Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.
I picked up a new book this week. It’s actually a book written for children, but as is so often the case with children’s books, it contains some pretty profound wisdom that I think more than a few adults could probably stand to benefit from. The book is called ‘The Lifters,’ and I was excited to hear about it because it’s written by one of my favorite authors— Dave Eggers. The story is a bit complicated to summarize, but I’ll do my best to give you the reader’s digest version without giving too much away. The basic plot centers around a young boy named Gran— short for Granite— who moves to a struggling small-town community that is on the brink of being torn apart by forces of hate, fear, and despair. The future looks pretty dim for Gran and his small town until he stumbles upon a mysterious underground movement called “the lifters.” The Lifters— whose name is actually a double entendre that is only fully understood at the end of the book— have been given the unenviable task of literally propping up the town as it sinks deeper and deeper into a pit of its own misery and despair. In one pivotal scene in the novel, the most senior member of the Lifters— known as the “commissioner”— gives a speech to a gathering of his fellow workers. The commissioner says this of the task that lies before them— “The work ahead is difficult and without end,” he says. “The work ahead is dangerous,
and dirty… it will tire us and frustrate us, and victories will be brief and quickly reversed.” It’s not exactly the most optimistic speech in the vast archives of children’s literature.
Still, I have to admit, that as someone who tends to get involved in all kinds of social movements aimed at resisting hate, fear, and despair, to me, the commissioner's words felt profoundly true to life. The work of social change, after all, is often frustrating, sometimes dangerous, seemingly endless, and always, always difficult. And it most certainly is true that the victories we tend to celebrate in these movements— the success of a single event,
the passage or reform of a single law, the election of a particular individual—can indeed be brief, and are often met with backlash that can quickly lead to reversal— sometimes leaving us even further behind than where we were when we started. The endless back and forth can be terribly exhausting, and in fact, many social change activists, including many pastors, have suffered from health challenges—both mental and physical— that are a direct result of their constant striving and struggling against the powers that be.
So what then are we do to? As Christians who are called to work for a more just world, as followers of Christ who are called to resist the forces of hate and despair, do we just accept this endless struggle as the inevitable consequence of our discipleship— resigning ourselves to lives of constant fatigue and frustration?
Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t ever remember fatigue and frustration being listed as fruits of the Spirit. I do, however, recall reading about the time Jesus said to his followers, “come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest, for my yolk is easy and my burden is light.”
Here’s the thing— even though the speech offered by the commissioner feelstrue, it falls short of qualifying as Truth with a capital T. There’s something missing from the commissioner’s words— something that is revealed to the reader only in the most gradual, imperceptible ways,until the very end of the story when the true nature and calling of the Lifters is finally understood. Now I don’t want to give too much more away, just in case any of you decide to pick up this book, which I would heartily recommend that you do. But the whole reason I bring it up, is because as I read it concurrently with this week’s scripture passage, I began to see it as something of a parable— a secular parable to be sure— but nevertheless a parable that was ultimately making the same kind of claim that we find in this morning’s text— the claim that faith has the power to conquer the world. In verses 4 and 5 of this morning’s text John writes that God’s commandments “are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
Now before we go on, I think it’s important to recognize that in some contexts, verses like this one have been tragically misunderstood. There is a notion of Christian conquest and victory,
still alive and well in some circles, in which ultimate victory is won when all other “false” religions have been stamped out, and all humanity can proclaim with one unified voice that Jesus Christ is Lord. This misunderstanding of the Christian concept of victory has led to some of the most terrible sins of our past— the crusades come to mind, as does the enslavement and massacre of Native Americans by the early Christian “conquistadors.” And though most Christians these days are able to see those historical moments for the grave sins that they were, I suspect there are still quite a few of us who can’t quite wrap our minds around what a more affirming concept of Christian conquest and victory might look like. Indeed, some of us may be tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater— to eliminate all references to conquest and victory in our hymnals, and to ignore anything in scripture that reminds us of the militarism of our past— all so that we might embrace a gentler, more inclusive, less offensive faith. Certainly today’s scripture, which speaks of our faith as a victory which “conquers the world,” would be a pretty good candidate for the chopping block if that were to be our approach.
If we chose that approach, however, we would be missing out on something really important. We would be missing out on the very same thing, in fact, that the commissioner missed in his speech to the other Lifters—something that can help us see beyond the endless, temporary fixes, to a more permanent kind of victory; something which helps us keep moving forward even when it feels like our hard-won progress is being dismantled or reversed; something which can move us beyond burdensome, fatiguing faith, to a faith that is more life-giving and resilient.
Before we can get to what exactly that ‘something’ is, though, it might be worthwhile to think for a moment about what John means by the world ‘conquest.’ We’ve already established that he’s not talking about military conquest. We’ve tried that before, and not only did it fail, it became one of the darkest periods of church history. I would add to that, that John’s notion of conquest and victory does not come about through coercion or threat, and it is not won by having the best rhetoric in a debate or the most eloquent words in one’s speeches. The victory that our faith provides is not something that can be decided by popular opinion, or won in an election, or written into a law, and it certainly has absolutely nothing to do with who has the political advantage at any given moment. The kind of conquest John is talking about here is far more subtle, and at the same time, far more powerful than any of that. The kind of conquest that John is talking about here can be brought about by one thing and one thing only. We named it here just last week. We named it as the source which connects us all, like branches on a vine. It is the four letter word which John claims is synonymous with God-- LOVE. It is love, not might; love, not threat; love, not clever tactics or strategic plans that leads us to the ultimate victory, for it is love— particularly as we see displayed in the story of Christ's life, death and resurrection— which is the only force powerful enough to conquer death. And if love has already conquered death, then it can most certainly conquer fear, anger, hate, despair— and all the things of this world that make us forget who and whose we really are.
Marcus Borg once wrote that if the crucifixion was the world’s adamant “NO” to the message of love and grace that Jesus proclaimed, then the resurrection was God’s even more insistent “YES.” When the world says no— no to justice, no to forgiveness, no to peace, no to inclusion— God says yes. Or, to put it another way— LOVE WINS. Love conquers ALL. It is thislove that is the very source of our faith, which is how John is able to say that our faith is the victory that conquers the world. It is our faith in the power of divine love that we come to understand that the ultimate victory has already been won. It is our conviction that love really does win that makes us victorious over the dross and drag of this world. It is through our confidence in the power of God’s “YES,” that we are undeterred by the persistence of the world’s “NO.” It is this kind of faith that liberates us and unburdens us from the constant striving for fleeting, short term successes because we know that the final victory is already ours. In a word, my friends, it is faith in the power of God’s divine love that gives us that thing that the commissioner’s speech was missing—HOPE. Victory is ours, because we have hope.
And here’s the thing about hope— the more hope we have, the more motivated we become to take action— not out of some burdensome sense of obligation, but because we know that love has already won, and that the kingdom of God is already at hand. The more hope we have, the more likely we are to discern God’s kingdom of love in our midst, and the more prepared we will be to invite others into the kingdom with us. And the more people we can invite to dwell with us in God’s kingdom of love, the closer our world gets to healing, and wholeness, and shalom.
So to sum up— we start with love. Whoever abides in love, abides in God. The more we abide in divine love, the stronger our faith becomes. The stronger our faith, the more potent our sense of hope. The more potent our hope, the more perceptive we become to God’s kingdom in our midst, until that day when we are finally made so keenly aware of the presence God’s kingdom within us, and among us, and all around us, that we have no choice but to declare with all boldness and confidence that in faith we have conquered the world and thanks be to God-- victory is ours!