CALLED TO BE THE OVERCOMERS BY LOVE AND OBEDIENCE
Sermon delivered on the 5th Sunday after Easter (Easter 5) on the 10th May 2015 by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes in St. Alban's Church of England, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Acts 10: 44-48 1 John 5: 1-6 S. John 15: 9-17
1 John 5:2 “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey His commandments."
Having had some little experience of being involved in renovating buildings and building new ones, including those on our church property, I could say, as could many of you, that I know something about what is meant by the phrase found in St. John's writings: “overcoming the world”. Whether you are the owner, the manager, the committee chairman, the draftsman, the contractor, or one of the labourers, there are battles to be fought with the regulations, the planners, the materials themselves, the supplies, the elements, the cash-flow, the bankers, the insurers, and all manner of human errors and foibles. Nevertheless, the wonder is that projects do get completed and so, whenever we are in the thick of some battle whose outcome is uncertain, it is good to reflect on the course of previous battles that have yielded successful outcomes. It may strengthen our hand in whatever battle or conflict one is currently experiencing. By the grace of God and not just by our own determination, we can overcome!
I wonder if St. Peter realised what a project, what a battle he was taking on in the church when, as it is recorded for us in the first lesson, he saw very clearly by divine guidance that Gentiles were as eligible to receive faith in Jesus Christ and baptism into His Name as were Jews. At every step St. Peter was obedient to the divine leading, in spite of whatever personal doubts he had about what he was being impelled to do. Through his vision he was led to go to the Gentile Cornelius’ home and share the Gospel with those who were gathered there. Then the Holy Spirit was poured out upon these Gentiles, and that was to instruct Peter and the believers, all Jews, that accompanied him, as much as it was to benefit the Gentiles themselves. There could now be no doubt that these Gentiles were to be baptized. And so they were, but from that time on there was a strong faction in the Jerusalem church that preached that Gentiles must accept the Jewish customs first and be circumcised before they could be baptised. Peter continued to be criticised, as was St. Paul, for years later, but their view prevailed because God was leading them. It is worth noting, in addition, that whenever in the book of Acts the Holy Spirit manifests Himself in a special outpouring, it is in the context of two elements. One of these is baptism, which either has happened or is about to happen, and the other is the presence of one or more of the Apostles. So we can be sure that this outpouring is not merely some matter of a chance excitement: far from that, rather it is an intentional act of God that securely builds up the church upon the foundation of the apostles themselves.
St. John is fond of using the term “child of God” to refer to a follower and believer in Jesus Christ. The Greek work ‘Teknon’ for ‘child’, reminds me of the Jamaican term ‘pickney’ - in fact it sounds quite similar. Every child in the world has his exemplars, or in the less elegant expression, his role-models. As Christians, or as God’s pickneys, we have the Lord Jesus Christ as our exemplar or role-model. The battle that Jesus fought is our primary example. It was a battle that only He could win, and as we know, His close disciples were of little or no practical comfort to Him when the crunch came. His victory was won alone, as He bore the sin of the world, and became sin though He was without fault, that we might know the righteousness of God. We understand the battle that he waged to be great and determinative. The fact that He won that battle enables us in our turn to overcome in His Name. But the power of our overcoming is not just in the power of following His example, but by the power of His regeneration of us. According to St. John, our overcoming is also the overcoming of the world, and the overcoming is made possible, yes even certain, in virtue of the overcomer being the child of God, or being possessed by the nature of that which is begotten by God.
I expect most of you remember the saying of St. John that "He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen." It is to be found just a few verses before the lesson today in which our text is to be found[and was part of last week’s reading]. Now S. John characteristically, but following the example that Jesus Himself set, looks at a group of ideas from several viewpoints. Our text today represents another look at the themes of the love of God and our love for one another, and their connections. St. John says, "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and we keep His commandments." This is interesting. In the other saying, St. John says that those who do not love their brothers cannot claim to love God. But now he says that we can tell whether we love our brothers or not, by whether we love God and keep His commands or not. St. John is looking at the matter as a whole rather than following straight-line logic. But this is a very important viewpoint. St. John seems to be looking for a particular quality of love when he speaks of our relationships. The kind of love that we need to have for one another has to do with our love for God Himself. In the earlier of his two viewpoints, John says that any lack of love we have for our brother surely reveals to us that we are also lacking in the love that we may claim to have for God. But now he assures us that if we do truly love God and do what He commands, then no matter what we may feel about our brother, no matter how annoyed even we might get by him, we nevertheless have a true love for him. This I think reflects first of all the very important Judaic element in our Judaeo-Christian ethic, which is that our relationships with one another and with God are revealed not by how one feels about the other one so much as what one does about him. St. John would I think be surprised and repelled by our modern Western emphasis on what one feels about oneself, others, God, the girl next door, or anything. S. John always assumes that love is something that is manifested by action, by what one does. You might think of someone that he is a cold fish, but if that person is involved in neighbourly action, you can be certain that he is "loving" in this sense far more than the warm and sympathetic character that speaks the words of pity but never gets to lift anyone's burdens. St. John's words for this loving are cognate with the dominant word for love in the New Testament, agape. But secondly, he is saying to us that our capacity really to love is intimately connected with our practice of being God's disciples. Don't think that you can get anywhere very far with the one, if you are holding yourself apart from the other, says S. John. I would suggest to you that S. John's words and ideas are critically important to all of us, in whatever stage of discipleship we have reached. To grow in love involves maintaining the battle of our discipleship. This is a battle that we must win, and it is a battle that we can win, no matter how difficult the conflict; for we are charged in the Name of Christ and by the power of His regeneration of us to overcome the world. And we are called to be the overcomers through love and obedience – not, of course, by the sword or by brute strength of any sort. And therefore, let us be so built up in our discipleship that we excel greatly in our love for one another.