A Commencement Address for Christians (May 13, 2018)

Sermon Text: 1 John 4:13-21

Pastor Pagels

In the name of Christ Jesus, dear friends:

What do David Muir, Jim Gaffigan and the apostle John have in common?  If you are familiar with the first two names on that list, your initial reaction might be: “Not much.”  David Muir is the tall, dark and handsome anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight.  Compared to Muir, Jim Gaffigan looks kind of funny.  And he is pretty funny because he is a nationally recognized comedian.

What these very different men have in common is what they will be doing in Wisconsin this month. Yesterday David Muir gave the commencement keynote address for the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  And next Sunday Jim Gaffigan will address the graduating class of Marquette University in the soon-to-be demolished BMO Harris Bradley Center.

The third person on my list won’t be standing in an arena filled with graduates in caps and gowns.  Instead he will be addressing a much smaller gathering through the words the Holy Spirit inspired him to write.  The apostle John stands before us today, and even though this is a church service and not a graduation ceremony, John’s words of encouragement bear a strong resemblance to the outline of a graduation speech.  In fact, it might be helpful to think of this text as…


  1. Look with confidence to the past
  2. Love is the key to the future
  3. Live a life of faith in the present                                                           

It’s a common literary device for public speakers to open with a line that grabs their hearers’ attention, and John’s address does just that.  He says: We know that we live in him and he in us” (13a).  According to John, there is no doubt that we belong to God.  There is no debating that God lives in us. We know it, or at least we are supposed to.

But for some people it isn’t that simple.  I have had conversations with people, some of them lifelong Christians, who were plagued with doubts about their salvation, who had a hard time believing that God really loved them, who kept asking questions like: “How can I know for sure?”

If you have ever had a conversation like that, or if you yourself have ever felt like that, read I John 4, and remember John’s answer: “We know that we live in him and he in us, because he (God) has given us of his Spirit” (13).  Your relationship with God doesn’t depend on what you do.  Your relationship with God depends entirely on what God did for you.  And if you are a Lutheran Christian, you probably have a certificate to prove it.

On the day of your baptism the Holy Spirit came to you and created faith in your heart.  That was the day when the he worked through a few drops of water and a few powerful words to wash your sins away.  That was the day when the Lord planted his flag in your heart and declared: “This soul belongs to me.”

You can look back with confidence to the day of your baptism, but don’t stop there.  Your confidence goes back even farther than that.  John takes us back to another event that took place two thousand years ago: “We have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world” (14). 

John was there.  He saw Jesus with his own eyes.  He saw Jesus forgive the sins of a lame man, and then he saw him make that lame man walk.  He saw Jesus raise a four-day-dead Lazarus back to life.  He stood with Mary and watched Jesus suffer and die.  Three days later he saw Jesus alive, nail marks and all.  Forty days after that he watched as Jesus ascended into heaven, and then he saw angels who promised that the Lord would return.

John has left us with his eye witness testimony.  In his gospel, in his letters, in passage after passage he proclaims the truth in all its beauty and simplicity.  God the Father gave up his one and only Son.  God the Son gave up his life.  God the Holy Spirit has given us faith.  Looking back at everything God had done for him led John to confess, and looking back at what God has done for us allows us to say with the same confidence: “We know and rely on the love God has for us” (16a).

With these words John introduces a new concept, “love,” but it isn’t really new.  I didn’t do a systematic study, but my guess is that 1 John 4 contains the word “love” in it more than any other chapter in the Bible. And every time the same Greek word is used, “agape.” It has been described as selfless love, self-sacrificing, the highest and purest form of love.

John often uses “agape” to describe the love God has for us, but here he does something a little different.  Love isn’t described as something God does.  Love is who God is, and that love is the key to our future: God is love.  Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.  In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him” (16b,17).

Sometimes John’s letters read more like philosophy than theology, and this is probably one of those times.  Even though it can be challenging to grasp his line of thought, the overarching point is clear.  Because God is the essence of love, and because his love is made complete in us, the thought of Judgment Day doesn’t make our palms sweat or our knees shake.  When we think about the Last Day we can smile because…

“There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.  The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (18).  At the risk of confusing you, I want to try something with this verse. In verse 16, John declared, “God is love.”  Since the two are synonymous, since God equals love, we could replace the word, “love” with “God” in the verse I just read.

Let’s try it out.  Again, I am repeating verse 18, but this time I am replacing “love” with “God.”  “There is no fear in God.  But (a) perfect God drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.  The one who fears is not made perfect in God” (18).  God isn’t afraid of anything.  Since we belong to God, we don’t have to be afraid of anything.  We don’t have to be afraid of death.  We don’t have to be fearful about the future.  We don’t have to be afraid of being punished on the day of judgment because God himself has taken our sins, the reason for punishment, away. 

The love of God is the key that unlocks the gates of heaven.  It allows us to look back with confidence.  It allows us to look forward with hope.  And the same love motivates us to live our lives for our Lord in the present.

There is no “chicken and egg” controversy when it comes to our relationship with God.  John makes it abundantly clear: “We love because he first loved us” (19).  God is the source of love.  Our love is the response.  But this love, the love God puts in our heats, the love we feel in our hearts, it doesn’t remain in our hearts.  Christian love will show itself in real, tangible ways.

John singles out one of those ways in our text: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar.  For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.  And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (20,21). 

Sometimes we might get the impression that life in the first century church was less contentious and more harmonious than it is today, that there were no major problems or issues, that everyone sat around the campfire and held hands and sang Kumbaya.

The truth is that isn’t true.  If it was, John would have had no reason to write what he wrote.  The early church was made up of sinful people.  There were cliques and divisions.  There was fighting and back-biting.  There was jealousy and greed.  Those things threatened to divide the church, and those sins threatened to destroy the faith of church members.

John needed his readers to understand that you can’t have it both ways.  You can’t say that you love God and hate your brother.  You can’t call God your Father in one breath, and in the next breath curse one of his children.  If you think you can, then you don’t get it.  You aren’t a believer.  You are a liar.

And if we think that the same sin can’t sneak up and grab us, then we are lying to ourselves.  We don’t always treat each other like members of a Christian family.  We don’t treat each other like the blood-bought souls that we are.  We talk about each other when we shouldn’t, and when we should speak up we say nothing.  And we shudder to think what would happen if the people sitting next to us had a window to see the hurtful and hateful thoughts inside our hearts.

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1:8).  John wrote those words in the opening chapter of this letter, but he also wrote this: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1:9).  Jesus knows what we have done.  Jesus knows what we deserve.  And yet he has not abandoned us.  He is not ashamed of us.  He is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11).  He willingly endured the shame of the cross to forgive us and purify us and enable us to be the kind of people God calls us to be.            

And he is the one who gives us the opportunities and the abilities to show that “agape” love to each other…like when a member was in the hospital last week, and while I was visiting that person another member came to offer comfort and support…like when a member put a $100 bill in my hand right before Christmas and said, “ Please pass it on to someone who needs it”… like when I came to church on Monday morning (which was the first day of Teacher Appreciation week) and found a poster on my door that read “MVP: most valuable pastor.”

Is our church a perfect church?  No.  Is it a Christian church?  Absolutely.  Because Jesus Christ is the foundation of our lives.  Because he has forgiven our sins.  Because he gives our lives purpose and meaning.  And the more we appreciate everything Jesus means to us the more his love will permeate everything we do.

The graduates who listen to David Muir and Jim Gaffigan might be inspired by what they have to say, but the message John shares with Christians today is much more meaningful because it focuses our thoughts on the life to come.  John’s inspired words inspire us not just on graduation day, but this day and every day, to live for the Lord in the present, to look with confidence to the past, to look with hope to the future. Amen.