Have you ever noticed that the one point in the gospel story where you might have thought it was easiest for the disciples to believe is where they showed the greatest doubt? There Jesus was, standing right in front of them, and yet they had to struggle to believe. When Jesus entered the upper room that first Easter evening, he had to ask them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” (Luke 24:38) When they met him in Galilee (presumably some time later), Matthew tells us that even though they worshiped him, there were still some who doubted (Matthew 28:17).
It seems to me, based on passages like this and on my own experience, that doubt is almost invariably the companion of faith. Who among us has not experienced doubt at least occasionally or perhaps on a daily or even hourly basis? I came across a quote about doubt this past week from the Buddha, which runs thus: “There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt… It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills.” On a contrary note, the astronomer Galileo claimed that doubt is “the father of discovery”. And twentieth-century psychologist Rollo May once wrote, “The relationship between commitment and doubt is by no means an antagonistic one. Commitment is healthiest when it's not without doubt but in spite of doubt.” What are we to think, what are we to say, then, about doubt?
In this morning’s Epistle reading we find John writing to people who were struggling with doubts. In their case these seeds of doubt had been sown in their minds by false teachers in the church. One of those teachers was a man named Cerinthus, who lived in Asia Minor around the same time as John. Claiming to be promoting the true faith, Cerinthus taught that Jesus was just an ordinary human being, different from others only in greater wisdom and righteousness, that the Christ descended upon him at his baptism and departed from him before his crucifixion, and that it was only Jesus the man who suffered, died and rose again. All of this teaching was couched in Jewish piety and gilded with the sophistication of Greek philosophy. So, particularly for those who were new to the Christian faith or were not able to recognize heresy, these teachings could be hugely attractive. The result was that there were many people whose faith had been kind of knocked off balance, who weren’t sure what they ought to believe—and it was to such people that John addressed his letter.
In many ways we live in a similar time today. (Perhaps it has always been the case.) You have only to walk through the religious section of Barnes and Noble to see a proliferation of books proclaiming the health, wealth and prosperity “gospel”, questioning the reliability of the Bible, denying the resurrection of Jesus, or promoting the Gospel of Thomas and other alternative early “Christianities”. In the midst of this confusing mélange of ideas, John boldly claims that there are things that we can know.
Before we go any further, though, we need to recognize that when John uses the word “know”, he is not speaking in the sense of knowing as we might a mathematical formula. It is not like saying the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. We could put statements like that in the category of head knowledge. No, what John is writing about is heart knowledge—and more often than not, when the Bible uses the word “know”, it is referring to that kind of knowledge: personal knowledge, relational knowledge, experience. This is what the Bible means when it tells us that Adam knew his wife Eve; or when in John’s gospel we read that Jesus knew what was in a person; or when Jesus prays on behalf of his followers that “they may know you, the one true God…” It is in this relational sense that three times in this morning’s epistle passage John declares, “By this we know… By this we know… By this we know…”
God’s Love (16-18)
The first thing that John writes to assure his readers about is God’s love. There are many today who would question that love. This past week much of the world observed the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide in Turkey, when 1.5 million people were subjected to wholesale government-initiated slaughter. That atrocity became the model for Hitler’s annihilation of more than 6 million people in the Holocaust. Since then there have been the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia and the massacres in Rwanda, which claimed more than a million more lives—not to mention the unspeakable horrors to which our own Karen people have been subjected in Burma. This past week many of us have been horrified by the images on our computer and TV screens of thirty Ethiopian Christians being led to a brutal death by beheading. In the midst of all of this there are many who legitimately ask, “How can you believe in a God of love?”
For the people to whom John was writing events such as these were not something that they read about in history books or saw on a TV screen. They were immediate realities. The Pax Romana under which they lived had always meted out its own rough form of justice. But now, under the emperor Domitian, who insisted on being honored as “Lord and God”, Christians became the focus of an insatiable cruelty. Many were beaten, imprisoned, tortured and put to death. Even John himself would become a victim. As an old man he was spared the sentence of death and instead exiled from his home in Ephesus to the island of Patmos off the Turkish coast. In the midst of this, with relatives and friends and fellow believers being dragged off to torture and execution, it would have been natural for some to find their faith in God’s love being shaken if not altogether shattered.
In the midst of this, John points us to the cross of Jesus. He writes, “By this we know [God’s] love, that he laid down his life for us.” In these few words John tells us that God’s love is far more than a theoretical concept. It is real. It is tangible. It comes to us not merely as a theological principle but as an actual event. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” said Jesus to his disciples at the last supper (John 15:13). And this is exactly what God has done through the cross. This is the measure of his love. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1b).
God’s Forgiveness (19-23)
A second concern that hung heavy on the hearts of some was the question of God’s forgiveness. Forty years of pastoral experience have left me convinced that one of the core issues of life that all of us face is forgiveness—not only learning to forgive others for the wrongs they have done to us, but also receiving forgiveness for the wrongs we have done to them.
One of God’s little jokes on us was to give us the power to remember the past and leave us no power to undo it. We have all sometimes been willing to trade almost anything for a magic sponge to wipe just a few moments off the tables of time. But whatever the mind can make of the future, it cannot silence a syllable of the past. There is no delete key for reality… If we could only choose to forget the cruelest moments, we could, as time goes on, free ourselves from their pain. But the wrong sticks like a nettle in our memory.
So wrote ethicist Lewis Smedes in the introduction to his book The Art of Forgiving. Forgiving others can be a challenge, especially when a relationship has been betrayed or a wrong has been committed that cannot be undone. Yet we encounter an even greater challenge very often when comes to forgiving ourselves—forgiving ourselves for our less-than-loving attitudes towards other people, for the thoughtless words that sliced into another person’s heart, and for the thousand secret sins about which nobody knows but only ourselves. We are tortured by our own consciences.
If that is the case with you, then John has good news. “By this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” Did you hear those words? God is greater than our hearts. Even when we cannot forgive ourselves, God can. Even when we think forgiveness is impossible, God still forgives us. Even though God knows everything there is to know about us, he forgives us nevertheless. Once again we go back to the cross and to Jesus’ words, “Father, forgive them…” (Luke 23:34) and know that they were spoken not only for those who crucified him, but for us as well. As John wrote in the opening chapter of his letter, and as we will hear once again before we kneel in penitence in a few moments’ time, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
God’s Presence (24)
We can know God’s love. We can know God’s forgiveness. Thirdly, John says, we can know God’s presence. “By this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.” I think there is a tendency, particularly in our generation, to think of the presence of the Holy Spirit as a kind of emotional rush. In a few weeks’ time we will be celebrating Pentecost. We will remember the mighty rushing wind, those flames of fire that alighted on the disciples, and the miraculous ability to communicate in languages that had never been on their lips before—and we will think that is how the Holy Spirit works. But that is only one picture that the New Testament gives us of the Holy Spirit. How about the one who silently works within us the conviction that Jesus is Lord? How about the one who brings about that wonderful harvest of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control?
For John in this morning’s passage the test of the Holy Spirit’s presence is obedience. “All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us…” The test of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives is not, “Have I had this or that particular experience?” but, “Am I living in obedience to Jesus Christ?”
If my own experience is anything to judge by, obedience is not something that is easily measured. I suppose we can look at standards like the Ten Commandments or Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit. There are also various Rules of Life that we can choose to follow and they can be very helpful. Yet as much as we try to measure ourselves, those measures will always be subjective. Depending on our disposition, some of us will be easier and some of us harder on ourselves. I believe in the end that if we are really to get the true measure of ourselves, it will be as we live in community—as we hold ourselves accountable to our brothers and sisters and to Christ in them.
This morning, as we take the bread into our hands and the cup to our lips, may they be tangible reminders of what we have read in this passage. Through them may we know God’s love, mediated to us on the cross. May we know God’s forgiveness and cleansing through Jesus’ blood. And may we know God’s presence, enabling us in company with our brothers and sisters to live in obedience to him.