paul, by that time a prisoner waiting for trial because of his faith.  Again, we don’t know all the details, but Onesimus turned to the Lord and was baptized.  Paul then took the audacious step of sending this runaway back where he’d come from, fully knowing that the usual punishment for a runaway slave was to be made a public example through some gruesome form of death – often crucifixion.  However, Paul sent a letter with him that not only asked him to be pardoned but also to be freed; and not only to be freed but to be sent back so that he could help Paul.  It went completely against the entire economic and social system of the day.  N.T. Wright says it would be like a preacher today saying, “We all know that global warming is our own fault and needs immediate attention, so please leave your cars where they are parked and never use them again.”

            Paul’s letter said this:

“I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.  I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed [hint, hint] might be voluntary and not something forced.” [Philemon 1:12-14] 

Now, get this.  This is why Patrick was upset that Christians would enslave Christians.  This is why the Africans who survived the horrors of being shipped to North America in chains would get the idea not only that forced servitude was a violation of their humanity but that it violated the slaveholder’s standing before God as well.  Paul said,

“Perhaps this is the reason he [Onesimus] was separated from you [Philemon] for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh [which has made some scholars think they were half-brothers, one by a slavewoman] and in the Lord.” [Philemon 1:15-16]

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we are brothers and sisters in Christ.  The way we treat each other and anyone else called by his name is how we treat our own family.  As the hymn says, albeit in somewhat dated language,

“Join hands, then, brothers of the faith,
Whate’er your race may be.
Who serves my Father as a son
Is surely kin to me.”[6]

            The gospel of Christ brings freedom and dignity to those who are at the bottom of the social scale and it calls those further up to recognize them as equals.  Time after time there have been efforts to suppress that implication, and the suppression has sometimes lasted for centuries, and sometimes it has even been put in place by law and by force, as in our own national history, but it keeps on coming back.  There is no getting around what Mary expressed in her song of praise when she learned that God was sending the Savior:

“He has shown strength with his arm;
      he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
      and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
      and sent the rich, empty, away.”  [Luke 1:51-53]

            That’s all very well, but isn’t it impossible, or at least impractical?  Ask yourself why this, of all the letters that Paul must have written, was one of those that not only survived but was held eventually to send God’s people a message for all time.  According to Frederick Buechner,

“It’s not known whether or not Philemon took the hint and let Onesimus return to be the old saint’s comfort for what time was left him, but there’s at least one good reason for believing that such was the case.  Years later, when Paul was long since dead, another saint was in jail by the name of Ignatius.  The Bishop of Ephesus had sent some friends to visit him, and Ignatius wrote to ask if a couple of them could be allowed to stay.  Ignatius in his letter used some of the same language that Paul had used in his to Philemon, almost as if he was trying to remind him of something.  And what was the name of the Bishop he wrote to?  It was Onesimus.”[7]

What can God do?  Judge for yourselves, my brothers and my sisters.

[1] Cited in Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 97.
[2] Ibid., 99.
[3] St. Patrick, “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus”, I. i., found at
[4] Ibid., I. iii.
[5] Ibid., I. iv.
[6] John Oxenham, “In Christ There Is No East or West”, no. 192 in The Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The Methodist Publishing House, 1964).
[7] Frederick Buechner, “Onesimus” in Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 127.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

"Diotrephes and Demetrius" - June 10, 2018

III John 1:9-10

            The Bible records disagreements, arguments, hostility, and outright fighting among people from the beginning.  I’m not talking about feuds and war here, just one-on-one personal matters.  Genesis gives us Cain and Abel, Sarah versus Haggai, Jacob versus Esau, and Joseph against all of his brothers, for starters.  In Exodus, the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh starts out looking and sounding like a matter of protest: “Let my people go!” but ten plagues later, with Egypt a wreck and the pharaoh’s own son lying dead in the palace, it has long since become personal. 

In the New Testament we also see what can happen even within the community of the faithful when things get heated.  Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is occasioned by squabbles where believers have divided themselves up into parties or teams.   We never even find out what the argument was about or how it began.  All we know is that Paul felt obligated to step in and try to break it up.  He told them all off (lovingly, of course):

Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written,
‘He catches the wise in their craftiness’, 
and again,
‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,
   that they are futile.’ 
So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
[I Corinthians 3:18-23]
            But in III John we hear from one of those human leaders about another human leader while their own fight is going on.  Somebody named Diotrephes has been denying John’s authority and asserting his own, and in the course of it has refused to help people who have been traveling from place to place, probably as wandering evangelists who, John says,

“began their journey for the sake of Christ, accepting no support from non-believers.” [III John 1:7]
John told the church

“to support such people, so that we may become co-workers with the truth.” [III John 1:8]
It seems that these folks, who are doing their best to live faithful and fearless lives in the gospel have been caught up in the spat between Diotrephes and John, and John is saying to leave them out of it and let them follow their calling.

            The other thing John has to say is that Diotrephes has been doing some rumor-mongering.

“I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority.  So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us.”  [III John 1:9-10]
Let’s look at that one a little bit.  “You shall not bear false witness” is one of the Ten Commandments.  Exodus expands on it a little bit when it says,

“You shall not spread a false report.  You shall not join with the wicked to act as a malicious witness.  You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing; when you bear witness in a lawsuit, you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit.”  [Exodus 23:1-3]
The situation in III John may not have come down to a lawsuit, but the beginning part is there.  False reports are going around, and John isn’t even there to defend himself, whatever those reports may be.

            Fifteen hundred children are reportedly unaccounted-for by ICE.  That part turns out to be true.  At first, with the current government officials bragging about separating parents and children, and warning that they will take babies from their mothers at the border, it is only natural that there would be an outcry.  What is unnatural is that it was not louder.  A few days later, though, we find out that the missing children are ones who had previously been placed in the care of relatives after arriving unaccompanied at the border two years ago.  The fact that the guardians will not respond to ICE or inform anyone of their whereabouts is still understandable –whether it’s defensible or not is a different discussion, I’m only saying it is understandable – and we can see how easily a rumor based on insufficient information can take root.  The children are not missing, but hidden.  That’s a big difference. 

            John says he wishes he could be there to set things right himself.  This letter repeats language that appeared in II John, expressing the desire to renew a relationship of trust and friendship.

“I have much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink; instead I hope to see you soon, and we will talk together face to face.” [III John 1:13-14]
False rumors are going around – and that happens – but add malice or power-grabbing to the mix (as John suggests is part of Diotrephes’ motivation) and it becomes even more toxic.  So until John can get there to clear things up, he proposes that people look at somebody else whom they know and trust and follow his example.  Again, it’s someone we now know nothing about apart from what John says, but that is that his name is Demetrius and that he is someone who cares about truth. [III John 1:12]  My guess is that he was the sort of person who could say, “Wait and see,” or “Don’t jump to conclusions.”

            Two great evangelists, John Wesley and George Whitefield, had started as college buddies at Oxford, but in the course of their careers they went in different directions theologically until it reached the point where each saw the other as leading people astray and they started printing pamphlets decrying each other’s stance.  There’s a preacher/artist named Charlie Beber who puts out a comic strip called “The Wesley Brothers” (yes, it’s kind of geeky, but I get it by e-mail every week) that deals with this kind of thing.  Last week the column that he wrote to go with it said this:

“It’s interesting how little we’ve changed in the ways we publicly thrash the people who think differently than us, and how quick we are to part ways with dear friends in order to preserve our own way of talking about Jesus.  When love is passionate, this protective instinct rises up in us, and with hostility we rise up to defend the ones we love.  When we bring the guns of self-defense and lay them on the altar table for self-preservation, it leads to escalation.  When we take communion with all our loaded weapons pointed at the person next to us, and all their loaded weapons pointed back at us, we imagine the only way to feel safe again is to just part ways.  It’s too scary to lay down our weapons.  We think that must mean that we don’t really love the people we’re trying to protect.  We’re not really being faithful to Jesus if we don’t crusade and destroy the people that think differently about him.  And like the men in the comic, our theological wars leave a wake of destruction.[1]
            Politics or theology or a neighborhood argument or trouble in the workplace – a lot of it works the same way.  Everybody needs a Demetrius at some point to counteract the Diotrephes tendencies that anyone can find in themselves if they bother to look.  Argue and disagree when it matters, of course.  By no means cower.  Only, when you stand up to an opponent (even – or maybe especially – someone full of malice) do it in an honorable and faithful way.  Don’t lump one issue in with another that’s unrelated.  Make sure what you say is true, and check out what you hear before you repeat it.  Do not be hasty to believe the worst, and keep innocent bystanders out of it.  Take a time out when you need one.  Above all, don’t let anything you say or do hinder those who are just trying to spread the good news about Jesus, the “friends” who are everywhere.

“Peace to you.  The friends send their greetings.  Greet the friends there, each by name.” [III John 1:15]


Saturday, June 2, 2018

“In the Flesh” - June 3, 2018

II John 1:7

            This morning I’m starting out on a sermon series that will go through the summer, drawing from books of the Bible that often go neglected.  Most of them are very short.  Some of them deal with obscure situations that we have largely forgotten or ignore.  Few of them provide passages that are read in the three-year cycle of readings that we call the lectionary.  Nevertheless, they are all part of the Bible.  Each has something worth hearing, even if the message calls for us to listen more closely than we are used to doing.

            Today we have heard the entire Second Letter of John, and next week we’ll hear the Third.  Along with I John, which we hear from often, the Gospel of John, and (maybe) the book of Revelation, they take in the surviving work of one Christian leader writing in the last decades of the first century to a group of churches in the area around Ephesus.  In II John he speaks of them as a mother church and her daughter churches, “the elect lady and her children” [1:1], and pictures himself as a family friend offering guidance:

“Although I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink; instead, I hope to come to you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” [1:12]

That brings us to the substance of this letter.

            The Church at that time was trying to figure out ways to express or explain or understand or talk about Jesus.  Some of them were inadequate and some of them went way off into left field, and John was one of those people who was concerned about that.  For him, and for later Christianity, one of the non-negotiables was that Jesus was a real human being and at the same time truly God.  He was not only a prophet (as Islam would later claim) or an angel (as the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach nowadays) or a sort of divine hologram projected into our world (as groups that we would call “Gnostics” would teach in the early centuries).  Jesus was God with us, God as one of us, God “in the flesh” [1:7].

            John described his desire not just to write to his friends, but to be with them, and in the same way, God’s will is not just to speak to us, but to be with us in the sort of all-encompassing and direct relationship that only comes about when people are entirely present and real to one another, “face to face”. 

            It makes a difference to us, even in the ways that we treat formal worship.  Look at our time together this morning.  As a local church, part of the larger and world-wide Church, we celebrate the fact that some of the kids have reached the age where they are starting to read on their own, and so we want them to have Bibles to learn about Jesus.  We’re going to have a time to congratulate someone who has demonstrated that he is carrying that assignment out through scouting.  Some students have reached other milestones in their education, and we pause to thank God for bringing them to where they are, as well as to pray for their continued education and to let them know that just because they will be scattering in a few weeks does not mean that they will not be part of us or that they will be forgotten.  We will be sharing in the regular meal that we share with one another and with Jesus, as we remember his very human presence on earth, body and blood, that brought us salvation from the sins that endanger our souls.

            Because Jesus has come “in the flesh”, ours is a faith that is embodied.  James (a book that we do read from a lot) puts it bluntly:

“Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” [James 2:18]

We cannot separate our faith and its works any more than we can divorce body and soul.  Christianity is not some vague idea about love, but a loving response to the way that we have seen God’s love paying the physical price for us on the cross.  So John said,

“But now, dear lady, I ask you, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but one we have had from the beginning, let us love one another.  And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment just as you have heard it from the beginning – you must walk in it.” [1:5-6]

If II John sounds a little testy, the warnings it gives are the warnings of someone who understands human life, who knows and cares about how easily someone can lose track of what matters.  It is not meant as the voice of the inquisitor, but the voice of someone who worries about somebody who matters to them.

“Be on your guard, so that you do not lose what we have worked for, but may receive a full reward. …Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching.” [1:8, 10a]

It’s like saying, “When you do get to college or move out of the house, be sure you don’t get mixed up with anybody who is bad news.  Be sure you make some good friends.  Get yourself up for church every Sunday morning, whether you feel like it or not.  And while you’re at it, be sure you eat right and get plenty of sleep, because an all-nighter isn’t going to get you through an exam anyway.”  

            II John is not some great theological treatise.  It’s one letter of many that the elder John seems to have written, one of three that have survived.  They survived because the churches that received them knew that there was something there worth holding onto, something called “truth”:

“the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever”. [1:2]

When we, like they, hold onto the truth of God’s love embodied in our daily lives, the truth that we see above all else in the God-filled life of Jesus,

“Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us from God the Father  and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, in truth and love.” [1:3]