Sunday 6 May 2018

Truthful Testimony in a World of Fake News

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
6th May 2016

1 John 5.1-6 
Deuteronomy 30.11-20  
Sometimes it can feel as though Fake News has taken over the world.
            Honestly? Sometimes I’m not sure who or what to believe any more.

If my social media is anything to go by,
            the world is full of people who think in ways that are very similar to me,
            as we merrily share our favoured Guardian articles,
                        which have been carefully written to simultaneously feed and assuage
                        our vague collective sense of liberal middle class guilt.

But common sense tells me that this can’t be the whole story of my country,
            so sometimes I make an effort to step outside
                        of my carefully constructed echo chamber,
            and I read an article or blog from a paper or author that I don’t agree with,
                        and of course I am astonished at what I find,
                        and I wonder how anyone could believe such lies;
            just as I’m sure that those who regularly read the material I struggle with
                        cannot believe that I have myself been so easily deceived.

Where, or what, the truth is, can be very hard to fathom.

I have been particularly stuck just recently by the difference in the reporting
            between the Russian news agencies and our own,
            over both the Salisbury attack, and the events in Douma in Iran.
According to the British Press, the weapons used in both cases
            are most likely of Russian origin or used with Russian support;
but according to the Russians,
            both events are staged and fabricated.
Who do you believe?
            Does who you believe depend on where you live?
            Or who else you have been listening to?

It’s no wonder that lesson number one
            in the ‘how to set up a dictatorship’ handbook
            is that you first take control of the media.
In the end, it doesn’t usually matter if it’s true,
            what’s important is that people believe what you tell them.

The various vested interests that finance and control
            the various wings of the Western free press also know this very well,
            and use it to great effect.
It is widely acknowledged that more than one British Prime Minister
            has been elected on the strength of the editorial direction of The Sun newspaper.
And while the extent of the impact of the social media news manipulation
            perpetrated by our next door neighbours Cambridge Analytica
                        in both the Brexit and Trump elections will be long debated,
certainly, if you can control what someone reads and hears,
            there is a good chance that you can control the person.

There is no doubt that we live in strange times politically,
            with established orthodoxies facing threat from all sides,
            and maverick or extremist voices
                        garnering more attention and power than they deserve.

We don’t yet know how the various political and economic cards
            that were flung into the air following the 2008 financial crisis will land,
but it’s a fair bet that the rich and the powerful
            will end up with their voices being heard above those
            that try to represent the poor and the weak.

And it is in this context that I want us to hear our reading this morning
            from the first letter of John,
which takes us deep into the question of where true power lies,
            where truth itself lies,
            and where lies lie.

The logic of the passage is not entirely straightforward,
            and various commentators tie themselves up in knots
                        working out how it all fits together,
but I think it’s worth trying to follow John’s logic here,
            because he is making a profound point about the way the world works.

His starting point is Jesus,
            which is generally, I think, a good place to start.
He says that
            ‘Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God’.
So, the answer he offers to the question of, ‘who are the children of God?’,
            is that they are those who believe that Jesus is the Christ.

This statement was very much contrary
            to the various Greek and Roman religions of the first century,
who believed that the children of the gods
            were either gods themselves,
            or possibly were the half-god-half-human hybrids
                        who became great heroes like Odysseus and Ulysses.

The Jewish scriptures also have an echo of this idea
            of there having been heroes of old who were half-human-half-divine,
            and we can read about this in the strange story of the Nephilim
                        in Genesis chapter 6 (v.2-4);
but the dominant Jewish perspective by the first century
            was that a child of God was someone whom God had adopted
                        and showed special favour to,
            such as the great King David, or one of his descendants,
            or possibly the long awaited ultimate ‘son of David’
                        who would be their messiah (cf 2 Sam 7.14).
Sometimes, it’s also worth noting, the idea of being ‘children of God’
            was a concept that was applied to the whole Jewish people (Exod 4.22; Hos 11.1).

The Christian perspective, being explored here by the author of 1 John,
            is similarly multi-layered.

The very earliest Christians drew on their Jewish heritage
            for metaphors to understand what they had experienced
                        through their encounter with Jesus,
            and they kind-of-fused the Jewish idea
                        of a son of God being a human/divine being,
            with the idea of him being a messiah born of the house of David;
and so in the gospels we get stories such as the virgin birth
            being used to convey their understanding that Jesus is no ordinary human,
                        but rather that he is the son of God,
                        as well as being the son of Man, and also the son of David.

This theological journey is in the background to what we meet in 1 John,
            who takes the logic a stage further.

It’s not just Jesus who is the son of God,
            rather, anyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ, that he is the Messiah,
            is themselves now a child of God.

Just as sometimes in the Jewish scriptures
            the whole nation of Israel could become the children of God,
            so the same is true for those who believe that Jesus is the Christ.

The logic John then uses to prove this is a kind of proverb,
            where he asserts that ‘everyone who loves the parent loves the child’.

This means that if you love God, you will love Jesus;
            and it builds on his previous assertion
            that if you believe in Jesus, you are yourself a child of God.

The point is that if you are a child of God, and if you love God,
            then you will also love all God’s other children.

And here we get to the nub of his argument.
            If we are all children of God, we must love one another.
            And if we do not love one another, then maybe we don’t really love God?

He goes on,
            ‘by this we know that we love the children of God,
            when we love God and obey his commandments’.

Our status as God’s children begins with our affirmation that Jesus is the Christ, but we know it to be true by keeping his commandments. As John says,

‘For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments’.

We will know that we are God’s children who love our heavenly father
            when we keep his commandments,
and God’s love is expressed for us as his children,
            by giving us commandments to keep.

One of the things I hear time and again as a pastor,
            is that so many of us doubt, deep down, that we are loved by God.

Ruth’s sermon from last week took us to the heart of this,
            and her message was that ‘God loves you, get over it!’

But what if you can’t? What if I can’t?
            What if, in my heart of hearts, I feel that I am unlovable, even by God?
            What if that is true for you? For us?

We have a crisis of self-hatred in our country,
            with people carrying wounds that are so deep
            that often they can barely be acknowledged,
                        let alone brought to healing.

Did you know that the UK has the highest rate of self harm among adults
                        of any country in Europe,[1]
            and I know from my own struggle with it over many years,
                        that it can be a demon which it is hard to exorcise.

If the world could learn the love of God,
            so many things could be so very different.

The London homelessness crisis continues to deepen,
            with this last year seeing the seventh consecutive rise in rough sleeping,
            an 18% increase in London compared with the year before.[2]

Those of us who spend time around this church during the week
            will know this is true based on our own experience
                        of being a building which tries to keep its doors open
                        and to offer hospitality to those who come through them.
And some of us here this morning will have first-hand experience
            of what it is to have nowhere to go to sleep indoors at night.

I’ll say it again:
            If the world could learn the love of God,
            so many things could be so very different.

But how do we know that God loves us?
            How can the world learn that God is love?

This knowledge will not come, it seems,
                        by contemplation, or meditation.
            Rather, says John, we learn that God loves us
                        when we keep his commandments.
            This is an active, not a passive process.

And what we are talking about here
            is most emphatically NOT the Ten Commandments of the Jewish law.
I’ve argued before, and will doubtless do so again,
            that the Ten Commandments are not binding on Christians.
The whole point of the revelation that Jesus brought
            was that the commands of the Jewish law
            could not make a person righteous before God.
They only serve to reveal God’s wrath
            at the insidious persistence of the power of sin.
The ten commandments are a burden that none of us can bear.

In contrast, the commands of God that reveal his love
            are, as John says, ‘not burdensome’.

We discover our status as God’s children, dearly loved by God,
            when we keep the commands of God
            that come into the world through the revelation of his son Jesus the Christ.

We discover God’s love for us
            when we listen to and obey the words of his son Jesus.
And we enter into God’s love when, in obedience to this revealed word,
            we practice love for one another.

The command that reveals God’s love
            is none other than the love command itself.

We find it in John’s gospel (13:34-35) where Jesus says to his disciples:
I give you a new commandment,
            that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you,
            you also should love one another. 
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
            if you have love for one another."

But it is so easy for us to hate one another,
            just as it is so easy for us to hate ourselves.

Of course, we don’t call it hatred. We are far too reserved for that kind of language.
            But we might admit, sometimes, to finding someone ‘a little bit difficult’.
                        Which is, of course, code for something far worse.
            And we might subtly but effectively side-line those whom we struggle to love,
                        quietly distancing ourselves from our sisters and brothers in Christ.
            And we might find ways of exhibiting our passive aggression towards others,
                        all the while maintaining our own perspective of self-righteous restraint.

But, but…
            if we can learn to love the children of God,
            if we can learn to obey the command of God spoken in Christ
                        that we should love one another as he has loved us,
            then this is a victory of faith which can conquer the world.

Here’s the fascinating part of John’s logical flow in our passage for this morning.

Having started with Jesus,
            and the love God shows for all his children who believe in Jesus,
And having moved us from there into the command
            that those of us who are God’s children must love one another,
we suddenly find ourselves in a position
            where we can conquer the world!

It turns out that we are not commanded to love each other for the sake of the church,
            we are commanded to do it for the sake of the world.

As John says,
            ‘whatever is born of God conquers the world.
            And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.
            Who is it that conquers the world,
                        but the one who believes that Jesus is the son of God?’ (vv.4-5)

He takes us full circle back to our believing in Jesus,
            which was what triggered our status as God’s children in the first place.

If we believe, then we are children.
            If we are children, then we are loved.
            If we are loved, then we must love.
            If we love, we conquer the world.

That’s John’s argument, in a nutshell.

The whole world is saved,
            by the love that God’s children show for one another.
Because it is through our love for one another,
            that God’s love for the world is made known.

So if, like me, you find yourself sometimes despairing at the state of the world,
            if, like me, you are sometimes afraid to turn on the news
                        for fear of what you will see.
Then here is good news for a change.

The love of God conquers the world,
            and does so through the love of God’s children,
            who live in obedience to the loving command of God’s son.

Which is why what we do here on a Sunday matters.

It would be so easy to not go to church,
            to look for our spiritual sustenance somewhere else,
            online, or in a book, or on the Christian TV channel,
                        or via our Christian-subset social media bespoke echo chamber
                        where everyone thinks like we do.

But that is to avoid the command to love one another,
            it is to avoid the necessity of living in the tension of intentional community,
            of forging and sustaining relationships even when they are difficult.

The church, I firmly believe, is wherever the sisters and brothers of Jesus
                        gather to worship him as the Christ,
            and 1 John tells us that when we do this,
                        we are learning to live in the love of God,
            and that the love that God has for the world is being made real in our midst.

I do not think that it is overstating it to suggest
            that because we are the body of Christ,
            and that Christ’s body is the hope of the world,
            it is through us that God’s love is revealed.

And so we come to the cross,
            the ultimate moment of God’s love for us.
The body of Christ is broken for the salvation of the world.

It is not enough to simply be baptised by water into a loving community.
            Rather, we are baptised into the body of Christ,
            which is crucified before it is ever resurrected.

The pain and the suffering that we bear together
            is a mark of the love that binds us to one another,
            and is a sacrament of the love of God for the world.
We bear in our midst the marks of the crucifixion
            that Christ bears eternally.
We have to learn to carry our own cross, to die to self,
            before we can truly know what it is to enter the new life of selfless love
            that God places before us in his son Jesus.

This is how the world will be conquered,
            when the church learns to live in love,
            as all God’s children follow the command and example of his only begotten son.

When we create a community of love,
            we create something that is deeply, fundamentally true,
            in the way that nothing else is.

Because as we do so, we discover the truth that God is love,
            and that God loves the world absolutely.

And this is the truth we offer to the world,
            because it arises from our own lived practical experience of living it into being.

And here we come full circle, back to a world of fake news,
            where nothing is to be trusted and no-one is to be believed.

But we come to that world with a message to proclaim
            and a testimony to offer,
            through the spirit of the one who has shown us the truth.

As John puts it,
            ‘the Spirit is the one that testifies,
            for the Spirit is the truth.’ (v.6)

We are the children of God,
            and we offer the testimony of truth that God is love.

And we do this because we are called by the Spirit of Christ
                        into a community of love,
                        that bears witness to a new way of being human
            where love triumphs over hatred,
                        and life triumphs over death,
            and where the love of God is made known through us
                        to all people.


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