May 14, 2017 “Truth and Love” – II John
“Truth and Love”
May 14, 2017 – Fifth Sunday of Easter
I grew up in Santa Monica, California. I probably just wasn’t paying attention when we talked about our city’s history in school, but I was at least in college before I knew that it was named after one of the greatest mothers in Christian history, St. Monica. There is a beautiful statue of her there in Palisades Park, looking out over the bay. I must have walked or driven by it many times.
We could imagine that John’s second epistle is written to someone like Monica, an “elect lady and her children,” a shining example of Christian motherhood. Monica, however, came three centuries later. She was married young to a non-believing Roman named Patricius. She is most famous for being the mother of St. Augustine, but she also had two girl children who became Christians.
Monica is a perfect example of what John is writing about in our text this morning, a combination of faithfulness to both truth and love for her family. I’ll be saying more about her later. But we need to recognize that unlike III John, II John is not addressed to a literal, specific individual. As we can see by looking at the last verse in the letter, John is actually writing to a church, whom he personifies as a noble lady and her children.
The Bible often pictures our Lord’s church in female terms. She is the “bride of Christ” in the book of Revelation. In Ephesians 5 Paul told husbands to love their wives the same way Christ loves His church. It’s a short step from there to John’s picture of a local church as a mother and children and finally to the ancient Christian custom of speaking about the Church as our mother in the faith. In C. S. Lewis’s probably least read Christian book, The Pilgrim’s Regress, his hero meets a figure representing the church. She is named “Mother Kirk” from the old Scottish word for church, kirk.
John is addressing a church somewhere in the vicinity of Ephesus, in what is modern day Turkey. He is talking as if he is writing to a mother, a woman responsible for caring for her children. John wants to both commend her and encourage her. That’s what I hope his letter will do today for our own church and for mothers (and fathers too), and for everyone who is here today.
A week ago I pointed out that all John’s letters and the Gospel of John emphasize the deep connection between two key facets of Christian life and faith: truth and love. In III John last Sunday we saw the emphasis come down on the love side of that pair. True love toward others is the way in which the truth is demonstrated and proved. In II John the focus is on the truth side. As we live and walk in love, we must also remain firmly and totally committed to the truth.
The first four verses repeat that theme of truth over and over. In verse 1 John says he loves this lady, this church, “in the truth” and so do “all who know the truth.” Verse 2 explains that that love is there because “of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever.” Verse 3 is a pretty standard Christian greeting that reminds us a lot of Paul’s letters, but John adds on, “in truth and love.” Then in verse 4, just as John commended the man Gaius, he commends this “lady,” this church, because at least some of her “children” are “walking in the truth.”
You all know that our world is deeply confused about truth. It’s not just the relativism that my generation of Christians was taught to fear—you know, the old, “what’s true for you is true for you and what’s true for me is true for me.” But we’ve gone beyond relativism to a place where anyone who claims to know any significant truth about anything is regarded as arrogant and intolerant.
What’s more, recent political rhetoric has rendered many of us skeptical about the possibility of discerning truth we used to take for granted, like the account of an event reported on the news or the counting of a vote or even scientific facts. We’re being schooled to believe that we can’t trust any truth claims at all.
Which means that we live in a time when Christians need to be the counter-culture, need to cling firmly not just to truth but to the very idea of truth in a society which is letting go of it. We need to be people committed to the truth of our faith and to the conviction that truth matters. It may often be hard to figure it out, we may need to be very humble about our conclusions, but that does not mean there is no truth about climate change or what happened in a police shooting or whether someone in government lied or misused power. We can’t succumb to just tossing any hope of truth about our world and what happens in it overboard into an ocean of mere opinion. Christians agree with what the “X-Files” used to repeat every week, “The truth is out there.”
Christians, though, care about some truths more than others. That’s what John says in verse 5 to the “dear lady,” that beloved church to whom he’s writing. At the center of all our commitment to truth is the truth “we have had from the beginning,” the truth of what Jesus taught us, “let us love one another.” Here’s where I, II and III John overlap and repeat what’s at the heart of our faith. What we believe to be true has to lead to love for others or it’s not real, it’s not true.
Verse 6 says that love is when “we walk according to his commandments.” God’s commandments, the Ten Commandments you may have learned in Sunday School, all boil down to love, love toward God and love toward others. Four commandments are focused on loving God and six on loving other people. Jesus said in Matthew 22:40 that all the commandments and everything the Old Testament prophets said depends on and is summed up by loving God and loving our neighbors.
One again, then, it’s love and truth together. Truth means walking in the commandments and the commandments mean loving God and neighbor. So John sums it all up in the rest of verse 6, “just as you have heard it from the beginning—you must walk in it.” And that’s the vision of our own church, walking with Jesus in truth and love, because it’s the vision for the church, our Lord’s “dear lady” from the beginning.
Truth means love, but Christian truth does not just reduce to love. That’s why the Bible talks about both. As any mother knows, as married couples know, as good friends know, you don’t really have love where there is no truth. Take truth out of a relationship and the love will disappear along with it. And our relationship with Jesus is not just about warm feelings for Him or others. It’s solidly grounded in truth.
That is why John gets what seems like a little mean starting in verse7. He has some harsh words for those who do not speak the truth and tells that church to treat such people in a way that certainly sounds harsh to us.
What got John worked up here is there in verse 7, people who believed and taught a very specific falsehood about Jesus. It’s the same problem that he had much more to say about in I John, “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.”
We’re talking about a Christian heresy that came to be called gnosticism. There are various ingredients to that way of thinking, but one of the main ones is that the material world is evil, that it was created by an evil god. So if Jesus was the Savior, if He came from a good god, then He could not really have had a body, could not have actually been flesh and blood. You might think gnosticism is old news, that Christianity left it behind a long time ago, but it’s still very much with us in all sorts of forms.
One form gnosticism takes is in people who sort of like the idea of Jesus, but don’t want to believe in what Jesus actually did in the body. They might like His teaching or His example of loving others, but they don’t want anything to do with the fact that He physically died on the Cross or bodily rose from the dead. All they want is what they imagine is the “spiritual” side of Jesus. John says all that sort of thing is a deception.
Teaching and spirituality that has no place for an actual living, dying and rising man named Jesus who walked this earth in the first century is a deception. It’s an insidious deception because it cuts us off from true salvation, from true hope, from true life in Christ. It offers us an immaterial, empty hope, a Christianity lite, a marshmallow faith that is mostly air rather than a meaty faith filled with nourishment.
John is worried about false doctrine that makes Jesus only some sort of divine spirit. There are other ways to go wrong about Jesus. Many people want to make him only human, nothing more than a man like other men. That removes our salvation too, because a merely human Savior can do no more for us than we can do for ourselves. The Christian faith, the Christian truth is that Jesus is both, God and human. As verse 7 concludes, anyone who teaches different is a deceiver and “the antichrist.”
That’s not antichrist with a capital “A,” some supposedly political figure that’s going to show up in the end times, but anti-Christ in the sense of someone opposed to everything about who and what Jesus is and does. Any teaching which leads people away from the real Jesus Christ is antichrist.
Verse 8 warned that church back then and warns us now to “Be on your guard,” against that antichrist teaching and spirit. John does not want them to “lose what we have worked for,” but to “receive a full reward.” That “we” in “what we have worked for” is not that church, not the people receiving this letter. It’s John and his fellow apostles who brought them the good news about Jesus. He’s saying that he and the others worked hard to teach them truth and he doesn’t want them to lose it now.
For verse 9, remember what we read in the Gospel of John this morning, chapter 14 verses 9 and 10. Philip asked Jesus to show them the Father and Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” and “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” Like I told the children, Jesus is our way to God. If we get it wrong about Jesus, we’ll get it wrong about God. As John says, if we don’t have that true teaching, we won’t have God.
That truth about Jesus is so important that in verses 10 and 11 John gives a direction that may sound just wrong to us these days. One commentary I read said that we probably do not want to put this bit of Scripture into practice. John says not to welcome those who are teaching incorrectly about Jesus, not to even have them in your house. That sounds weird to our ears. It sounds like what Amish people do, shunning those they disagree with. But it’s not us nice, friendly Covenant people.
What if we look at it through John’s picture, like a mother would? If you have children, you want to protect them, to keep them on the right path. So sometimes you are going to say, “No, you can’t do that.” “No, you can’t watch that.” “No, you can’t read that.” “No you can’t hang out there with those kids.” You are not teaching your child prejudice and intolerance. You are teaching her right and wrong. You are keeping him from participating in the evil deeds of others.
That is what John is trying to say to the “elect lady” who is a church mother. Keep your children away from people and teaching who will lead them into evil, who will take them away from Jesus. You can welcome a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness into your home to try and show them the biblical truth. What John is saying is that we’re not going to invite such a person to preach here or to teach a Sunday School class for eight weeks. We want the children of the lady Valley Covenant Church to know the truth, to stay away from evil.
One of our members talked to me this week about belonging to an organization with Christian roots. But now some in that group want to remove Christian elements like the Lord’s Prayer from their meetings. That person asked me, “Am I prejudiced to want to keep that in what we do?” The answer is no, it’s not prejudice to want to hold onto Christian truth and practice. It’s exactly what the Bible wants, what our Lord asks us to do, to be faithful to His truth.
Our world desperately needs a new appreciation for the truth. Most of all it needs Christians who are willing to speak the truth even when it’s hard, even when it’s dangerous. That’s why we praised God today for a Kenyan woman named Zainab. She’s a midwife. Five years ago she delivered a baby with birth defects. It was born with both male and female sex organs. The baby’s father told her to kill it, but she saved it and raised it as her own. She says, “I told him that the child was God’s creation and must not be killed.”
Then, against all odds because such births are very rare, Zainab delivered another baby with the same problem two years later and took that one home with her as well. But then Zainab’s husband began to blame all his problems on a “curse” caused by deformed children in his home. He threatened to kill them. So she took the children and left her husband. She spoke the truth and she lived the truth.
Saint Monica was also committed to the truth. Augustine’s sisters became Christians and were baptized and even her husband and mother-in-law, but Augustine refused. Monica kicked him out of the house. But she kept praying for him, kept trying to get him to accept the truth of Christ. And she cried for her son, so much so that when she went to her bishop he said, “Go now, I beg you; it is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish.” It’s said that my hometown Santa Monica was named because of springs there which reminded a priest of Monica’s constantly flowing tears for her child.
That’s how we want to be as a church, like a mother guarding her children from evil and teaching them the truth, weeping over them until they turn to Jesus. That’s why we are praying for the people on our BLESS lists. It was seventeen years after Augustine left her home, but Monica finally had the joy of seeing her son become a Christian and be baptized. In verse 12, John talks about wanting to see his readers face to face, so that “our joy may be complete.” That will be our joy too, to see some of these we are praying for come to Jesus, to be face to face with them in worship and praise.
The church, showing up all over the world as local churches, is what keeps us walking in the truth, like a good mother. Back in the third century, writing about people who left the church’s truth to find their own truth, Cyprian wrote, “No one can have God for his Father, who does not have the church for his mother.” A church is the mother Jesus gives His followers to help and guide them through this world.
The last verse is a greeting from “the children of your elect sister.” John is writing from one church to another church, from one group of Christians to another. We are connected with everyone else who believes the truth of Jesus. That truth cuts across denominations, across national borders, across skin color, across political parties, across rich and poor, across education levels, across everything which separates us. Every church that believes the truth about Jesus is a sister to our church and their children are our brothers and sisters. Let’s keep on greeting them all in truth and love.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj