Meditation inspired by the First Epistle of John 4:7-2

Delivered at The First Presbyterian Church, Wilkes-Barre, May 6, 2012.


May we learn here together in Hope and Joy.

1. Asked to do the sermon for this morning, when asked to do the sermon anytime, the first challenge is figuring out the main point based on what reading. Looking over the readings provided by the Revised Common Lectionary, which is what we Episcopalians and many Presbyterians use to organize their working through the Bible, and upon reading through I John, I found a point of inspiration, suitable for this occasion.

In our similes of enlightenment, it was like a light bulb went on, sudden brightness illuminating the darkness. That metaphor of light bulb and inspiration (one hopes by the Holy Spirit) led me next, unfortunately or not, to the classic light bulb jokes. Maybe you’ve heard them before, if so forgive me. Maybe some will be offended by them, if so forgive me. I did not write them, but I’ll try to do them justice. They are classics [most drawn from this page and this page].

Q: How many Christians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Three, but they're really one.

Q: How many Roman Catholics does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Only one, a priest, but he’s got to get approval from the Vatican first.

Q: How many Pentecostals does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Only one since her hands are in the air anyway.

Q: How many charismatics does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Three, one to cast it out and two to catch it when it falls!

Q: How many TV evangelists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: One. But for the message of light to continue, send in your donation today, all major credit cards accepted.

Q: How many Southern Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: CHANGE???????

Q: How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?
A: There is some question here. But we have it on good authority that they have appointed a committee to study the issue and report back at their next meeting.

Q: How many members of the Church of Christ does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Five. One to change the bulb, four to serve refreshments.

Q: How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb?
A:Ten. One to call the electrician, and nine to say how much they liked the old one better.
Four. One to change the bulb. One to bless the elements. One to pour the sherry. And one to offer a toast to the old light bulb.

Q: How many Calvinists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None. God has predestined when the lights will be on.

Q: How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Well, it should require about five committees to review the idea first. If each is staffed with half a dozen members, that's what ... 30?

Q. How many Quakers does it take to change a light bulb?
A. Ten to sit around in a circle until one feels the inner light.

Q: How many Amish does it take to change a light bulb?
A: What's a light bulb?

2. What is the point of all this jocularity? What does it have to do with today’s reading? These jokes point out how Christians have become divided, sometimes over silly things. In the Epistle of First John, the author wants Christians to be united through love, because it is a serious thing.

3. So to be more serious for a moment, let’s look at the context of what the author of First John is getting at. You may have noted that I do not call the author “John.” Nowhere does the author refer to himself by that name. Only later was the name attached and most modern scholars doubt the author of this book is the same as the author of the Gospel named John, the other Epistles named John, or the Book of Revelation, also often attributed to the same John.

4. But our author does, at least, belong to what scholars call the “Johannine Community,” a group of Christians inspired and perhaps led by the original apostle John. At first, this community was trying to understand the phenomenon of Christ in opposition to their participation in and then exclusion from the Jewish temple. In the message of the Epistle of First John, the author is concerned about divisions of the community, as some people are teaching the wrong message. First John’s author is trying to set the community straight. He calls his opponents “antichrists” -- and that is the first mention of that term in the Bible, much different from what it will later come to mean. In this epistle, the term applies to teachers who are teaching the wrong thing. I hope it doesn’t apply to me, since I am also a teacher, a professor.

And what are they teaching that is wrong? That has been hard for scholars to figure out, since First John is so vague on the point. It seems to be three issues: that the antichrists denied that Jesus was the Messiah; or the nature of Jesus’ divinity; or that converted one’s were untouched by sin. Whatever the problem was, First John’s radical answer was the command “love one another.”

His language of calling his opponents antichrists and children of the devil may seem less than loving; but the main argument in the reading for today is to have Christians “love one another.”
Let me also emphasize that the passage today is about Christians—by for and among Christians. This is not the same command as to “love one’s neighbor”. First John is talking about fellow believers, using words of family: brothers, brethren, brothers and sisters in modern translation, those who have heard and received the message of God sending his only begotten son to atone for our sins. “The commandment we have from [Jesus] is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

Sadly, Christians have not done a great job of loving one another. Instead, Christians have done a better job of dividing up, splitting, the technical term of schism or tearing ripping a garment. Other words used are between those of orthodoxy (or correct teaching) for the good guys and heresy (or choice of another way) for the bad guys. Clearly from the beginning as we read this morning in First John, Christians have been splitting and then arguing with one another, and at worst even killing one another, punishing individual heretics by burning them alive at the stake, or collectively with slaughter. One of my old high school friends I’m in contact with on Facebook, with whose theology and politics I usually strongly disagree, yet whom I try to love as a brother, wrote something this week I actually agree with: “Despite the efforts of Nero, Stalin, and Mao, the greatest persecution of Christians has come from religious people.”

Although the killing of Christians by Christians has mostly stopped, many Christians today remain divided -- are not in communion, meaning they cannot even share a meal together, like brothers and sisters like at least once a year on Thanksgiving, much less love one another. If we were to list some of the numerous splits in the church, we could begin in the early church with heresies of the Gnostics, Docetists, Marcions, Hippolytans, Novatians, Donatists, Monarchianists, Sabellians. Where was the love?

Then once the Nicene Creed established that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, more schisms took place, Arians, Nestorians, Antiochians, Copts, Pelagians, Apollinarians. Where was the love?
And then during the Middle Ages we get iconoclasts, then the huge split of Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism. Where was the love?
And finally the huge fracturing of the Protestant Reformation, in which our two denominations originated and in which more divisions are created practically every day.

The reaction to these Christian splits might have been just a cool indifference, as in an amicable no-fault divorce; or anger and lawsuits, and of course even violence. Christians have fought with each other about church organization; they fought about confessional statements and creeds; they fought about their understanding of the divine human natures of Jesus; they fought about the order of worship; they fought about who belongs to the community of the faithful and who doesn’t. And we Christians still fight about such things today. How can we just get along?
Back in the reformation, one theologian proposed the formula: "In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, love." Well, he wound up arrested by the inquisition, dying in prison, and having his dead corpse and books burned anyhow. Where was the love?

And even with this formula defining the essentials or nonessentials is not very easy. Almost as intense as the quarrel today over incandescents versus fluorescents.

5. It’s never too late to love one another. Our two churches, St. Stephens and First Pres, being together today is a sign of that hope. Our larger churches, Episcopal and Presbyterian, have joined and formed ecumenical institutions together and with still other denominations. Perhaps more will join in partnerships and maybe even full communion. Does it matter how we change the lightbulb, as long as we have the light? I assume you don’t want to sit in darkness: First John uses the contrast of Light and Darkness to separate our knowledge of right and wrong, good and evil, Jesus or the Devil.

6. All Christians depend on that light bulb, “Jesus Christ [who] has come in the flesh is from God.” As long as we use Christ to light up our churches, we can see each others faces, see to share in a common meal together, see toward a common future we all share together. Are we going to be indifferent to one another, hateful toward one another, or even murderous to one another? Or can we “love one another” because God loved us enough to send himself, his son, to us?

Question: How many sinners does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: All of us, “since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”

May these few words help us to embrace the eternal Word. Amen.

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