We mentioned last week, as I’m sure many of you already know, that this is the season of Lent. Today is the second Sunday of Lent which continues to lead us Easter. I mentioned that I didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition and therefore didn’t observe Lent growing up (though you don’t have to be from a liturgical background in order to observe and appreciate Lent). It wasn’t until I was studying at seminary that I gave Lent some serious thought – indeed, even paid much attention to Lent at all.
But my understanding of Lent had been limited (from my current perspective). I understood that Lent was the time before Easter during which people, traditionally, fasted. And I think I understood that fasting – at least to some extent – as related to asceticism, perhaps almost as a kind of penance. I think I understood Lent (and the related fasting) as giving something up in order to focus on God. So fasting was a kind of act of devotion. Now that isn’t wrong per se. Those are all aspects of Lent (and fasting), I think. But I think there’s more.
Alexander Schmenann was an orthodox priest who wrote a number of books on orthodox theology. Eastern Orthodoxy, as we probably know, pays a lot more attention to liturgical considerations. I would suggest that there are elements of the theology of Lent (and many other things) that we can learn. In his book Great Lent, Schmemann says:
We may then understand that the liturgical traditions of the Church, all its cycles and services, exist first of all, in order to help us recover the vision and the taste of that new life which we so easily lose and betray, so that we may repent and return to it…It is the worship of the Church that was from the very beginning and still is our entrance into, our communion with, the new life of the Kingdom.Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent, 13. Emphasis original.
Now that kind of language and that idea should be familiar with us if we’ve been at Grace for any length of time. He goes on to say:
A man who has never had that experience, be it only very briefly, who has never felt that he is exiled from God and from real life, will never understand what Christianity is about. And the one who is perfectly “at home” in this world and its life, who has never been wounded by the nostalgic desire for another Reality, will not understand what is repentance.Schmemann, Great Lent, 21.
Now I don’t want to go on about Schmemann’s writing, but what he’s talking about is the notion that, inasmuch as we are immersed in this world, inasmuch as we think that the totality or the fullness of life is found in this world, we cannot or will not see the glory of the true world, the true life.
So what I’m suggesting is that Lent – which may or may not include the practice of fasting – is not just about giving something up (whether it’s food or anything else). The season of Lent is not about wearing sackcloth and feeling bad for ourselves. And of course a major theme in Lent is repentance, but by repentance, we don’t mean merely feeling bad about things we’ve done or not done. The season of Lent, through a practice like fasting, can serve to remind us that life is not to be found in this world – that true life is not to be found in this world. The season of Lent serves to remind us that true peace is not to be found in this world. The season of Lent serves to remind us that true joy is not to be found in this world. But true joy, peace, and life is indeed coming.
So when we give up something for Lent – when we fast – its not just a practice of self-denial. Fasting is a concrete, physical, and personal practice of declaring that there is nothing in this world, nothing in this time, no other name under heaven or on the earth by which we can be saved. So during Lent, we give up the earthly things so that we can put our hope solely in the blood of Jesus.
Now, having said all that, we continue in our study of 1 John. And our passage today is 1 John 4:1-6. It reads:
4 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
4 You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5 They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spiritof truth and the spirit of falsehood.1 John 4:1-6
We mentioned this in passing last time, but it’s worth noting again that the immediately preceding verses (which were the final verses of the passage we looked at last time) seem to introduce these verses. 3:19-24
19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.1 John 3:19-24
Without reviewing the previous sermon in whole, what we noted that the passage in chapter 3 had to do (at least in part) with how we can have confidence (that is, confidence or assurance that we are “walking in the light,” have a relationship with God, etc.). John notes that this comes from avoiding sin (pursuing holiness) and loving one another.
But more to the point, in our passage today, John seems to be revisiting or continuing this issue of confidence. And as we noted last time, the issue of confidence is raised likely because of false teachers who are suggesting that something more is needed (that is, something more than what John and the apostles are saying). By saying that the message of the apostles is not sufficient, they are sowing doubt and division in the community.
In our verses today, John addresses this directly. Again, John says:
4 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.1 John 4:1-3
So John says, “do not believe every spirit…” Now it’s worth pausing for a moment here to ask why John says “do not believe every spirit,” as opposed to (for example), “do not believe every teacher.” And as is often the case, we can’t know definitively. John simply doesn’t fill in these blanks. It’s conceivable that he is referring to some actual spiritual manifestation that accompanies these teachers; or perhaps these teachers are demonstrating spiritual “gifts” of some sort (both of which remind us of what Paul in 1 Corinthians which suggests that spiritual gifts are being manifested in or practiced by those who do not declare Jesus as Lord); or perhaps this is simply a figure of speech inasmuch as John is dealing with ultimately spiritual matters (and thus, the teachers’ false teaching is a spiritual concern).
Nevertheless, John outlines that his specific concern is with those who do not acknowledge that Jesus Christ has come from God. Anyone (or anything) who fails to acknowledge this is not from God. Now at this point, it starts to become fairly clear that John is identifying the opponents (the false teachers) as Gnostic (again, proto-Gnostics) or Docetists. When John says, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God…” he seems to be correcting a very particular error or heresy that was characteristic of the Gnostics (I’m simply going to use the term Gnostics to include Docetists) who don’t believe that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. The Gnostics, remember, believed in a separation between the earthly (or physical) world and the spiritual world; the earthly being corrupted and impure and the spiritual being pure. The Gnostics believed that salvation involved escaping the physical through intellectual or spiritual enlightenment. Because the physical was impure, Jesus could not have come in the flesh, as the flesh was impure. Therefore, His physical manifestation was actually just an illusion – he had the appearance of body and flesh, but in truth was pure spirit.
John (and orthodox Christianity) adamantly believe this notion to be false. As John says, he proclaims a Christ that has become human, which he has heard, seen, looked at, and touched. John, the apostles, and all orthodox Christianity (by which I mean “right teaching,” not Eastern Orthodox) believes in an incarnated God – a God made flesh.
Now you might wonder why this is so important. I’m not going to get into the systematic or biblical theology here, but I hope it suffices to say that the entire doctrine of atonement and salvation breaks down without a Jesus who is both fully God and fully human.
Again, and against the ideas of the false teachers, John insists upon an incarnated Christ.
Continuing on in our passage, John sets this revelation of the incarnation as a line in the sand with the false teachers. He says:
4 You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5 They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spiritof truth and the spirit of falsehood.1 John 4:4-6
In verse 4, John says that his readers, those who have not succumbed to the false teachings and departed the community, have overcome those false teachers. And then he says something which I’d like us to pay attention to. He says, “They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world… We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us…” Here John seems to be identifying the “We” as those who teach from the apostolic witness.
So notice that John is once again setting out a dualism or dichotomy. Those who believe or accept the apostolic teaching – which here is specifically identified as recognizing the incarnation of Jesus – are from God. Those who do not – the false teachers – are not from God. In other words, John is once again making a distinction between those who are from God and those who are not; those who are children of God and those who are children of the devil; those who walk in the light and those who walk in darkness. Those who accept the revelation of Jesus, and those who do not. “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them…” Because, “you,” that is we, believe in this Jesus. We call upon this Jesus. We put our hope in this Jesus. There is no other name, under heaven or on earth, by which we can be saved.
Now I’m assuming that for most of us this is a piece of orthodox Christian theology that’s not in question. We are used to hearing it so we don’t doubt it, even if we don’t fully understand it or recognize its significance. So I’m going to try to flesh this out just a little bit.
There’s a particular experience that one has as a pastor – that’s probably not unique to pastoral ministry, but that’s where I’m coming from. I could probably (should probably?) explain this better but it’s what I’m going to refer to as the practice of abstraction. That is, there’s this peculiar tendency of human beings to perceive our lives as abstractions.
So, for example, we might tend to experience our lives from the perspective of how great things used to be. This is a particular challenge for (again, for example) churches and Christians in the 21st century West. We remember a time when Christianity used to have pride of place in Canadian society and long to return things to that state. Or we remember a time when our churches were thriving, our ministries were flourishing, and our sanctuaries were overflowing with converts. Regardless of whether or not we remember accurately (for memory is notoriously fickle), all we know is that things were better then.
Similarly, we might tend to perceive our current lives from the perspective of some hypothetical future. We think we know how things “are supposed to be,” some idealized version of our supposed destiny. Regardless of where we got those ideas, all we know is that things are supposed to be better than this.
Now make no mistake – I’m not suggesting that we aren’t supposed to think about our futures. We, as the people of God, are fundamentally an eschatological people. Who we are now – who we are called to be now – is unavoidably informed by who we are going to be (in the final reign of Christ). And I’m not suggesting that we aren’t supposed to think about our pasts. Our story of how we got to be here is an integral part of who we are and who we are becoming.
But what I am trying to suggest is that when the whole of our present experience is wrapped up in these kinds of abstractions, we lose the ability to pay attention to what God is doing in us now.
Several years ago, I was teaching martial arts and there was a particular student who would come regularly and so I had a lot of time to train with him. He was a teenager at the time and so he had (I’m sure) the usual teenager concerns, teenager priorities, and so forth. So periodically, I would have to tell him, in the midst of training, to “be here.” And what I meant by that was that, though he was doing the things that I asked him to do, he wasn’t actually present. He was there in body, but not in mind. Because his mind was elsewhere.
The Gnostics believed that the real world – the world that was important – wasn’t this world, but rather the spiritual or intellectual world. They believed that this world didn’t matter because the Gnostics were called to a different better world. They believed that the Messiah came specifically to rescue us from this world and take us to a better world. Therefore, they were never here.
Now we may not think that we have a lot in common with the Gnostics (though we did talk about neo-Gnosticism in the western world several months ago). But – not to put too fine a point on it – I find that frequently people are longing for a world, working for a world, that simply doesn’t exist. Sometimes we are past-oriented or sometimes we are future-oriented, but inasmuch as we exist only in the past or only in the future, we are not here. And because we are not here, we don’t recognize what God is doing right now – in you, in me, in this place, in this time. Because we are not here, we fail to see salvation being worked out in our very midst. Because we are not here, it becomes impossible to see that Jesus is here with us.
Again, we have to have a sense of our story (especially as part of the story of God), and we have to have an understanding of our eschatology and our telos. The problem arises when we allow our sense of “used to be” and supposed to be” to become disconnected with actual life. The problem arises when we allow our sense of “used to be” and “supposed to be” to become disconnected with actual persons. When everything becomes an abstraction, our perceptions become distorted, and we either idealize things that never were or demonize things that haven’t happened. When we focus our eyes only on the basis of things that I want, we often do not see the work of God in our midst.
I said earlier that Lent is about giving up the things that we think make up life so that we can allow God to lead us into the true life. And I know that the last couple of years have been especially hard for many of us (though many of us have also had many more difficult years). We long desperately for things to be different. We long desperately for things to be the way they were. And again, I’m not saying that’s wrong, per se. What I am saying, is don’t let those things stand in the way of seeing God at work in our midst. Because God is not an abstraction. Jesus is not an idea or a good principle. Jesus came to earth, in history, to live and walk among His people. And Jesus is with us also. Jesus is truly with us. And he is working out our salvation in us, in this time, and in this place. Because Christ is with us, be here.