Hoe can we be certain
May 9, 2021
Trinity Mennonite Church
I John 5:1-6
One of the principal themes in both the first letter of John and John’s gospel is the vexing dilemma of how to “know” something. How is knowledge acquired? How can we be certain that we know what we know?
This issue lurks in today’s reading, and John even mentions it specifically: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments” (v. 2, emphasis added). In 1 John, the theme is pervasive; in this short letter, the word “know” or “knowledge” appears 38 times. Here are a few:
2:4 - Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar.
3:14 - We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.
3:19 - And by this we will know that we are from the truth.
3:24 - And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
4:2-3 - 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.
4:8 - Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
4:13 - By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.
And, as though to emphasize his point, John closes his letter by reviewing his theme and purpose: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life”.
This verse recalls John’s thesis in his gospel, explicitly identified in 20:30-31: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
Most people wrestle with achieving certainty. We may utter what we believe to be the truth, but it is often with quavering lips and a doubtful heart. How does one acquire the kind of knowledge that allows for no shade of doubt or uncertainty?
Ways of Knowing
When asked how one can know anything, most people — after some stuttering — will blurt out something about the five senses. Yes, we learn and know through sense perception, although try telling that to the five blind men describing an elephant.
What’s another way we can know? Through reason. We might not be sure that the fowl crossing the road is a duck, but then we apply reason to our uncertainty. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, has webbed feet like a duck, has feathers like a duck and hangs out with other ducks, it’s a duck.
Emotion and language are other ways we humans learn and know. And until 2014, the senses, reason, emotion and language were the only tools for acquiring knowledge
But by now the powers-that-be included four additional ways of knowing: intuition, imagination, faith and memory.
The biggie here for Christians, of course, is faith. It’s like a sixth sense. Sometimes, we absolutely, positively know something is true, although we have no empirical evidence for it. But for the writer of Hebrews, faith is all the evidence we need! “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, KJV).
Critics sometimes laugh at faith as a means of acquiring knowledge. Faith will fail you, they say. What you believe is true often turns out to be a sham. Like, for example, when we place our faith in people, whether they’re financial advisors, politicians or preachers. Faith can be unreliable.
But so can all the senses. Just ask defense attorneys about eyewitness testimony. And why is it that sometimes when we apply reason to a problem, the outcome can sometimes be most unreasonable! It’s possible to think logically to the wrong conclusion.
So, we can’t knock faith just because it doesn’t have the empirical street cred of the five senses. The journey to truth is always fraught with peril.
But none of this captures what John the Evangelist is getting at in today’s text! Somewhat of a philosopher himself, John moves beyond sense perception, reason, emotion, language, intuition, imagination, memory and faith.
John raises a new possibility! We learn by love. We sometimes come to knowledge by way of love.
John begins by affirming that the faith that Jesus is the Christ makes a person a child of God.
This belief is evidenced by our love for God.
The question: How do we know that we love God? John’s answer: If we love one another. Our love for our brothers and sisters, the children of God, who also believe that Jesus is the Christ, demonstrates that we love God. To love God’s children is to love God.
John adds to that that if we love God we will obey God’s commandments. We know not only through love, but through the evidence of that love, obedience.
I will never forget seeing a mother and her young son in a grocery store. The little lad kept reaching out and taking things from the shelf. The mother told him gently, “Please don’t do that.” He would say, “Okay, Mommy.” But in a moment would do it again. And she would say the same thing, and his reply would be the same—until he did it one last time and she got down and looked him right in the face and said more firmly, “Do not do that again.” He knew he had just about gone as far he could, so he looked up with teary brown eyes, “Mommy, I love you.” She smiled but then said, “If you love me, why don’t you list to me and do what I ask?” he had no answer for that.
So, one might well hear our Lord asking us the same question: “If you love me, why not show it? Follow my commandments. Live your life in the same kind of love that I did. Then I will know you truly love me.”
Walking the talk is a powerful way of certifying that we’re not all talk and no walk. Rather, the practice of our moral code, core beliefs and our faith deliver a strong message to our souls.
This is a circular message: We love God. We love God’s children. We love God by keeping the commandments, which are summed up by loving one another.
Yet those who love their brothers and sisters by taking care of their needs are not released from adhering to the other commandments. They must also believe that Christ is the Son of God. Some may do good for others but miss the overall point of fulfilling all the commandments—which is to love God. Faithfulness to God and loving others are both central to fulfilling the commandments. Belief and love are both necessary for faith in Christ.
John comforts us with the words: God’s commands are not burdensome.” Belief in Christ’s death and resurrection brings us victory over the world, which in turn make obeying God’s commandments easy.
Conquer the World
Jesus conquered the world through the event of his death and resurrection; our faith in Christ and what he has done enables us to conquer the world. Faith is believing in the person of Christ. It is God’s great love through Jesus that conquers the world.
Jesus came by water and blood. With this John take on those in the church who claimed that Jesus wasn’t a real human being. He only seemed to be a man. He was actually pure Spirit. Therefore, he really didn’t die on the cross. Others said that even if he was on the cross, he really did not suffer. Some of these people also believed that Jesus wasn’t really the Messiah.
It may be that the people contradicting John and separating from the Early Church were insisting that salvation came through water baptism only.
John says the blood is also necessary. Salvation depends not only on the human Jesus who was obedient to God in baptism, but also the divine Christ who died and rose from the dead. John, the beloved disciple, would have remembered the scene at the cross where water mingled with blood flowed from the side of Jesus.
The refrain of an old hymn goes, “O victory in Jesus, my Savior forever! He sought me and bought me with his redeeming blood.” John affirms: This is the victory that has over come the world…the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ.
In the midst of our competition and cares, in our rush for success and status, in our expression of doubt and despair—today’s reading graciously reminds us that we can overcome the world through victory in Christ.
Remember the moments in sporting events when the cheer goes up, “Victory, victory, that’s our cry, V-I-C-T-O-R-Y!” How often do you cheer from the sidelines of life that victory is yours? How often do you believe that you have won the game of life despite overwhelming odds? How often do you act as if you were on God’s winning side?
One day Bernie Wiebe went swimming with his family and he left his 2-year old son near the pool with his favorite toys, so that he could swim in the deep end. Suddenly he heard people yelling as his son came running and jumped in the deep end. I caught him, told him this was dangerous, and put him back with is toys.
Back in the pool, Bernie heard yelling again. His son was running toward him again. I took more time to explain the dangers and promised to soon go back to the shallow pool. He look remorseful, and hoped he had learned the lesson. I was barely in when I hear loud squeals of laughter as he again ran straight into the deep pool. Bernie’s swim was over.
Why was this child so foolishly fearless? He saw his father in the water, and that’s all that mattered. That is amazing faith!
When you hear John declaring that our faith “overcomes the world” how do you feel? Our text speaks of the kind of victory Bernie’s son demonstrated at the pool. His “faith” overcame all fear. From his experience as a disciple, John knew that it is God’s great love through Jesus that conquers the world.
Remember that Christ has chosen you—to love, to believe, to give, to live, to be victorious in a world that seems to be your enemy. Live with confidence. Live fearlessly.
The apostle John is concerned about knowing. He wants us to know! To have certitude.
Be comforted with the good news that our mission, our salvation, God’s love for us and God’s providential care for us are not matters about which we need to guess. We can know!
God loves us! We love others. And Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Amen.
Homiletics. May 9, 2021—Timothy Merrill and Carl Wilton contributed to this material.
Adult Bible Study Guide—March 25, 2007. John R. Yeatts
Rejoice. March 21. Bernie Wiebe