Sunday, March 18, 2012

Life Signs #10 - A Life of Victorious Faith

Everyone has heard of Nike running shoes, and no doubt there will be many pairs crossing the finish line at today's LA Marathon.  But did you know that Nike is the Greek word for victory? In 1 John 5:4, we read, "This is the victory - the nike -  that conquers the world, our faith."  What does victory in this life look like to you?  Is it winning a foot race?  Is it acing a final exam?  Is it landing a good job?  Is it the gift of family or friends?  On the other hand, what does defeat look like to you?

I’ve been following the story of the demise of the Crystal Cathedral.  At one time, the church that was launched by Robert H. Schuller at the Orange Drive-In Theater was one of the most well known evangelical ministries in the country.  Schuller had his critics, but The Hour of Power was the most widely televised church service in the world and many found Christ through his ministry.  Yet in the past year the church has filed for bankruptcy and the property has been sold to the Catholic Diocese…a saving grace.  Schuller once wisely said that, "The real minister's name that we honor is Jesus, not Robert Schuller.”  Something every pastor would be wise to remember in the face of inevitable disappointment.  The gospels never promise unending victories in this life. John himself spent many years exiled on the Island of Patmos as punishment by the Romans for his subversive missionary work.  Even so, he assures us that we can have victory in this world. Yet the power we have over this world -- rather than being a force we control -- is a life of faith in Christ who has won the victory, the 10th sign of genuine Christianity from 1 John 5: 1-12.

(i) Faith in God’s Son is a faith that conquers this world (1-4)  4 for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. 5 Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

What does John mean, exactly, when he says that faith in Jesus is the victory that conquers the world?   He means faith in the God who took on human flesh in Christ, who knows intimately our trials and weaknesses and who therefore gives us power to overcome our own.  He means faith in the One whom the powers of this world tried their best to destroy, and failed.  He means that even when there is nothing to celebrate right before our eyes, there is a larger victory in which we have a share through faith in Christ our King. 

I was reading about an unusual football game back in 1982 at Badger Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin. More than 60,000 die-hard University of Wisconsin supporters were watching their football team take on the Michigan State Spartans; but it soon became obvious that MSU had the better team. What seemed odd, though, was that as the score became more lopsided, there were cheers and bursts of applause from the Wisconsin fans!  It turns out that 70 miles away the Milwaukee Brewers were beating the Cardinals in game three of the World Series. Many fans were listening to portable radios--and reacting to something other than their immediate circumstances. I thought that was a great picture of our life with Christ.  Regardless of what losses we may be experiencing right now, we have a reason to hope and even rejoice because of Christ’s victory. 

I want to emphasize that Christian faith is not faith in the victory of my faith; it is faith in the victory of Christ.  It is faith in the victory of his sacrificial love, faith in the victory of his grace, faith in the victory of his death; and faith in the victory of his death conquering life. Such faith in God's Son must necessarily transcend our human reasoning, but this is not to say that it is irrational.  Victorious faith must be based on evidence.

(ii) Faith in God’s Son is a faith not without testimony (5-10).  To show us that our faith in Christ is not a leap of blind faith, but one that is based on legitimate testimony, John begins with two images whose meaning may be unclear to us even if they would have been obvious to his readers:

There is, first of all, the testimony of the water and the blood.  For This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood(6). Most likely, water and blood refer to Jesus’ baptism and death - symbols for the beginning and end of his earthly ministry.  The key to understanding this phrase is that John says Jesus came not by (or "through" / διὰ) water only, but through water and blood.  The water of Jesus’ baptism recalls the testimony of the Father, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased” and of John the Baptist who said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”  The moment of Jesus' baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry.  Thousands witnessed Jesus’ preaching, teaching, and healing; and began to follow him.  Josephus writes: “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. He worked surprising deeds and was a teacher…He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks…and the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has not disappeared to this day.” 

The days following Jesus’ baptism were exciting and hope filled.  But then came the cross and the blood -  a stumbling block for many.  How could Jesus’ shed blood be the will of God?  How could the Messiah die on a cross?  There were of course some who responded to the cross by saying that Jesus was just another man, another failed messiah assigned to the ash heap of history.  Then there were those with a really unusual gnostic idea: they believed Jesus was indeed a special man who was possessed by God's Spirit at his baptism, and right up to that point before he shed his blood on the cross.  That’s when the Spirit left him, they claimed, since God - in their way of thinking - would never allow himself to be soiled by human suffering and death. 

John’s point here is that “These false teachers had missed the point!”  This Jesus was the incarnate Word made flesh, from birth to baptism to death (see John 1).  It was God’s plan from beginning to end.  God did not swoop in and spend three great years with us, and then leave just before things got ugly.  NO!  He came through water and blood!  He shared our joy and our sorrow.  He was born like us…he walked among us for 33 years…and then took upon himself the pain of our human sin and darkness on the cross.  If Jesus was just a man, his death would have meant nothing.  He would have joined the thousands of other false messiahs and deluded revolutionaries who have failed to move the world, but because he was God in the flesh, it meant that the Creator had now won the victory over our sin and suffering.  In fact, it was as he shed his blood on the cross that the power of his matchless life was most stunningly revealed.   

So, there was the testimony of Jesus’ own life…from birth to baptism to death, the testimony of water and blood which he and others saw with their own eyes; but there was a third witness John knew he must mention, the testimony of God’s Spirit.  “And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. There are three that testify:  the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree” (6-8). John is no doubt thinking of the witness of the Holy Spirit, the Counselor whom Jesus promised; the spiritual presence of the Risen Christ at work in his disciples, helping them to carry on his message despite persecution and the threat of death.  Today that same Spirit continues to speak to us through the Bible, prayer, the counsel of the saints, our conscience and our life circumstances.

In addition to this historical and spiritual testimony to Jesus, there is yet one more implied here, the personal: The testimony in our hearts.  For Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts” (10).  In a Jewish court there had to be at least two or three witnesses to substantiate a charge. The water, and the blood and the Spirit are in agreement, says John; but are we?  What will we say about Jesus Christ?   What will we say about these testimonies to his soul-cleansing life (e.g., the water); his death-conquering sacrifice (e.g., the blood); and his abiding presence here and now (through the power of his Spirit)?  Do we agree with this testimony in our hearts?  Faith in God’s victorious Son is a faith based on testimony that each one of us must answer.

(iii) The stakes are high as we consider that testimony, because faith in God’s Son means victory over death and eternal life (11-12). And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  Whoever has the Son has life. Whoever does not have the Son does not have life” (11).            

This claim that Jesus lives and has the power of eternal life in him…is unique among the religions of the world. In the ancient Near East, there were many “dying and rising” gods but nobody in those religions supposed that it had actually happened to a flesh and blood human being. The sacred texts of Buddhism record the great entrance of Buddha into Nirvana, but there is no suggestion that the Buddha continues to be present with his followers after his death.  It is his teaching, the dharma, that will take his place.  Muslims know the exact date of the death of the prophet Muhammad; and it is never claimed that he returned somehow from death.  Yet the assertion that Jesus’ resurrection was an event in time and space is still the best explanation for the abrupt change in his disciples from a beaten and terrified band who saw their leader executed on a cross; into fearless witnesses who faced death in order to proclaim him alive; who transformed the cross, a symbol of darkness and despair, into a symbol of God’s victory over sin and death.  

The victory which Christ has won for us is not only life after death with him, but a new quality of life right now.  Eternal life begins the moment we place our trust in him.  It is a gift received by faith that results in a life changed by his love. In Little Tokyo one day, I received a pamphlet from a Buddhist missionary that said that Christianity, like Islam and Buddhism, pins it eternal hope on “a life on earth spent in worthy and useful pursuits.”  I want to say, first, that I believe in and defend the religious liberty we have in this nation, because when it is lost for one group it will be lost for all of us. So, I’m grateful that a certain Buddhist had the freedom in this country to give me that brochure, and I am grateful for the freedom I had to talk with him about it. I began by asking questions and listening, but eventually I was able to point out that the Christian message is actually the reverse of what was stated in that pamphlet… that eternal life is not something human beings earn by their own "worthy and useful pursuits," or by an accumulation of good lives lived in successive reincarnations – it is received as a free gift by faith in what God has done for us in Christ.  

After sharing that with my Buddhist friend, you can imagine my surprise when I learned that this man had once considered himself a Christian, but had never heard that message of God’s grace in his local church!  I was dumbfounded.  As I said to him, it’s not that Christians don’t believe that good deeds are important.  Every major religion believes that doing good is important, and Christianity is among them.  But our good deeds are a humble response to God’s saving grace, not a means of earning it.  It is not our achievement but Christ’s self-giving love that has won the victory!

Faith in God's Son means victory...but the victory in which we place our faith is not only a past event; it is a present hope in the face of our own triumphs and disappointments. Consider your greatest personal success whether it be a school diploma or a dream job appointment, victory in sport, courage on the battlefield, the reversal of an injustice, the joy of a loving family, a beautiful artistic creation, the special memories you have cherished with friends.  Any of these might be precious victories, high points in any life…but what lasting value do they have apart from the promise of Christ’s victory over death and your faith in him?  Are they not like dust in the wind, like a Crystal Cathedral that is suddenly reduced to ashes and smoke...apart from his love?  

On the other hand, consider how Christ’s victory over death gives new meaning not just to every victory but to all your failures as well.  For many of us, it is all too easy to dwell upon failure and discouragement and disappointment… unfulfilled dreams, missed opportunities, moments of shame and regret which we cannot change.  But in Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, our past is redeemed, our shame is covered, our sins forgiven, and no pain we have suffered or tear we have shed is in vain.  We are a new creation in Christ; and as Paul has said, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37).

So let's put on his Nike’s, let's put on his victory shoes, and in the words of Hebrews 12, “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God."

Lord Jesus, I have heard the message that faith in you overcomes the world: that the holiness of your life gives me power to walk in holiness; that your triumph over sin and sorrow, trouble and disappointment means that you can help me when I am going through these things as well; that your victory over death gives me indestructible hope.  The powers of this world -- which did everything they could to eliminate you – failed.  After the cross came the resurrection and after the shame came the glory!  King Jesus, thank you for calling me to be your disciple, cleansing me from my sin, and filling me with your Spirit!  With my lips I confess that you are Lord, and with my heart I believe that you are risen from the grave: therefore, I will share in your death-conquering life, a life which gives meaning to every disappointment and failure I have experienced and apart from which no success or triumph in this world has any lasting value.  Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord!  Amen.

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