For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. (1 St. John 5:4).
As we come down from last week’s grand celebration of the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, it is quite helpful that our ancient lectionary gives us a healthy dose of the pastoral epistles from the apostles John and Peter over the next three weeks. These letters from God’s chosen ambassadors to the first century church are exactly what we need to hear as we come to terms with just what it means to be living in between the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of all mankind—to be living in the last, murky twilight of evil’s reign in the hearts of men. The next time we see the resurrected Lord it will be either in the throne room of heaven as our fellow saints prepare to return to a new earth, stripped of evil and injustice, or it will be when we assemble at the side of our vindicated king as He and His heavenly army finally break evil’s back and fully claim the victory won on Good Friday. This assured future is the defeat of sin and death we can hardly dream possible as we look out onto a world beset by evil, as we struggle with our own weakness and sin, or as we accept the counterfeit heaven in which our unjust world would have us slowly die. The joy of Easter should be with us throughout these forty days of celebration as we await Ascension Day and Pentecost, but we also must accept the challenge of Easter, for if we do believe that Jesus Christ has loosened the snare of death and opened the gate of everlasting life then we must embrace our resurrected destiny and join in Christ’s conquering of the world.
St. John is calling us to that destiny when he reminds us that the children of God, those born again as the future inheritors of the new creation, have already ‘overcome the world’ or another way to render the Greek: conquered the cosmos. And not surprisingly, this conquering of the universe for Christ has not come through our own greatness or cleverness or strength or virtue; no, we have been ‘birthed’ into the grand army of God. Unfortunately, people have so butchered this analogy that it must be spelled out: we do not birth ourselves. St. John has seen babies be born, so has our Lord, and they both know that this analogy for our spiritual regeneration, our spiritual re-Genesis, fits because we are brought into the kingdom of God as selfish, whiny babies who we would kick out of our houses if we didn’t love them so much. People who boastfully say, ‘Well, I’m a born again Christian,’ sound as ridiculous as if they bragged about how much they helped the doctor during their first birth.
No, as St. Paul tells us, ‘…we are more than conquerors through him who loved us’ (Romans 8:37), and it is that love of God which we must trust with everything we have in order to be ranked among those who truly believe that Jesus is the Son of God, for as St. John tells us, the only people who are going to conquer the universe are those united to the God who has both proven His love for us, through Christ’s death, and proven His mastery over that universe through Christ’s resurrection. God really doesn’t need to prove anything to us, but He mercifully reveals His love and power in order to ground our faith in reality, rather than leaving us to place our faith in the fairy tales people live and die for every day. St. John is not asking us to place our trust in any of the utopian fables that drive lost souls to mutilate their bodies or be content with the garbage this world has to offer; no, he is crying out for us to bind ourselves to the living God and trust in him no matter what that means for our lives.
And it is what comes out of this faith that is so amazing. If we do trust Christ completely, which only makes sense given the reality of the resurrection, then we are free to love God and man without the terrible burden of hoping and praying that our relatively minor contributions must be enough to save ourselves or the world. We don’t have to conquer nature or bend men to our wills or win every political battle or be on the right side of history (whatever that actually means). Jesus has already overcome the world and its darkness; history is His story, so we are free to treasure a peace the world will never understand and prepare for a new life of creation and discovery.
But St. John is not finished, it isn’t just in the resurrection that God has made His love and power known; no, it is also in the complex and concrete symbols that come next in the letter. John tells us that Jesus came by water and blood, an allusion to two interrelated historical points of evidence in the life of Christ. First, the water and the blood represent the bookends of Christ’s earthly ministry—our Lord’s baptism in the Jordan River and His crucifixion on Calvary. These were public events witnessed by hundreds of people, many of them still living when St. John wrote this letter. And, the second point of convergence comes to us from the evangelist’s account of Christ’s crucifixion: ‘But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water’ (St. John 19:33-34). The apostle who stood by the cross as the Roman Empire and Jewish religious authorities murdered his Lord cannot forget the moment when Jesus was pierced for our transgressions, and he knows—better than anyone—that the blood and water are witnesses to the real human death of Christ: a real death which makes His resurrection all the more worthy of astonishment and praise.
However, beyond the resurrection and beyond even the public ministry and sacrifice of Christ, there is still more that testifies to the reality of Christ’s conquering of the universe; indeed, a powerful force that transcends the world and its quest for riches and fame and glory—that power, of course, is the Holy Spirit and His church. As John writes, ‘And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree’ (1 St. John 5:6-7). The apostle, simply quoting from Jesus, knows that the Spirit safeguards the church through the God breathed Word that brings us into all truth, and we, as the church—the called out people of God—are to safeguard that truth with our lives. We are to study and know that Word better than we know anything else because by its light all our other knowledge is illuminated—by its light we learn to love and think and be human in a way pleasing to our Creator. If the Spirit is the truth, as St. John tells us today, how can we possibly not listen to His voice preserved and passed down to us by the blood of the martyrs who came before us and will come after us. I say that as if we all aren’t called to be martyrs, as if we all aren’t called to be faithful witnesses to the point that we put our ambitions and desires to death and serve our Lord with all that we have. Make no mistake, when we turn off the TV to pray the Daily Office, or get up a little earlier to come to Morning Prayer, or skip some function to come to Bible Study, or miss out on some epic adventure to draw closer to God in His Holy Communion, when we do any of those acts celebrating Christ’s victory, we are showing whom we love through the obedience that leads men and women to die for their Lord. That is our calling just as much as our Christian brothers and sisters in China and Nigeria; the only difference is our enemy doesn’t come for us with AK-47s and swords but with the numbing distractions of a decadent, dying culture. History has shown us that the latter is worse for blunting the Christian message than the former.
Thankfully, the Spirit has not left us without help. Just as the Father, through the life and witness, death and resurrection of the Son, has given us everything we need to believe, so too has the Holy Spirit given His church everything she needs to sustain herself as the devil rages in these latter days: namely, the water and the blood. Our Christ given sacraments, Baptism and the Holy Communion, are physical signs and seals to the power of God in our lives, both for our regeneration and sanctification. Baptism, as St. Paul tells us in Romans 6:4, buries us with the Lord and thus connects us to His resurrection—marking us as the new covenant people of God and the very inheritors of the new heaven and the earth. But our life in the church does not end there; no, we must grow in our holiness by uniting ourselves ever more and more to the God/Man whose glory we will one day share. Through the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim Christ’s death until He returns by joining St. John at the cross and at his master’s side in the upper room as by faith we spiritually eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are brought into the real, heavenly presence of our Lord and Savior who strengthens us for another day in this confused and unjust world—mercifully kept in place so that we can spread the good news the Trinity has given to the world. We can blessedly join with King David who invites us to, ‘…taste, and see, how gracious the Lord is: blessed is the man that trusteth in him’ (Psalm 34:8). The Spirit and the water and the blood are found in Christ’s church because it is in the church that the Holy Spirit connects us with the salvation of Christ. We must become part of Christ’s body to know Christ, and we must know Christ in His word and water and blood to join Him as conquerors of the universe and saints in light. Let us pray today, and every day, that we are growing ever more united to our resurrected king, and may we be conquerors with Him forever.