Categories
Writings.

Who Is It That Overcomes the World?

An Eastertide Sermon
from 1 John 5

Anastasis_at_Chora.jpg
Audio of the sermon as delivered on April 11th at Christ the King Anglican Church, in Birmingham, AL.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

1 John 5:1-5

Keeping the Feast

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

I’ll be honest, I’m exceeding glad those get to be my first words from this pulpit. Because that’s what every preacher really just wants to do. I mean, sure, of course, there’s the need for instruction and warning and correction and consolation and exhortation, but really it’s all aiming at that word of pure exultation. It’s all so many words to get to say with real feeling that Christ our Passover has been sacrificed, Christ the Lord is risen today, let us keep the feast! Amen?

And I hope you’ve been keeping the feast, brothers and sisters. I have. I’ll give a small example. Some days at my school we’ll have speakers come and there will be lunch provided. And all Lent, I’d eat my way through those boxed lunches until I got to that cookie at the bottom. And every week, I’d sigh, I’d question the wisdom of fasting—“Did Jesus really command this?”—but then I’d finally relent, and offer the cookie to a Baptist. 

But this week, brothers and sisters, we had a guest speaker, and I ate through my little boxed lunch, and came to that cookie at the bottom, and you know what I did? I ate that cookie to the glory of God. It wasn’t even good. It was an objectively disappointing cookie. But let me tell you, I experienced in that moment the joy of my freedom in Christ. 

So here we are, sittin’ pretty only one week into the great Eastertide feast. The celebratory beer has been cracked, the festal steak has been grilled and devoured, you posted that Easter selfie on the social media site you’d set aside for forty days, and you looked great, by the way. You really did. 

However, in the midst of the abiding joy I hope you are experiencing, you might also, in this past week, have had some rather un-Easter-like experiences or feelings. You might be experiencing not only Eastertide, but also Post-Easter Slump-Tide, or PEST, as I’ve called it ever since… I needed an acronym for this sermon. 

But, truly, I don’t actually want to make light of the experience—it’s typical, it’s emblematic of the conflicted life we live on the near side of Jesus’ return, his final victory. It’s the flip side of the experience Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 6: “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing… as having nothing, yet possessing everything… as dying, and behold, we live.” In Eastertide we might find ourselves rejoicing, yet somehow still sorrowful; we possess everything, and yet we continue to experience loss; our life is eternally secure in Christ’s resurrection, and yet here are bodies are, still dying. 

Already this week, perhaps, you’ve squared up against the world. You faced down what John had previously identified for us as “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 John 2:16). Perhaps your sweet release from fasting revealed that certain pleasures still have too strong a sway over you. Or maybe the world has tried to reassert itself in response to your joy—a long illness continues to flare, a strained relationship continues to sting, an absence to which you will never adjust continues to cut a hole in the pit of your stomach. 

Yesterday I was in North Carolina to help bury my Papa, my dad’s dad, who on Easter Monday slipped all too suddenly from this vale of tears. 

Already, in the first week of the feast which celebrates Jesus’ great and final victory, you’ve experienced loss, defeat, despair. 

Already, we’re asking again that question which John poses in today’s epistle reading from 1 John 5: Who is it that overcomes the world? Who is it? Who overcomes the world? 

Now, because most of you here are followers of Jesus Christ, and any of you who aren’t yet at least know you showed up this morning to a Christian church to observe or participate in Christian worship, you can probably guess what my answer is going to be. But I want us to earn that answer, and show why it’s not just the pious response, but the true and vital news which we call gospel. Because that is the vital question, for each of lives: who is it that overcomes the world? 

What does it mean to overcome?

As any researcher worth her salt will tell you, seeking an answer is a useless exercise if you don’t have at least some grasp on the question you’re asking. 

We already have a pretty strong grasp—at least an intuitive one—on what John means when he says “the world.” The world is anything and everything that opposes the delightful rule of God. It’s your twisted will, it’s the devil and his works. It’s your lust and your gluttony and your anger.  It’s every human system of oppression and exploitation. It’s your little addiction. It’s every spirit that does not confess Jesus. It’s internet porn. It’s chronic illness. It’s death. We know “the world” all too well. 

But that verb—to overcome—that thing we’re supposed to do to the world—what does it mean? Actually, take a second, do some free associating. What pops into your mind when I say, “to Overcome”.

That word probably conjures a host of images, each of them, in its own way, a valid application of term. 

You might go the literal and violent: to overcome is the valiant warrior victorious in battle or, more sinister, the invader who kicks down the door and claims what his not his own. Or, with March Madness right behind us, your mind might have gone to the underdog and the buzzer-beater.  Or perhaps, your mind goes to that song, first a gospel song turned union protest song turned anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, “We Shall Overcome” with its stirring melody of solidarity and hope. 

Each of these images has its truth, but I want to offer this morning one more picture of what it means to overcome—an image given by our other Scripture readings—and one which I think will best unlock the meaning of, and the answer to, our question from 1 John: Who is it that overcomes the world? 

Picture a house, better yet, picture, if you can, a walled city, standing tall and proud. It is serene, it is noble, it is unmovable. You might be picturing Gondor at this point, but even that’s not grand or secure enough. Its walls are thick and its ramparts high, it’s pinnacled with blue pennants pointing in the breeze.  

File:N. Roerich - The Fortress Tower. Nizhny Novgorod. From the Series of  Architectural Sketches - Google Art Project.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
The Fortress Tower, Nizhny Novgorod. Nicholas Roerich. 1903.

But it was not always so. This was a besieged city—a city hard pressed by natural disaster and human attack. The enemy was at the very gates. But this city could not be shaken. It has weathered the worst storm; its enemy is utterly spent and empty. No threat can any longer stand against it, for this city has overcome, and it cannot be overcome. 

That is the picture we are given in our reading from Isaiah 26 this morning.

In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah: “We have a strong city; he sets up salvation as walls and bulwarks. Open the gates, that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in.”

Isaiah 26:1-2

This song of salvation appears in the midst of a section of Isaiah which is primarily concerned with to the judgment of God against the world. “In that day,” it says, looking forward, from Judah’s present experience of imminent threat and uncertain existence to the day when God will judge the nations, and vindicate the people He has chosen for his own. So this promised city of Isaiah 26 stands in stark contrast to the city of Isaiah 25, in fact we have a sort of tale of two cities. If you simply cast your eyes over to chapter 25, verse two, we read there that God’s enemies can expect their cities to be turned into heaps, their fortified towns into ruins, their strongholds into rubble which can never be rebuilt. 

So overcoming the world does in fact have that sense of conquering. God will overcome his enemies, which is to say God will soundly and permanently disempower, judge, nullify all the persons and forces which oppose his restorative purpose. He will turn every evil purpose to nought. 

But all that judgment serves the higher, saving and renewing purpose of God–the establishment of that strong city. “As always,” one commentators writes, “God destroys the false, only to raise up the true.” 

And so indeed, in response to God’s triumph over evil, Isaiah pens this song of thanksgiving in chapter 26: “We have a strong city; he sets up salvation as walls and bulwarks.”

Who is it that overcomes the world? We here have our answer: whoever lives in that strong, unconquerable city of God. 

Where is this city? How was it built?

Well Deacon Zack, you might think, that’s all fine and pretty, it’s a lovely image, Isaiah’s a very nice poet. But what does it have to do practically with overcoming the world? What is this city? Where is it, exactly? How does a person enter it?

I’m glad you asked. 

“In that day” Isaiah introduces the song. From Isaiah’s perspective, from Judah’s, this is a city yet to arrive. In fact, it’s a city that will come at the end, a city to remember in song until it arrives in God’s timing and God’s power. 

We, beloved, are fortunate to hear this song on the far side of God’s mighty act of salvation. God has established this city, he has built it upon the chief cornerstone—the one the builders rejected—our crucified and risen Lord Jesus. This tall and proud city, unable to be conquered, has been established by Jesus who was and who remains “the light shines in the darkness, and which the darkness has not overcome.” 

In the very Passion and Resurrection which we have just celebrated, God has established his salvation through Christ Jesus. He has sunk the walls deep and thumped the bulwarks into place. 

This is the wall that protects: not only that Jesus has borne our sin, but that he has trampled down death by death.

This is the sure bulwark: not only that Jesus Christ is risen, but that the Lord is risen indeed

How do we dwell within it?

“We have a strong city” Isaiah’s song continues. Who is this “we”? Dare we number ourselves among them? Well remember, the gates to this city are are open! The salvation is so secure, is so well-established and founded, the enemy is so spent and soundly defeated that the city doesn’t need to keep its gates closed. 

And the gates are open to you who have faith. You who trust. Notice! When Isaiah writes that the gates are open to the “righteous nation that keeps faith” this is precisely in accord with John’s statement in 1 John 5: “This is the victory, this is the conquering power: our faith.” 

You who believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah, you who believe that in Christ God has established his salvation: welcome in! For you “who trust in the LORD forever,” for you who “love the Father,” for you who “love your fellow children of God,” for you who “obey his commandments,” God flings open the gates and ushers you straight to the feasting table.

File:N. Roerich - And We are Opening the Gates. From the «Sancta» Series - Google Art Project.jpg
And We are Opening the Gates. Nicholas Roerich. 1922.

What if I don’t have the faith?

But. Perhaps this still doesn’t quite sound like good news to you. You whose faith is feeble, or faltering. What if—like Thomas—doubts assail you? What if the whole promise of salvation by faith seems a little too tidy to your cynical mind to be true?

What if you still feel the enemy—the world—assaulting you? What if temptations still hang on your soul like vampires? What if your very own body seems to have turned against you? 

What if you feel far, far removed from a city of peace and light and security? What if you have built up your own walls, your own private bulwarks, which you desperately hope will fend off, even for a moment, your sadness and your pain? What if you feel alone—even utterly alone—in your suffering or your fear or your grief? What if, instead of the proud citizen of the peaceful city, you feel, instead, huddled and afraid and trapped in your own room? 

Well, here is where I want to turn to our gospel reading from this morning, John 20. There’s so much in these post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, but I want to draw our attention to one detail that shows up twice. In John 20, when Jesus appears to his huddled disciples and when he appears to them again, when Thomas is with them, we read this, “the doors were locked.”

Indeed, by this point, the disciples had heard their own eyewitness testimony: the tomb was empty. But as last weeks gospel reading from Mark reminded us: the fact of the empty tomb was not immediately and unambiguously good news. The women who found it trembled in awe and fear. The disciples, speechless at the wonder, knew that, practically speaking, this might end in accusations of grave robbing, of further insurrection, of, in the worst case, their own crucifixion. So the doors were locked. They were afraid. They had been faithless. They were not, in that moment, those who overcome. 

And what happens?

Jesus laughs at the locks on the doors, he denies the deadbolts, he walks through the walls and he says, “Peace be with you!”

And so would Jesus step through the walls you’ve erected out of doubt and fear and sin and striving, and say to you, “Peace be with you. I am with you.”

The faith by which we enter the City of God, the faith by which we ourselves also overcome the world isn’t some abstract belief in the hypothetical might of an omnipotent God. You don’t get access to God’s festal city by figuring out a sufficiently grand concept of absolute power. No, the faith that overcomes the world is trust in Jesus, the Son of God who came to us and still comes to us in the midst of our weakness and fear and bids us peace. 

Nor is it an abstract peace, an eternal coffee break or mindfulness exercise which would distract us from the horrors and evils and bitter griefs of this world. It is the real peace of the real reconciliation which Jesus made when he gave his body and shed his blood for you. It is the real peace of death’s defeat, of the resurrected Messiah sharing his incorruptible life with us. Of the only one who actually has it offering us peace.

In fact, this is the only way into the City of God, his dwelling place. The faith by which the righteous nation gains access to the city is not a clean moral sheet, a catalogue of perfect doctrine and flawless obedience. It is absolute dependence on our Lord and Savior Jesus. 

This is our victory, John says—our faith. Or as Isaiah puts it, “He who trusts in God, she who stays her mind on Christ, will be kept in perfect peace.” This trust is  not just a stubborn hope that someday things will go your way, someday you’ll finally catch your break. God doesn’t deal in vague, airy-fairy hopes; He puts skin in the game, He puts blood on your head. It’s a real victory Jesus has won, which means we respond with real, living, daily trust in Jesus who is Israel’s promised Messiah and the very Son of God. 

When you fear, Jesus would burst in and say, “Look at me.” When you doubt, Jesus shows you the wounds by which he has overcome the world. 

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. Caravaggio. 1603.

You who feel with each new day that you have not yet overcome the world–indeed, you who feel that perhaps the world has overcome you, take heart. For in the moment you cast yourself on the mercy of God, and every moment you place your trust in Christ, you belong to the one who says, “Take heart, you who will have tribulation in this world, for I have overcome the world.” We who die with him with also be raised with him.  

Jesus is the Paschal Passover lamb broke down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility between humans, whose perfect and final sacrifice rent the curtain which divided the Holy God and we impure persons. And he broke down that wall and rent that curtain that he might open wide the gates of God’s city and say, “Enter, my beloved.”

Alleluia. Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us; therefore let us keep the feast. Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. Its energy is spent. Its strength is split. The death that Jesus died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 

So—peace be with you!—also consider yourselves dead to sin, brothers & sisters, and alive to God in Jesus Christ our LORD. Alleluia. Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die—as in Adam all face down the world flesh and devil—so also in Christ shall all be made alive. Shall all overcome the world. Alleluia. 

Who is it that overcomes the world? It is you, my brother. It is you, my sister, who see Jesus the deliver of Israel, Jesus the Son of God Incarnate, who see him come to you and say to you, “Peace be with you!” Trust him, and walk through the gates. Sing the song of salvation, taste the feast of victory, of life which has overcome the world.