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Faith Conquers the World?: The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sunday, May 9, 2021:
Acts 10:44-48
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

“Whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.” We heard that in the First Letter of John. That’s a big claim. It might not sit right with us, though. Firstly, because it seems to grate with what we keep hearing these days, about the decline of the Church. And secondly, because that language of “conquering” might make us uneasy, whether from lessons we’ve learned from science fiction, like War of the Worlds and Mars Attacks, or, fiction’s opposite, history: the history of the powerful seeking to conquer others. There are a few words from Archbishop Michael Peers’ apology to Indigenous Peoples for the residential school system: “I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image[.]” At some point the Church adopted the stance and the strategy of conquest.

So the question that is put before us, now and in so many other situations, is how do we read, hear, and interpret these texts? I recall, probably as a teenager, giving a children’s story in church, and comparing the Bible to the instruction manual for a video game. I don’t think I can abide by that analogy these days. Yes, our Bible does contain instructions, but I think if the life of faith was as simple and straightforward as button combinations like those used in video games, then I think God could have inspired a much more succinct manual for us. (And if you’ve ever seen a picture of a Biblical manuscript, you’ll notice that there’s no punctuation, and no spaces. Imagine opening an instruction manual, and finding that!) Without going too far down this rabbit hole, what I’m saying is that drinking deeply from scripture in our lives — abiding with it — is something much more dynamic and relational than unthinking assent.

A fancy word that’s often used when we’re talking about interpretation is “hermeneutic.” It basically means our interpretive lens, or style; what informs our interpretation. And there’s something within this little letter that might help us understand the interpretive values of the author, and can help us interpret today: Right at the end: “This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood.” Some scholars think that the group out of which these John scriptures came had experienced some sort of rupture in their ranks. If this is so, the thinking goes that this rival group competing for authority within the community had as its interpretive lens the baptism of Jesus, and the descent of the Spirit that happened in that event. In other words, a much more easily-appealing faith without the radical notions (and events) of the incarnation and the cross, and leaning more toward being happy all the time; being “spiritual.” That’s why the Gospel and this letter start out talking so much about the Word becoming flesh, and actual flesh-and-blood people being witnesses to this. And the letter-writer reminds us here, yes, there’s baptism, there’s the Spirit, but there’s also the blood. When we approach scripture, and when we approach the world we always have before us the image of the cross.

When God came into the world, how did the world respond? The Gospel of John has its response: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” And more than that, the world put the maker of the world to death. And this maker of the world willingly endured this shame. And as Jesus, in the gospel story, approaches the time of his betrayal and death, he uses again and again the language of “abide,” and “commandment” and “love.” If we abide in the cross as our sign, and respond to human need as Jesus did, and go into the world humbly, as the Word did, emptying himself of power to become flesh, then we may realize that to conquer the world is not about plunder and destruction, but about love, self-giving, and sacrifice.

And to guide us on this harder road we have our baptism. Not as a symbol of ideological purity, but as our participation in Jesus’s death. And we might look again or think back to the baptismal vows, and find that they talk about loving our neighbour, resisting evil, loving God, and abiding in the prayers and practices of the Church. It’s a curious kind of conquest, from below. Like adding just the right amount of salt to a meal. Like yeast that in a hidden but so necessary way makes the bread rise. And today, Rogation Sunday, which leads into a time of consideration of, and prayer for our dependence on the earth, we might remember the story of how the Reign of God is like a mustard seed that grows into a tree that provides a home for the birds. That might serve as an image of what it means for our faith to conquer the world. By providing a home and shade…

As we sometimes struggle and feel guilty about what we can (or mostly, what we can’t) do right now, we’re reminded and reassured today that we are called to change the world, and, if we’re to believe it, it’s our faith that brings about the victory. The remaking of the world starts inside each one of us. Because that’s the crucial part where we work out the values, the lens, the heart through which we approach each other, and even the whole world outside ourselves. “I am giving you these commands,” Jesus says, “so that you may love one another.”

© 2021 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter