6-17-18 “God is Love: Who Is Jesus?”
So I asked Naomi to preach about the love chapter from 1 Corinthians last week as a lead-in of sorts to where we’re going for the next four weeks. 1 Corinthians 13 is THE most popular result when you Google search for “wedding scriptures” or “love scriptures.” When you ask people what the Bible says about love, most people come to that passage, remembering Paul’s word, “love is patient, love is kind.” And that is a bit ironic, because if you really look at the passage, it’s really not about the love between two people at all - it’s about the love of God, and this passage is best understood in that way. But that said, if you believe, as I do and as 1 John affirms, that God IS love and that we are created in God’s image, then that within each of us that is “of God,” is also at one with God’s love. So in that sense, what it says about love in general holds true for us as well. More on that idea in a moment.
I performed two weddings in May, and with both of those couples I met for pre-marital conversations three times. And part of what we talked about was the book The Five Love Languages, which I asked the couples to read together. One thing that the author points out in that book is that “while the word love permeates society…it is also a most confusing word” because of how we use it. And as I alluded to last week, in one breath we might say to another, “I love you,” and then in the next “I love tacos,” or pizza, or OSU football, or whatever.
And hopefully we don’t mean the same things when we use that same word.
So before we even get to the question that is posed in the title of the message, we must first tackle the question, “what do we mean by the word love?” And more importantly, what does this word mean in scripture? While Psychology Today says there are seven different types of love, in the Bible we primarily deal with three: eros, which is romantic or sexual love; philia, which is love for another, love of family, and sometimes thought of as brotherly or sisterly love; and then agape love, the word used exclusively to describe God’s love -
a love that is total, complete, self-giving, and all-encompassing.
The word love appears in the Common English Bible 792 times, 25 of those in 1 John, and is only exceeded in the New Testament by John’s gospel, where it appears 40 times. I tell you that to help reinforce the idea that love is a consistent, if not THE most consistent theme found throughout scripture, from beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation. But the book we know as 1 John goes further than the other biblical books. While both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament tell us to love God and to love our neighbor, and then show what that kind of love looks like, the writer of 1 John states forthrightly, in chapter 4, that GOD IS LOVE, and that if we do not love then we do not know God. With that blanket declaration on the table, then, over the next four weeks we’ll explore exactly what the author says about that and what he means by it.
For now, though, let’s talk for a minute about this book, or letter, or essay, or whatever this and its two companion writings actually are
The books, 1, 2, and 3 John are commonly described or categorized as letters, epistles in Bible-speak, but they don’t really look or read like letters, at least not like other letters in the Bible or letters that we might write. There are no greetings or salutations, there’s no addressee, and no conclusion or farewell sign-off of any kind. So while they’re called and characterized as letters, they bear no more resemblance to a letter than does a 140 character tweet on Twitter.
We also hear them referred to and think of them as books, but they really aren’t very long - not as we would expect a book, even a book of the Bible to be. They’re among the shortest writings in the entire Bible. So, thinking of them as books is a bit of stretch - they’re shorter than short stories - so maybe they’re more comparable to essays.
And while these writings are titled 1, 2, and 3 John, we really don’t know with any certainty who penned them. Tradition links them to the Apostle John, commonly thought to perhaps also be the author of the Gospel of John, but scholars go both ways on that. There are enough similarities in themes, grammar usage, and writing style to suggest that it could be the same author, but at the same time there are also enough differences in those same things to throw authorship into question as well. Nowhere, in any of the the three letters does the writer provide a name or state who he is - and it most certainly is a he - only referring to himself in the second and third letters as “the elder,” a title that the apostle John never used to refer to himself in the Gospel. The best guess of most scholars is that these three letters were written by a follower of John, someone who was part of the apostle’s community, who was accustomed to and shared much of John’s thinking and word usage. Scholars believe that the letters were likely written a decade or more after the gospel, which would date them at the very end of the first century or even in the first decade of the second century. And that timing would make sense when we consider what it is that appears to have prompted the writing of 1 John in the first place - addressing the question of “Who is Jesus?”
And this question has been a running theme throughout the New Testament, but most especially in the four gospels. We remember priests and pharisees asking at various times, “who is that man” that he does this, or says that? The disciples even ponder this, when in the midst of a storm, Jesus calms the sea and they wonder “who is this man that the seas and the winds listen to him and obey?” Jesus encourages their thinking about this subject when he asks the Twelve, “who do the people say that I am?” and then follows with “and who do YOU say that I am?” And we remember Peter’s response, “you are the Christ,” that is, the messiah, or the anointed one.
In the aftermath of the great feeding story as told in the 6th chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus goes back and forth with the crowd and with this disciples about who he was and what it meant to be his disciple, and John reports that the number of followers dwindled after that, and even that some of the Twelve struggled with Jesus’ words and the depth of their commitment to him.
Theologian Ross West, considering these questions, suggests that, “The crowd and even Jesus’ closest disciples were struggling with what is easily the most important question of anyone’s life—indeed, of all history: Who is Jesus?
“Really, who is Jesus? It’s a question that when seriously considered brings about a division in the ranks of every group who asks it. It even brings about a division within our own hearts. Who is Jesus? The answers vary. For some, Jesus is the great teacher. He was a great individual with great ideas, who has contributed much by word and example. Jesus can be revered as one of the great teachers of history, certainly alongside Aristotle, Plato, Buddha, and Moses. Jesus is to be respected and even loved.
For others, Jesus is the model person, the best person who ever lived, and we should strive to imitate Jesus—as long as we don’t perhaps take it too far.
“For some, as in Jesus’ day, Jesus is the Messiah, but a worldly Messiah, as Jesus was to the crowd on those two days described in John 6. They wanted him to solve their problems, both there and thereafter. They were impressed that, like Moses of old, Jesus had supplied them with food in the wilderness. “Hey, we can follow a guy like this!”
And West suggests that, “the overwhelming answer of the scriptures and of the church…through the centuries has been that Jesus is more than these descriptions or any others we might list. Who is Jesus? He is a human being, the person in whom God was uniquely present. Somehow, as Paul said, ‘In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor. 5:19). We may not be able to state the how of this truth very well, but we revel in its reality. Somehow, this person Jesus, who was flesh and blood, was the Person in whom the God of Israel and the universe was uniquely present.
But then West implores us to not stop at that, to go further. “Give a little more thought to this question: Who is Jesus? Jesus’ contemporaries knew Jesus first as a human being. The scriptures affirm this part of Jesus’ nature. He was human like us. Indeed, Jesus was fully human. In later writings of the New Testament, especially 1 John, the major issue was whether Jesus was fully human. That little letter begins with the affirmation that indeed Jesus was. The first verse states, “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1).”
That last line is important to understanding 1 John - “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1).” The author of 1 John is addressing a question of Christology - that is, the study of who is Jesus Christ? John’s Gospel approaches the question from what is considered a “high Christology,” meaning that it focuses primarily on the divine nature of Jesus. And you’ll understand what I mean if you think about how John’s gospel begins compared to Matthew and Luke, for example. Whereas Matthew and Luke begin with human birth stories of Jesus, John begins with a poetic discourse that places the Christ alongside God the Creator at the very brink of Creation - in the beginning, the beginning of EVERYTHING, of ALL THINGS. So, a “low Christology” focuses on the humanity of Jesus, a high Christology on the divinity of Jesus. And while the Gospel of John comes from a place of high Christology, the letter 1 John comes from a place of a lower Christology. And it does so for a very important reason: to rebut a rising heresy known as docetism.
Docetism, from the Greek, dokein, meaning “to seem” or “to appear,” is the claim that Jesus did not have a physical human body, that Jesus was not really human at all, but only appeared as such. Such doctrines were quite popular in the early church, such as at the time of this writing, and were often joined to dualistic ideas that only the purely spiritual were good, and that physical things, matter and flesh for example, were evil.
If matter is intrinsically evil, the thought went, then Jesus would not have a physical body, but only the appearance of one. 1 John 4:1-4 takes on claims of docetism as the opening salvo of this book. In fact, even within the Gospels themselves - written earlier than these letters - the many instances of Jesus’ eating - even after the resurrection - seem to be an attempt to refute docetism. Alongside docetism was the heresy of Marcionism, which, among other unbelievable things, held that the god YAHWEH of the Hebrew Bible and the God of Love in the New Testament were two very different Gods, and that Jesus was not physically born at all, but simply appeared as a mature man during the reign of Tiberius. So what we see happening later in the church, and most especially in the Apostle’s Creed, is a pushback against these kinds of belief that denied the humanity, the birth, and sufferings of Jesus. And they pushed back largely through the development of creedal affirmations that Jesus “was born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.”
1 John seems to be taking on these kinds of heresies when it begins by claiming that this is about what they have seen with their own eyes and touched with their own hands. Jesus Christ was a human being, flesh and blood, God incarnate. That’s what incarnation is all about - God in the flesh. But we also understand incarnation more broadly. God is present, not just in the flesh of Jesus Christ, but in the church as well. With the indwelling of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the church took on the role of the body of Christ. Whatever it is that God want to be done in the world, it is the role of the church to do that as the body of Christ. If God desires for the world to be fed, it is the church who is called to do that. If God desires for there to be peace in the world, it is the church who is called to lead the world to peace. It is God’s desire, God’s will, God’s preferred future that is to be enfleshed, carried out, incarnated in the life and acts, the mission and ministry of the church, not OUR will or desire that is substituted or superimposed onto God.
But beyond the church proper, incarnation takes place, not just in Jesus’ flesh or in the church as the body of Christ, but in our flesh as well, as individuals, as those who are created in the image of God. Scientists say our bodies are made up of so many dollars and cents worth of chemicals and elements and whatever. But did you realize that the proportion of those chemicals and elements in our physical bodies is the same as the proportion of those chemicals and elements in the known universe? The same proportion of carbon that makes up your body is found in comets and asteroids. The same proportion of magnesium is found in the human body, as the animal body, as the rings around Saturn, and so on. When God created everything, everything reflects God’s creation. When God created us in God’s image, God also created all of creation in God’s image. God is in us, we are made in the image of God. We’ll talk about this more when we get further into 1 John, but when we speak metaphorically about God’s body, the church as the body of Christ, and of creation being made in the image of God, we must understand that God's incarnation takes many forms within the biblical witness. God has always been and will continue to be present in human flesh as God's own body, in the physical body of Jesus that the elder referred to when he wrote that they had touched it with their own hands, and in the church that is the present-day institutional body of Christ. God is present in the world through spirit and through people who follow that spirit. God is incarnate in the world through believers and non-believers today because God’s presence is in all things. That’s part of what the elder wants us to understand. Yes, God was present in the physical body of Jesus of Nazareth, but also more than just there. The agape, all-encompassing, unimaginable, love of God that prompted God to create in the beginning, continues to be present in ways and in places that we grasp as well as in ways that are beyond our comprehension.
Sometimes, to some people, it seems almost sacrilegious, even heretical, to think of Jesus as a human being who got thirsty, hungry, and tired, who experienced emotions like all of us. Jesus’ closest disciples, those who walked with him and talked with him, those who broke bread with him, tested his patience, loved him and betrayed him, had no trouble seeing Jesus like that, however. Neither should we. One of the most astounding verses in the Bible, one of the most powerfully unique claims of Christianity, is “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). Flesh!
Who is Jesus? Jesus was a human being, fully a human being. The scriptures also affirm Jesus as fully divine. In ways we can only state and neither explain nor understand, the God of the universe was uniquely present in Jesus. This view of Jesus was no afterthought of the church after the days of the New Testament. It was not simply thought up and written down at a later church council. It is seen in the experiences of Jesus in the Gospels (see Matthew 16:16; Mark 1:11; 15:39), just as it is seen in the reflections of Jesus’ closest followers as they spoke and wrote of their experiences, in what would later become the New Testament. (Jn 20:31; Acts 2:32-33; Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 1:15-18; Heb. 1:1-4; 1 Jn 1:3; 2 Pet. 3:18; Rev. 1:4-5). And as the elder tells us, they wrote these things so that our joy may be complete. As the hymn tells us, “God is here! As we your people meet to offer praise and prayer, may we find in fuller measure what it is in Christ we share.”
So, as we go from this place today, may your joy be made complete in knowing that God is with you and within you, even as you are the hands and feet, the body of Christ in God’s world. Amen.