The Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2 May 2021
A Sermon on 1 John 4:1-11 by Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS
1 John 4:1-11 English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 4 Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore, they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. 7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
THE WORD OF GOD: OUR ANSWER
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Wrong Answer
Doubtless you have heard about the Sunday School teacher who asked the question of little Johnny, a first grader: “Who has brown hair, climbs trees, and gathers nuts?” And Johnny replies, “It sounds like a squirrel to me, but the answer is probably Jesus.”
In this fourth week of readings from 1 John, we finally get to the heart of the problem in John’s churches. There are people who say the answer to life’s greatest questions is Jesus, but their problem is they don’t know the real Jesus. So, John, the beloved disciple, now in old age isn’t writing to the people who have it wrong and have seceded from their fellowship in the Gospel. John gives a simple test to those who are continuing in his churches and, with great clarity, he teaches them how to discern the difference between the wrong answer and the right answer.
In short, those who have been deceived do not confess that Jesus, the Word of God, has come in the flesh, was born of the Virgin Mary, and is truly God and truly human. Shaped by this world’s teachers, they have no problem saying Jesus is God. Their problem is saying Jesus is also human.
In our day, those who have been deceived don’t have any problem saying Jesus is human. They have a big problem confessing that Jesus is the living Word of God. That He is truly God!
Now, perhaps that sounds like some esoteric philosophical argument akin to debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Perhaps, that even sounds like one of those otherworldly spiritual debates that generates heated arguments but doesn’t have anything to do with real life. But that couldn’t be further from the Truth (with a capital T), because Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, is reality itself. He is the One against Whom every human is measured.
Like the people today who say Jesus couldn’t possibly be God, the people who had departed from John’s churches said Jesus couldn’t possibly be human. And it’s not just that both have the wrong answer to the question: “Who is Jesus?” Rather, both have the wrong answer about who He, the One through whom all things were made, has created them to be. They have the wrong answer to the question: “Who am I?” or better yet “Whose was I created to be?”
The sophisticated unbelievers, then, like the sophisticated unbelievers today, think they are autonomous, free agents when it comes to life in this world. When you have the wrong answer about Jesus and the wrong answer about yourself, you aren’t in some kind of neutral zone. No, you are, like Mungo in Mel Brooks’ movie Blazing Saddles, “only pawn in game of life.” You can have a PhD from an Ivy League school, be an honors graduate engineer from MIT or Cal Tech, be one of the heads of the five high tech families, worth billions, and controlling what people say, but still be dancing on the devil’s puppet strings and on the precipice of the abyss.
John in old age has told them he walked with Jesus, talked with Jesus, saw Jesus dead and then risen, and cared for Jesus’ mother until her death. He is an eye-and-ear witness to Whom Jesus is, and if you get Jesus wrong, you get yourself wrong, and you are filled with the unholy spirit.
The Right Answer
On this 5th Sunday of Easter, traditionally known as Cantate (or “Sing”) Sunday, we are at the bookend of our Christmas celebration. To be the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus had to be born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is truly God from eternity and truly human by asexual reproduction. Now, we know that virginal conception is possible today through the process of in vitro fertilization, but that is quite different than there being no male human DNA involved in the virginal conception of Jesus by Mary, the mother of our Lord. Through the agency of the Holy Spirit, Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, is God and man.
Four weeks ago, we celebrated the Feast of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God whose innocent blood was shed on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice for our sins. The word “propitiation” in verse 10 refers to the sprinkling of the blood of a lamb without blemish on the mercy seat, the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, the sprinkling which the high priest did in the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple for the forgiveness of sins each Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. But, as John the Baptist declared in John 1:29, Jesus is the new Passover Lamb, who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus’ Blood is spread over the doorposts of our lives in the washing of Holy Baptism. Joined thus to Him, God’s Son frees us from the Egypt of sin, death, and the devil and brings us through death to the everlasting Promised Land.
We know today that people can be brought back from death by the shock of a defibrillator and by cardio pulmonary resuscitation. A few of us have seen people on the verge of death brought back by a heart transplant and given ten more years. Some in this room have been near death and brought back by angioplasty and the placing of stents in the arteries leading to the heart. But none of that compares with the resurrection of our Lord Jesus after a brutal beating, having nails driven through His wrists, feet, and Achilles tendons, and the combination of the loss of blood and suffocating by being hung on a cross, naked and dying for three hours, then dead and buried.
So, when John, the elderly beloved disciple, speaks to his churches of God’s love, he is pointing to the Crucified Jesus, the Lamb of God, truly God and truly human, Who lived the perfect life of obedience none of us can live and died the innocent sacrificial death none of us can die that all might have eternal life through His saving death. The cross is God’s victory. Our Lord’s battle cry in John 19:30 is “It is finished” … “It is accomplished” … “The goal has been reached.” We preach Christ crucified is St. Paul’s phrase, but St. John has said the same in different words.
If you want forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation, Jesus is the right and only answer! And we can be certain of that, because Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Living the Answer
As an old man, St. John is the spiritual father to the many whom he calls his “little children.” After his imprisonment on the island of Patmos and his visions of the new creation to come, John is deeply concerned that those who have not been led astray by the spirit of the antichrist will remain faithful until death. St. John knows he is a short-timer. He’s studying for finals. And he wants his hearers to know what is at stake: You don’t just have the right answer. You live the right answer as ones who have been baptized into the Lord Jesus’ saving death and resurrection. You don’t just talk love or define love to suit yourself, for God is love in action. We love, because God first loved us and gave Himself for us. Like our Lord, we give ourselves to each other in sacrificial service that the love we receive in the Lord’s Supper flows through us always.
St. John, the beloved disciple, draws a very sharp contrast between those who have the wrong answer and those who have the right. Let us be very clear, then, that the old enemy, who is in the world, has not conceded that he has lost. No, he is not greater than the One who is in us. The old enemy is not another co-equal god. Satan is a lying creature, the father of lies, and his power is in seducing people with his lies, his works, and his ways. St. John says those refusing to listen to an eye-and-ear witness of Jesus, the Word of God, our answer, is the mark of those not from God.
Do not be deceived, dear ones, by the lies the devil tells to the world and the old sinner in us. Remember what St. John told us three weeks ago? You should, because we heard it again today: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Living the answer is living in the community of God’s people, hearing His Word, sharing His supper, and being schooled in the eternal life and love of the Triune God that flows into us here. Let’s be honest. Many of us know we are short-timers like St. John. We only have so much time left in this world to love as Christ loved. So…how are you doing with that? Are you living certain that Christ Jesus is the right and only answer? Are you praying for your unchurched loved ones and inviting them to come home? Are you devoting yourselves to the study of God’s Word so that you can discern His Truth amidst a world of lies and deception? Are you more passionate about the things of God than the things of this world? And before you say yes too quickly, look at the Crucified Jesus and ask yourself if that’s the way you are living the answer. Pray this prayer with me: “I’ll go where you want me to go. I’ll do what you want me to do. I’ll say what you want me to say. I’ll be what you want me to be. Show me your way, Lord Jesus, and grant me the grace to follow you all the way over the finish line. In your mighty name. Amen.”
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
©Samuel David Zumwalt, STS
St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina USA
The Word of God: Our Answer
“O God, through whom redemption comes to us and our adoption is accomplished: Look in mercy on your children, and bestow upon all who believe in Christ perfect freedom and an eternal inheritance; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 1336).
1 John 4:1 “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God….”
Didymus the Blind [4th century catechist and lay theologian in Alexandria, Egypt]: “Just as in ancient Israel there were some prophets who spoke the word of God and others who did not, so also, as soon as the apostles appeared, speaking in Christ and having the Holy Spirit whom the Lord had given to them, many false apostles were sent by the devil to counterfeit the teaching of the gospel. It is essential to have the gift of the Holy Spirit ….” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: 1 John, 208-209).
1 John 4:2 “… every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”
St. Polycarp [Early 2nd century martyred Bishop of Smyrna, Turkey]: “Everyone who shall not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is antichrist. Whoever shall not confess the testimony of the cross is of the devil… So let us … turn to the word which was delivered to us from the beginning” (209).
1 John 4:3 “and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”
Didymus the Blind: “If a spirit dissolves the divine-human unity of Christ and thinks the pure Word of God is outside all flesh, and cannot really be a man, and states that everything done in his incarnation is a fantasy, then that spirit is not from God…” (210).
1 John 4:4 “Little children … for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”
St. Hilary [Early 5th century Bishop of Arles, France]: “God’s power to save is always much greater than the devil’s power to do harm” (211).
1 John 4:8 “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
St. Bede the Venerable [8th century British Benedictine monk and ecclesiastical historian]: “Let no one say that when he sins he sins against other people but not against God, for how can you not be sinning against God when you are sinning against love?” (213).
1 John 4:10 “In this is love … that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
St. Bede the Venerable: “This is the greatest sign of God’s love for us: when we were not yet able to seek him because of our many sins, he sent his Son to us, so that he might grant forgiveness to all who believe in him and call us back into the fellowship of his fatherly glory” (213).
- Do I understand that the incarnation of God’s Son Jesus is the Truth to which I must always cling?
DAILY PRAYERS (from Luther’s Small Catechism)
AS THE HEAD OF THE FAMILY SHOULD TEACH HIS HOUSEHOLD TO PRAY MORNING AND EVENING
Asking a Blessing
The children and members of the household shall go to the table reverently, fold their hands, and say:
“The eyes of all look to You, [O Lord,] and You give them their food at the proper time. You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” Psalm 145:15-16.
Then shall be said the Lord’s Prayer and the following:
Lord God, heavenly Father, bless us and these Your gifts which we receive from your bountiful goodness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
- Pray for every unbaptized child, youth, and adult that you know and for the child’s parents, too.
- Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship in person or online with St. Matthew’s each week (https://stmatthewsch.org/).
- Discuss with your spouse, your family, or a friend how to set aside time for regular prayer. Keep this order for blessing at your table and pray before your meal in this way.
- As a sign of gratitude for God’s mercy in Jesus Christ and for the gift of the most significant women in your life, make a gift of $10 (each?) to purchase blankets for the global poor through Church World Service. The deadline for such gifts is today, May 2, 2021.
- Set aside time daily, preferably first thing, but when you are able to focus, to hear the Word of God, to reflect upon that Word, and to ask the Holy Spirit to grant you grace to be shaped by and conformed to that Word. Daily Bible readings may be found at www.stmatthewsch.org. Daily lectionary readings are on p.182 in the front of the Lutheran Book of Worship (Week of 5 Easter).
For Husbands and Wives
Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”