In a world full of “you oughta’s,” here one more: You oughta read the letter of 1 John.
It’s a short read, and the author weaves together three themes in it: Love, obedience, and truth.
We’re asked to consider how remembering the truth about Christ leads us to understand love, how loving God and one another is the obedience that God requires, and how loving obedience is our way of being living witness to the truth of God’s revelation in Jesus.
Let’s pull out one passage from it: This is what loving God means — it means keeping his commandments. His commandments, what’s more, are no trouble, because everything that is fathered by God conquers the world.
In the communities in which this essay on love and obedience and truth initially circulated, the question of who conquers the world had an obvious answer: Caesar. Caesar was the son of God — fathered by God, if you will — and the evidence of his divinely regal power filled the known world, from the coins bearing his image to the garrisoned troops to the literal sacrifices made in his honor.
Caesar was the Son of God, and he had conquered the world. There was nothing invitational about that conquering. Caesar conquered, and your job was to stay in line … to be conquered.
What we have in this text, on the other hand, is something entirely different.
Christ has truly conquered the world through obedience and love, and because of his victory we are all now the children of God, all beloved sons and daughters of God — a claim that Caesar would never have made.
If God is our Father, then we have the ability to keep the command of love, because everything that is fathered by God conquers the world.
This is a complete redefinition of what it means “to conquer.” Caesar sees the world as something to dominate, something to exploit, something to bring into submission. Caesar marches with armies. Caesar takes slaves. Caesar kills.
That’s just what conquering looks like, right?
But in this letter, we turned that idea around. What if conquering isn’t about being the biggest alpha, the king of the mountain, the one with the most ability to enforce your will?
What if, instead, conquering the world looks like letting all of that go?
That’s the world that’s being conquered, in this passage — the social systems and the inner voice alike that goad us to take what we can and give what we must, to put our own interests first in everything from global politics to cutting in line at Kroger.
Conquering the world isn’t about expanding the borders of the Roman Empire. It’s about ditching the whole worldly way in which we reinforce this vision of society that divides between the conqueror and the conquered, the winners and the losers, the Caesar and the slaves.
And when we follow Christ — when we remind ourselves and remind each other what family we’re really in — that world is conquered.
1 John ends, not like a letter with greetings of some sort, but with a simple command that sums up the whole letter: little children, keep yourselves from idols.
Keep away from idols. This in a world where idols were just part of going to the Farmers Market, where idols were absolutely ubiquitous, where you couldn’t buy a hot dog without passing around little images of Caesar. Idols were everywhere, completely woven into the fabric of human life.
Aren’t they always?
Back in the Old Testament, the Hebrew people were in slavery, in Egypt. They cried out to God for salvation, and God heard them and took action.
They saw the power of God in miraculous signs, in the Red Sea splitting before them so they could make their escape, in the bread that fell like snow from heaven.
They made it to the holy mountain, to worship, and Moses went up the mountain to receive the law, and what do the people do next?
They pool their resources and build a golden calf to worship.
There’s a reason why the very first commandment was to not allow strange gods to sneak in, right? God is the Lord our God, and we shall have no strange Gods before God.
Keep away from idols. Keep away from anything that’s less that the love that Jesus showed us in the heart of God, keep away from all other powers that would demand your allegiance.
Be watchful, be vigilant, be careful. The prince of darkness comes disguised as an angel of light, and the siren song of Caesar’s conquering ways is strong.
But we are the children of God, the children of the light, and through our Heavenly Father we overcome the world. We’re called into a community of love, one in which we remind each other who and whose we truly are, one in which we remind each other that obedience to the law of love is the way home.
May we be ruthless in rooting out the belief that God is anything other than what Jesus truly revealed God to be.
May we be fully obedient to the will of God.
And may our deepest allegiance be only to love.
Julie Rudd is Pastor of Wilmington Friends Meeting and member of the Wilmington Area Ministerial Association.