St Stephen's Lewisham

Acts 4: 32-35
1 John 5: 1-6
John 20: 19-31

April 7th, 1991
Second Sunday of Easter 



Overcoming the World

Reading through the passage from Saint John which we have just had heard, I was struck by the phrase "overcoming the  world".

It's a phrase which Saint John has already used in earlier in the Epistle, in Chapter 4 "you have overcome them... they are of the world".

And if we turn on to the Book of Revelation, which certainly contains much of St John's teaching, we find over and over again the idea of "overcoming", "mastering", being "victorious" words like : 'To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, of the hidden manna, I will clothe him in white raiment.'

And then if we turn back to St John's Gospel, we find Jesus often referring to "the world" leading up to His dramatic claim, "be of good cheer, I have overcome the world'.

So here is a pair of ideas which John saw as being very important to hold together: being in the world and having to overcome the world.

We have been born into the world, we are designed for the period of our mortal life to live in the world; at the same time we are, like Jesus our Saviour bidden to overcome the world without at the same time losing sight of the fact that the whole motive force behind the Incarnation in the first place was that 'God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son; for God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved'.

Of course being a disciple of Jesus Christ might have been so much easier if you and I had been called upon by God to hate the world, condemn the world, live apart from the world: at least we'd have known where we stand. But, as is so often the case, although the truth about God's will for us may be less clear-cut than we would have liked, once we begin to consider it seriously and do something about it, a way of obeying His will begins to open up in front of us and, little by little, sometimes only one step at a time, the will of God becomes revealed to us. So Gospel (that means, remember "Good-news") and Revelation always go hand in hand.

Well, how do we 'overcome the world'?

People sometimes talk rather grandiosely about "man's mastery over nature". That's a very misleading expression: the only way man can in any sense "master" nature is to learn as much about it as he can and adapt himself as far as possible to nature's ways. Those who refuse to do so soon come to grief. So, for instance, the man who insists on using the earth to get as much out of it is he can will eventually find himself living in a dust-bowl; someone who cuts down all the trees creates a desert; he who pollutes the water won't catch any fish. Good farming, good husbandry, good forestry involve exercising restraint and working out how to make the miracle of a beautiful earth go on happening.

So the first step in overcoming the world is to know as much about it as possible. That is why anyone teaching people about the Christian Faith ought to have a certain amount of what might be called "Secular" or 'Natural' Science built into.

Some people, I know, don't take at all kindly to this idea. "Theology is knowing about God" they say "so why be concerned about earthly, material things?".

There are three possible answers to that.

  1. One is that it's quite good way of understanding the mind of the Maker if you study the things He has actually made.
  2. The second is that if God loves the world (as we believe) and expects us to do the same, it's churlish to say the least, if we treat that world as if it were not worth knowing or loving.
  3. Thirdly, it's worth pointing out that although you don't have to know the first thing about how a car works before you drive it, it helps if you know a few elementary things (like how to change a wheel, for example) before you begin driving it. You don't have to know, of course it's not, so to speak, part of the core curriculum; but it can make quite a difference!

However knowledge by itself will never overcome the world. It's our faith says Saint John, which alone can do that.

Why faith? Well, because our knowledge stops short at the limit of what is knowable by man, and, more significantly for you and me, at the limits of our own individual intellect -- how much we can understand.

Faith, by contrast, strikes out into the unknown. Faith is the "substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seem" as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it. God's purpose is that human knowledge will progress towards faith in Him. "Without Faith", that same writer says, "it is impossible to please God; for he that comes to God must believe that He exists and that He is the rewarder of those who diligently seek him".

Do you  see now why faith is so important over and beyond knowledge? It's possible, by using knowledge alone, to make a stab at getting on in the world. All of us know people who lead remarkably successful lives (by worldly standards) without, (apparently) any kind of faith in God. But the big question in their case is  "successful for what?". If their life comes to an end at the grave it's going to be a pretty big anti-climax because most of us start going into decline long before we pop our clogs!

But just suppose for a moment that we Christians have got it right. Supposing faith really does lead to salvation and nothing else does; and just supposing salvation is what "makes sense" of the whole show. It doesn't mean that we've got to undervalue the achievements of our Worldly friends; in fact it's sensible to give them praise generously for their achievements where praise is due; but it does mean that we should be no less insistent that our faith is every bit as important as their knowledge and achievement.

Then, alongside knowledge and faith, there is a third and most important ingredient to overcoming world. That ingredient in his Love. "All our doings without charity are nothing worth". "Even if I have all knowledge, understand all mysteries so that I could remove mountains and have not love, I am nothing", wrote St Paul to the Corinthians.

Now what form did Love take in practice for the early Christians? If we turn to the first reading for today we come in for a shock. So far from their love being a sort of general benevolence towards mankind or society in general, its most immediate expression consisted in loving each other, and doing so in quite practical ways. "Nobody claimed for his own use anything that he had, as everything they owned was held in common... they brought the money it presented to the Apostles; and it was then distributed to any members who might be in need".

Now that, of course, is quite outrageous in the minds of your average woolly-minded Christian who wants the Church of God can be little or nothing more than a branch of the Welfare State. In their case we should  note what happens in practice.

Those who are most vocal about 'caring for the poor' or 'the disadvantaged' often have in mind the spending of other people's money rather than their own; whereas the people who are generous toward their family and towards their Church are often the same people who actually give money most generously and regularly to more widely-based causes as well.

And if you extend the concept of loving and charity beyond its rather narrow definition of "giving money", just who are the people who dedicate themselves most selflessly to the welfare of others at large? Why! Precisely the selfsame people who dedicate themselves most selflessly to the well-being of Saint Stephen's Church and other churches like us!

It really does begin to look as though God may have got it right after all: what a surprise!!

He has commanded us in the first instance to love our neighbours parents, children, and spouses and fellow-Christians and others close to us precisely because that is the only way of learning to love anyone else. And if anyone claims that loving parents, children, or fellow-Christians is just too easy, I can only say to them that either they've lived a very sheltered life indeed, or else that their family and church ought to be put on display in a glass case in some Museum of Religious Peculiarities. Parents and children and fellow-Christians, when they need our love the most, are sometimes the most singularly unlovable objects in creation: cantankerous, senile, self-pitying parents; ungrateful and rebellious, delinquent children; malicious unforgiving, sullen fellow Christians take a good deal more loving just because they "belong to us".

So in order to overcome the world we need three things

  1. we need to know the world;
  2. we need to have faith in the God who loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son; faith, that is, that He knew what He was doing;
  3. we need that love which leads us, if so called,  to lay down our life for our friends.

If we had those things we shall become those people who (again in the words of Saint John) have "overcome" the world.

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