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).

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