Reading Between the Lines
In the years that I served as an ER chaplain, I was struck by just how often ER medicine seems to be guessing. Maybe part of that is because when a trauma comes into the ER there is such limited information. The doctors have very little time to assess the injury and start ruling out what it is not. They don’t have the benefit of knowing exactly what happened to cause the injury. They don’t have the benefit of knowing the patient, of knowing medical history or previous conditions. It seemed to me that sometimes ER doctors would start making guesses and rule things out because that is all they can do with limited information and limited time. And given those limits, I think they do a pretty good job.
It’s a completely different story with a family doctor. My primary physician is someone I see every year for my annual physical. He knows a little bit about me. He knows my medical history. He knows my family medical history. He has spent time getting to know me and my health. He does not have the same limits that the ER doctor works around. In 2014 and early 2015 it was repeated visits to my primary physician that led to my cancer being found and diagnosed. Because my doctor knew something was not right with my health, he kept digging and kept looking till the problem was uncovered. It took time and persistence and careful examination of all the medical information he had.
It was only that kind of careful examination that brought the right answers.
Payton Manning was a quarterback for the Broncos who did not work out of the huddle. The offense would simply line up, and then Manning would call the play, and then players would shift around, and then—a few Omaha’s later—the ball is snapped. Part of that I think is because Manning would first want to see the defense before calling his play. He could predict what the defense was about to do by the way they lined up and then he could rearrange the offense to overcome it.
Part of what made Payton Manning a great quarterback came from his athletic ability. But I think the thing that propelled him to have a record-breaking career came from more than athleticism. He worked and practiced and studied. Hours and hours of preparation by studying films of different teams and defenses prepared him to step out on the field and play a superior game. When he got in the game, he knew exactly what he was looking at, what he was looking for, and what he needed to call for his team to do. There was no guesswork. He did his homework and was confident in what he was walking into.
It was only that kind of careful examination that brought the right answers.
This is where we are in the letter of 1 John today. John sees his church lining up against an enemy. There is something of an obstacle in front of them. And John is setting up his audience on the best way to carefully examine what they are facing so that they can be brought to the right answers.
1 John 4:1–6 (NIV)
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 Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.
Being a doctor in charge of patients’ health takes careful examination if you want to perform well. Being a quarterback playing on a football team takes careful examination if you want to play well. And being a disciple of Jesus also takes careful examination if you want to grow in faith well.
Sometimes we don’t do things well. Sometimes we cut corners and are sloppy either because we are in a rush, or maybe we just don’t care that much, or maybe we lack the right knowledge or skills or tools to do something the right way. When I lived in Kalamazoo, my house had a finished basement. It wasn’t that way from the builder, it was a project done by the previous owner. It included a rec room and a full bathroom. it obviously was not professional, but looked good enough. And it all passed inspection, so I figured it all must be okay. But after we had lived there a while I began to notice a few things. one of the things I noticed was that the shower in this bathroom seemed to get dusty and dirty quite often, like someone was shaking out towels and blankets into it. It was soon after that when I realized that the guy had taken the shower fan and patched it into the same exhaust vent as the laundry room dryer. It was dryer lint. Whenever we would run the clothes dryer, it would blow dryer lint into the shower.
It all looked fine on the outside, but because of a sloppy shortcut, it didn’t do what it was supposed to do.
Sometimes our faith—our life of discipleship—can fall into the same predicament. Sometimes you and I fall into sloppy shortcuts in our spiritual lives. We cut corners. We cut corners because our lives are in a rush. We cut corners because other things take higher priority. We cut corners because we lack the knowledge or the skills or the tools to grow in faith well. And the result is that our faith might look good on the outside. But on the inside, our faith does not do what it is supposed to do.
What might this look like? One of the things noted about the early church in the book of Acts is that they always gathered together. The author of Hebrews urges the church to not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing (Heb. 10:25). Our faith was never meant to take place in isolation. When we start thinking that we don’t need the church and we don’t need community with other Christians, then we start taking sloppy shortcuts in our faith. After all, being part of a church takes time, takes effort, takes energy, takes commitment. Sometimes we might be tempted to pursue a faith that cuts corners around these things.
And what we do here when we gather for worship as the church gives a clue to what those regular habits and rhythms should look like in a healthy growing faith. The Bible calls us to be people who rejoice in the Lord. So, we lift up our voices and sing to him. The Bible calls us to be honest before God and confess our sins and our needs to God in prayer. The Bible calls for us to be generous and share our blessings. These are all habits we practice regularly when we gather as the church. When we take shortcuts around these things, then it only hurts our own faith.
Here’s what I love about today’s passage. John is laying out what it is that keeps our faith on the right path, and calling out what it is that steers our faith into sloppy shortcuts that might look good on the outside, but don’t get us anywhere on the inside. Here’s what else I love about this passage. It echoes our mission statement here at Horizon. The words might look a little different, but all the exact same ideas are here. Our mission statement says that Horizon helps people see Jesus, know Jesus, serve Jesus, and share Jesus. We say at Horizon that these are the pillars for our mission to be true disciples of Jesus who are growing in faith. Look with me at how this mission weaves through what John writes.
Verse 2 says this is how you can recognize the Spirit of God. John wants the church to be able to recognize the one true God for who he is. In our mission at Horizon, we call this seeing Jesus. Here is where John is taking this mission of seeing Jesus and bringing it to the next level. Apparently, there were some people coming into John’s church and teaching things about Jesus that weren’t true. John is reminding his church, if you want to see Jesus, it is important that you recognize him for who he truly is.
In john’s day of the first century church, the truth of Jesus was being distorted by a false teaching known as Gnosticism. The Gnostics were saying that Jesus was not truly human; that he only appeared human, but was actually a purely spiritual being. This is why john writes to his church that they know the truth by those who acknowledge Jesus in the flesh.
More simply, this is what John is saying for us today. There are those who come along and try to portray Jesus to be something other than what he is. They want you to take shortcuts in your journey of faith. It looks good on the outside, but on the inside, it doesn’t work out.
What does this look like for us in the church today? There are popular values in our secular culture that people want to think come from the Bible. There are television preachers and books that try to convince you of a health & wealth gospel—that Jesus is like Santa Claus. Others try to portray Jesus as a self-help guru who shows you what steps you can take to help improve your own life and give you the keys to success. But is discipleship really about getting money and finding success? If that’s what it means to see Jesus, then I think we are not seeing Jesus for who he really is.
John is affirming for his church that Jesus came in the flesh. Jesus became incarnate as a human being to come to this earth and live the life that we never could. He didn’t come to give you money or success. He came because we had nowhere else to turn. He came because all of our efforts to find our way towards the shalom peace that God intends for this creation have all fallen pitifully short of the mark. Only Jesus could turn that around. Without Jesus coming to us, we would still be lost. This is the Jesus that the Bible wants us to see.
But our mission is about more than seeing Jesus. We say at Horizon that we also want people to know Jesus. What does John have to say about that? John says that, first of all, we recognize the Spirit of God, and then we acknowledge him. Acknowledging Jesus is more than affirming that he is real and that he exists. Acknowledging Jesus is to fall to a place of surrender. When I acknowledge Jesus, I am orientating my life in a direction that places my life and my will and my obedience under the life and the will of God, and to the obedience of God.
Acknowledging Jesus comes hand-in-hand with acknowledging my need for a savior. It acknowledges my sinfulness and my shortcomings. It acknowledges everything in my past that I have ever done to try to make it on my own apart from God. Here at Horizon we say all those things about the second piece of our mission—about knowing Jesus. We say that knowing Jesus is acknowledging my need for a savior and that Jesus is the only answer. That’s what it means to truly know Jesus for who he is.
Acknowledging Jesus is something like finding signal on a GPS. Recently my family was in Chicago. Even though I lived in the Chicago suburbs for a few years, I am really not all that familiar with the streets of downtown Chicago. After attending a brunch, we got in the van so that we could head out of the city and back to our hotel. We were parked in an underground garage and the GPS was not getting a signal. After coming out of the ramp onto the streets it took a minute for the GPS to kick in. In the meantime, I wasn’t quite sure where I needed to go. After the GPS caught a signal I was set to go.
Sometimes our life of discipleship with Jesus works like that. In order for a GPS to work it needs to do three things. First of all, it needs to identify where I am right now. Next it needs to identify where it is I need to go. And third, it needs to direct a path to get from where I am to where I need to be.
When I acknowledge my need for Jesus, I acknowledge that my life is lost in a spot which I cannot escape on my own. I acknowledge that only Jesus provides the path to get where I need to be. It’s not that Jesus shows the path; Jesus himself is the path. That’s acknowledging Jesus for who he is.
Respond to Jesus
Respond to Jesus
So, John begins with our need to recognize Jesus for who he truly is. Then, we acknowledge Jesus in a way that surrenders our will to obedience to the one true God. And then thirdly, we are called to respond to Jesus. Seeing Jesus and knowing Jesus calls for a response. In our mission at Horizon we identify that response in two ways. We say that our response is to serve Jesus, and to share Jesus.
This is where the life of discipleship takes root and grows. When we recognize Jesus and then acknowledge Jesus, we are invited into a new and changed life that follows Jesus. Once again, John points in today’s passage to those who come with a message that looks good on the outside, but doesn’t work on the inside.
There were people in John’s day that tried to convince the church that responding to Jesus meant gaining secret spiritual knowledge that would make them part of a separate and elite club—that was Gnosticism. That was a response to Jesus that had no need for grace. Today we still hear messages that try to pull us in a response to Jesus that lets go of grace. We hear messages from some that tell us being a Christian is about following all the rules, or being a good person, or living a moral life. All of those things are a response to Jesus that throws away grace and throws away what Jesus did on the cross.
The result of that kind of thinking is to make faith and discipleship more about accomplishments and personal piety than it is about Jesus. But look at what John says. 1 John 4:4–5 (NIV)
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.
We live in a world that prizes and champions rugged individualism and competitive strength. We live in a world that views success coming through our own wit and cunning, and so we deserve all that we have achieved because we have worked for it, so we are entitled to it. This is the message of faith and discipleship that the world wants to hear. That you can accomplish anything if you just believe in yourself, and put your mind to it, and work hard enough. Jesus invites you to chase all of your dreams if you just have faith that you can do all that.
But that’s all wrong. That’s not a response to Jesus that follows the truth. John says that the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. Faith and discipleship is not about your dreams. It is not about just believing in yourself. It is not about accomplishing anything you want by your own abilities.
Jesus came into a world in which he went out of his way to seek out and call those who are lost. He called disciples who were outcasts at the bottom of society. He went after people who had nothing of their own to offer except complete surrender to God. This is the kind of response Jesus is looking for.
So, for you here today, those who may be feeling crushed under the weight of all that the world requires. For those here today who feel like you can never be godly enough to shine forth as pristine example of a Christ-follower. For those of you here today who feel as though your faith and your belief is falling behind. For those of you who think that you just don’t know enough scripture or you just don’t understand the teachings of the Bible. For those of you who are tired and beat up by trying over and over again to chart your own spiritual path and come up with your own solutions. TODAY, Jesus calls for a different kind of response from you. You are invited into the loving arms of Jesus through the grace of God, not because of who you are or what you have done. You are called to be a disciple of Jesus; a calling that begins by recognizing Jesus for who he truly is, acknowledging your complete surrender to God alone, and responding to Jesus by walking in the truth of his grace and love.
Listen to what Jesus himself has to say about this.
Matthew 6:33 (NIV)
33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.