s109e00 Somerton Park Easter 6 28/5/2000
"this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith." 1 John 5:4
The history of humanity shows that faith is a very elusive thing. When faced with the Jewish holocaust, how many people, as they were being rounded up and realising the atrocities occurring all around them was about to happen to them also, how many could keep their faith? And who would dare to presume to criticise anyone caught up in that horror, if their faith was shattered? And the question needs to be asked - did God not welcome those who lost their faith during those dark times just because they lost their faith? I, for one, couldn't worship a God who didn't welcome such people. How can anyone who witnessed those things, even contemplate a loving God is beyond me.
Closer to home, I have not been involved in any war. Towards the end of the Vietnam War I registered for National Service as I was required to do at the time, though my studies would have precluded me from being immediately drafted. But my birth date was not picked and I was indefinitely deferred. If ever there was a more potent demonstration that all people's lives are influenced by pure chance - it surely must have been this. That returned service personnel do not have faith in God, is I suspect eminently understandable. Indeed returned service personnel who have retained their faith would entirely understand those who returned without faith. This is especially true of Vietnam veterans, where those who returned, returned not quite as conquering heroes. Heroes indeed, but not quite conquering heroes.
That I say I have faith means so very precious little, for there is no way I could ever compare myself with some people who have had to endure such happenings. To suggest that I am somehow "better" than someone else because of my faith, is to completely discount completely different life experiences.
So "my" faith is hardly mine at all. Firstly faith is itself a gift (Gal 5.22), but secondly I have only retained "my" faith because I have not experienced sufficiently difficult circumstances to test "my" faith to any real extent.
I don't know about you, but I've often thought of faith and religion as somewhat of a "consolation prize". And when one comes to think about it, much of our language, hints of this. I often find the phrase in the funeral service, where the minister prays for the bereaved that "may they know the consolation of your love" rankles rather.
We think that faith is a substitute for certainty - when all else fails we have our faith. So another person experiencing the horrors of the holocaust will see it as proof that God is indeed good because humanity is so horrible. So it would be nice to have something more than faith. It would be nice not to need to have faith.
Yet St John's perspective is much much different. Faith for St John is the first prize, not the second. Our victory over the world is our faith.
And in fact, on the odd occasion, one hears people say how wonderful it would be to have faith, but the person speaking, feels faith has passed them by. Perhaps their life experiences have tested their faith and seemingly found it wanting. Perhaps they have done things which they cannot forgive themselves for, so that they feel unworthy of faith. Perhaps the witness of the Church has not engendered a respect for faith anyway.
Perhaps the thing that people who say such things aspire to, is in fact something different from faith, something more akin to certainty. And of course the real opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.
I think to really understand this verse, we need to put the phrase "victory over the world", and "faith", in the context of the life and ministry of Jesus. Sometimes Jesus is spoken of rather abstractly. So when John says: "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God" (1 John 5:1), this does not mean that we earn extra "brownie points" from God every time we recite the Creeds. The emphasis is on Jesus, and that God sent Jesus to say and do the things he did, and in particular to befriend the friendless to the chagrin of the religious authorities, chagrin enough to have him put to death.
For let us make no mistake about it, the religious authorities had faith all right. Their faith was a certainty that God rewarded them for their religious observances and condemned those who neglected them. Their faith was superficially centred on God, but the reality was that their faith's real object was themselves.
The faith that Jesus proclaimed and lived out is quite in contrast to the faith of the religious authorities. He proclaimed a God with especial concern for the orphan, the widow and the alien. He pushed the religious authorities to move away from their certainties towards the world of other people, to understand their conditions and their need for grace.
Jesus' victory over the world was that he loved the world "to death". No longer did anyone have to earn God's love - and this is our faith.
Our victory is that the relief that we don't have to earn our way into heaven. Our victory is that we don't have to climb over others to be noticed and chosen. Our victory is that we no longer have to live by the precept of "survival of the fittest".
Jesus was and always will always be an affront to those whose faith is a certainty that God rewards them for their religious observances and condemns those who neglect them.
The new covenant is better than the old, in the language of the letter to the Hebrews, not because the blood of bulls and goats has been superseded by Baptism and Holy Communion. which are more effective. We haven't simply swap the required devotion necessary to salvation to some other objects. The new covenant is better because Christ has died and rose again for us. All that is required for our salvation has been achieved - our salvation, and the salvation of other people is no longer in question. The task is no longer to cross an abyss to God, for that has already happened. Our task is to cross the abyss between people, of other genders, cultures, races, whose salvation is similarly no longer in question.
The new covenant is better because more people are included.
Jesus will always be an affront to those whose faith is superficially centred on God, but whose real centre is themselves, and their own salvation. One of the last questions to ask someone else is "Are you SURE you're being saved?". This leads us to "navel gazing" endlessly seeking certainty - when faith leads us in a quite opposite direction, to an acceptance of another.
So when John says: "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God" (1 John 5:1) he means those who acknowledge that Jesus leads us to an acceptance of another, is born of God, because that is precisely what Jesus did to begin with, he who also was "born of God".
For the world has already been conquered by the love of God. The victory has been won, but it is not a victory where there are winners and losers. It is a victory where everyone is a winner - everyone is a winner - except of course those who still want there to be winners and losers.
This is the sort of God I worship.
To repeat some statements of John: "This is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son." (1 John 5:9-10).
Jesus didn't need the testimony of God to love the righteous. Jesus needed the testimony of God to love the unrighteous. If we deny the love of God for the unrighteous, made manifest in the life and ministry of Jesus, for all we might invoke "Jesus" or "God", we make God a liar, and that is a reasonably serious matter.
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