Tuesday, May 26, 2015


1 John 5:9-13[1]
Some of you may be wondering, based on the title of my sermon today, whether I’m going to preach in another language. “WYSIWYG” may look like gobbledygook to you. Those of you who, like me, tend toward the “geeky” side of life know exactly what the title of the sermon means. It is an acronym that stands for “what you see is what you get.” But it stands for a whole lot more than just what that phrase might say. It stands for a revolution in the way computers operated over thirty years ago. Instead of having to memorize hundreds of codes you had to enter manually in order to even use a basic word processor, “what you see is what you get” referred to a graphical user interface where all you had to do was “point and click.” And of course, now it means all you have to do is tap a screen. “What you see is what you get” has become a way of life for most of us.
Unfortunately, I wouldn’t say that is the case outside the “virtual reality” of personal computing. We live in a world of fog and veils, a world of smoke and mirrors, a world where lies are promoted as the truth. When someone goes on TV to tell blatant lies, we call it “spin doctoring.” Blowing smoke in people’s face is raised to a higher level each year. When corporations throw thousands of people out of work, we used to call it “downsizing.”  Then we called it “rightsizing.”  Now we call it “corporate realignment.” As if there’s something out of whack about people making a decent living! In this world, it seems that nobody—absolutely nobody—is who they appear to be.
I think that something of this nature was going on behind the scenes of our study of 1 John. They were in the middle of a “church split,” where both sides were accusing the other of deception. The Elder who wrote this letter seemed to feel it was necessary to wade into the mess and try to bring some clarity to the situation. To some extent, he seems to have gone a little too far. There are several statements in this letter that reflect a kind of “all or nothing” thinking that doesn’t do justice to our experience of life—and probably wasn’t completely fair in that time. But he was fighting for the survival of a church community that was fragile and endangered by threats both from outside and from within.[2] From his perspective, the way to sort through the haze was to insist on adherence to certain doctrinal standards—accepting that Jesus truly was God in real human flesh.
While there are times when clarifying the truth of one’s convictions is important, even crucial, to maintaining our faith in this world, I would say that it doesn’t necessarily help that much in our day and time. We live in a time when, more and more, people aren’t looking so much for “cut and dried” answers to the deep questions of life. They are looking for authenticity. They’re looking for genuineness. They’re looking for something that truly embodies a “what you see is what you get” approach to life.
I think our Scripture lesson actually helps us here. The Elder says that “those who believe in the Son of God have the witness in themselves” (1 Jn. 5:10).  There is some debate about what this means,[3] but I think it means that when someone’s faith in Jesus is real you can see the life that is in them.[4] It’s obvious by who they are and how they live.  You can’t miss it. They “have the witness in themselves.” I think this kind of approach is a much better option for us in our current climate than strict adherence to doctrinal standards. I think a lot more people out there will be drawn to faith when we who profess to believe demonstrate this “witness” we have by living as “what you see is what you get” people.
Of course, that isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Unfortunately, some of the most public representatives of our faith turn out to be some of the most dishonest and shallow people. Their personal lives are anything but a witness to the new life that people are looking for. They spend so much money on themselves that it’s hard to take much of what they say about the faith seriously. And, in fact, many who are outside the church looking in find faith to be difficult at best because the public face of the faith as reflected in the lives of these “Christian celebrities” is anything but genuine.
Of course, the hard truth is that it’s difficult for all of us to be truly genuine. Many are afraid to let others see too much of themselves. Being “what you see is what you get” people can mean letting others in on our flaws and weaknesses and failures. Truth be told, most of us have some sort of dirty laundry, and we’re not eager to let everyone see it. But I think there’s room for some discretion here. We don’t have to bare everything we’ve ever done that we regret in order to be fundamentally genuine people. We don’t have to put every mistake we’ve ever made on public display to bear witness to the new life we have through our faith in Jesus Christ. Even though we’re all flawed and fallible people, we can still be “what you see is what you get.”
The good news of the Gospel is that by his resurrection Jesus made it possible for us all to have life: new life, real life, life that is defined by genuine love, lasting joy, living hope.[5]  That is the good news with which we have been entrusted.  And we have also been called to bear witness to our new life in this world.[6] I think the most effective way to do that is to be people of whom Jesus can say, “my life is on display in them” (Jn 17:10, The Message). And I think that means we must live in such a way that the new life in Jesus Christ defines who we are.[7] We are called to be “what you see is what you get” people.

[1] ©2015. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/17/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John, 31–35; cf. also Stephen S. Smalley, 1,2,3 John, 291.
[3] The question is whether this “witness” believers have in themselves is the three-fold witness of the preceeding verses (cf. I. Howard Marshall, Epistles of John, 240), or the experience of faith, or the internal witness of the Spirit, or something separate.  Brown makes a convincing argument for identifying this “witness” with the gift of eternal life on the basis of 1 Jn. 5:11–12 (cf. Brown, Epistles of John, 591).
[4] Cf. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 285-86; and C. Clifton Black, “The First, Second and Third Letters of John,” New Interpreters Bible XII:440.  Cf. also G. Strecker, The Johannine letters, 195–196: “The Christ-event is not a thing of the past to which one may look back with an objectifying glance. … It occurs hic et nunc in the community, as a reconciling, life-giving reality. Christian life before God is life in the Son.” See further D. Moody Smith, First, Second, and Third John, 126, where he asserts that this witness consists of “the eternal life that is given in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. … salvation as the gift of life through the Son is the ultimate testimony of God.”
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 191: “The Spirit of God makes the impossible possible; he creates faith where there is nothing else to believe in; he creates love where there is nothing lovable; he creates hope where there is nothing to hope for.” Cf. also ibid., 279: “In the rebirth of life the new creation of the world into the kingdom of God in an individual life is already experienced and anticipated here.”
[6] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.3.2:609: “The Christian is called to be the accompanying and confirming sign of the living Word of God. It thus follows that he must indicate and attest this Word in the act of his whole existence.
[7] Despite the controversy that was behind the scenes in 1 John, it is clear from 1 Jn. 5:13 that the Elder was seeking “to strengthen Christian believers who might be tempted to doubt the reality of their Christian experience and to give up their faith in Jesus” (cf. Marshall, Epistles of John, 243).

Monday, May 18, 2015

Eyes to See

Eyes to See
1 John 5:1-6[1]
I’ve never learned to fly a plane, but I have ridden in a single-engine airplane. It was a fun and interesting experience, but I don’t think riding in a private plane comes anywhere close to the experience of actually flying the plane. One aspect of flying that I find hard to imagine is when pilots have to fly only by their instruments. In bad weather, or situations of extreme darkness, the only thing the pilot has to be able to tell which way is up is the instruments like an artificial horizon, an altimeter, and others. In fact, pilots who have failed to trust their instruments in those situations have crashed because they can literally confuse up with down. I’d have to say riding in a plane when the pilot is flying by instruments only isn’t something I think I would enjoy.
To some extent, I think faith is a little like flying by instruments only. We’re all in the position of entrusting our lives and our future to things we’ve never actually seen with our own eyes. When we embrace the Christian faith, we learn to define our lives by values and convictions that are based on events that we cannot necessarily prove. The resurrection is a case in point. While we have plenty of testimony, both in Scripture and in our own personal experience, what we make of all that is far from certain. I think this can leave us feeling like faith takes us to a place in our lives where we’re flying blind.[2]
One of the statements from our lesson from 1 John for today is a case in point. The Elder emphasizes that, despite the difficulties this world can throw at us, “this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith” (1 Jn. 5:4). In the context, it would seem that he is talking about the victory we experience through our faith in Jesus who won the victory (cf. Jn 16:33).[3] Now, there have been times in my life when I would have given a hearty “Amen” to that. But there have been other times when the language of “victory” has seemed hollow in the face of what life has brought. I have an idea that I’m not alone in that ambiguity surrounding the “victory” of our faith. At the very least I would have to say that there are times in our lives when that “victory” seems less than obvious.[4]
But I don’t believe that’s the whole story. While we cannot verify in a concrete way the convictions and experiences that serve as the basis for our faith, there are other “confirmations” of faith that are available to us. Despite the fact that the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead can strain our imagination, I think we’d have to say that something actually happened on that first Easter Sunday that changed our lives for good. That’s one confirmation. In some way that we simply will never be able to sufficiently explain we also continue to have the experiences of the living Christ in our lives.[5] That’s another confirmation. Through our faith in Jesus who died and rose again for us, we have glimpses of a new life, even though they may seem to be fleeting at just the time when we most long for them. And yet those glimpses can also help us. And finally, the love that we share in the community of faith can help us here.[6] Our lesson for today tells us that our love for one another serves as a confirmation that we love God. I would also say it’s a confirmation that God loves us.[7]
In a very real sense, I would say that one of the tasks that we who would seek to embrace the Christian faith in our day and time face is to develop the eyes to see the “victories” that our faith offers us every day. Most of us have had significant “victories” in life that we would attribute to our faith. But those tend to come sporadically, and perhaps even rarely, in life. It seems to me that we need to find ways to experience what we might call “smaller” victories in our daily lives. We need to find a way to attune our senses to the everyday benefits and commonplace blessings that can keep us going on a regular basis.
I think perhaps the most important way we can develop the eyes to see the victory of our faith on a more daily basis is by cultivating our own spiritual practice.[8] I realize that we can tend to relegate that to Sundays. Or, more realistically, I think we’d have to say many of us relegate it to some Sundays. But our faith is just like any other pursuit in life: when we practice it only occasionally or even haphazardly, we get uneven results. However, when we seek to practice our spirituality as often as possible, both in Sunday worship and in our daily routines, I think we will begin to discover those “commonplace victories” on a more regular basis.[9] I don’t just think this; I know it for a fact from personal experience.
So how do we go about doing that? How do we develop these spiritual “eyes” so see the victory of our faith? There are all kinds of resources available to help us accomplish that. There are Bible reading plans, prayer books, even web-based resources and smartphone apps![10] I’d say if there’s a problem, it’s that we have too many resources to choose from. Some of them can be overwhelming, so I’d recommend you start with something simple. What matters is that you do something as often as possible. We may not be able to pray like monks or nuns, but I think most of us can make more room in our lives for personal worship. Rather than filling the empty spaces of our days with what can sometimes be empty pursuits, we can set aside some of those times for personal worship. To do that, it must become a part of the rhythm of our daily lives. And as with any of life’s pursuits, the more we practice our spirituality, the more we will know the joy that comes from the experiencing the presence of the risen Lord Jesus. The more we attune our senses to the realities that can sometimes take us beyond what we can see, the more we will develop the “eyes” to see the victory of our faith in daily living.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/10/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 2.1:159, where he says that the life of faith involves a feeling of as if we are “suspended and hanging without ground under our feet.” 
[3] Cf. D. Moody Smith, First, Second, and Third John, 118: “The person born of God overcomes the world … essentially through faith in Jesus, the one who has already overcome the world (Jn. 16:33).” Cf. similarly, Georg Strecker, The Johannine letters: A commentary on 1, 2, and 3 John, 179-80. Cf. also Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.3.1:172: “From the very outset it is clear and certain what will be the result of His ministry and rule, namely, that His right and might will triumph in opposition to the resistance and challenge offered to Him, removing the challenge and destroying the resistance.”
[4] Cf. Smith, First, Second, and Third John, 119, where he points out that “Jesus speaks of overcoming the world as he goes to his death.”
[5] As Kierkegaard also pointed out, despite all our questions and quandaries, “Christ enters through locked doors.” Cf. Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, edited by Howard V. Hong, p. 118 (5313, IIA 730).
[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 316, where he defines the community of believers as “the fellowship of friends who live in the friendship of Jesus and spread friendliness in the fellowship, by meeting the forsaken with affection and the despised with respect.” 
[7] Cf. Smith, First, Second, and Third John, 119: “Love of God and love of our brothers and sisters are mutually dependent.”
[8] Cf. The Book of Order 2013-2015, W-5.2001 (p. 133): “The daily challenge of discipleship requires the daily nurture of worship.”  Cf. also ibid., W-5.1003: “The rhythm of the life of the believer moves from worship to ministry, from ministry to worship.”
[9] Cf. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 158, defines worship as “to experience Reality, to touch Life. It is to know, to feel, to experience the resurrected Christ in the midst of the gathered community.” But for this to truly become our experience of corporate worship, he recognizes that we must “learn to practice the presence of God daily” (ibid, 170).  Cf. also The Book of Order 2013-2015, W-1.1001 (p. 75): “In worship the people of God acknowledge God present in the world and in their lives. As they respond to God’s claim and redemptive action in Jesus Christ, believers are transformed and renewed.”
[10] Some of the most helpful are the PCUSA Book of Common Worship: Daily Prayer EditionA Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God; and the ambitious three volume Divine Hours, by Phyllis Tickle, which simplifies the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.  Or you can find daily Scripture readings and Psalms for prayer at http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/devotions/, or by searching for “Daily Office” on the internet.  PCUSA even has a “Daily Prayer App” for either iOS or Android devices.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Reflecting the Face of Jesus

Reflecting the Face of Jesus
1 John 3:16-24[1]
Mirrors have an interesting place in our world. It seems that as long as human beings have been aware of their appearance, there have been some kind of mirrors. And yet, the mirrors we have used to look at ourselves have always to some degree distorted the image they reflect. For example, the image we see is opposite from what others see; right and left are reversed. But as most of the ladies will doubtless know, and perhaps some of the guys too, the kind of lighting can make a huge difference in the way we appear in a mirror. If the lighting is too harsh, we can look pale, washed out, almost ghostly—or some might say ghastly. Yellow lighting softens our features, but if there’s too much yellow it can make us look ill. The plain truth is that mirrors do lie!
But more than the simple mechanics of reflection and lighting is involved here. Because the image we “see” in the mirror is significantly influence by the assumptions we make about our appearance. The same person may look young or old, depending on what details you notice. At the same time, some may see themselves as overweight, while others see themselves as too thin, and there may be very little difference in their actual body shape. Mirrors tend to reflect back what we believe about ourselves. Those assumptions we make about ourselves make all the difference in the world in what we see in the mirror and whether we like what we see or not.[2] Mirrors don’t give us a true image.
In a very real sense, I think our Scripture lesson from 1 John addresses the issue of the way we present the image of Christ to those around us. Earlier in this passage, the Elder says, “This is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (1 Jn. 3:11). It seems very clear that the way we reflect our faith is by showing the love of Jesus to those around us.  I think that’s his point in our lesson for today: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 Jn. 3:16). Loving others in the same way Jesus loved us is the way we reflect our faith. It is the way we reflect the face of Jesus to others.
Now, love can be something hard to define. Think about it: how do you really describe love? The Scripture lesson describes the kind of love that we are to show one another in terms of “laying down our lives for one another.” That’s getting specific. But I find it particularly interesting that the Scripture lesson goes even further. Reflecting God’s love to others takes place when we have the means to help someone in need and we help them. As the Elder puts it: “ How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 Jn. 3:17). And so he concludes, “ let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 Jn. 3:18).[3]
We may find this kind of language shocking. We’re much more used to talking about loving others in terms that are feeling-oriented. Love is equated with being nice, or having a kind way of relating to others. I’m not sure we’re used to the very tangible way in which the Scripture speaks of loving others—actually sharing what we have with those in need. And in fact, having the ability to share and refusing to do so raises the question as to whether we have truly experienced God’s love. Now, of course, in our world we have to use good judgment in this. We have to discern whether what we are doing is actually helping someone or hurting them. But it seems very clear that reflecting the face of Jesus to the world around us has specific implications for how we relate to those around us.
If this is the case, I have to wonder whether we truly reflect the face of Jesus for the people in our world. Do we truly reflect Jesus’ mercy and compassion for those who are hurting, who perhaps have fallen through the cracks, or have done something terrible that they regret?  It has become almost a cliché to say that we are the only face of the Christian faith that some people will ever have.  We are the only ones who can show them God’s love and mercy and grace. But since that may not be natural or even comfortable for us to do, how can we learn to reflect the face of Jesus?
I think we start by learning to love one another the way Jesus loves us all.[4] That can be pretty hard to do sometimes. But I’m not talking about how we feel towards one another. I’m talking about making a commitment to relate to one another with the love that Christ has shown us.  I think this kind of love begins in the family of faith.[5]  One of the reasons why we’re called to community is so we can learn to “lay down our lives” for one another just as Jesus laid down his life for us. And so loving one another means making a commitment to live the Christian life in this community with one another. Making that kind of commitment to love one another is how we learn to reflect the face of Jesus to those around us.
I think this kind of love takes the same kind of commitment that we bring to a marriage or to a family.  In a family, we love one another through thick and thin, through joy and pain, through fighting and hugging.  We stick with each other, we forgive each other, we let each other off the hook, we work at seeing things from the other point of view, we support and respect and treat one another with dignity.[6] When we can look at one another from that perspective, then we can share the love of Christ with one another. Then we can reflect the face of Jesus to those around us.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/26/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Henri J. M. Nouwen, Here and Now: Life in the Spirit, 17, where he points out that the “oughts” we cling to “keep us feeling guilty about the past” and the “what ifs” keep us worried about the future, and both keep us from fully experiencing life in the present moment. Cf. also Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 34-35: “All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered.” But he also points out that such a “false self” cannot help but be an illusion, which leads to our disillusionment with ourselves and with life. Cf. also Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step, 64-67, where he discusses this phenomenon in terms of what the Buddhist tradition calls “internal formations.”  He says (p. 65), “Our conscious, reasoning mind knows that negative feelings such as anger, fear, and regret are not wholly acceptable to ourselves or our society, so it finds ways to repress them.” Instead, he encourages us to become aware of them and simply observe them with kindness.
[3] Cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John, 474. He makes it clear that this is the definition of “laying down our lives” for each other. In this, he says that the Elder “is not holding up a new moral demand; rather he is reaching into the heart of Christianity’s Jewish heritage” (cf. Deut. 15:7; cf. Lk. 10:25–37; Jas. 2:15–16). Contrast I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, 195, and Stephen Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 195, both of whom claim that it is unclear what the Elder means by this. Brown points out that the reason this sharing of goods was so important is because the New Testament suggests that the churches of the First Century were for the most part relatively poor and depended on the charity of members with means to supply basic necessities of life (cf. Lk. 6:20–22; Acts 2:44–45; 4:32–37; 1 Cor. 1:26–29; 11:17–22; Jas. 1:9; 2:3, 6, 15–16). 
[4] Cf. G. C. Berkouwer, The Church, 96, where he says that the expression of Christian fellowship both in spiritual and material terms is “a plain understanding of the gospel—in other words, an understanding of the Church as the one body of Christ. … Because He laid down His life, we have come to know love (1 John 3:16), and everything is founded in that.” Therefore he concludes that it is impossible for the heart to “be closed to our brother’s need if it is open to the love of God.”
[5] Cf. Henri J. M. Nouwen, Turn My Mourning into Dancing, 83: “the community is the place where we continue to let the world know there is something to rejoice about in this new life together.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 263, where he says that love that “spends itself and surrenders itself” is the “immanent power of the resurrection” in our lives here and now.
[6] Cf. Paul Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice, 84-86, where he articulates that love’s “first task” in relationships is to listen; then it is to give, whether respect or self-sacrifice; then it is to forgive.  Cf. also Nouwen, Turn My Mourning into Dancing, 75: “Your love for others can be unconditional, without a condition that your needs are gratified, when you have the experience of being loved,” i.e., by God.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Looking Beyond What We Can See

Looking  Beyond What We Can See
1 John 3:1-7[1]
We are, from my perpective, a forward-looking people. We’re continually looking toward what is going to happen. Of course, a healthy appreciation of our past is important for finding peace in life. And the ability to enjoy the present moment also contributes to our happiness. But essentially, it seems to me that we are constantly looking to what is coming up. We have planners and calendars and apps on our phones to keep us aware of what’s next. I think we can see this phenomenon when we take a trip we’ve never made before. Every stage of the journey is new. We’re always looking to see what’s around the bend. I think that’s the way many of us are in life. It’s almost like we’re all kids in the back seat of the car asking God, “are we there yet?”
I know that we can get so lost in looking forward that we can forget to enjoy today. But I think there is an inevitable aspect of life and even faith that points us toward the future. Unfortunately, for some of us, if we think the future holds only more of the same, it can leave us not feeling very enthusiastic about what’s around the bend, to say the least. Some of us may dread what’s coming if it’s just going to be the same song, another verse. But I think our problem here is that our sight is limited. We really have no idea what today will bring, let alone tomorrow. So we may need to look beyond what we can see if we want an adequate view of our future.
 I think our lesson from 1 John for today addresses this issue for us. The Elder points us forward to a future that is far better than anything we can imagine based on our experience. The foundation for that future is the love of God, which has made us all “children of God.” In case there are any doubts about that, he emphasizes it by saying, “and that is what we are” (1 John 3:1).[2] On the basis of that present reality, the Elder then points us forward to our future. He says that when we stand before the risen Lord Jesus, “we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2)!  I find it interesting that the Elder says we don’t know exactly what that looks like at this point.[3] But it seems to me he at least alludes to Jesus’ resurrection as a clue as to what our future looks like.
In fact, that’s one of the main themes of Easter in the Scriptures. The very real way the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples gives us something of an indication about what to expect about our future. As the Scripture says, we will be like him. The promise of the resurrection of Jesus the Christ is that we too will be resurrected to a new life, and when that happens, we will be like him.[4] But there’s more to the Easter promise than our own radical change. Believing in the resurrection of Jesus points us not only to our new life, but also to the renewal of all things in a whole new world!  God has a lot more in store than just making it possible for the chosen few to “go to heaven when we die.”  The promise of salvation is that God is working to restore all creation to the point where everything is “very good” once again. The Good news of the Gospel is this: “Now I am making the whole of creation new” (Rev. 21:3, The Jerusalem Bible).[5] 
I don’t know about you, but I have to say that’s something to look forward to! It may seem outrageous at first glance, but it’s no more outrageous than believing in the resurrection of a crucified Messiah!  As we celebrate that faith on this Third Sunday of Easter, it’s important to recognize that the resurrection is not simply something that happened a long time ago to Jesus of Nazareth.  Easter points us a future in which God will restore everything that is and ever was to the way it was meant to be (Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20). The resurrection opened the door to God’s new creation that is already breaking into this world and transforming us all.[6] One of our confessions puts it this way: “It is the will of God that his purpose for human life shall be fulfilled under the rule of Christ.”[7] And the promise is that God will not rest until the “whole of creation” is made new! 
I realize that some of this may be difficult for us to take in. We are dealing with matters that are way beyond our normal life experience. In the face of the challenges life throws us it’s hard enough to hold onto our faith that Jesus was raised from the dead and is present with us here and now. But it may strain our imagination to believe the promise that Jesus’ resurrection points to whole new creation in which everything is restored, everything is set right, everything is made new. And yet, we really shouldn’t be surprised at this. There are many aspects of our faith that call us to look beyond what we can see.
The same is true with Easter: it challenges us to look to the hope and promise that Jesus’ resurrection points us toward. It goes beyond the hope that “my” eternal destiny will be secure. It even goes beyond the assurance that all those who identify with Christ by faith will be brought safely home to him. The resurrection of Jesus points us to a future in which we will all be radically changed so that we will “be like him” (1 John 3:2). But more than that, it points us to a future in which everything and everyone will be restored to the way we were meant to be.[8] The “whole of creation” will be made new. In order for this aspect of the Easter message to become a reality in our lives, I think we all are going to have to be open to looking beyond what we can see.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/19/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] The fact that the Elder says God has “called” us his children should not be interpreted as being true in name only, for the Elder says that believers truly are his children (cf. Raymond E. Brown, Epistles of John, 388 for other instances when “calling” and “being” coincide).
[3] Cf. D. Moody Smith, First, Second, and Third John, 78: “The uncertainty implied by our not knowing what we shall be (v. 2) is more than offset by the assurance that we are already (‘now’) God’s children. … the uncertainty leaves the believer in a state of hopeful expectation: ‘We shall see him as he is.’” He adds (p. 80), “For our time and our knowledge, the most important fact about the eschatological future is its Christocentricity. That is, what we shall be will be modeled after who Christ is, and even that can only be fully known when the time comes.”  Cf. similarly, Stephen Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 145; and C. Clifton Black, “The First, Second, and Third Letters of John,” New Interpreters Bible XII: 409.
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.2.117: “If according to 1 Jn 3:2 we are now children of God because Jesus Christ the Son of God has had mercy on us and adopted us, we know that in his revelation to come our own being will be revealed. If we confess that Christ is risen and risen bodily, we must also confess to our own future resurrection. If for any reason we wish not to confess it, according to 1 Cor 15:13 this is tantamount to denying his resurrection also.”
[5] Cf. Emil Brunner,  Eternal Hope, 60-61: “the life of the world to come is a present reality, but a hidden reality, waiting for the future disclosure … . … the fellowship of faith lives both in rejoicing over the newness of its experience and in longing and sure hope of that which is yet to come. … all genuine Christian faith is revolutionary existence. Above it stands as motto the apocalyptic word, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21.5). … The true Christian revolution is essentially a consequence and an accomplishment of the fundamental revolution which God alone can accomplish.”
[6] Cf. N. T. Wright, Simply Christian, 92: “Christianity is about the belief that the living God, …, has accomplished all this—the finding, the saving, the giving of new life—in Jesus. He has done it. With Jesus, God’s rescue operation has been put into effect once and for all. A great door has swung open in the cosmos which can never again be shut. It’s the door to the prison where we’ve been kept chained up. We are offered freedom: freedom to experience God’s rescue for ourselves, to go through the open door and explore the new world to which we now have access. In particular, we are all invited—summoned, actually—to discover, through following Jesus, that this new world is indeed a place of justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty, and that we are not only to enjoy it as such but to work at bringing it to birth on earth as in heaven.”
[7] Cf. The Book of Confessions, “The Confession of 1967,” 9.53 (p. 296): “God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ embraces the whole of man’s life: social and cultural, economic and political, scientific and technological, individual and corporate. It includes man’s natural environment as exploited and despoiled by sin. It is the will of God that his purpose for human life shall be fulfilled under the rule of Christ and all evil be banished from his creation.”
[8] Because we have the hope of a new life in a new creation, we have the courage to carry out our mission in the present world. Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 337-38: “The expectation of the promised future of the kingdom of God which is coming to man and the world to set them right and create life, makes us ready to expend ourselves unrestrainedly and unreservedly in love and in the work of the reconciliation of the world with God and his future. …Faith can expend itself in the pain of love, … and assume the form of a servant, because it is upheld by the assurance of hope in the resurrection of the dead.”

Monday, May 04, 2015

Believing Without Seeing

Believing Without Seeing
1 John 1:1-4[1]
I’m afraid that the Easter message—that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified and rose again—can seem somewhat out of touch with the realities of our lives here and now. After all, it speaks of things that most of us have never actually seen for ourselves. We weren’t there to see him die on the cross. We weren’t there when he appeared to his disciples. And even though our Scripture lessons throughout the Easter season give us their testimony of what they saw and experienced, I wonder if some of us may have a hard time believing that it makes a difference today. I wonder if many of us may have a hard time with this.
We are, after all, a people who have been trained to be skeptical. “I’ll believe it when I see it” applies to everything from the weather forecast to government promises to the simple matter of friends keeping their word. And when it comes to supernatural things, like claims about miraculous signs, I think our skepticism can go into high gear. Many of us want some kind of tangible proof that our faith is real. But at the same time, we reject claims about mystical experiences that supposedly serve as proof. And so we face the dilemma of believing without being able to see for ourselves.  How are we supposed to do that?
I think our lesson from 1 John might help us here, even though it originally addressed a different situation. Apparently the Elder who wrote this letter was concerned that some of the believers in the churches he was serving had embraced the idea that Jesus was so completely the Son of God that his humanity was only a disguise, a kind of make-believe.[2] And yet, the message of the Gospel included the claim that those who were with Jesus were eyewitnesses to his full humanity, to his very real suffering, and to his bodily resurrection. The Scripture lesson puts it this way: “We declare to you … what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1).[3] The point is that those who were with Jesus could attest that they had a very tangible experience of Jesus’ full humanity.[4]
I think this might help us with our dilemma as well. In one sense, the fact that the eyewitnesses heard and saw and touched Jesus can refer to being with him during his ministry.[5] They actually heard him teaching; they saw the amazing things he did. At the same time, however, the language of this verse also relates to the eyewitnesses’ experiences with the risen Christ.[6] As the accounts of Jesus’ appearances tell us, their encounters with him were very real indeed. They heard him as he instructed them and helped them understand the scriptures that pointed to his resurrection and to the good news of salvation. They saw him come into their presence, though at first they had difficulty recognizing him. Nevertheless, they did see him; in fact there were many who saw him—St. Paul recounts an event where over 500 saw him at one time (1 Cor. 15:6).
All of this, of course, at least theoretically could be attributed to some sort of elaborate hallucination, or perhaps a kind of spiritual visionary experience. But the scripture lesson goes on to say that they touched him. That’s hard to explain away. At one of Jesus’ meetings with them, he says to them, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Lk. 24:39). And while they were overcome with joy, he actually asks if they have something to eat (Lk. 24:41)! It would seem that all of that makes it hard to deny that there was something very real about Jesus after he had risen from the dead.[7]
And yet, for us it happened very long ago and very far away. When faced with the challenges of our lives, it may be difficult to find the faith to believe in the good news that the same Jesus who died for us is the one who rose from the dead. We may wonder how we can believe that he is alive and present with us as we face the sometimes harsh realities of our lives in the here and now. The first believers saw and believed. How can we believe without seeing?
In the first place, I think it’s important to take seriously what our lesson for today says: the witness of the Scriptures constitutes the testimony of those who were eyewitnesses to the events; they are not just “cleverly devised myths” (2 Pet.1:16). And so one way to believe without seeing is to rely on the testimony of the Scriptures. I think another way we can approach this problem is by remembering those who embraced the faith before us and who passed it on to us. While none of them were perfect Christians, they not only taught the faith to us but also modeled it for us. In a sense we “see” the effect of faith in their lives. That’s another way to believe without seeing. But finally, we can all believe without seeing because we can have very real encounters with the risen Christ in our own lives.[8] They happen sometimes when we least expect them. When they do, they leave us with a sense of Jesus’ presence through the Holy Spirit who lives in us all. Though this can be hard to explain to someone who hasn’t had this experience, I believe it can be one of the most important ways for us to believe without seeing. In these ways, we can face the challenge of maintaining our faith that the risen Christ is present with us today. As so many before us have done, we can believe without seeing.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/12/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] In fact, it would seem that this became such a problem that they broke fellowship with the main body of the Johannine community. Cf. I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, 105. Cf. similarly, D. Moody Smith, First, Second, and Third John, 19: “Evidently, the community of Johannine Christians not only is threatened with heresy but also has undergone division. The Pauline Pastorals reflect a similar situation. Already in 1 Corinthians (chaps. 1-4) there were divisions in the church, but channels of communication were still open. In the Pastorals, however, as in the Johannine Epistles, lines of division have hardened, and any efforts at persuasion have long since given way to denunciation and exclusion.”
[3] The reference in the text regarding what they claim to have seen, heard, and touched is “the word of life.” While some aspects of the text point to an identification of the “word” as the gospel message, others point to the person Jesus. The Elder probably uses the terminology with an intentional ambiguity, for the "word of life" is both the life-giving message and the one who brought life (cf.  Jn. 1:4), and “the gospel is essentially a proclamation about Jesus who is the living Word of God” (Cf. Stephen Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 6). On this point, cf. also Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John, 163-66; Smith, First, Second, and Third John, 36.
[4] Cf. Smith, First, Second, and Third John, 27: “Jesus is for them [the Gospel and letters of John] no pious fiction or figment of the imagination but the historically real and physically visible and palpable manifestation of God (John 1:14; 1 John 1:1-4).” He says further (p. 39), “Apparently, 1 John lays down the lines along which John 1:14 should be interpreted. The Word’s becoming flesh means that Jesus Christ was a real human being, real flesh.  . . . Jesus was not only audible and visible but tangible.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Theology, 45: “The God of Jesus Christ is not a dark and obscure mystery, which we approach by closing our eyes and by mystical submersion in the inwardness of our own hearts. He is the manifest God of life, whom we encounter in the history of Christ.” Cf. further Jürgen Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness, Arise! God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth, 47-48: “The women and the disciples didn’t ‘see in their hearts’ or ‘with their spiritual eyes’. They didn’t have intuitions, while they were ‘caught up out of this world’, nor did they receive enlightenment in trances. The accounts tell us that it was with their normal five senses that they perceived the risen Christ.”
[5] Cf. Brown, Epistles of John, 174-75, where he states that the primary effect of this text has been to secure the authority of eyewitness testimony for the Johannine writings (cf. Brown, Epistles of John, 174–75). He insists that this still holds true even if the author of this letter was not John the Apostle but an unidentified leader of the Johannine community because the statement still reflects the reality of the manifestation of the word, but through the means of preserving the eyewitness testimony of the Beloved disciple to the life and ministry of Jesus (cf. Brown, Epistles of John, 175; cf. similarly Jn. 20:29–31; 21:24–25. Cf. further Brown, Epistles of John, 159–61, 183–84, 194, 226-27.
[6] It is not clear whether the reference is to the incarnation or the resurrection, or perhaps as an all-inclusive reference, since the aspect of “touch” is associated with the resurrection elsewhere in the NT (cf.  Jn. 20:24-29; Lk. 24:39), while the aspect of his “manifestation” usually relates to the incarnation (cf.  1 Jn. 3:5; 4:9; 1 Tim. 3:16).
[7] Cf. Smith, First, Second, and Third John, 41: “Very often, exactly at the point or in quarters where Jesus’ divinity is most strenuously extolled, the humanity that he shares with us is lost sight of or threatened. A kind of “Superman Christology” that refuses to contemplate a genuine humanity is as damaging to orthodoxy as its opposite. In such Christology, Jesus humanity becomes only an incognito behind which the true God is hidden. Jesus remains omnipotent and invulnerable, not really subject to the dangers that encompass or threaten us. But according to the New Testament, Jesus was truly human, and, as such, subject to the same temptations and perils as we (Heb. 4:15). His humanity was no disguise. His death is eloquent testimony to that fact.”
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Ethics of Hope, 56-57, where he points out that eternal life is in the Johannine writings identified with Christ himself. He elaborates that “eternal life” is “the fullness of life, the life that is wholly and entirely filled with livingness. It is a life which by virtue of the risen Christ, the Christ who is present in the presence of God, is liberated from terror, from death, and from anxiety. It is an entirely and wholly human life participating wholly and entirely in the divine life. It is a human life which God indwells and which, for its part, dwells in God. Where do we find a life like this? The answer given in John’s Gospel is clear: it has appeared in Jesus Christ, is experienced in the life-giving Spirit, and will one day become the life of the whole future world.”