Sunday, April 25, 2021

Sermon: "Don't Be the Antichrist", Selections from 1 John (April 25, 2021)


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Although 1 John is often lumped in with the epistles, it’s an unusual one, in that it doesn’t follow the conventional patterns of a first-century letter. Actually, it’s composed more like a sermon than a letter. Instead of addressing the specific questions or issues arising within a particular Christian community, 1 John seems to be casting a wider net, offering guidance to the Church at large. Given that it was probably written around 90 CE (making it one of the latest epistles in the biblical canon), this makes sense—as the Church grew, it became more and more imperative to make sure that EVERYONE was on the same page, so that Jesus’ message wasn’t being distorted in the world’s largest game of “Telephone” ever.

John’s message meanders a bit over five chapters, but here’s the gist of his “sermon”: we must be faithful in preserving the authentic gospel, the good news that came directly from Christ. We can’t wander away from it, or we put our relationship with God at risk. And what is this message that we heard from the beginning? That Jesus laid down his own life out of love for us, so we ought to lay down our lives out of love for one another. If we wish to follow Christ, we must love with “actions and truth”, rather than just words. According to John, anyone who doesn’t do this, who deviates from this original purpose of Christ’s Church, is the Antichrist.

Now, wait a minute. That seems like an AWFULLY harsh condemnation, doesn’t it? In our context, where the term “Antichrist” is applied liberally to individuals with whom we disagree and is functionally synonymous with “Satan”, John’s proclamation seems a little extreme. But this is us reading something into scripture that just isn’t there, hearing words in a modern context rather than the one in which they were written. So let’s take a moment to reorient ourselves, shall we?

The word “antichrist” only appears five times in the Bible, and only in the Johannine epistles, so John’s understanding of its meaning is tremendously important. The prefix “anti-” in Greek means “against”; that’s probably not news to most of us. So, the term “Antichrist” literally means “one who is against the anointed one”. Out of context, “the antichrist” could certainly be interpreted as a new scriptural nemesis in Jesus’ story, alongside Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate. But 1 John wasn’t written as a historical or even contemporary narrative. We aren’t disengaged bystanders, just along for the ride as we watch divine stories being played out; WE are the subject of this writing. 1 John is instructive, telling us what WE should actively be doing as followers of Christ. Given this vital context, the implied opponent of John’s “antichrist” ISN’T Jesus himself, but us: “those who (faithfully) follow Christ.” John isn’t talking about individual figures in a cosmic battle, but broad categories of people in a post-resurrection world.

Early on in Church history, this understanding of “antichrist” was standard, but by the 4th century, things began to change. As the Church grew, its leaders attempted to consolidate their power, calling the first council of Nicaea to establish “correct” beliefs and to discredit anyone who opposed them. Not coincidentally, this century also saw a rise in specific persons being identified as “the antichrist” in an effort to label them as enemies of the Church. It was this individualized understanding of the term that ultimately endured. The term became less a descriptor, as John originally intended, and more of a condemnation.

This quirk of history does a disservice to contemporary Christians, because when we picture “the antichrist” as some powerful archnemesis of Jesus, it doesn’t occur to us that maybe we act in ways that are “anti-Christ”, too. We completely miss the message that 1 John spends five chapters trying to impart to us: DON’T BE THE ANTICHRIST—a task that we can’t possibly accomplish if we have an incomplete understanding of what an antichrist is.

An antichrist, says John, is anyone who doesn’t corroborate Jesus’ true message of sacrificial love. It’s not necessarily those who explicitly oppose Jesus, and it’s not those who believe the “wrong” things about him. It’s anyone and everyone who denies Jesus’ authority by straying from the foundational teaching of his transformative but daunting ministry: to willingly lay down our very lives out of love for our human siblings. An antichrist may CLAIM to follow Jesus, but they betray their true agenda by wandering away from this core mission. They may say the “right” words, but at the end of the day, their actions betray them. They’re unable to love with action and truth.

This doesn’t make them Satan; it doesn’t mean they’re irredeemable; it doesn’t mean that they hate God—it simply means that they’ve chosen to act in a way contrary to Christ. Anti…Christ. And while that’s very different than being an archenemy of the Church, one could argue that it’s just as bad. You can see why John felt that this was imperative for Christians to understand—not to steer them away from individual leaders, but to safeguard their own hearts against betraying their savior. We should all strive to avoid being an antichrist with our actions.

Now, 1 John doesn’t offer a name for those at the opposite end of the dichotomy—those who DO follow Christ faithfully, who commit to Jesus’ original message. So, I invented one. If the “antichrist” is one who is “against Christ”, then the opposite would be the “parachrist”. The Greek prefix “para-” has two possible meanings, depending on the context: “from/because of”, and “at/beside/near”. I love the depth that these different meanings give to this invented term: the opposite of an “antichrist” isn’t just one who is in favor of Christ, but is one who is sent FROM Christ, who loves BECAUSE OF Christ, who isn’t just ON Christ’s side but BY his side, BESIDE him, seeking to be NEAR him through their actions.

The “parachrist” is one who loves not “with words or speech, but with action and truth.” They don’t see their job as correcting others, but actively caring for other’s actual needs, whatever those might be. The parachrist is willing to give all of themself—material possessions, time, sense of security, even their very life—for another person in need. They never question whether or not it’s deserved; they offer it freely. The parachrist loves all others unconditionally, even when it’s difficult, because their unwavering faith in Christ compels them to.

As 1 John 4:8 says, “The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love.” It’s impossible to know God without the kind of love that the parachrist practices because God and sacrificial love are one in the same. As theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez puts it, “We do not have two histories…one by which we become children of God and the other by which we become each other’s brothers.”[1] Piety and altruism go hand in hand. If we insist on the former while rejecting the latter, we’re entering antichrist territory—deviating from Jesus’ original, immutable, indisputable message: love one another.

So…don’t be the antichrist. Be the parachrist instead.

I know, I know; it’s not that easy. Living as a parachrist isn’t just a matter of will. We may WANT to love our fellow human beings, but the challenge is in figuring out how to do so authentically. We tend to get stuck in the ruts of following Jesus in the ways that are most familiar to us, the ways that we’re used to, instead of the ways that best communicate God’s love. For example, preaching is one of the primary ways that I try to communicate God’s love. But this week, my brain wasn’t being a team player, and I was frustrated with my writing. It felt like my words were failing me. When I mentioned it to Nick, he told me that it was my own fault: when I donated blood on Tuesday, they took too much, and it caused my brain to malfunction.

He was joking, of course. But it hit me that my agnostic spouse had inadvertently preached my own sermon back to me: my sermons, my WORDS, aren’t how I avoid being an antichrist. My words aren’t what proves God’s love. The moment that I came closest to being a parachrist this week was when I chose to lay on a cot, willing to be uncomfortable, to give of my time and to literally give of my body, for the sake of someone I’ll probably never meet. Even though I was scared. Even though it (apparently) cost me the full use of my brain for a few days. Even though I personally wouldn’t benefit from it.

But I can’t take full credit for this choice. It wouldn’t have been possible without the many volunteers from the congregation who helped run it, or the Red Cross staff who took good care of me, or the other donors who offered of themselves and made the drive successful. All of us together were acting as parachrists—imperfectly, perhaps, and maybe even unintentionally. But God’s selfless love shone through every person who walked through the door that day, whether they were able to donate or not. Just as “the antichrist” isn’t a singular figure, neither is the parachrist. It’s not JUST up to you to live out God’s love in the world. We do it together.

Together, we hold one another accountable to Christ’s teachings, so that we can hold onto this truth that we’ve heard from the beginning: words don’t make followers of Christ. Actions do. As Nick reminded me, the parachrist doesn’t emerge from the words of a sermon, but in the life lived behind those words. As Rev. Al Sharpton reminded the nation this week, the parachrist doesn’t emerge from the words “guilty” or “not guilty” at the end of a trial, but in the actions of all those who work tirelessly for justice. As John reminds us, the parachrist doesn’t emerge from the words of an ancient book, but from the actions that they inspire, not from a single Christian, but from a global Church. This is the truth of the gospel. This is how we defeat “the antichrist”.

Being a parachrist might not be easy, but it IS simple: love our human family—ALL OF THEM—fully, fiercely, and unapologetically, as Christ commands us to. No conditions. No hesitation. No exceptions. This is the message that we’ve heard from the very beginning. Dear friends, let’s love the world so well, so completely, that one day, the idea of anyone acting in opposition to Christ’s message will be a distant memory. May all come to know the God of love through the extravagant love that we practice in Christ’s name. Amen.

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[1] Gustavo Gutiérrez, The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. X, p. 842

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