Sunday, May 17, 2009

Confronting the System with Love

1 John 5:1-6

Perhaps you can remember watching those old Western movies, the kind that John Wayne appeared in back in the forties and the fifties, back before Clint Eastwood’s more complicated Westerns began to appear. In those movies of yesteryear, there were good guys and bad guys, and you always knew who was who. Sometimes, they even wore different colored hats – one white, one black – just so you didn’t miss the point.

We call this dualism, and dualism lets us see everything in black and white, either/or terms. You’re either with us or against us, and if you’re against us then you must be evil. And if you’re evil, then I may have to destroy you. We like to see ourselves living on the right side of things, which means that our opponents must be evil. As a nation we’ve spoken of our enemies in terms of evil empires and an axis of evil. It seems to make sense to us, but maybe life isn’t so cut and dry. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln was right when he pointed out that both sides during the Civil War believed that they were on the side of truth, and both prayed to the same God for victory. Lincoln hoped he was on the side of God, but he was willing to admit the possibility that he was wrong.

As we read our text this morning, we’re confronted with a very dualistic message. John puts everything in stark contrast. You’re either a child of God or you’re something else, a child of darkness perhaps. In John’s mind, maybe because he’s fighting for the survival of his community, there doesn’t seem to be much room for any shades of gray. As I read this, I hope and pray that I’m on God’s side, but I want to keep in mind President Lincoln’s warning – just in case!

1. Confronting the Domination System

Although I may not see things in as black-and-white a fashion as John did, I do believe that there is both good and evil in the world. And, therefore, we have a responsibility to discern what is good and what is not, so that we can make good choices in life.

It’s in the context of this need to discern the truth that we encounter John’s use of the word kosmos, which is Greek for world. While the gospel of John, which has a different author, speaks of God’s love for the world (Jn 3:16), in this letter we hear about Jesus conquering and overcoming the kosmos. In our text this morning, our author is talking about what we might call “the System,” or what Walter Wink calls “the Powers.” This system is hierarchical, racist, sexist, unjust and unfair. No matter how hard you work, you never can get off the treadmill. We sometimes call this the status quo, and the “powers that be” will defend themselves with everything at their disposal – including violence.

The good news, according to John, is that while God loves the creation, Jesus has defeated the “Domination System” by way of the cross. That is, Jesus took on the “Powers” that dominate our daily lives, the “system” that tries to keep us in our place, and defeated it on the cross.

Unfortunately, history has demonstrated, that we’ve often failed to learn the lesson of the cross. Indeed, too often the church has blessed and benefited from the System. We’ve discovered that the temptation to become an extension of the state is strong. Remember that when Constantine decided to hitch his future to Christianity’s rising star, the church was only too eager to join up, and it didn’t take long for the church not only to become an agent of the state and but also become corrupt.

Although church and state may be separate in America, history shows that even here the church can get sucked in by the system. Indeed, a recent survey suggests that the more people go to church, the more likely they are to support the use of torture to protect the nation’s security. This is true, despite the fact that Jesus was himself tortured and killed by the state in the name of national security.

There is a message here for us: While the world relies on violence and oppression to achieve its purpose, Jesus has overcome that system through his own death. Unlike the system, Jesus embraced nonviolence and love, and while that led to his death, in the end he emerged victorious.

2. Finding our Identity in Christ

Over the last few weeks, as we’ve read through this first letter of John, we’ve heard a lot about loving God and loving neighbor. We’ve been reminded that God is love and that those who abide in God will love their neighbor. In writing this letter, John reminds his community that their sense of identity is wrapped up in the cross of Jesus. Even though this might seem like foolishness to the world, this is our identity. That is, our identity as Christians is rooted in Jesus, for as John says – everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God. And for John, belief is more than intellectual assent. It’s a commitment to live for and with Jesus, and that means showing our love for God by obeying his commandments. Fortunately for us, those commandments, according to John, aren’t burdensome. We just have to love our neighbors!

If we’re going to confront the “System,” then we have to know who we are as followers of Jesus. And if we are children of God, then we will deal with the world as God deals with it, which means that instead of using the world’s tools, and fighting fire with fire, we follow Jesus and overcome the world with the tools of love.

This love may be confrontational, but it’s also liberating. It’s the kind of love that Martin Luther King used to help achieve civil rights legislation, which opened lunch counters, voting booths, and schools to blacks and other minorities. This isn’t an easy kind of love to live, but it is world-changing.

3. Death and Resurrection – the Means of Victory

John says that the cross is the defining element of this love. It defines love because it’s sacrificial and humble. It doesn’t seek its own way, but seeks the best for the other. Although the System thought it had won when Jesus died, the System seems to have missed the point. They thought they had issued the last word, but according to Scripture they were wrong. Although John doesn’t explicitly refer to the resurrection, I do believe that it is the resurrection that gives the cross its power. John says that there are three witnesses – the water, the blood, and the Spirit. The first may refer to birth or to baptism. The second to death and the Eucharist, while the third, the Spirit, reminds us that God isn’t done yet. The Spirit is, for me, a reminder that in the resurrection God has defeated the World. Or, as Beverly Gaventa puts it: “the death and resurrection of Jesus demonstrate that the world is bankrupt and its judgments are overturned by the God whose love alone is capable of overcoming the world” [Beverly Gaventa, Texts for Preaching, B (WJK, 1993), p. 324].

Therefore, may we truly be people of love, people who, as followers of Jesus, are willing to put our lives on the line, even as he did, so that hearts and minds of the world’s inhabitants might be transformed, and the System can be defeated. Then, we will see that love reigns over all!.

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