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Sunday, February 14, 2021
Beloved Sermon Series
Scripture: Psalm 103 & 1 John 5:6-13
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
Happy Valentine’s Day! It’s a happy coincidence that Valentine’s Day is on a Sunday this year and that our final service for our Beloved series on 1 John falls on this day where we celebrate the best of love. Not being Catholic, I don’t know much about saints or their feast days. I’ve always treated this day as a secular holiday. I make sure I do something nice for those I love – chocolates, flowers, poetry – but it’s always been entirely separated from the life of the church for me. Yet, I wondered what I could find out about St. Valentine himself. He is, of course, the patron saint of love, but somehow also added the title “patron saint of epilepsy” on top of that one – that’s a mystery to me.
As with many ancient historical figures, it’s hard to know what’s history and what’s legendary about them. It seems there are possibly three people who could be St. Valentine. One was a priest. Another a bishop. Both were from around the same place in Italy, so perhaps they were the same person. A third was from North Africa. My favorite story about this saint is that he was martyred for performing weddings for young Christian couples because marriage prevented the husband from conscription in the army. Love conquers all, right? The legend goes on to claim that soldiers were hard to come by in that time, so Valentine’s actions angered the emperor. To remind the couples of God’s great love for them, the legend holds that Valentine cut out hearts from parchment. Of course, this is a convenient connection between the person and the holiday, but even if it’s apocryphal, I still think it’s pretty sweet.
In Greek, the word for witness is martyria, which has the same root from which we get the word “martyr,” that is someone who is willing to sacrifice himself for something greater. Valentine was a martyr, one who possibly died at the hands of the state. His actions bore witness to the great love of God, where love triumphs over violence, and he is remembered – somewhat loosely – for his witness through the gifts we still give today. He was a witness to love, and we follow along the lines of his witness.
What does it mean to be a witness? In our courts, a witness is called to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth about their experience or about their expertise. To be a witness is to tell the truth. To be a witness is to give testimony. Our concluding text from 1 John 5 is all about witness. In fact, the word for “testimony” occurs six times in verses 9-11 and nowhere else in all of the letter. This passage is all about bearing witness. So, let’s take a little dive into this part of the passage to understand it better.
Admittedly, this short letter is highly theological, but it beautifully keeps coming back to the themes of God’s love expressed in Jesus Christ and that love emanating outward from person to person as they accept that love as true for them and available to others. In verse six John writes, “This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood.” Let’s just start right there. What does coming “by water and blood” mean? These are, after all, two of the three witnesses of who Jesus is – that is they are two of the points about how to understand what is true about Jesus. Water is most closely associated with baptism. Jesus begins his ministry in baptism, and baptism bears witness to what God is up to in the world. If you recall the stories of Jesus’ baptism in the gospels, they are a clear image of God’s mission for Jesus and even one of the clearest pictures of the Trinity in the Bible – God’s voice coming from heaven, Jesus in the water, and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. So, the baptism of Jesus is a pointer to the truth of who he is.
But, what about blood? To what is John referring? Well, the best explanation I can give here is that he is pointing to the other bookend of Jesus’ ministry – his crucifixion. Jesus is not just the one who is sent by God to bring healing and life into the world. He is also the one born to die. As Christians, baptism is what initiates us into the faith, and, as we say in our funeral services, our baptism is made complete in death. Now, for Jesus this is a bit different because his death on the cross isn’t his end; rather, it is what leads to his victory over the grave through resurrection. Yet, we have to remember how scandalous it is that we believe not only that Jesus is one with God but also that God – all-powerful and all-knowing – could be killed by human hands on the cross. Paul calls it a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. Still, John’s letter points to it as one of the witnesses – one of the three truth-tellers – as to who Jesus is and what that means for the world.
John also says that the Spirit is also a witness. This is very much in line with what Jesus tells his disciples in John’s gospel as he is preparing for his last day. In John 15:26 we read, “When the Advocate (that is, the Spirit) comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.” So, we have the testimony of three witnesses who carry us through not only important points in Jesus’ story but also important points in ours. The sacramental waters of baptism. The blood spilled in the crucifixion that leads to resurrection and that is remembered in the sacrament of communion. And the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all who make room in their hearts for this gift of eternal life. It’s a three-fold testimony that moves from the water, blood, and Spirit into us. “And this is the testimony,” John writes, “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.”
Giving testimony isn’t exclusively about understanding the basics of the Jesus story and its relationship to you. It’s also about how God takes ordinary people and extends love even into some of the darkest corners of the world. Death Row is one of those darkest of places. Many in our community read Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy this past year. In his book, Stevenson gives testimony about his experiences as a lawyer advocating for people on the outer fringes of society through the Equal Justice Initiative. While Stevenson bears witness to many other stories of people caught up in our justice system who don’t have the resources or ability to have good defense, the book focuses on Stevenson’s work with Walter McMillian, a black man wrongfully convicted of murder in the late 1980s in Alabama and sentenced to death. Stevenson’s testimony is all about the humanity of the people he meets. He is a person driven by love, or as Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.” If you haven’t read this book yet, I do encourage you to do so. It is a compelling witness from a Christian about how God’s love can be tangibly lived out in a world that is so broken by sin. Bryan Stevenson has a testimony, and it’s worth listening to.
Psalm 103 is a testimony also. It’s a witness to God’s love. It begins, “Bless the Lord, O my soul.” The Hebrew here is nefesh, so “soul” is more properly understood as a person’s whole being or self. In the Hebrew imagination, there is no division between the body and soul. It’s the whole person offering a witness of praise to the Lord. In verses 3-6, the psalmist recounts all that the Lord has done. God forgives. God heals. God redeems. God crowns. God satisfies. God renews. The psalmist’s witness to love is a remembering that, although things are not perfect, God is at work in life and in the world. God does all of this, so how can the psalmist keep silent? It’s like the witness of that wonderful gospel song, “He Never Failed Me Yet.”
I will sing of God’s mercy
Every day, every hour, he gives me power.
I will sing and give thanks to him
For all the dangers, toils, and snares that he has brought me out
He is my God, and I’ll serve him
No matter what the test.
Trust and never doubt,
Jesus will surely bring you out.
He never failed me yet.
We, too, are witnesses. We are witnesses to love – to God’s love. I know that it’s not our Presbyterian tradition to give our testimony, particularly in front of large groups, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a story to tell and that there aren’t moments where sharing our witness to love would help someone else out. Giving testimony is simply this: Sharing the true story about God’s goodness and work in your life.
So, I’d encourage you this week, what is your witness to love? Maybe you can take a little time to dwell on what God has done for you, most significantly in Jesus, but also in all the little ways that your story intersects with God’s big story. It’s a beautiful and humbling thing to write out that story and see your place in it. Perhaps there’s even a place and a time when sharing your story would bring hope and healing to someone in your life.
In the end, I really think that all the beautiful and deep theology of 1 John really boils down to a few essential things. First, God is love and has shown the clearest expression of that love in Jesus. If you want to know love, you begin with wanting to know God. Second, it is important to keep your loves in the right order. Interestingly enough, there are a few verses after the ones we read today, and the letter ends with a thud on these words, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” It feels like some of the letter went missing or someone forgot to edit out the scraps. Yet, idolatry is all about getting our loves out of order, so maybe the final sentence really does belong right there. We must get our loves right. Love God. We love because God first loved us. And so, we can love the world and those in it because of God’s great love. We must let God’s love flow through us, confirming that we are God’s beloved, and letting that overwhelming sense of gracious love flow from our lives into others.
Finally, our lives are that witness to love. We all have a testimony. We all have the ability to tell the truth of what God has done, is doing, and will do in our lives. It’s a wonderful story that we get to live and love. Don’t be afraid to tell that story. It’s like our lives are valentines – little reminders of love to us and our neighbors that God’s love permeates every square inch of our existence. What a gift it is to be beloved.