Sunday, July 22, 2012

Walking in the Truth

Texts:    Psalm 26; 3 John 1-4

I WONDER, WHAT WOULD YOU WRITE if you thought a personal letter of yours would end up as Holy Scripture?  Maybe you'd work to pen something grand and glorious, with eloquent, soaring phrases fit to go down in history.

    On the other hand, if you were an apostle of Jesus Christ whose words were likely to go down in sacred history, likely you'd write just the way John does-- as a humble servant of God addressing the concerns of a brother in Christ. You'd look out for the good of Christ's church and always keep in mind the Lord you both served.

    These next three weeks we'll be looking at the third epistle of John.  Today we'll be focussing especially on verses 2-4.

    It follows the pattern of a typical letter from the 1st century A.D.  It begins by stating who it's from.  The sender doesn't name himself; he merely notes that he is "the elder."  Or, following the Greek, "the presbyter."  Nevertheless, there has never been any serious doubt that 1, 2, and 3 John were indeed written by the Apostle John, brother of James and writer of the gospel being his name.  We know this from unbroken church tradition, and the style of all four books matches so well, it puts it beyond all doubt.  So here we have the Apostle John writing a private Christian a personal letter.  Imagine, when John wrote to churches and individuals, he really could have thrown his weight around.  He could have given all his titles and reminded everyone who he was-- the disciple whom Jesus especially loved.  Instead, in both 2 and 3 John he chose to be known simply as "the elder."

    True, John wasn't just any elder.  As an apostle who walked with Jesus, John was rather like an executive presbyter or a diocesan bishop.  He had churches under his care and his joy and duty was to make sure they were fed and nurtured with the truth of Christ.  He also wanted the pastors and evangelists who served those churches to be received properly.

    He writes to a man named Gaius.  John doesn't identify who his friend is or even where he lives.  This is a personal letter, after all.  It appears Gaius had a position of some responsibility in his local church; possibly he was a ruling elder or a deacon.  In any case, we know that Gaius was a very dear friend to John, and not just a dear friend as the pagans might have, he was "agapete," beloved with the pure love of God shown to us in Jesus Christ.

    I'm sure you've heard before about the difference between the various words for love in Greek-- eros for romantic love, philia for brotherly love or close friendship, and so on.  The Church didn't invent this word "agape"; it was used in every day life before the New Testament was written.  You could use it to refer to the high esteem you had for some object you thought would make you very happy.  But more often it meant the love of man for the gods, the love of the gods for man, and the love of supernatural beings for one another.  Especially it meant to love someone more than one's own life, like a mother would love her child. By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and by Jesus' own example, the New Testament writers took this word for love and made it the Church's own.  For what greater love could anyone know than the love of Christ shown for us on the cross, and what greater love could one human being have for another than to love one another in the agape love of our mutual crucified Lord?

    It's sad, but sometimes we Christians use the love of God as a substitute for really caring about each other.  I'm talking about those times when we say, "Oh, I love her in the Lord," but our hearts are not warmed with any affection for that sister and our hands aren't willing to do anything to help her. 
Christian friends, the agape love of God is not some pale substitute for human love and concern, rather it includes and transforms and makes holy whatever human love is appropriate in the relationship.

    And so John is concerned about his friend's welfare in all aspects of his being.  We see this in verse 2.  John notes that Gaius' "soul is getting along well."  The friend is trusting in Jesus Christ as his Savior, he's growing in the faith.  We'd expect a spiritual father to be concerned with this.  But John also prays that Gaius' bodily health and material circumstances are good, too.  "[T]hat all may go well with you" signifies financial security.  We Christians don't put our trust in earthly wealth, but neither are we called to despise the good gifts God gives us in this life.  Any religion that rejects the proper use and enjoyment of the good things of this world is not Christianity.  In holy love, John prays health and prosperity for his friend, even as he rejoices in his spiritual progress.

    And now (verse 3) John shares his joy in what he has heard from some brothers who had returned to him from Gaius' town.  Gaius, he has learned, remains faithful to the truth and continues to walk in the truth.

    But what does John mean by this expression, "the truth"?  It occurs four times in verses 1-4 and he doesn't go into detail about it to Gaius, because his friend knows what he means.  Let's make sure we understand it, too, so we'll get the good out of this passage the Holy Spirit intends.

    The best thing is to go back to John's gospel and see how he uses the term there.

    In John 1:14 he writes,

    "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth."

    Truth is an attribute of God, an expression of the reality of who the Father is, that Jesus the Word of God shares and brings to light in this world.

    In chapter 3, verse 21 Jesus tells Nicodemus that

    "‘Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.'"

    So the truth is something one can and should live by.  Our lives should match up with God's character, and when that happens, we don't have to be afraid to let Him see what we are doing.  Our actions and attitudes will reflect his glory.  More than that, when we live by the truth we will acknowledge that whatever good we do we do it through God.

    Jesus teaches the woman at the well in Samaria (4:24) that

    "‘God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.'"

    We know from this that truth, this same expression of the character of God, must characterize our worship.

    In John chapter 8 Jesus makes it clear that those who do not accept and love Him are children of the devil, who does not hold to the truth, for there is no truth in him.  So we see that to hold to the truth is to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of the Father, who was to come into the world to save it.  In 17:17 Jesus prays the Father that He will sanctify this disciples by the truth, for God's word is truth.  The truth, then, is what God is and does; and it's also what God says and has written by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

    And most significant of all, in 14:6 Jesus tells the disciples,

    "‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.'"

    The truth is Jesus Himself.  Jesus wasn't just an example of the truth, he embodied it in this world, especially as He died for us on the cross.  He was and is the exact image of God the Father.  He continues to be the truth at the right hand of God on high, and the world will be judged by Him at the last day.

    Gaius is faithful to the truth: he is faithful to Jesus his Lord. He is not afraid to confess who Jesus is and what He has done for him.  He understands and accepts that the Son of God became flesh in this world to be the one true and perfect sacrifice for his sins.  His hope is in Christ and in Christ alone, even in the midst of a pagan society.

    There are those, even in the church, who love to remind us that people these days believe in many different concepts of God and often in no god at all.  So, they say, we should be loose and flexible in our commitment to Jesus Christ.  These are pluralistic times, things are different, and we shouldn't be so intolerant as to say that Jesus is the only truth who can bring us to the heavenly Father.  But don't they realize how pluralistic the world was when St. John wrote this letter?  Unbelievers back then thought Christians were terribly narrow-minded for not accepting  Caesar as lord along with Jesus the Christ.  But Christians like Gaius knew that faithfulness to the truth of Christ was essential to salvation.  Not only that, it was what our God and Savior Jesus Christ deserved. 

    Are you faithful to Christ as your only Lord, and is your Christ the One who is revealed to us in the writings of the Old and New Testaments?  It's crucial that we be faithful to Him and Him alone, and not make up false Christs and false gods out of our own desires or out of the pressures of popular culture.

    But Gaius wasn't merely faithful to the truth, he also continued to walk in it.  Now you know how old the expression is: He didn't just talk the talk, he walked the walk.  He carried out the duties and actions that belonged to a man of faith.  Psalm 26 which we read this morning describes what some of those behaviors might have been.  We can also turn to Galatians 5, where we read of the fruit of the Spirit.  To walk in the truth is to treat our neighbor with love, joy, peacefulness, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. To use an old-fashioned phrase, it's to make our lives an ornament to the Gospel.  When we walk in the truth we encourage other Christians.  And we show the unbelieving world that the word of Christ dead and risen again really is the truth-- for them as well as for us.

    But to walk in the truth signifies something even greater than that.  We can do all sorts of good things in this world and our lives would still be a lie.  To walk in the truth as Gaius did is to live our lives in the strength and merit of Jesus Christ.  Not trusting in ourselves to please God in our own selves, but putting all our faith in Christ alone.  It's conforming our lives to His word and following the guidance of His Holy Spirit, giving all the glory to God the Father through Christ our Lord.

    This is what the brothers came and reported to John, and it gave him great joy.  His spiritual son was walking in the truth!  Those of you who have children are so happy when they grow up and keep on practicing the good habits you've taught them, even when they've moved away; how much more joy do fathers and mothers in Christ have when we hear that those we've discipled remain strong and committed to the Lord in word and deed!

    And you know who else is filled with joy when we walk in the truth?  God our heavenly Father.  St. James writes that God "chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created."  Psalm 26 says

    "For your love is ever before me,
        and I walk continually in your truth."

The agape love of God draws us on to walk in His truth.  In the love of God our Father, may we continually entrust ourselves to God's own truth, who is Jesus Christ our Lord.

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