First half of a Sermon

1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. 2 Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: 3 And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that [spirit] of antichrist

1 John 4:2

“I suspect most of those looking for advice on how to discern spirits take John’s advice as cold comfort. In fact, what comfort can a pastor take in this advice? We deal with sincere and devout young people questioning whether they should get married, or go on a mission; with devout middle aged persons who want to discern how much of their income to give to the people of God or how to stop yelling at their children; with devout older persons who cannot tell how to respond to their children who do not go to church or make peace with family members that they’ve become estranged from. What would happen if the pastor told all of these persons to seek out that “spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh”? Shouldn’t he expect a blank stare? All these persons have taken this for granted since Sunday school. So perhaps we should be content to read this passage in it’s historical context: it’s a condemnation of Gnosticism that denied the physical body of Jesus. We do not struggle to divide Gnosticism from the Gospel and so this passage can be read only by interested historians.

“But are we ready to sell the Incarnation short like this? is it just the triumph of a certain sect, which now for us is just a background for the faith, with no cash value in everyday life? If this really were the case, wouldn’t it serve more as a critique of our Sunday school belief? One thinks of Schleiermacher writing a book on the people of God and relegating the Trinity to a three-page appendix. The Trinity! Just imagine! And yet Schleiermacher’s reason is exactly the one we are seeing now: if a belief makes no difference in how we act, what value is it to us in discerning spirits, since how to act is usually what we want to know when we are discerning spirits!  Can it really be of any value to us to reflect that “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh”? Schleiermacher borrows this sentiment from Kant, who develops it at great length in Religion within the Limits of Reason AloneWhat Kant says here about the Trinity applies just as much to the John’s doctrine of the Incarnation:

But if this very faith (in a divine tri-unity) were to be regarded not merely as a representation of a practical idea but as a faith which is to describe what God is in Himself, it would be a mystery transcending all human concepts, and hence a mystery of revelation, unsuited to man’s powers of comprehension; in this account, therefore, we can declare it to be such. Faith in it, regarded as an extension of the theoretical knowledge of the divine nature, would be merely the acknowledgment of a symbol of ecclesiastical faith which is quite incomprehensible to men or which, if they think they can understand it, would be anthropomorphic, and therefore nothing whatever would be accomplished for moral betterment.

“One can almost hear the echoes of Hume’s fork: if it has no value for life, commit it to the flames! What can we say to this?

“There is in the Apostle’s formulation a clear reference to God becoming man, but it is clear that the flesh takes center stage in the formula. We must confess a divine person in the flesh, i.e. not just in a complete, concrete human nature but with all the weakness of that human nature. Augustine has already shown that “flesh” means “man”, but always with the overtone of man in his distinction from God and so as finite, limited, knowing relatively little, and able to be wounded, suffer, and die.

“But isn’t this the first repudiation of the Kant-Scheiermacher hypothesis? Jesus Christ has not come as something that needs to be translated into moral terms, as if Christ is a symbol for the moral life that would be just as illustrative whether he actually lived or not. No, God has come in the flesh. He is not an instance of a moral doctrine but the divinization of the mundane. Kant is offended by anything that goes beyond the intuitions of the mundane world, and yet John insists that these very intuitions have to be seen as things now suffused with divinity: What John calls “Christ” is not made meaningful in the measure that he can find a place in human action or concepts; these mundane concepts now have their ultimate value in their reference to a divine mystery. What could possibly be a more appropriate Johannine label for the Kant-Scheiermacher hypothesis than anti-Christ? 

“John is in fact far from giving a doctrine with no practical value – he’s setting forth the opposite practical project than one we are familiar with: one where the challenge is to see the mundane as waiting in eager anticipation for the revelation of the Son of God. Go back to that pastor seeking to give counsel: has the one seeking how much he should give really come to terms with the fact that money has been divinized through Christ’s use of it? I very much doubt it – most of us see money in the same way Kant would. It’s useful for practical life and any reference it might have to Christ is “a mystery transcending all human concepts, and hence a mystery of revelation, unsuited to man’s powers of comprehension… if they think they can understand it, would be anthropomorphic, and therefore nothing whatever would be accomplished for moral betterment.” But it’s pretty clear that if we see things in John’s way our approach to our money would be very different…


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