1 John 2:3-11
One thing we did at college was to take a survey to find out what kind of a learner we are. A man called Peter Honey had invented what he called his ‘Learning Styles Questionnaire’, and we all had to complete it. There were four types of learner you could be. I came out very strongly as what was called a ‘theorist’, someone who learns in a theoretical way. Next, I was a ‘reflector’, someone who reflects on what has happened and tries to interpret it. I only had quite a low score as an ‘activist’, someone who learns by doing, and I hit a big, overweight zero as a ‘pragmatist’, someone who learns on the basis of ‘if it works, it’s right’.
Today’s passage from 1 John poses us a question about learning or knowledge – specifically, our knowledge of God. The theorists like me can use knowledge of God to go off into our ivory towers (or onto another planet, Debbie says of me), contemplating all sorts of deep things, but not doing anything about it. We might be able to write complicated sentences with long words, but what happens as a result?
Whether we learn by theory, reflection, action or pragmatism, John tells us there is one basic test for true knowledge of God: does our knowledge turn into action? And this is the first theme I want to share this morning. Knowledge of God is only shown in obedience. Here again verses 3 and 4:
We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, I know him, but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
You can be as clever as you like, but if you don’t turn knowledge of God into obeying him, it isn’t true knowledge of God, says John. On the other hand, you can have a simple faith, but if you have grasped certain things about God and put them into practice, then you have more knowledge of God than the most learned professor.
This seems to be relevant as we renew our vows to Christ at this Covenant Service. Today we say again that we shall obey him. Today, then, we promise that we shall put our knowledge of God into obedient action.
A story is told about the great stunt man Charles Blondin. He had a tightrope stretched high above Niagara Falls, from one side to the other. Before a crowd, he walked the length of the tightrope, from one side of the Falls to the other.
When he got to the other side, he addressed his audience. “I am Blondin! Do you believe I can carry a man on my back all the way back along the tightrope to where I began?”
“Yes!” shouted the crowd. “We believe!”
“Then if you believe,” asked Blondin, “who will volunteer to climb on my back?”
From a crowd of thousands, only one person volunteered.
How many people knew Blondin could accomplish this feat? Only one.
It’s easy to affirm our knowledge of God. We sing hymns, say prayers and read the Scriptures. But the only people who truly know God are those who obey. I have been in Anglican churches where the person leading the worship has said after the sermon, “Let us affirm our faith by saying the Creed.” Well, I have nothing against the historic Creeds of the Church. I affirm them, too. But the real place we affirm our faith is after the service and in the world, by our obedience. You could say that it isn’t now that we know we are covenant people, it’s this time tomorrow – when our obedience matters.
Now if the first thing John does here is link knowledge and obedience, the second move he makes continues the sequence. He links obedience and love. This is summarised in verses 5 and 6:
But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.
Now why would John make the link from obedience to love? For one thing, he is saying that obedience is a sign of love. We say we love God, fine: how do we show that? Is it enough to sing hymns and songs? To say our prayers? To read our Bibles? To make solemn promises? However worthy any of those are, they mean nothing unless they are translated into action. So one thing John is emphasising here is what we have just said about knowledge and obedience: what counts is putting it into practice. Knowledge of God must be put into practice as obedience, and love of God must also be put into practice as obedience. We can make the most fervent declarations of devotion today, but what will they mean if we do nothing about them tomorrow?
Think of it this way: two weeks ago, I conducted a wedding at Weybridge. I had the privilege of taking the couple phrase by phrase through the solemn vows. They promised to love and cherish each other for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until they were parted by death. Heart strings were duly tugged. Eyes became moist on cue. But what would the point be if they didn’t go on to love each other through thick and thin?
In a similar way, then, our love for God is shown only by our actions – in this case, our actions of obedience, because unlike marriage, our relationship with God is not one between two equals. Knowledge cannot remain abstract and theoretical; neither can love.
But maybe there is another reason. Perhaps we also need to be careful that love, and nothing else, is the motivation for our obedience. There are people in church circles who say all the right things on a Sunday and who then lead good lives in the week, yet still something is missing. They have things the wrong way round. They obey in order to be loved, instead of obeying because they are loved.
What I mean is this: our churches still have people who think that if you do all the good things, you can twist God’s arm to love you. If you are good enough – whatever that is – God will love you.
But that stands in contradiction to the Gospel. John will put it eloquently in a couple of chapters’ time: ‘We love, because God first loved us.’ In other words, the love that is translated into obedience is only something we do because God loves us in Christ in the first place. Jesus has died for us, therefore we love in return. None of us can be ‘good enough’. God knows that. He has made provision in Christ for that, at great cost. Today, we affirm that we receive the love of God, because he has made the first move, and we shall love in return as a sign of gratitude, and we shall express that love in our obedience to his will.
To sum up so far – knowledge is linked to obedience; obedience is the sign of responding love. Finally, John makes a third link: from knowledge to obedience, from obedience to love, and finally from love to light. In the middle of verses 9 and 11 where he discusses how those who hate a brother or sister are in the darkness, not the light, we get the positive side of the coin in verse 10:
Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble.
Again, hear a double meaning: the first meaning is again about putting it all into practice. If we claim to live in the light, we will love. Christianity isn’t about receiving some enlightened knowledge and then posturing around like some élite spiritual class. Coming into the light only happens when we live a life of love. Living in love in response to Jesus is what prevents us from stumbling. To continue living in hatred is to remain in the darkness, says John.
And is not that pertinent on this tenth anniversary of the so-called ‘9/11’ attacks? The American Methodist bishop Will Willimon has been reflecting on the anniversary, and he sees darkness not only in the terrorists, but also in his own nation’s response:
The criminals who perpetrated 9/11 and the flag-waving boosters of our almost exclusively martial response were of one mind: that the nonviolent way of Jesus is stupid. All of us preachers share the shame; when our people felt very vulnerable, they reached for the flag, not the Cross.
But I want to suggest another meaning here: living in the light by living in love is not simply something we do in order to benefit ourselves – we don’t stumble – how can it be? Love is for the sake of others, not ourselves! The light does not shine on us in private. Love is something done in the world. If we live in responsive love to Jesus by loving him and loving others, and if that means we live in the light, then … will not others see the light shining, because we love in the name of Jesus?
That is to say, there is a missional reason for love. We want the light of Christ to shine in the world. OK then, says John: get on with loving people!
Put it this way: some churches exhaust themselves with endless reinventions of their worship, their buildings and all sorts of other accoutrements, thinking they can make themselves attractive to non-Christians. But are non-Christians beating a path to their doors? No. Are they beating a path to many churches? No, again. In one previous appointment, I inherited a building refurbishment project that ran to a six-figure cost. The congregation sincerely thought that having swish new premises would attract the community. It never did.
But what if we were so committed to an obedience of love in the world that the light of Christ shone through what we do? What if we were the people known for loving the broken, loving the wounded, loving those whom society is too afraid to love?
Do we want more people to meet Jesus and follow him? Then let’s see what we can do to reduce our church bureaucracies that consume so much of active church members’ time and concentrate on the essentials: worship, community, discipleship and mission. If something doesn’t build up worship, community, discipleship or mission, we should jettison it. We need to be freed to love the lost and the needy in the name of Christ, so that Christ’s light may shine in the world and people may realise they have a choice to make between the light and the darkness.
This Covenant Sunday, may it be that the promises we renew in the light of God’s faithfulness to us take us on a journey from this building to God’s world. May our knowledge of God issue in obedience. May our obedience be motivated by love, a responsive love because God first loved us. And as we love, may the light of Christ shine: in darkest Knaphill, in darkest St John’s, in darkest Bisley, in darkest West End, in darkest Pirbright, in darkest Lightwater, in darkest Camberley. Everywhere we go, may we take Christ’s love and reflect his light.