Sunday, June 03, 2012

Are You Calling Me A Liar?

John 17.6-19
1 John 5.9-13

The writer of John’s Gospel and the Epistles of John says this at the end of his first letter, in chapter 5 verse 10: ‘Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son.’

This sentence put me uncomfortably in mind of an incident that happened in Darnall last week. A man came into the office complaining because he had been in trouble for missing an appointment with his employment adviser. He insisted that when he told me he was taking his little daughter to hospital, so that the doctors could look at a rash all over her body, I had said: ‘I don’t care about your daughter.’ When I denied this, of course, he stood right in front of my face and started shouting, ‘Are you calling me a liar?’ I wasn’t calling him a liar, but I did end up calling the police.

If I wasn’t calling him a liar, what was I doing? Well, I felt I was just refusing to agree with his version of events. And that, surely, is what people who don’t believe in God are doing. They’re not calling God a liar, they’re just refusing to believe that he exists.

I think what John is really getting at, though, is something rather different from what he actually says. If we do believe in God, but we don’t believe in Jesus, or at least if we don’t believe in God’s testimony about Jesus, then we’re making God out to be a liar.

John complains that some of his adversaries are perfectly ready to believe what human witnesses say happened in this or that situation, but they’re not ready to believe what God is telling us about Jesus, or indeed what God is telling us in Jesus.

Elsewhere John tells us his version of what God has testified about Jesus. At Jesus’ baptism God told the Baptist that Jesus would be the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. And just before Jesus’ death a voice from heaven, which John clearly identifies as the voice of God or one of his messengers, tells the crowd, ‘I have glorified the name of Jesus and I will glorify it again.’ And what I mean by saying that God tells us things in Jesus as well as about him is that John believes Jesus’ death on the cross is clear and compelling testimony of God’s love for humankind. All the people who call God a liar, or who refuse to believe in God, are calling Jesus’ ministry a fraud and his cross a defeat. So they’re not quite calling God a liar, but they are challenging what Jesus is supposed to have achieved in his name.

But things are never quite as clear-cut as John suggests, are they? When the man came into my office and demanded to know whether I was calling him a liar I pointed out to him that we didn’t need to have this argument because he had advised me that he already had a recording of the phone conversation in which I had allegedly said I didn’t care about his daughter. So if he had a recording, all he had to do was take it to the Department of Work and Pensions and play it to them, and then it would be me - not him - who was in trouble.

I guess that’s the real reason why he got upset. I hadn’t called him a liar, but I had called his bluff. Without the evidence of my actual words, how was he going to make his case?

I was on the receiving end of the same dilemma yesterday. I put £3.40 into a parking meter but - unbeknown to me - one of the pound coins fell straight through the machine and was rejected. Of course, if I had looked more closely at the ticket I would have seen that, although I had paid more than the tariff for a one hour stay, I was still only entitled to park for one hour. However, all unawares, I went off with Helen to have lunch with my father only to return to find a parking ticket sticking to the windscreen. I can try complaining to the local authority that I actually did put the correct fee in the meter, but where’s my evidence? Who’s going to believe me?

And that is John’s dilemma too, in the end. For it is only by faith that we are able to confirm the evidence for Jesus. God’s message at his baptism was only relayed to us - in John’s account at least - by the Baptist. And the voice from heaven which said that Jesus was being glorified by God was mistaken by most people for thunder. So John acknowledges that it’s only when we choose to believe his message, when we internalise it to use a bit of modern psycho-babble, that we can know it is true; because then we have God’s testimony available to us in our hearts through the presence of his Advocate, the Holy Spirit.

This ambiguity about the evidence for Jesus is the reason, of course, why believers find themselves in the world but not of the world. We know that everything Jesus has given us is from God, we know that in truth Jesus came from God, but only because we have believed the evidence that we have been shown by John and by other Christians.

In the Gospel reading Jesus asks God to protect the believers and keep them united. He fears that evil forces - personified in the figure of the Evil One - will conspire against them. But he doesn’t asked for his followers to be taken out of the world, to be beamed up to the mother ship; instead, he sends his friends into the world.

This week we’ve had two very tangible reminders of what that means for us today. Jesus prayed that we might be one so that none of us, and none of the good work that we do, might be lost, and in our Church Family Committee we heard how St Helen’s are appealing for the help, especially the financial help, of neighbouring churches so that the work on the Portobello Estate might not be lost. If we remain together in this, united with one another as God and Jesus are united, we will be able to go out into the world - and onto the Portobello Estate - in Jesus’ name, just as he prayed.

The other reminder comes from a bit further away, in Sierra Leone. At the end of Christian Aid Week I thought it might be nice for you to see the kind of project to which the money we collect goes after it’s been counted.

Again, we see Christians who are set apart from the world going out to serve God in the world, reclaiming barren land left untilled by the failure of a very worldly, big commercial project - the kind of thing which was intended to suck money out of the local economy and which we might think was part of the work of the Evil One. But that land has been brought back into use by the villagers, using their simple but effective hoes, and they are also using the profits from the seeds they grow to do things like mill their own cassava and lobby the local authorities for new school buildings.

The project in the film is an example of local people working together, but it’s also an example of Christians working together from across the world to support the Methodists of Sierra Leone.

I think these two examples, from Sandal and from Sierra Leone, show us how today Jesus’ prayer is still being lived out. In 2012 we are still being sent out into the world.

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