Sunday, August 5, 2012

Does the Truth Speak Well of You?

Texts:    Psalm  1; 3 John 11-14

    BROTHERS AND SISTERS, HAVE YOU ever been tempted to fight fire with fire?  There's that coworker who always interrupts at meetings, why not be more aggressive and interrupt him back?  If someone is spreading nasty rumors about you, it'd serve her right if you let slip a few things about her.  Or maybe you've observed that if you really want to get things done in this world, it's best to imitate those who seize the reins whether they've got the right to or not.  Why not?  That arrogant, bossy person deserves to have a fall!  And wouldn't life be so much better if you and I were the ones with the power?

    Well, not exactly.  In today's passage from the Third Letter from John, the elder and apostle calls us by the Holy Spirit to refuse to be tied up with those who do evil, and instead to compare ourselves to and imitate what is good.

    Last week we learned about a bull elder named Diotrephes who was disrupting the local church by his tyrannical, arrogant behavior.  And there might just be a little part of you that envies a man like that.  Oh, you and I know we could never get away with it, but what if we could?  St. John knows his beloved friend Gaius is human.  Just possibly Gaius was entertaining visions of marching into the church and dealing with Diotrephes once and for all, the same way Diotrephes had served the missionaries John sent from Ephesus.  They didn't get a hearing, neither should this overbearing leader.  But John nips that in the bud.   In verse 11 he writes to Gaius, "Do not imitate what is evil."  Don't be like Diotrephes!  Do not do evil for the sake of dong good!  But neither is it enough for us to be glad we "aren't like that" and settle for the creeping comfort of our boring, humdrum sins.  No, if we want to be commended by the truth, we must go on to imitate what is good.  For, John writes, "Anyone who does what is good is from God."

    Oh.  That should be easy, right?  We all know all sorts of people who do good in this world, some Christian, some not.  Take this online community I belong to.  It's dedicated to cats and the people who like them, but the conversation isn't only about felines.  These people are good to one another; they've been good to me.  They're there with concern, good advice, and support in times of trouble. They donate money to help other members and their pets.  They visit one another in the hospital, even stepping in as advocates so sick and injured members get the best medical care. Going by the standards of the world, these are very good people.  Sometimes I compare the good they do with how badly a lot of church members treat one another, and it seems the church would be a lot better off if we were more like this worldwide community of cat lovers.  In many ways, we'd do well to imitate them.

    But is this kind of goodness enough?  Is this a perfect picture of the good the Holy Spirit commands us to imitate here in the Third Letter from John?  John the elder and apostle states that anyone who does what is good is from God.  May I conclude from that that my cat-loving cyber friends don't need the saving blood of Christ?  Some of them admit they don't believe in God, some are involved in anti-biblical sexual relationships and are proud of it.  Are they good enough for God?  Can you and I take a pass on telling our nice unsaved friends about the Gospel, since they're as good and helpful as we know them to be?  Or does this word "good" in this letter go way beyond simply being helpful and nice?

    We've seen these past two weeks that we need to understand the words John uses.  When he calls his friend Gaius "beloved," he speaks of no mere earthly love, but of the deep, unselfish, pure love of God in Christ.  When he speaks of "the truth," we are to think of the reality of all God says and all God is, especially as expressed in His Son Jesus Christ.  For St. John, "good" signifies the perfection of God demonstrated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and lived out by each Christian as we pattern our lives after His image.  "Good" is God's love in action, as John taught in his first letter, writing
    This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?  Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.  This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

Well, thus far that sounds a lot like the good that unbelievers can show us and each other in this world.  But remember what Jesus Himself did with this word "good" in Matthew 19, Mark 10, and  Luke 18.  There was that rich young man who asked Jesus, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  And Jesus replied, "Why do you call me ‘good'?" or "Why do you ask me about what is ‘good'?  No one is good-- except God alone." Jesus was not denying being God, as some skeptics claim.  No, He was cautioning against using this word "good" lightly or in a purely earthly way.  God alone is the ultimate standard and perfection of goodness, and no one can claim to imitate the true goodness that is God without being good towards Him.  Remember what Isaiah the prophet said, that apart from God's salvation all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.  True goodness cannot begin until we have been clothed with the true goodness and righteousness of Jesus Christ who gave His life for us.

    In this letter, John writes to Gaius and to all of us who confess that Jesus is our Savior, not to those who don't know Him or accept Him.  Jesus is the Good whom we are to imitate.  When we as Christians do good to one another, when we return good for evil when unbelievers persecute us for the Name of Christ, we prove that we're telling the truth when we say we belong to the truth. 

    All of us will mess up at times.  We all struggle with the old sin nature and stumble in places along the road to God's perfect kingdom.  But if we persistently do evil; if we never care about one another; if we take pleasure in vicious gossip, egotistic power plays, and uncontrolled gluttony and greed; if we defiantly disregard God's gracious plan for marriage and sexual purity; if we refuse to worship Him as He deserves, we prove that we have not seen God.  The light of the resurrected Christ has never dawned in our hearts; we have no regard for the truth, rather, our "Jesus" is a god of our own making.

    John the elder and apostle knew we need models to imitate as we strive to do good in the name of Christ.  He calls Gaius' attention to a Christian named Demetrius.  We don't know if this man was a fellow-member of Gaius' church in that town, or if he was one of John's students, maybe the bearer of this very letter.  Regardless, John holds him up as someone worth emulating. 

    Demetrius, he says, is well-spoken of by everyone.  Now, Jesus told His disciples (in Luke), "Woe to you when all men speak well of you."  But St. John is not speaking here of "all men," but of sound Christian men and women whose good opinion is worth having.  If people like that can commend your attitudes and behavior, you can know you're on the right track.

    But there's a commendation more valuable still.  John says that the truth itself speaks well of Demetrius.  What does he mean?

    He says "truth itself," so most likely he's not saying he had a personal word from Jesus Christ in heaven about Demetrius' character.  But the truth is what we know of God, what He has revealed about Himself in His Law and especially in Jesus Christ.  Sometimes we can say about someone, "Oh, he's a wonderful Christian man" or "She's a remarkable Christian woman."  And if we're mature Christians and people look up to us, they might conclude that that person's actions line up with the will of God right down the line.  But we can get lazy and slip.  We can overlook things.  We can make allowances for little deviations and sins, especially when they're sins we share.  But what does the Bible say about that woman or man?  The New Testament is the faithful testimony of the apostles and evangelists to who Jesus was and what He did.  To say that the truth speaks well of Demetrius or anyone is to say that his life lines up with what the Word of God teaches us about Christ and His will. 

    Sometimes, often, if we want the truth of God to speak well of us it'll mean saying or doing what this upside-down world regards as evil.  We must put Christ and His holiness and glory first, even when the world says that's insensitive and intolerant.  It may call us humbly and lovingly to take a stand against popular lies about the nice, harmless Jesus who'd never, ever make anyone give up anything that makes them happy or makes them feel affirmed--!  And do it even though our very friends call us bigots and haters.

    And always, if we want to be well-spoken of by the truth, we will remain aware of our own sins and shortcomings and constantly run to Jesus for forgiveness and guidance in how to imitate what is good.

    John himself can vouch for Demetrius.  He knows him and his godly character personally, not merely by reputation, and John's own reputation for truthfulness is well-known.  Whenever you and I can forward someone's ministry by putting in a good word for them, let's certainly do it.  And let us strive to be the kind of people whose good word is valued and heeded.

    We see by verse 14 that John has decided almost certainly to come visit Gaius.  He will be able to encourage him face to face, and that will be better than mere pen and ink.  That's something to bear in mind in this age of easy electronic communication.  Good as we have it, nothing can replace being in each other's presence as we build up one another in the Lord.

    In the meantime, John closes with a benediction of peace, and sends the greetings of the friends in Ephesus.  The letter ends with a request that Gaius greet the friends in his town by name.  Each Christian is individually important to God, and we should be individually important to one another.  That is yet another way we imitate what is good.

    Life in the church isn't always easy.  It's not necessarily conflict-free to walk in the truth or to work together for the truth.  But if we strive to be spoken well of by the truth, together we will grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  And trusting in His goodness shown for us in His death and resurrection, we will know more and more the precious communion He promises us, until we enjoy it in perfection in His heavenly kingdom.

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