May 17, 2015

Whoever Has the Son Has life

Passage: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, Psalm 1, 1 John 5:6-13, John 17:6-19
Service Type:

Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

In 2002 as Canada considered whether to join the war to oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Canada’s then Prime Minister Jean Chretien was asked by a reporter about the standard of proof he was looking for in assessing the threat posed by the dictator. It was in response to this question that Chretien gave his somewhat famous statement. “A proof is a proof. What kind of a proof? It's a proof. A proof is a proof. And when you have a good proof, it's because it's proven.”

Chretien was more profound on this point about proof than he knew. The nature of proof for something can be a slippery thing. Is there any objective standard for proof? Or is proof something that we know when we see it; “when you have a good proof, it's because it's proven.” And the elusiveness of proof is never as apparent as when we seek proof for the existence of God.

1. In much the same way he did in his gospel (John 20:31), The Apostle John tells readers why he has written his letter. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5:13) For John, to know that you have eternal life is to know Jesus Christ. He points believers to the witnesses regarding who Jesus is (including that of the Spirit of God); here is their collective testimony—“God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5:11-12)

John wants to reassure believers that Jesus is all that the Apostles have declared him to be. He wants believers to know that in clinging to Jesus Christ in faith we have eternal life. When we hear such a statement we think proof. What proof does John offer? John talks about human testimony and God’s testimony to Jesus. We will come back to this in a moment. First let us explore the nature of proof.

On April 7, 2015, the Tuesday following the celebration of Easter by the Western church, the Letters page in the National Post contained readers’ answers to what they called “the oldest question in the universe,” “do you believe in God?” The answers are a fascinating array from across the spectrum of belief, agnosticism, and denial with respect to God’s existence. It is an interesting study with respect to what various people believe about the nature of proof. In other words, if you read the responses with the lens of what proof are they offering for their belief you get an idea of what people are relying on.

I want to be clear that when it comes to the question how do you know that God exists that there is no single twenty-minute sermon which can nail down the case for God. There isn’t a four hundred-page book which will prove, beyond any refutation, that God is. In fact, there is no proof, irrefutable proof that will convince anyone possessed of elemental logic, that God exists. At the same time, that knife cuts both ways. There is no proof that God doesn’t exist.

To be sure, there have always been arguments which claimed to prove God’s existence, such as the argument from design. If you came upon a wristwatch lying on the sand of a deserted beach, you would have to conclude there was a watchmaker around somewhere. The universe appears to be a grand design, it is sometimes said. Therefore, there must be a designer. But of course the question is begged. After all, when we see a watch we already know it’s been designed by a watchmaker. But when we look at the universe, we don’t already know it’s been designed. Other arguments which attempt to prove God’s existence never quite prove it. Or at least a philosopher seems to have proved God’s existence when another philosopher refutes the proof, only to have a third philosopher refute the refutation. In other words, “proofs” of God’s existence are forever inconclusive.

Nevertheless, if we cannot prove that God exists (or doesn’t exist) might there be some pointers which incline us in one direction or the other? Among the National Post readers was this response; “Why do few of us die quickly? Why do most of us wither and suffer our last days? Why did my neighbour’s daughter die of a brain tumour at 15? Walk the halls of a children’s hospital. Having been a fence sitter on the God question most of my life, I am now an avowed atheist.”

When we hear such responses we need to be honest. The evil that scourges people can be seen as a pointer which suggest that God doesn’t exist, or at least that a God worth believing in doesn’t exist. The suffering some people have to endure is simply indescribable. We can then understand the person who sees this a pointer suggesting no God exists; at least a God worthy of being loved and adored and obeyed doesn’t exist.

But we need to put the brakes on that for a moment. If God isn’t, simply isn’t, then there are sober consequences to be faced.

If God isn’t, then there is no ultimate redress for human suffering. The terrible unfairness which victimizes people heartlessly in life is never redressed finally, ultimately. Those whose lives were afflicted ceaselessly with much less privilege and much greater pain never have it made up to them, never. Victimized in life, they are cheated still in death. The random loose ends of anyone’s life are never gathered up and woven together definitively. Life is just a bagful of loose ends as pointless finally as it is patternless now.

If God isn’t, then there is no true meaning to life, no transcendent meaning, no ultimate meaning. Certainly people can find meaning in any number of things—music, family, wealth. People who pursue these matters find them exceedingly meaningful. But if God isn’t then whatever meaning we find in life is a matter of mere whim, mere taste.

If God isn’t then we can never know what is good just because there is no ultimate good to be known; there is no good which isn’t finally arbitrary. If God isn’t, then life is a capricious jumble headed for a death whose very deadliness reaches back and begins to deaden life long before we die.

So where do the pointers point? G. K. Chesterton wrote: "If there were no God there would be no atheists."

2. In assuring believers they have eternal life the Apostle John doesn’t speak about proofs. He speaks about witnesses and the testimony they give about Jesus Christ. Faith, in the gospels, is always encounter with God. Knowing God is personal encounter—it isn’t like knowing an object or a thing. Still, faith is a kind of knowing. It is the knowing of personal relationship. Yes in knowing a person we know lots about them but it is more than that. You don’t need call display to know your loved one’s voice on the phone. You know it borne of personal encounter.

The testimonies John points to sound strange to us. “There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree.” (1 John 5:7-8) When John speaks of the water he means Jesus’ baptism and in speaking of the blood he speaks of Jesus’ crucifixion. Now why does he point to these as witness? There were false teachers known as Gnostics who said that matter was evil so God could not have come in the flesh. One such teacher said that Christ entered the human Jesus at the baptism and left him before the crucifixion. The Apostolic witness was that Jesus is fully who he is at his baptism and on the cross and raised to life.

By the witness of the Spirit John means the Spirit of God whom Jesus said would bear witness to him. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:13-14) These testimonies agree about Jesus—said John. Jesus is the Messiah.

The message about Jesus was proclaimed by Apostles and church in a Mediterranean world culturally shaped by Greek philosophical thought. The Greeks sought wisdom in philosophy. Philosophy dealt with notions that have universal validity: truth, goodness, freedom. Christians came along and insisted that truth and goodness and freedom were found not in universal ideas but in a particular person, Jesus of Nazareth. Christians didn’t offer proofs as if touting a superior philosophy. They bore witness to encounter with a person in whom they found all of this to reside.

During Jesus’ public ministry some people who resisted our Lord asked him for a sign. They wanted him to do something dramatic, something persuasive, something compelling, something to prove — that he was the one in whom they should believe. Jesus refused to give any such sign. He refused for one reason. His detractors wanted proof that he was indeed God’s visitation Incarnate – and all of this without committing themselves to him. The “proof” they would have asked for and received would have altered nothing about their lives. The “proof” would have made no difference in their lives.

Instead of “proving” himself Jesus said, “Certainty concerning me arises only as you commit yourselves to me. Certainty that I am God’s visitation seizes you only as follow me, trust me, obey me, and even come to love me. Those who do this find an assurance concerning me and their life in me that obliterates doubt. Those who don’t commit themselves to me remain forever unpersuaded. I want followers who are members of my kingdom and agents of its work; I don’t want spectators who play guessing games about me and expect me to resolve the game. Life isn’t about games. Life is about the kingdom. Do you want to follow me, or do you want to stand there demanding a sign concerning that kingdom you don’t plan to enter in any case?”

“Whoever has the Son has life”, said the Apostle John of our Lord. There is something living about this relationship with God. It isn’t merely a cerebral matter though cognition and thought and reason are fully engaged. And so we bear witness to him. The proclamation of the gospel isn’t a matter of convincing people you have the best thought-out view of the world. It is to bear witness to him. The three witnesses agree, said John. Whoever has the Son has life.

And because Jesus our Saviour is eternal to have him in your life is by definition to have eternal life. And because eternal comes to us as a person it follows that not to have him is not the have what he brings. Some people bristle at statements like this in John’s letter; “whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” It is heard as high-handed, exclusive.

The Apostle John is simply pointing out what is true of every person. Jesus is uniquely who he is and therefore only Jesus delivers what Jesus delivers. Christian faith bears witness to Jesus Christ and simply points out that only he can deliver himself since faith is encounter with him.

I want to press this idea of the living nature of having the Son a little further with you. The Apostle John spoke about the witness of the Spirit of God to the Son. To be sure, he has in mind the way the Spirit of God confirmed, to those who walked in company with Jesus during his ministry, that he was God’s anointed (Messiah)—like when the Spirit is seen descending at Jesus baptism. But I believe John also has in mind that witness that comes to each of our hearts confirming and solidifying our faith in him.

I think, for example, about the witness of prophets and apostles captured in written form in the Bible. One of the things we have in the New Testament, for example, is a reliable copy of those original documents. The textual evidence is so good and the scholarship so voluminous that you can know when you take up John’s gospel you are reading what he wrote. Compared to other ancient documents like those that give us a window into the life of Julius Caesar the New Testament is simply superior in textual evidence.

But when I read the scriptures in faith I find that something else is going on. When I read John’s gospel it isn’t like reading other history. I don’t sit there and think, “I have a very reliable document of what John wrote and isn’t he a clever fellow.” I have a sense that I am being read rather than reading. Something else is occurring that I can only say is the Spirit of God making alive this text.

In the Lenten study we took up the subject of payer. Reflect with me on praying for a moment. When you pray is it like talking with someone you call for the first time so are hesitant; is it like when you call a government agency to get an answer to a question about tax? You don’t know the person you are speaking too so conversation is to the point, about the task at hand. Or when you pray is it more like the familiarity of family conversation? Is there any sense you have that you don’t know the person you are speaking with? When I ask that question and reflect on prayer I can see that there is an intimacy—certainly not one that I orchestrated being no paragon of prayer, neither is it because of having had the privilege of years of theological study. I knew it is a child and I know it now. It is the work of the Spirit of God; it is Jesus acquainting me with himself. It is like I arrive and everything is in place for conversation. I don’t invent it or create it.

How do we know? God makes himself know to us as we commit ourselves to him. And just when we get to this point of conviction and assurance, just when we have come to know that God is God, something peculiar happens to us. We understand that while we do know God, knowing God isn’t as crucial as being known by God. Being known is always more profound than knowing. When we were little children and felt strange or frightened, what we knew brought very little comfort. (How much does a child know?) Far more important was the fact that we were known; we were known by our parents. We were known by people we could trust; we were known by those who knew vastly more than we knew. The ground of our confidence and comfort and reassurance wasn’t anything that we knew; it was rather that we were known.

Whoever has the Son has life.