A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Trinity
A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Trinity
by the Rev'd Dr. Matt Colvin
Like your own rector, I’m a bit if a Bible nerd. I love to read NT scholarship and background; I love to find out what Jesus’ words meant to his Jewish listeners; I love to learn the details of culture and history that make things come a little more alive. But all these pursuits are of very little value for interpreting the epistles of John, which contain few historical details. Instead, we are like swimmers wading into the ocean, able to touch bottom with our toes, wading forward through Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and even able to manage pretty well through Paul’s letters — and then suddenly, we turn to the fourth gospel, or to the epistles of John, and it is as though the seafloor suddenly fell away, and we are swimming in a depth.
What is even more remarkable about John is that this great depth is expressed in the simplest language. When I teach Biblical Greek to students, the first thing we read is the epistles of John and the fourth gospel, because their vocabulary is limited, easy, and their grammar is simple. It is almost as if they had been written by a Galilean fisherman or something. And accordingly, when I ply my trade of explaining Bible difficulties and background, there is little for me to say, because John is so straightforward.
But there is this depth to his letters. Why? Because John was the closest person in the world to Jesus; he knew him better than anyone else; Jesus entrusted his mother Mary to John from the cross. As Jesus was “in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18), so John was resting on Jesus’ bosom at the last supper. It is an expression of the closest possible relationship.
The epistle reading this morning is from the 1st John 3. It lays out what NT Wright calls “A new way of being human.” There is an old way – the way of Adam, who fell into sin; the way of Cain, who hated his brother and became a murderer. And there is a new way, the way of Jesus, who laid down his life for us, and embodied God’s love for us, so that we in turn might be filled with that love and might love others. The way of life: sacrificial giving, Christian love, sharing in community, worshipping God, showing love with words and deeds, praying for those in authority, patiently awaiting the reward that God graciously gives to those who trust in him. The way of death: abortion, euthanasia, divorce, sexual abuse, pornography, violence, merciless greed, unbridled lusts, dishonest business practices, rebelliousness against authority, and a craving for power so that we may take what is our own.
The early Christian church order document, the Didache or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” opens with this same contrast: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this…” It goes on to summarize the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the mount in the Roman Empire in 100 AD.
There are two ways. A way of life and a way of death. And we are living in an age when formerly Christian nations have chosen to turn to the way of death. The Roman Catholic theologian Peter Kreeft nicely summarizes the difference between the two ways in our own day: “Abortion is the Antichrist's demonic parody of the Eucharist. That is why it uses the same holy words, 'This is my body,' with the blasphemously opposite meaning.” The author of Hebrews speaks in chapter 6 of the basic principles of the Christian faith:
“Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from works that lead to death; and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.” Hebrews 6:1-2 NKJV
Abandoning the way of death is a basic principle of the Christian faith. We cannot walk both ways at once, for they lead in opposite directions.
In 170 or 180 AD, an Anonymous Christian known only as Mathetes, “the disciple” wrote a defense of the faith, called the Epistle to Diognetus, in which he described the behaviour of disciples in the Roman empire:
“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.”
If only the church in North America might have a similar testimony: that outsiders would remark on our “wonderful and confessedly striking way of life” and be “unable to assign any reason for their hatred of us.”
Shortly before the Epistle to Diognetus, in 165 AD, an epidemic, probably of smallpox, killed 25-30% of the population of the Mediterranean world. The ravages of the disease were so terrifying that the streets of cities were full of dead bodies, and the pagans fled to the countryside, abandoning sick family and friends and leaving them alone to die of starvation and thirst, untended in their houses and unburied when they did. Toward the end of the plague, the bishop Dionysius of Alexandria sent a letter to the churches in his diocese, in which he describes how Christians behaved during this epidemic:
“Most of our brothers showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.... The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that in death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal to martyrdom”
Basic nursing — provision of food and water — has been documented to reduce mortality in time of illness by two thirds. Many more Christians survived the plague than did the pagans. Indeed, even many pagans were cared for by Christians — and many converted as a result.
A similar effect happened with regard to poverty. Its meetings were in the homes of its wealthier members — “Priscilla and Aquila and the church that meets in their house” in Romans; Nymphas and the church that is in his house in Colossians 4; Philemon and the church that is in his house; and so on. The early church’s celebration of Holy Communion was in the context of a full meal, which was provided by the wealthier members for the poorer ones, because the church took care of its own. That is what we see in the Book of Acts 2:46, where the church is said to “break bread from house to house”; likewise, the selling of possessions and placing the proceeds at the apostles’ feet in Acts 4 and 5; and the distribution of food to widows in Acts 6.
This was not communism. The church did not confiscate private property. In Acts 5, when Ananias and Sapphira tried to gain the same sort of honour for generosity that Barnabas had, they lied about how much of the price of their field they had given to the church. Peter’s reply to them makes clear that the church continued to respect private property: “While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.””
Acts 5:4 NKJV
Thus, the picture that emerges of the church in its earliest centuries is one of mutual sacrificial love: members of the church freely took care of each other, spending their own resources to do so.
In the fourth century, Constantine’s grandson Julian, who had been given a Christian upbringing and education, decided to throw it all away and pursue the way of death instead. He converted from Christianity back to the worship of the pagan gods of Greece and Rome. Thus his name, Julian the Apostate. Yet even he, who hated Christianity, could not help but testify to its moral superiority:
“the impious Galileans [Christians], in addition their own, support ours, [and] it is shameful that our poor should be wanting our aid.”
In our day, the same complaint is made by Muslim imams, that Muslims are converting because of Christian medical missions and development projects in African countries. If we are to be hated, let it be for things like this.
This is the new way of being human that John lays out for us. It is a Jesus-shaped life. “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?”
John makes clear that this self-giving love is also the way of assurance: “this is how we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him.” Are you agonizing about whether you are “really saved”? Get out of your armchair, stop introspecting and contemplating, and go do something for someone in the church. Let your faith, your allegiance to Jesus be active, not just in word or tongue. There is no assurance of salvation without being caught up into the life of Christ and the mutual service of the members of his body.
Brothers and sisters, let us love in deed and in truth. Let us follow steadfast in the way our Savior lived. Let us show the world that there is, in Jesus, a new way of being human.