Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete. 

13 The children of your elect sister greet you. – 2 John 12-13

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Purple Cone Flower | Mercer Botanical Garden | June 2018

I love John’s writing. From the opening chapter of his Gospel to the last words of the book of Revelation. From “The word became flesh,” to “Amen. Come Lord Jesus.” John is true to his expressed purpose – twice, no less:

“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” – John 20:20-21

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. – John 5:13

But the words of v. 12 follow a particularly challenging message in the previous verses. He has instructed “the lady and her children” not to receive false teachers into their fellowship, not even to greet them. A harsh warning and a jarring admonition. In fact, it might seem unloving and call for a judgmental attitude.

In these verses, however, he shows how true and important it is that the Word became flesh. He would rather not use paper and ink because he wants to the the opportunity to speak with them face to face; the Word became flesh, after all. He wants to explain himself and assure them of God’s love and his. He wants to be certain that their joy would be complete.

There is a challenging edge to faithful discipleship. There are things we are called to do that are not necessarily easy to do. Yet joy dwells in the heart of those who take God’s word to heart and believe his promises. He wishes us to share that joy and love with one another.

I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we were commanded by the Father. And now I ask you, dear lady—not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning—that we love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it. For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, 11 for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works. – 2 John 4-11

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Budding Cone Flower – 3 | Mercer Botanical Gardens | June 2018

The kind woman invited me to come to her home as she entertained some Mormon missionaries. They had visited her and her husband and she assured me, “They’re so nice and polite. I’d love for you to meet them.” I was happy that I went; their message is about a different Jesus than the Jesus to which the Bible gives witness. Their message of salvation was – in the end – one of works. They professed that some sins (murder, for example) are unforgivable. She should have taken the warning of John to heart: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or even give him a greeting.”

The words, “do not receive him into your house,” seem overly harsh and unnecessary. But there is a real danger is that a false teacher will lead this dear lady and her children away from the truth. John makes this point: “Watch yourselves so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but win a full reward.” It was actually happening before my eyes in that situation.

There was a real danger that she would abandon the teaching of Christ, and therefore not have God. These nice young men were leading her away from the true Jesus, Son of God, Savior of the world.

Some believe that religious talk about God is all the same. But religious talk is not evidence of true saving faith. The weakest faith that clings to Jesus will save us. But faith that denies the incarnation of Jesus, his suffering, death, and resurrection is not saving faith. John wants to make sure that these beloved people are not led away from Jesus.

But wait. There’s more. It might also be that by receiving these false teachers into one’s home, we give false witness to others. Had the woman and her husband been swayed to become Mormon, who knows how that witness might have been used.

It would be wonderful if there was no deception; no need to brace ourselves against people with evil intent. But next time you close the door on door-to-door missionaries, you might not be doing a bad thing – though it certainly feels like an unloving thing to do. The potential danger is not only to you, but to those who see and misinterpret your actions. Such might well be called a tough love for truth.

One final note here: this is not to say close the door on anyone who comes to you with a religious message. Love compels us to love and receive those who come legitimately in Jesus’ name. John’s message of caution should never be used as an excuse for unkindness or a charitable attitude toward others – only a warning against those who would lead us away from Christ.

The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth, and not only I, but also all who know the truth, because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever:

Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love. 2 John 1-3

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Budding Cone Flower – 2 | Mercer Botanical Gardens | June 2018

I was not brought up in the Lutheran Church. People who are life-long Lutherans will nod their heads at this comment. So, too, will the occasional die-hard Baptist: “I thought there was a hint of Baptist in you,” they will say. I have my suspicions about the reason for such observations – for the better or not. One has to do with the godly piety of beginning my sermons without saying, “Grace and peace to you, from God the Father, and his Son, Jesus Christ.”

Perhaps too quickly, and very early on, I determined to jettison those sermon starters because they were for me akin to cranking up a car engine: rrrrrrrrrrrrrr…. until it catches and begins running. I figured when it’s time to begin a sermon I should just begin. I try to do so in a manner that involves the hearer and seeks to kindle some interest in them toward what I am about to say.

I don’t imagine I’ll be taking up the practice anytime soon, but I do wonder sometimes whether I rejected it too quickly and summarily. The words are rich in meaning and found in a number of places in the New Testament. They echo Jesus words of greeting to his frightened disciples who were meeting behind closed doors on that first Easter. They express a preemptive good will and message of kindness to the hearers. They are good words.

These words, however, are more than sermon starters. They are more, in fact, than letter openers – which they serve as here. They are expressions of foundational realities of our faith and God’s good will toward his people. The attitude and inclination of God as expressed through John is one of love, grace, and mercy and peace.

Love is a self-sacrificing kindness, appreciation for, and good will toward someone. Love cannot remain unexpressed, and in the case of God’s love, it is most fully expressed in his Son, Jesus Christ. Grace is the free and unmerited favor of God, shown in God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. Mercy is compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm. This is God’s attitude toward us: unmerited favor, kindness and compassion, and ultimate good will toward us who cannot recommend ourselves before God, but who have been loved, saved, and granted peace.

John starts this letter with these wishes because these are the foundations of our relationship with God, and one another. If God had no mercy on us; if he had not loved us; if he had not done so not because of us, but because of his kindness and goodness of character, we would have no hope.

This will color what John urges these children to do as they live under these blessings of God. It is my intent, each day, to let that color the way I relate to others as well.

We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.

20 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols. – 1 John 5:19-21

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Budding Cone Flower | Mercer Botanical Gardens | June 2018

As John ends his letter to these early followers of Jesus with two “we know” statements. These apparently are anchors for faithfulness to which God’s people are to cling. The first is that there is a battle going on. The world is opposed to the ways and purposes of God. The world does not acknowledge God’s place as creator and king. The world does not think it has need of a Savior. The spirit of the world is unholy.

On the other hand the Son of God has come and revealed truth to our hearts and centered our minds in Jesus. He has revealed himself as the source of eternal life. He is the true God.

John’s final thought may seem abrupt: Keep yourself from idols. But the world offers many idols. From the quest for power and prestige, to the lust for money or sex, to the lure of the latest technology or self-gratifying experiences: none of these lead to true life. The world’s values all too quickly lead us away from God.

As I reflect on these words, I am reminded of the pure truth of God’s word. I want to shape my life by these truths, centered in Jesus Christ the Son of God, and center my hopes in the gift of eternal life that is in him. These are my anchors of faithfulness. Jesus is the true God and eternal life; all others are mute, dumb, impotent, and life-robbing idols.

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.

18 We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. – 1 John 5:16-18

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Monarch Butterfly | Mercer Botanical Gardens | June 2018

The man sat in my office and told me to my face, “I’m leaving my wife and family. I know I shouldn’t, but I’m going to do it. And you can’t stop me.” I didn’t know what to say. I should have recognized that as an opportunity to pray for this profoundly and tragically-deceived man. All too often, prayer is the last thing we do, or the smallest thing we do in regard to our brother having a difficult time. Prayer should be the first and the largest thing we do in the face of sin.

John says that we should pray for the one who is committing a sin “not leading to death.” The Reformation Study Bible speaks of this sin:

Some connect this sin with the unforgivable sin mentioned in Matt. 12:3132Mark 3:28–30Luke 12:8–10. More likely, John is referring to a stubborn refusal to accept the message of the gospel (1:10 note; John 8:24). See “The Unpardonable Sin” at Mark 3:29.

An on-line commentary speaks of the sin that leads to death:

There is a sin unto deathwhich is not only deserving of death, as every other sin is, but which certainly and inevitably issues in death in all that commit it, without exception; and that is the sin against the Holy Ghost, which is neither forgiven in this world nor in that to come, and therefore must be unto death; it is a sinning willfully, not in a practical, but doctrinal way, after a man has received the knowledge of the truth; it is a willful denial of the truth of the Gospel, particularly that peace, pardon, righteousness, eternal life, and salvation, are by Jesus Christ, contrary to the light of his mind,

We can try to understand what sins are “unto death” or those which are not “unto death.” But it seems better to me that we simply recognize that our first and largest move toward those who are obviously sinning is that of prayer. We can pray that the evil one does not indeed touch that brother or sister and that Satan would be given no foothold in his or her heart or life.

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. – 1 John 5:13-15

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Monarch Butterfly on Cone Flower – 3 | Mercer Botanical Gardens | June 2018

A mother of two lay in the hospital with a diagnosis of cancer. The diagnosis was severe and completely unexpected. She was given five years to live. She called the elders of the church and they came to her hospital bed and anointed her with oil (cf. James 5: ). Part of that process included praying for her healing, and part of that prayer was to assure her that her sins were forgiven. It was a peaceful and grace-filled time that afternoon.

There is a connection between having eternal life and confidence in prayer. One of the ways this becomes obvious is on occasions like the woman above. The ability to pray with confidence is predicated on the fact that there is nothing in the way of God’s attention or willingness to answer our prayers.

God’s gift of eternal life is foundational to answered prayer, hopeful living, a gracious demeanor, and a meaningful life. It’s not only about pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. God’s desire for us to live forever should let us know that he has good will, great patience, and infinite love toward us.

John wants us to know this. He wrote to these Early Church believers so that they would know they had eternal life and that they could also have confidence in prayer. The young woman referred to above eventually succumbed to cancer, but she had eternal life, and that was never taken from her. The answer to our prayers for her healing came in the form of a merciful healing when God takes us to himself and we embrace his presence and gracious love for all eternity.

This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. 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. If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. 10 Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. – 1 John 5:6-12

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Monarch Butterfly on Purple Cone Flower – 2 | Mercer Botanical Gardens | June 2018

My Grandmother Dodson was a consummate story teller. She told stories about dangerous encounters with snakes, a nearly fatal auto accident, scaring away a would-be intruder by standing on her upstairs porch and shooting her shotgun into the air, and many others. We knew the difference between her stories about “the olden days,” and a fairy tale or a fable.

John wants us to understand that his witness to Jesus is no fairy tale nor is it merely a happy story of the good guy winning the day. The story of Jesus is a real story about real blood and water together with the Spirit of Truth. Deep truth. Truth grounded in reality. A story grounded in blood, water and the Holy Spirit.

There are several ideas about the meaning of “by the water and the blood”. Luther speaks of baptism and communion. Augustine spoke of the water and blood that flowed from Jesus’ side at his death. Still others speak of water as referring to Jesus’ physical birth, and blood referring to his death. I appreciate the idea that this is speaking of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and Jesus’ death at the hands of Pilate. This is gritty. Real.

The promises of God in this regard are real as well. Through this real Son of God, his real suffering and death, and his real resurrection from the dead, we have real life. Without Jesus, the Son of God, the One who came in the flesh into the world, we have no promise of life. There is an edge also in this promise, for whoever does not have the Son does not have life.

This may seem harsh, unkind, and exclusivistic. But this is not a fairy tale. This is life and death. In fact, this is eternal life – God’s gift through his Son. The testimony of John is as real as Jesus himself: “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” – 1 John 5:11-12