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Family Fortunes - 2 John 0

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the morning service on 20th August 2006.

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When you hear the word ‘church’, what image pops into your mind? Hopefully, none of us thinks about a building. In the New Testament, the word ‘church’ never refers to a physical place. It always refers to the people of God. So I want to encourage you that if during the week you happen to find yourself walking past this particular building with a friend do not to point to the bricks and say, “This is my church.” It isn’t your church. It isn’t my church. It is simply the building in which our church decides to meet. Now I’m sure most of us have got this clear already so I’m not going to labour the point. But even if we do believe the church is the people of God, how do we think the people of God should interact with each other? Or let me phrase my question slightly differently: Is what we do at church any different from what we do at McDonalds? Unfortunately, many Christians in the West have been infected by the spirit of our individualistic age. They have been brought up to look after number 1. They have been nurtured to look after their own interests, to find in life whatever works for them and to search out for any experiences which provide the satisfaction they crave. It is the common way of living in the Western world. And yet, sadly, it is also the way many Christians behave when they gather together. The consumer mindset comes with them. They come through the doors of the church building and what is the big question on their mind? “What is on offer for me today?” So in many ways a visit to church becomes identical with a trip to McDonalds. Unless we take the drive through option at McDonalds we still eat our meal in the company of other people. But nobody talks to anyone, do they? In fact, if you do speak to anyone at McDonalds you will probably be escorted from the premises for being a bit of a weirdo! And yet there you are, eating the meal you have chosen in the company of people who you don’t know and who you don’t care about. How many of us approach church in a similar way?

At first sight the letter of 2 John appears to be a personal piece of correspondence between someone called ‘The elder’ and someone called ‘The chosen lady’, along with her children. You can see that in verse 1. “The elder, To the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in the truth.” Therefore, at first sight it is perfectly reasonable to assume that 2 John is a personal letter to a particular family in the ancient world. But, over the last week, I’ve been convinced that 2 John is actually a letter to a local church. You may know that in the New Testament the church is often referred to as a woman. In many places it is called the bride of Christ and, at the end of his first letter, the Apostle Peter, speaking of the church in Rome, says this, “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings.” Do you see the pattern? When speaking about the church, the New Testament often uses picture language to describe the people of God. We find it all over the place. And I’m convinced this is what we see in 2 John. The chosen lady and her children are not referring to mum and the kids but is a beautiful description of a local church and her members. The chosen lady is the local church seen as a whole and the children are its individual members. Or to use verse 13 as an example. Who are the children of your chosen sister who send their greetings? Well, quite simply they are members of a different local church.

The language is beautiful, isn’t it? The local church is to be viewed as a close family. So not as an outdated institution, or a power hungry monster trying to stop everyone’s fun, not a building and not even as a group of people who just happen to be in the same place as me at the same time on a Sunday morning. But as a close family unit. In fact, as a family that should be even closer than our blood relations. Look again at how John begins his letter. “To the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in the truth [Or alternatively, we can translate the phrase “whom I love truthfully or sincerely] – and not I only but also all who know the truth because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever” Why does John and everyone else who believes the truth of the gospel sincerely love this local church? Because of the truth. Or in other words, when we understand the truth of the gospel we must treat other Christians as our new family. Sometimes we miss the obvious, don’t we? But just think about how Christians refer to each other in the New Testament. As what? As brothers and sisters. Which, of course, is the language of family relationships. Or think about the selection criteria for new ministers in the letter of 1 Timothy. Why do you think Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:5, “If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?” Well, because, as he says a few verses later, the church is God’s household, it is his family, a family connected by the blood of Jesus. So yes we may be close to our human blood relations, I’m sure many of us are. But how much more connected should we be to our spiritual blood relations?  This will be the family we spend eternity with. So here is our challenge for this morning: Is this how we view St Johns? Do we consider the Christians around us as our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, as our family? And if we do then do we act like it?

Healthy families support and protect each other. They look after each other and they look out for each other. So how much more should the Christian family do the same! Given that we have a unity which is stronger than human blood, how much more should we excel in the areas of Family Support and Family Protection!

First of all, let’s consider Family Support. Have a look at verse 4. “It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands.”

John was certainly not a man who was afraid of showing his emotions. I don’t know if you are a person who finds it difficult to express what you feel inside but the man responsible for writing the letter 2 John wore his heart on his sleeve. And don’t you just love what he says? “It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth.” Of all the things that could have picked up his spirit he focuses on the continuing discipleship of Christian people. Now because of our different personalities certain people find it easier to show outward emotion than others. That’s just a fact of life. But regardless of how we show our emotion verse 4 can still serve as a health check for our soul. How do we feel when someone tells us another Christian is still walking in the faith? How do you feel deep inside? We may display our emotions in different ways but deep inside do we rejoice when we hear that another brother or sister is continuing to serve the Lord?

As many of you know we took 12 of our Pathfinders away to a summer camp in the Lake District at the end of July. We had a brilliant time during the week so let me thank you very much if you prayed for what we were doing on the camp. Over the seven days we saw a few youngsters becoming Christians and also a number of others maturing in their faith.

Now I’ve been a leader on this summer camp for around seven years and so I’ve had the great privilege of witnessing a number of young people hearing the gospel in a language they can understand. But let me tell you about one of my personal highlights over the last two years. It has been to see two people called Tim and Deborah serving on the camp as leaders. Seven years ago they were on the camp as members and they were professing to be Christians. And, of course, back then it was a great joy to hear them speaking about their love for Jesus. But what is an even greater delight to me is to know that seven years later they are still walking in the truth. And I’ve said to them that no matter what they achieve in life, the news that will bring me the greatest joy is to hear that they are still Christian.

So how is your soul? Do we have such a concern for God’s family that you rejoice when you hear that someone is walking in the truth?

Family support begins with family concern. But, according to verse 5, concern is not enough. We need to be people of action not simply people of feeling. John writes, “And now, dear lady, I am not writing to you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another.” Christian love is frequently misunderstood. It does not mean having a warm fuzzy feeling about someone. It does not mean you need to turn to the person next to you and say in a rather purring voice, “I love you.” As I’ve just mentioned I do think we should aim to feel something for our fellow brothers and sisters, especially when we remember we will spend eternity with them. But Christian love is not primarily about feelings it is about action. Do you remember how John puts it in his first letter? 1 John 3:16: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother or sister in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”

Or as he puts it in verse 6 of 2 John, “This is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands.” How do we love our Christian brothers and sisters? It’s quite simple. We find out what God commands us to do in the New Testament and then we put it into practice. It’s that simple! So let me give you a few examples of what God commands us to do. In addition to what we’ve already heard from 1 John about helping our brothers and sisters financially God also commands us…

o       To teach one another (Colossians 3:16)

o       To carry one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)

o       To forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32)

o       To encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

o       To offer hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9).

o       And to pray for one another (James 5:16)

So can I gently ask the question: How is your love for the church family? Are you actively involved in family support? Do you actively receive family support? And if not then do we realise it’s not an optional extra for a few spiritual mavericks? John uses the word command, he does not use the word suggestion. As Christians, God commands us to love one another in practical ways. It’s all part of the deal of being a Christian. When we submit our lives to the King we join the King’s people. And when we join the King’s people we take on family responsibilities. So when we don’t love one another in practical ways let’s be clear about what we are doing: We are refusing to obey our heavenly instructions. So how is your love for the church family?

One of the difficulties in a church of this size is knowing people well enough to love them in biblical ways. Sometimes we don’t even know the name of the person sitting next to us let alone their spiritual or material situation. So given that we are a relatively large church how can we love each other in the ways God commands? I think we all need to be members of a smaller group.

If all we do is come to one service on a Sunday then our experience of church will be deficient. It seems to me that in a church of this size we all need to be members of a smaller group if we are to practice family support as the Bible commands. Now this may be a home-group or it may be the Tuesday group, or Wednesday at 10 or some other smaller group. Although I would say that for most people belonging to a home group should be the normal experience. Now, of course, if you are still in the process of exploring more about Christianity then this does not apply to you – well, at least not yet! But if we see this as our church then we need to join a small group. If we want to be practically cared for and if we want to care for other people, which is what Jesus commands of his people, then we need to rub shoulders with them, we need to know who they are and we need to know what is going on in their lives. And in a big church, this only becomes possible when the larger congregation also meets in smaller groups. So if you are not in a home group and you feel God pricking your conscience this morning then please see Melvin at the end and he will make sure you are put in a home group for the beginning of the new term. Healthy families support one another.

Secondly, they also protect each other. A good family will certainly look after each other but they will also look out for each other. And this is what John now turns to in the second half of his letter. He says in verse 7, “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.” No sensible human family would allow a dangerous person to exert any influence over its members. No one invites an unrepentant paedophile around for dinner. There is a healthy protectionism within a strong family unit. We take it for granted that parents rightly want to protect their children from the clutches of anyone who could do them harm. And yet what about in the church family? Do we have an equal concern to protect each other from the spiritual dangers we might face?

I’m sure all of us would agree that this world is a dangerous place. There is no denying it, potential for physical harm exists in many different forms.  But what about spiritually? Do we believe our spiritual health can be seriously damaged? Or do we simply disregard the warning of verse 7 as being restricted to the first century? It’s certainly the case that John had a particular group of dangerous teachers in mind. He speaks of them as having gone out into the world and he also tells us what they did not acknowledge about Jesus. So yes he did have a particular group of people in mind. But it would be monumental error if we concluded similar teachers were not around today. The exact details of their teaching may have changed but its central features and its damaging effects are still the same.

First of all, its central features. John speaks about certain individuals who did not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. They could not contemplate how Jesus could be divine and human at the same time. So instead of affirming the truth of Jesus’ identity as recorded in the New Testament they spoke about a different Jesus entirely. They still used his name but redefined who they were talking about. It was very subtle but it was very dangerous. We face the same danger today. Just because someone speaks about Jesus does not mean they are speaking about the Jesus presented in the New Testament. They may be talking about a Jesus of their own imagination. And so when we hear anyone who claims to be a Christian teacher let us listen carefully to what they actually say about Jesus. Do they speak about him often? Or do they talk about a vague God instead? Do they speak about him simply as a man? Or do they emphasise that he was God come in the flesh? Or what do they not say about him? Not just what they put in but what do they take out? For example, do they focus on his death? Do they ever speak about him taking upon himself the punishment for sin? The exact details of false teaching will change depending on the historical circumstances but one of its central features is a denial of the Jesus we find in the New Testament.

A second feature is a rejection of the New Testament itself. Did you see that in verse 9? John says, “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does have God.” There is a link between what we think of Jesus and what we think of the Bible. So, for example, if we believe Jesus was God come into our world to live as a human being, as the New Testament declares, then his teachings and the other teachings he authorised have supreme authority for all time. They are unique and must be placed on a completely different level from the suggestions of anyone else. But if we do not acknowledge that Jesus was God come in the flesh then what happens is that over time we move away from putting into practice what he says. Yes, we might still follow some of his teachings, if they agree with what we have already decided to do anyway, but much of the rest of what he said will be dismissed as irrelevant suggestions for 21st Century life. The exact details of false teaching will change but if we want to spot a deceiver, if we want to identify someone who will lead us away from the truth then let us pay attention to what they say about Jesus and what they say about the Bible. These are the central features to look out for.

Now it’s vital we do this because of the damaging effects. Most of us would prefer to avoid conflict at all costs and so maybe all this talk about deceivers is making you feel uncomfortable. Is it really worth the effort? Do people not have a right to believe what they want? Is variety not the spice of life? Well, listen to what John says in verse 8-9. “Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God: whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.” Be careful that you do not lose out on your future inheritance. That’s what John says. Your present commitment to Christ is amazing to see. But if you do not remain in Christ throughout your life you will not enjoy an inheritance with God forever.

It is a stark warning, isn’t it? So let’s make sure we get it clear. It’s not that somehow we earn our way into heaven. That’s not what John is saying. Rather, the point he is making is that we show the genuineness of our commitment to Christ by preserving faithfully in his teaching until the end. I love the challenge and comfort of verse 9. If anyone does not continue in the teaching of Christ he does not have God. He may still be very ‘religious’ but he does not have a relationship with the true and living God. And yet the second half of verse 9 is such a comfort. “Whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.”

False teaching is dangerous. We’ve got to get this clear. It can affect a person’s eternal destiny. So when we find it we must deal with it properly. John says in verse 10, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked way.” In those days hospitality to visiting preachers was very important. The Travel Lodges of the time were very dodgy places and so therefore Christian teachers relied on the hospitality of local Christians when they arrived in a particular town. But the false teacher was to be given no such help. John says very clearly, do not take him into your house. In fact, he says, do not even welcome him. Do not greet him. Do not give him an authorised platform from which to speak. Make it clear by your actions that you are not supporting such a person.

And such a person could be anyone. John says, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him.” False teachers come in all shapes and sizes. They can have degrees. They can have important positions in the Church of England. They may be well-known and ‘successful’ preachers.

Bishop Taylor Smith was the former Chaplain-general of the British Forces and he was once preaching in a large cathedral. In order to emphasise the necessity of being born-again, he said: “My dear people, do not substitute anything for the new birth. You may be a member of a church, but church membership is not new birth, and ‘except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” On his left sat the Archdeacon in his stall. Pointing directly at him, he said: “You might even be an archdeacon like my friend in his stall and not be born again, and ‘except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’. You might even be a bishop like myself, and not be born again, and ‘except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’.” A day or so later he received a letter from the Archdeacon, in which he wrote: “My dear bishop: You have found me out. I have been a clergyman for over thirty years, but I have never known anything of the joy that Christians speak of. I never could understand it. Mine has been a hard legal service. I did not know what the matter was with me, but when you pointed directly at me, and said, “You might even be an Archdeacon and not be born again”, I realised in a moment what the trouble was. I had never known anything of this new birth.” The next day the Bishop and the Archdeacon met and looked at the Bible together; and after some hours, both were on their knees, the Archdeacon taking his place before God as sinner, and telling Christ that he would trust Him as his Saviour.

John says, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him.” Would  you call yourself a discerning Christian? The good news is that we can have confidence that Melvin will guard this pulpit and will not give false teachers a platform. And when he does we should thank God for him. Family protection is not the practice of a narrow-minded fundamentalist. No, it the loving care of someone who has our best interests at heart.

But what about our own discernment? It’s great to know someone else is looking after us but what about us? Are we watching out unless we are deceived? Are we easily influenced by titles and positions? Or for the benefit of ourselves and for the benefit of the church family, whom Christ has brought together by his blood, are we careful who we listen to and what we read?

Healthy families support and protect one another. So, as we finish, let’s pray that God would make St Johns even better at what we already do. Let’s pray together.

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