I think all of us wonder from time to time what it would have been like to be alive during the ministry of Jesus and then during the first decades of the early Christian Church. Again and again, when we read the Gospels and the book of Acts and some of the New Testament epistles, we read accounts of events that seem not to have any parallel in our experiences or any parallels in recent centuries. What changed? Why has it changed? Should we be challenging the authenticity of the accounts, or should we be asking why it is that these events have ceased? Did something go seriously wrong or is there some other explanation that we’re just missing? Should we anticipate a future time when such happenings will resume? Or do they still occur in some other form and we simply fail to see them?
We read about miracles of healing that seem to eclipse anything we have seen or heard reported even when we include what we call “the miracles of modern medicine.” We read about the casting out of demons and we wonder what that really meant, especially when the demons had voices and the exorcisms had a physically violent impact on the possessed persons. We read about raisings from the dead and discover that the raising of Lazarus was not unique. Today we’ve read about the conversion of Gentiles, specifically from the household of Cornelius. We heard that it was accompanied by a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues and ecstatic praise of God, followed at once by baptism. Last week we read in Acts about an Angel of the Lord sending Deacon Philip to a desert road where he was able to lead an Ethiopian eunuch to faith in Jesus before being whisked off to another city by the Spirit of the Lord. Have you ever seen anything quite like that?
I could go on and some of you could fill in the blanks with other favorite mysterious happenings. The Biblical records are far too detailed and too well substantiated to be dismissed as inauthentic fables devised to prop up a nascent religion. Many of them have parallels in Old Testament accounts that we also would have to dismiss.
If all of these accounts are mythical, then why are we here this morning? We’re here because for thousands of years the Judaeo-Christian faith has embraced these accounts as authentic records of how God has acted in human history to demonstrate His power, His lovingkindness, His grace and mercy and His faithfulness to all who are of the household of faith. And someone has taken time and care to share these truths with us.
Yes, faith is an essential element. This is why John, in today’s epistle reading, writes that faith is “the victory that has overcome the world.” When God’s power is unleashed in ways that we can define only as “miraculous,” faith responds by exalting God, just as the early Gentile converts in Cornelius’ household did. In other words the response is not to be one of doubt or disbelief or rational seeking for alternate and natural explanations; rather it is to be a readiness to see the hand of God at work in ways that are outside our normal range of experiences.
We still have not answered the questions of when and why such experiences seem to have ceased. Was it in some particular historical era in Church history? Was it a gradual process that culminated in our elevation of rational thought beyond our acceptance of things we could no longer explain away? Did the Church in earlier centuries have a different sort of faith from ours? Did it go away during the Renaissance or the Enlightenment? Is God simply accommodating our culture in an era when everyone demands a plausible explanation for everything that happens?
What about faith? Is there still a place for it? Can we still call it “the victory that overcomes the world?” Or should we label it the delusion to which Karl Marx referred when he famously wrote that religion was “the opium of the people,” or Stalin when he claimed that religion retards human development? Less famously, Marx wrote, “Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.”
Should we pursue revolving around ourselves? In our day millions of people have opted for that approach. To what end? Did Marxist ideology prove to be the holy grail for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe? History seems to have proved otherwise, and even Vladimir Putin now goes to church! Are miraculous demonstrations of divine power now limited to third-world countries where intellectual sophistication does not block out faith as it does here?
To whom should we turn? Is there some spiritual answer-man out there who can satisfy us? If, instead, we are willing to turn only to Scripture, what answers will we find there? In our epistle reading this morning John asks a question that is of vastly greater importance than any of the ones we’ve been asking. He asks, “Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (I John 5:5). And he adds something that’s of great significance in this whole matter: “It is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth” (I John 5:6b).
We’re all after the truth. That quest seems perpetually paramount. We’ve had it with fiction, with religious wishful-thinking that fails when put to the test and placed under the scrupulous microscope of human reason. But what about the truth of the Holy Spirit of which John is speaking? Can we put that under our microscopes and hope to discover any higher truth than what God the Holy Spirit offers?
What is it that John says governs “the one who overcomes the world?” He says it’s faith: not superior intellect, but faith. This is so contrary to who were think we are. For us the answers need to be objectively verifiable. They need to be air-tight, incontrovertible, supremely logical. We want them to be impressive, backed up by science, history, philosophy and archaeology. Who wants to stand up to our accusers, the doubters, the self-professed atheists, and say to them, “Listen up: ‘Faith is the victory that overcomes the world!” We already can hear their scoffing.
Every one of us would like to know to where the power of the Holy Spirit has fled. We want to know where all those vivid demonstrations of divine power have gone. We want to know why they’re no longer part of our normal existence or, for that matter, even of our paranormal existence.
I wish that I could give you all those answers this morning. If I could, and if the word got out, I might become the most famous truth-bearer in the world and, at the very least, I would be in demand internationally as a public speaker. But my answer is the one that seems to many people to be hopelessly naïve and simplistic. My answer is John’s answer: “Faith is the victory.” And when and where God wishes to get more demonstrative about His power, and when the Holy Spirit chooses to bestow supernatural gifts on persons who simply believe that “that Jesus is the Son of God,” then and there we may stand in awe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is exactly what Paul said it is: “the power of God to all who believe” (Romans 1:16). “Divine dynamite” is what Paul called it. He saw ample demonstration of that, and he left it to his early converts simply to accept by faith the extraordinary working of God among His people.
God truly is still at work today. He’s still in the business of changing lives. He still is able to perform miracles. He still is able to cast out your demons. He’s able to take you to new heights of praising Him just when you thought your praise life had dried up forever. If you are a person of faith, you’re destined to spend eternity praising God. Why would you not wish to seize the moment every day of your present life practicing up on it? Is there anyone here this morning who could not do much better at praising God? When the Gentile converts in Acts came to believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, they burst out in “exalting God” and they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Why would we prefer just to sit in our pews and meander through the streets of our daily lives without exalting the Name of Almighty God at the top of our lungs.
What would happen to our questions if our lives were to be New Testament lives, if our praise were to be New Testament praise, if our faith were to be the victory that overcomes the world? Our questions would embarrass us. They would melt away. We would be on our knees, not only spiritually but physically, even if it hurts. The practice of our faith would take over our lives in demonstrative ways, not in contemplative ones.
What if the leaders of the early Church had been just like us? That’s a VERY serious question I’m asking. I’m asking you to ask it of yourselves. I’m asking you to answer it honestly and candidly. If the earliest Christians had been just like us, would there be any Church at all today? Would the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ have spread like wildfire throughout the world, OUR world? Would we have suffered and died willingly, even eagerly, so that others would come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ? If there’s not a chance in the world of our being that sort of Christian now, what might we have been like then?
Now we need to ask ourselves again why there is a power outage in the Church today, why the astonishing happenings of first-century Christianity have virtually ceased. Did the power outage start with us? Does it at least include us? God is the same. The Holy Spirit is the same. According to the author of Hebrews, “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Then what’s different? Christians are. The Church is. We are. Faith is still the victory that overcomes the world. But if our faith is not a New Testament faith, if it’s not a faith that takes action rather than one that merely gives passive assent, then our faith will not change anything or anyone. It certainly will not allow the Holy Spirit to be manifested in miraculous ways.
And there is the answer to every single question we asked at the beginning. We need to stop asking those questions and start living as those who know the answers. And guess what? You could be part of the answers instead of being one who asks the questions.
And what else? Are you praying for the soon return of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, to make all things right? In Peter’s very first sermon ever, at Pentecost, he said, “It will be in the last days, God says, that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.” That definitely doesn’t sound like us and our families. But why not?
Here’s a thought: stop praying for Messiah to come and start boldly preparing His way. Invite others into the Kingdom through faith in God’s only Son. Then, when we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done,” we’ll find ourselves being part of the answer to that prayer. We’ll be living a life that says by our actions, “Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.” Until our actions support our prayers, our prayers are empty words, vain repetitions.
If every one of us were committed to preparing the way for Jesus’ return, our lives would be different and we would be making a difference. And who knows, He just might come. Do you know why?
Because He promised.
Because the Spirit Who testifies is the Truth.
Because there’s nothing that this world needs more.
Look deeply inside to see whether that faith is your faith. If it is, then expect amazing things to happen once again, because “faith is the victory that overcomes the world.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen