Monday, September 27, 2010

How to Spot a Fake (Sermon 9-26-10)

            Some of my favorite memories in life are from family vacations I took as a child. We didn’t take many, but the ones we did take were great. Big family trips down to Florida, weekend trips to, for my family anyway, the eternal city of baseball, St. Louis. Those were our usual destinations. But, there was one summer when we switched things up a bit and instead of heading to the south or the west, we headed northeast. My Dad’s best friend from High-School was living in Pennsylvania at the time, so my parents decided that we’d spend a few days with his family, then check out all the great places out there we’d never been to out there, like Gettysburg, Washington D.C., and New York City.
            Now, Gettysburg and Washington D.C. are great places to visit, but at the moment they don’t provide me with the sermon illustration I’m wanting to use today, so we won’t be talking about them much. As I said, we hadn’t visited a lot of cities, the largest place I’d been to before then was Chicago. And as large as Chicago is, it has nothing on the sheer immensity of New York City.
            I remember several things about the city very vividly from that first visit. I remember the sense of being incredibly small when walking by a building that I couldn’t see the top of. I remember the feeling of anonymity you get when you’re amongst what seems like a true “sea of people.” I remember that my dad had tried to give up smoking that week, and his nerves combined with that sea of people and the natural curiosity of my seven year old little brother made for a poor mixture.
            And in New York, on those streets, there was a lot to be curious about. There were the extra-crazy “Lost Tribe of Israel” guys who were unnervingly buff and carried what looked to be scimitars around with them; there were guys who were so sexually confused I don’t think the word “transgendered” even begins to approach what they were; and, what interested me most at the time, were the illegal street-vendors. I’d never seen stuff like that. Every teenage envious desire could be easily fulfilled for five dollars or less. The cool Oakley sunglasses my buddy got for Christmas, the nice watch my nemesis was sporting two weeks ago, all of it could be mine, all mine.
            But of course, these guys acted a little funny. Whenever a police officer was nearby, presumably interested in their wares, they’d pack up and run off. Then, of course, if you were a silly tourist unwise enough to have actually bought something from them, you’d soon realize that perhaps there was a small discrepancy in the merchandise, such as a missing letter or two in the brand name, or if you bought a watch maybe your wrist was already starting to turn green.  
            I remember a few months ago the Today Show did a segment on “how to spot a fake.” Part of the segment included Matt Lauer going around from product to product, trying to guess which ones were the fakes and which ones were real. He did pretty well, actually; maybe that comes with living in New York for so long.
            Of course, these days you don’t have to go to New York to get a fake designer brand product. Now they’re sold at kiosks in the mall, everything except the pirated movies that is. But imposter products, in the grand scheme of things, aren’t a big deal really.
            But there is a kind of imposter we do need to be worried about, and they aren’t regulated by copyright infringement laws and don’t run off when the cops show up. You run into these kinds of imposters every day. Imposter experts, imposter friends, imposter people; there are millions of foks every day who role out of bed and pretend to be something they’re not.  These kinds of “fakes” are much more difficult to spot.
            Imposters aren’t just out in the world either, they make their way into the Church as well. As we discussed a little last week, in the community John was writing to, a group of folks who would later become a part of the Gnostic community had made their way into the Church. They liked the idea of Jesus, but they weren’t committed to following Him as the Apostles taught Him, they had their own ways of understanding Him. They were “pretending to be Christian.”
            They were also trying to persuade others to follow “their version” of Christianity; a much more “respectable” version. Now, why is counterfeit Christianity a concern? Well, think of it this way: it’s like someone pretending to be a doctor. If you were to go to a fake doctor, you’d probably leave sicker than when you came in. In the same way, if Christianity is meant to be the “cure of souls,” the reconciliation of God and man as well as man and man, then an imposter version may cause you to miss out on that and perhaps leave you worse off then you were before.  
As we talked about last week, John’s opening chapter in this letter is all about fellowship, a bond that goes deeper than friendship; it’s about fellowship between God the Father and God the Son, our fellowship with God the Father through our fellowship with God the Son, and our fellowship with one-another because of this same fellowship with God the Son. For John, the hallmark of genuine Christianity is unity in love, fellowship.
            This, obviously, becomes important as he begins to discuss “fake Christianity.” Just like with imposter jewelry and other products, being able to spot a fake depends on knowing what the genuine article looks like; knowing the brand so to speak.
            Now last week, towards the end we spent some time going over this issue of sin not defining the Christian life, but yet still being present, and our need to be honest and confess our sins so that Christ may continue to forgive us and cleanse us from them. This week, the beginning of our passage wraps up that thought. John says:
1My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 
            John expects that his writing this letter will help his audience to “not sin.” “But,” he says, “if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense,” an advocate, a ‘paraklete’ in the Greek-the same word used to speak only of the Holy Spirit at any other point in the New Testament- a helper. A ‘paraklete,’ of course, means someone who is “called alongside you” to help you in your situation.
            That idea of Jesus being our “paraklete,” someone who “comes alongside” can bring to mind a whole host of images; you might think of someone who comes alongside to help carry a burden, like Simon of Cyrene who came alongside Jesus and helped him carry his cross. You might think of a friend who comes alongside you to comfort you at a difficult time. And, of course, Christ is all these things to us as well. But the image John is specifically pulling on is that of a lawyer, someone who “comes alongside us,” and takes our case before the judge. We have Jesus Christ, the only righteous one, the only person to have ever lived a perfect, sinless life. Thus, not only is He our advocate, our lawyer, but, as John says in the next verse:
2He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for[a] the sins of the whole world.
            This is the central tenet of the Christian faith. By his sacrifice on the cross, Christ has atoned, paid for, our sins. This is the basis of His being our advocate; He defends us based upon this foundation. Likewise, this is the basis of the fellowship which we have with Him and with the Father through Him.
                As we talked about last week, this fellowship shapes us, and John returns to exploring that idea in the next verse. He says:
3We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. 
                This is where John begins to “identify the brand.” As I was saying earlier, part of being able to “spot a fake,” or recognize authentic Christianity versus fake Christianity, is knowing what real Christianity looks like.  And one of the marks of “real Christianity” is that it causes you to “keep” His commandments, as most translations have it.
Of course, we’ve talked about this previously, but let’s visit it again, because it’ll affect our understanding of the rest of passage. That word “obey” in this translation, tereo in the Greek, is usually translated as “keep,” because the actual connotation of the word, though it may include obey, actually has more a sense of something you guard, something you protect. In modern parlance you might say something you treasure, or something you hold close to your heart.
Now, obviously, if you treasure Christ’s commands, you don’t disregard them, you don’t willfully go out of your way to disobey them. But the motivation, the impulse, is different. Instead of “obeying” because you “have to” in order to “get in,” or save yourself, you “treasure,” “guard,” and “keep,” the things Christ taught. This is because we love Him, and because of what has been done for us at the Cross and in us by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit.
John continues:
4The man who says, "I know him," but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 
Here’s a good place for a little backstory. As we talked about last week, the community which John was writing to here had been infiltrated by what may have been “proto-gnostics.” Now, Gnosticism could take several forms. As I mentioned, they were big on this idea of a material/spiritual dichotomy. Spiritual world-good, material world-evil. Hence, your good spirit was trapped inside an evil body. This usually produced one of two reactions when it came to their ethics. Either a.) they’d say your evil body is inherently evil, thus you can’t do anything about it, thus, let it do what it will, it can’t affect the spirit (“food for the body and the body for food”) or b.) the body is evil, “get ‘em,” and go and beat themselves senseless.
Either way, they were pursuing a path to salvation that did not include the commands of Jesus; they were after their own way, but more on that later. In contrast, John says:
5But if anyone obeys his word, God's love[b] is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him:6Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.
Again, going back to last week, John’s referring to that which he has “seen, heard, and touched,” that which He learned by actually following the physical Christ around. He’s saying “this is what Jesus was really about.” Now, by saying “walk as Jesus walked," if John meant “you have to live perfectly and never mess up,” he wouldn’t have already said earlier “if you sin we have an advocate” and emphasized that advocate’s righteousness and atoning sacrifice. John does not mean that we have to achieve that level of perfection in order to claim that we live in Him.
Instead, it’s back to that word “obey,” or, again, “keep.” If we “keep” His word, if we treasure it, then God’s love (i.e. His love towards us) is made complete (i.e. reaches its goal) in us. That completion is shown in our beginning to walk as Jesus did, in doing the sorts of things Jesus did.  John gets ready to go into detail about that in the next verses; he sets it up this way:

7Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. 8Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.
Not a new command, but an old one, and yet a new one? What’s going on? What’re you talking about John? How does an old command become a new command and yet be the same command? It happens when the context changes. Of course, the command to love one another, to love your neighbor, had been around for a long time. It was a firm part of Jewish Law. But now, because of the Cross, instead of trying to love your neighbor out of an obligation to maintain the Jewish covenant, its purity, and your own righteousness, now God enables you to love your neighbor out of… well, love.
That truth of love for God and your neighbor is seen in Him, Jesus Christ, and His love for “all the wrong sorts of people,” and in us as we try to imitate Him, to walk as He walked.
John then goes on to contrast this, the mark of true Christianity, with the fakes. He says:
9Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. 10Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him[c] to make him stumble. 11But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him. 

Of course, we’ve all had that experience of walking around in a dark bedroom in the middle of the night and stubbing our toe on something or worse.  John is saying if you have that darkness in your heart, if you have that hate which can cause you to stumble, you start running into things, you get hurt and you hurt others. It’s not the way God designed life to be.
Now, a little more backstory. Gnostics, of course, based their concept of salvation on a set of esoteric rituals and “secret knowledge,” which is, as you may know, where their name “Gnosticism,” “gnosis,” Greek for “knowledge” came from. Given these elaborate rituals and long periods of navel gazing to attain said secret knowledge, Gnosticism wasn’t a belief system geared towards the working man. Instead, it was geared towards the affluent and well-educated. This, of course, resulted in a bit of ill-will on the part of the Gnostics towards those who were “below them.” Again, this is inconsistent with the walk of Jesus, who came down from Heaven and became one of us. They treated those below them with disdain, they hated them. This sort of behavior is opposed, it’s antithetical, to the fellowship we have with one another because of the fellowship we have with Jesus Christ.
Normally, when we think of hating people, we think of being angry towards them. We’ve all said things in anger from time to time, done things we’ve regretted, or been a jerk to someone. Now, the Bible has something to say, of course, about not letting your anger lead you into sin, but making a mistake or sinning when you’re angry is just the sort of thing which we have an advocate for, things which we repent of, seek forgiveness for, and try to reconcile with one another over.
But if you persist in hatred, if you refuse to repent, if you refuse to be reconciled to others, then you show that you have a broken fellowship with God because you refuse to listen to Him.  Such a person says in their heart that they know better than God. John wants to warn these people whom he cares so much for about the dangers of such a path. If they fall into sin, he wants them to turn to their advocate in Christ, but he writes to them so that they might avoid this more dangerous sin. Thus, he concludes this section this way:
12I write to you, dear children,
      because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.
13I write to you, fathers,
      because you have known him who is from the beginning.
   I write to you, young men,
      because you have overcome the evil one.
   I write to you, dear children,
      because you have known the Father.
14I write to you, fathers,
      because you have known him who is from the beginning.
   I write to you, young men,
      because you are strong,
      and the word of God lives in you,
      and you have overcome the evil one.

1 comment:

  1. Eternal city of baseball? Boo! (Said with much love towards you, of course...)