“Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (Read the rest of 1 John 5:9-13)
I’m definitely the kind of person who is more active, competes better, and enjoys exercise more, if there are points or goals (or touchdowns) involved in an activity, and when there are other people playing. Give me softball, or football, or basketball, badminton, bowling, whatever, something. It’s not a competitive, “I gotta WIN!” thing (not totally), but it’s more a motivation thing.
I know I run my fastest when I’m being chased. Anybody else? Ever run for your life? Run from the police, or from an angry sibling, or from a scary sound in the woods? Ever run from a linebacker? These are the moments when, in short bursts, I bet you and I set world speed records. And then again, I also run my fastest when I’m doing the chasing. When somebody on the field with the ball is about to take off with nobody between them and the end zone, it’s time to bear down and get on it and it feels good to close that distance. Or if you’ve ever missed the school bus and had to run it down, or if the baby is at the top of the stairs toddling toward a fall, there is unforeseen speed in you.
Without motivation like that, just trying to go out and run for running sake, I’m aimless and a little pathetic. That’s not true for everybody, some of you are great runners and maybe that’s motivation in itself. If you’ve ever had that spandex-clad ultra-marathoner come blazing by you at his/her leisurely pace, not sweating it, you know what I mean. I’m sure they find it easier to hit the track/trail because they are already good at it, and will look good doing it.
Now, it’s still Easter season so clearly we’re not just talking about running today. These are also images of living life. We so naturally spend our lives running away from stuff, fleeing from or forgetting certain things, avoiding certain things, being in denial, etc. We find it really easy to get caught up running after things — chasing the person in front of us, or the record we hope to break, or the trophy or the fame or the points we intend to grab. We burn years living just for the sake of simple pride – we don’t need to chase after anything or run away from anything, we’ve got everything we ever wanted and now the point is just to enjoy it all and be seen enjoying it. And, we know times when life seems like drudgery, aimless and struggling. If none of that sounds great, it’s because none of those images captures the best way we can live. Some of those living styles will work out great here on earth, and even look great. But that doesn’t mean it’s life to the full.
There is another way that we can choose to live, and we find it in 1 John 5:9-13 for today. The last couple lines are today’s focus — “…God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”
This other way is eternal, and given as a gift from God, and rooted in Jesus. And in terms of our running images, there is no better example I know than in a movie some of us know real well, an Academy Award winner in 1981, “Chariots of Fire.” I like to bring it up the film, too, because honestly the more young adults and students and peers that I ask, the fewer have ever heard of it nowadays (and I’m only 30!).
It follows the story of a British runner named Eric Liddell leading up to the 1924 Summer Olympics. Liddell was probably the world’s best sprinter, but he’s also torn in life. He was born in North China to missionary parents, so he and his family are stout-hearted Christians. Some, especially his sister Jennie, claim that running in competition isn’t anything God is interested in; as in, who cares about some race when people’s souls are stake? In the movie, she even nearly murders him when he misses prayer meeting because of his running. And that’s when he gives her an excellent line that sums up him and his calling: “Jennie, I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” Awesome.
And Liddell is serious as he makes running his mission field, something that is meant for nothing else but to glorify God. He does exhibitions all over the country as a way to attract a crowd so that he can share the gospel. In one group he says: “Where does the power come from to see the race to its end? From within. Jesus said, ‘Behold, the kingdom of God is within you. If with all your heart you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me.’ If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.”
If you know the story, then when the Paris Olympics finally arrive, one of the qualifying heats for the 100m race lands on a Sunday; so Liddell refuses to break the Sabbath and is disqualified, even though he was expected to break the world record. So one of his teammates backs out so that there’s a spot for Liddell to run in the 400m. Now, having had little time to prepare, and never doing anything too earth-shattering in the 400m because he’s a short-distance sprinter, in the movie at the starting line the American coach tells his runners not to worry about this guy because he’ll drop dead over that distance. But at the same time, one of the other American runners goes up to Liddell and hands him a note that quotes from Samuel when God speaks and says, “He that honors me, I will honor.” Add in that the Brits had the 51st Highland Brigade outside the stadium playing their bagpipes for an hour before the race, and needless to say Liddell was ready to roll. He blazed around the track for 400m to set a new record and win gold.
Now, even more than the win and the gold, the powerful thing the movie shows us is the way that Liddell runs. In many of these races, in the middle of the struggle, he has this way of tilting his head back, hair flying like it’s on fire, with a huge, free smile. You can watch it here:
And you get the feeling that what he told his sister was absolutely true. “God made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure.” All of that is getting nearer for me to an image of living eternal life.
After all, 1 John 5, says this of it:
Eternal life is something you’ve already been given. There’s nothing left for you to do to deserve it, nothing you need to chase after or keep looking for. There’s nothing behind you that can harm you, that you need to flee from, and nothing else to fear.
And eternal life is in Jesus. Which means you don’t have to worry that someone or something will take it away, because Jesus will not be overpowered. You don’t have to worry that there’s been a mistake, or that it might be taken back, because Jesus is the king of all grace. And we don’t have to worry that someone might be left out or forgotten or called unworthy, because Jesus knows and loves the heart of every one of God’s children. That’s what the gospel has shown us.
Stop running away from things. Stop chasing after nonsense. Turn off the pride of self and possessions and looks and life. Don’t feel aimless and beat-down. The message is that we’re free to live now out of the eternal life we’ve been given.
But here is where part two for today starts. Even if this is what eternal life is, and it’s already been given us, the reality is that we don’t always live it. So, last, I think right here 1 John gives us a great insight into why that is. The writer says, “Whoever does not have the son does not have life.” It sounds like the most redundant, obvious Christian thing on earth. We all know it. We’ve heard that kind of line used to preach at non-believers, almost threateningly: “Get right with Jesus, or else. Get ahold of the son, or you’ll lose your life.” But remember that this letter was written to people who were already Christians; it was written to aid the church. And I think it was written as a defense against all those forces at work trying to persuade Jesus’ followers that real life was to be found elsewhere.
In the days of this writing, there were countless people and cultural influences that claimed to have their own secrets to fulfillment and happiness, ones that had nothing to do with an old, dead Jew or believing in the crazy Resurrection. And these other groups were so convinced themselves, that they were ridiculously convincing to others too. Then, and still today, and in every age in between, those who invest their lives in ways other than Jesus’ way, they do a great job selling how good it is.
Take, for example, one last running story. It takes us back to the 1936 Summer Olympics, at a powerful time because Hitler had decided to use that world stage to send a message: he and the Nazi party were WINNING. It’s hard to imagine today because all things Nazi are still so stigmatized, but at this point in history they were pretty hugely successful. They looked great, they were on the rise, and tons of people, even Americans, respected Hitler and company. He promised a return to German prosperity, a return to national identity, and a purifying of the country that would “benefit” the whole world. He promised clear ideals and even maintained connections to the German Church. They had powerful PR and marketing, matching uniforms and symbols and catch-phrases and fancy salutes. Other nations saw merit in these principles. Remember, the Depressed world was struggling and looking for strong help; and, thanks to their own segregation and racial injustice at the time, other countries like the US could easily overlook some of Hitler’s extreme views on ethnic superiority. So, leading up to the 1936 games, his Nazis even mounted a huge propaganda campaign against athletes of mixed race, Jewish or African origin, expecting that their German athletes would reflect their high ideals and dominate. The world watched.
Unfortunately for Hitler, in 1913, about 24 years before that Olympics, in Oakville, Alabama, a little boy was born named James Cleveland Owens. Everybody called him J.C. for short, but when his family moved to Ohio his new teacher misunderstood his name for “Jesse” because his southern accent was so strong. As it turns out Jesse Owens would be one of the fastest human beings to ever live — he tied the world record in the 100yd dash as a high school student; he destroyed NCAA records, and went on to rock the 1936 Summer Olympics with four gold medals. And he just happened to be black.
Now, when Jesse Owens and other “inferior” athletes absolutely demolished the German competition, I would have loved for Hitler to have taken a long look at his own ideas, and second-guessed them even a little. I would’ve loved him to throw down his swastika arm-band and admit that there were flaws in his great Nazi dream, and maybe avert the war. But, rather, he clung to the pretty picture of life that he was building for himself and his country. He, and many, were absolutely convinced that the Nazis had “life” in their hands, that life was contained in their power and doctrines and nationhood.
For you and me, right now, there are people and influences and systems that are drastically similar to that. They go to great lengths to assert and uphold a definition of “life” that is completely opposed to what 1 John and the Gospel describes as eternal life in Christ Jesus. But more often than not, these alternative definitions are not as obviously out-of-whack as Hitler’s. They’re usually not “hostile” at all.
And, even more, the people that choose them don’t walk around all day, face in hands, because their lives just suck. They aren’t all penniless, unsuccessful, alone, unpopular, failing, cursed or unlucky. Instead, sometimes they appear to be far more satisfied, fat and happy, lucky, blessed, and at peace than you or I ever seem to feel. They seem utterly confident that they’ve got life right. They say, “Ya know, all that Jesus stuff just isn’t real true to me, but it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy life my way.” Or most likely they never say anything like that out loud at all, but it’s embedded in how they live. They can be terribly convincing, and we are SO tempted. It looks like they are WINNING and they are LOVING it.
I think that’s why the writer of 1 John goes out of his way to make the point, essentially — “Just because you see the semblance of ‘life’ in others who are apart from Christ, and just because they claim that their way is the ultimate, never forget that where Jesus is not present, LIFE is not present.” Either those other people are right, and they’ve discovered a way apart from Christ that is superior, and they are right in calling God a liar; or else they are, wittingly or not, great liars themselves.
The test is to see whether or not their ideas boil down to the same old human ruts — running away from things, chasing after things, struggling aimlessly, or strutting around in pride. It’s the same test for us who claim to choose Jesus. So, brother or sister, it is dire that we turn our backs on the weak alternatives and get to living in a way that we feel God’s pleasure.