Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world. Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. 1 John 4:1-6 (NRSV)
Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, and our Lord and Savior, God’s Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ. Amen.
This morning, we’re going to play a game. A little game of True and False. Here are a few statements. You need to tell me if the statement is true or if it is false. Ready? Let’s go!
True or false. There are 30 days in the month of July. (It’s false. There are 31 days in July.)
Here’s another. The horse is the fastest animal on land. (That’s false. The cheetah is.)
Here’s one, especially for our children. Mickey Mouse’s middle name is Fauntleroy. (That’s false! Fauntleroy is Donald Duck’s middle name.)
For you World Cup fans, the gold medalists at the Olympics have a strong chance of winning the World Cup two years later. (False. With the exception of Italy in 1934 and 1936, no Olympic gold medal team has won the World cup two years later.)
A hammer and a feather, if they are dropped at the same time, will hit the ground together. (Yeah, this is a little bit of a trick question. Because the answer can be either true or false. In a vacuum, this is true. But, here on earth, it’s false.)
Last question. Stealing is always a sin. (That’s not so easy is it? Because there might be situations where stealing might be necessary to preserve life. Say you need to borrow something from a stranger’s yard to save another person. It’s not always cut-and-dried, is it? To know what is true and what isn’t.)
How do you know in your life who or what to believe? Have you ever believed something that eventually turned out not to be true? What was it? Why do you think you believed it? How did you find out it wasn’t true? And how did you feel when you found out it wasn’t true.
It can be hard sometimes, can’t it, to figure out what is true. Especially today in the era of “fake news.” It becomes more and more difficult at times to determine whether what we’re hearing is really true. Or whether it’s false. Or even if it falls somewhere in between.
This question of what is true and what is false is what our lesson today is all about. A couple of weeks ago we talked about the situation that led to the writing of the letter of 1 John. By reading between the lines, we get a sense of what was going on in this community of believers, of those who had been brought to faith by the apostle John.
It seems there was a sense of division in the congregation over who to believe. (Does that sound a little familiar in our world today?) There were those prophets (And, by the way, the word prophet here doesn’t mean someone who can foretell the future. Instead, the word refers to someone who speaks on behalf of God. Or claims to speak for God.). So, in the Johannine community, there were those prophets who were declaring that Jesus was both divine and human. And there were other prophets who were Anti-Christs.
Anti-Christs. This is the word that the writer uses for those who oppose his view. This word, Anti-Christ, has in popular imagination today come to represent this massive political figure who will come to dominate the world at the end of all time. But, in 1 John, which, by the way, is the only place where this word appears, it has a very different meaning. The Greek prefix “anti” means both “against” and “substitute for.” So the writer uses this term for someone who is against Christ or who is offering a substitute for Christ. And, in this situation, it is a fully spiritualized substitute for Christ. A Christ that is only divine. A Christ who had no human nature. A Christ who did not come to earth in the flesh and blood, with a warm, living human body. Those who denied the humanity of Jesus were expressing a dualism between spirit and body, calling the spirit good and the body evil. This dualism was present in Gnosticism, which devalued human experience as a place where God could be known. That God’s revealing of God’s nature was only evident in spiritual knowledge. That it could not be revealed in the flesh.
So, this was the division going on in the community of John’s followers. One set of prophets was saying one thing, the others were saying something else. And the rest of the people, well, they likely divided themselves in the same way with, perhaps, a few left in the middle who had no idea what to believe whatsoever. For those of us who have been in the church for any length of time, this is sadly nothing new. Who, we wonder, in these situations of devisiveness, speaks the truth? Who is not? And how do they (and we) figure out where the truth lies?
Most of you, I think, know that I grew up in the Wisconsin Synod. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this part of the Lutheran church, it is a very conservative arm. Even moreso than the Missouri Synod. Growing up in this church body as a young woman I was taught that women were wholly subject to the men of the congregation. Women were not allowed voice in the leadership of the church, never allowed to speak in meetings or to sit on council, certainly never allowed to go to seminary or to be ordained as pastors.
As I went onto a Lutheran high school and college, this even meant that female teachers were not allowed to teach mixed classes of young men and women. That they could only teach young women. And that only men could teach both young men and young women.
Over time, I began to see the hypocrisy in this policy. Where this teachers worked as hard, were as intelligent, held the same degrees, even, at times, taught mixed gender classes, they were never given the title of “professor” as the men were. Or the pay or status. Women in my church were second-class citizens. It drove me back to Scripture on my own and to the revelation of how integral women were, both in Jesus’ time and also in the early church. How women funded several of the ministries of the apostles. And, even, that one of the early apostles was, in fact, female. As I tested what I had been taught against the Word of God, I began to see its falsehood. It was this new understanding that eventually led me to this place. To the ELCA.
This same thing--this testing of the prophets--is what our lesson today calls us to do. There are many different spirits, many different so-called truths in our world today. These spirits, which you may also call the source of our insight or our feeling or our will, abound. How do we know which of them are true? The answer, according to our text? We test them. We put them up against God’s Word and, particularly, God’s Word incarnate. God’s Word come to earth in the form of the human being, Jesus Christ. This Word in the flesh. In the body. Who reveals the truth of who God is in the humanity of Jesus Christ. Born. Crucified. For us. God as Love incarnate.
Does the spirit capture this nature of God? This God of love? This human being named Jesus, the most radical expression of divine love for the world? Does this spirit proclaim this love and then encourage it’s embodiment in our own lives lived out with the same love? Because, if it does not, it is a false spirit. A spirit of error. An anti-Christ.
The only way to conquer such false spirits, such anti-Christs. (And, yes, according to our text, they can be conquered. They can be overcome. They can be countered.) The only way to win victory over them is to profess our faith and then to live our faith out in love. Because love transforms. Radical love transforms radically.
May you live your life in the same radical way and with the same radical love as the embodied Word of God, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Preached July 8, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Readings: 1 John 4:1-6 (John 14:15-17)