I Am Ironman–1 John 3:12

Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. –1 John 3:12

Tonight–actually a week ago–I attended a special advance screening of the new film Ironman. Since you might well have not seen this movie in the few days since it opened on May 2, I thought I would assure you that it was definitely worth every penny that we spent to see it. Did I mention that we had free passes?

Seriously, I’m not that much a fan of comic-book movies.  Spider-man was okay and Fantastic Four sort of bored me. Probably what bugs me most is the rather obvious direction these films go. The heroes, though flawed, remain heroes, and the villains, as hard as the writers attempt to make them difficult to perceive, can be recognized from their first appearance on-screen.

In Ironman, the baddest of the bad guys is Obadiah, played by Jeff Bridges. You can tell he is evil, due to his bald head and his warmth toward the hero. If he weren’t bad, there’d be no reason for him to be taking up frames.

The worst thing that Obadiah does in the too-long span of this film is attempting to kill our hero, Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey. What drives Obadiah toward homicide? Was he born a killer? Not really. Obadiah, in this film, like Cain in Genesis, moves toward murder because his own actions are evil. In this case, Obadiah wants to protect his illicit arms sales to good guys and bad guys alike, since better weapons lead to a better world. Tony Stark, for all his flaws, had a conscience and attempted to restrict sales simply to the good guys.

Comic book morality barely registers on the complexity meter. You have a good but troubled hero with amazing powers and an inexplicable point of vulnerability facing off against unscrupulous and utterly wicked villains with equally (or maybe more) amazing powers and a less obvious point of vulnerability. Typically, the hero is tempted toward a misuse of his power, but in the end, virtue always triumphs over evil.

While life is not quite so simple, in the end, we (heroes?) are tempted toward a misuse of our powers. Sin, we discover, leads on to sin, when we surrender ourselves to the evil one. Before long, perhaps like Obadiah, we find ourselves doing things unimaginable at the outset.

Our call is to be Ironman: uncompromising and willing to use our abilities for good. Living thus, we won’t be able to fly, but our lives can be every bit as heroic as the comic-book hero’s.

Love, Yes, but How?–1 John 3:11

This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. –1 John 3:11

I’m in Nashville today, sleeping in a hotel room, missing my own pillows, my own bed, and my family. That’s okay, I suppose, as I’ll appreciate them all the more when I get to go home on Thursday. Besides, being in a different place and a different situation always makes me pay a bit closer attention to the world around me. Take this evening’s events for example.

When we returned to the hotel after supper, I decided to make a bit of a pilgrimage, not to the Ryman Auditorium, long-time home of the Grand Ole Opry, but to a nearby convenience store to buy a two-liter bottle of soda. As I walked down Broadway, over the long bridge that crosses the main railroad tracks through the city, I encountered a bedraggled guy in a filthy jacket. He approached me for a bit of money. I declined to help him.

When I reached the store, a pair of slightly less bedraggled guys in less filthy clothing stood out among the other customers. One of these men held an enormous bottle of beer in his hand as he waited for the cashier. He turned to face me. “How you doing, brother?” he asked.

“I’m doing okay,” I replied.

His turn at the register came. He handed the bottle to the cashier, and she turned to place it behind her. Then she looked at him, slightly ill at ease. When he shrugged, she said, “I cannot sell you any beer, since you’re already intoxicated. I can smell it on you.”

My new-found brother muttered for a moment and then moved off. I heard him say a few things about “smell it on me,” but he didn’t raise too loud of a fuss.

All this leaves me wondering about today’s verses. I’m sharing a room with David of Cincinnati, a very easy roommate all in all. We understand how to defer to each other, how to respect each other, and how to love each other. Being loving toward some people–all the people I’m meeting with this week–happens with ease. But what of the dirty drunk on Broadway? How do I love him?

Do I love him by giving him a handout or by shrugging that request off? Does the convenience store clerk love him by selling him the beer or refusing? Do I speak to him or refuse to make eye contact, scuttling away at the first opportunity. I ask these questions because I don’t know the answers. I’m not sure how to love a difficult daughter or an annoying church brother. Loving is hard work.

In a way, adherence to a complex and convoluted law, refusing to eat this or washing that, would be a great deal easier than the religious observance that Jesus called us to, this message we heard in the beginning. We don’t get a checklist or a rule sheet. There’s no clear standard to this love we’re to practice. No one ever said that Christianity was easy, did they?

Credentials–1 John 3:10

This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother. –1 John 3:10

Half a dozen of my colleagues are in the process of hiring a new member of our faculty. They’ll sift through a stack of perhaps seventy-five applications in hopes of finding the best possible person. Happily, after serving on three hiring committees over the past three years, I’m not involved in this hunt, but I know the drill. Essentially, this search process operates on two levels.

The first of these two levels is what I’d like to look at first. It involves looking for reasons to throw people out of the pile. I suppose I could evaluate seventy-five applications, but I’d much rather evaluate five or ten. That’s why when I’m going through the stack, I hunt for disqualifiers. The job posting provides the route to that.

“Masters degree in English required,” the posting reads. As I go through the stack, I find people with education degrees, art history degrees, business degrees, and so forth. Last year we had a lawyer with no English degree whatsoever. Those people drop out of the race immediately. We do a similar job on teaching experience. If they haven’t taught at the college level, they’re gone.

The second level of the search involves discovering who among the survivors has the other necessary skills. Eventually we get to hear several of them teach and answer questions. Usually, if somebody is a decent teacher, they can make that obvious in about five minutes. Similarly, if they have lots of ideas coursing through their mind, it’ll come through quickly in the question period.

In the end, the applicants’ credentials will separate the wheat from the chaff. Then it’s a process of picking from among the top two or three candidates. Usually we know that any of those top candidates would be okay if we hired them. That’s a reassuring situation.

Credentials are important in many areas of life. Perhaps that’s why John spends so much time focused on how we know the people of God and the people of Satan from each other. In two and half chapters, we’ve seen this topic reappear perhaps six times. Why? It’s because whose we are is the single most important thing we can ever know. My spiritual credentials don’t show up on my resume, but they hopefully do show up in my broader life. Do yours?

Vexing Verbs–1 John 3:7-9

Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.–1 John 3:7-9

I’m worried and confused. John seems to be putting me in that position pretty often. Today, I’m not sure which side of the great divide that John describes I belong on. On the one hand, I sometimes do “what is right,” so I must be righteous. On the other hand, I sometimes do “what is sinful,” so I must be of the devil. Presumably I can’t be both, so where am I?

To settle this conundrum, we have to look at the verbs and recognize the limits of effective translation. In the first verse, John warns us not to allow anyone to lead us astray. That verb, “lead,” is in the present tense and the imperfect mood. On the other hand–how many hands do I have today?–the description of someone who “does what is right” uses an present tense verb in a participle mood. Okay, that’s enough English-teacher talk. What does it all mean?

Let me illustrate the difference in a way that normal people can understand. A few weeks ago, we had a herd of teenage boys stay with us for the weekend. During that enchanted three days, I might have said, “Tom sleeps here.” Today, though, I could walk upstairs and say, “Tom sleeps here,” pointing to Thomas’ bedroom. The words are exactly the same, but they indicate something different. In the first case, I’m suggesting a one-time or temporary situation. In the second, it’s a long-term or continuing situation. Huh?

Let’s try this.

  • I go to church (today) vs. I go to church (regularly).
  • Jack eats tacos (look, he’s doing it now) vs. Jack eats tacos (it’s the only food he eats).
  • Penny eats veggies (occasionally) vs. Penny eats veggies (exclusively).

If you are a Greek scholar recognizing the gross violence I am doing to Greek grammar, then just hold your tongue. The basic idea is sound. The fact that I played some basketball with my son last week does not make me a basketball player. The fact that I did the dishes last night does not make me a dishwasher. Doing the occasional righteous or sinful thing does not make me “He who does what is right” or “He who does what is sinful.”

I’m an occasion musician and fisherman, but I’m a constant teacher and writer. Sure there are times when I’m not teaching and writing, but I am always a teacher and writer. You have your own constants, I’m sure.

The question to ask, then, is not whether we occasionally do right or do evil.  The question is what our default condition is.

Frank James, Fugitive–1 John 3:5-6

But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. –1 John 3:5-6

Frank James, the brother of Jesse James, is buried in Hill Park, a sleepy suburban green space in Independence, Missouri. Unlike Jesse, Frank lived to a ripe old age, dying in 1915 and buried under a somewhat misleading headstone reading “Alexander F. James.”

A few months after Jesse died at the hand of Robert Ford, Frank James made a visit to the governor of Missouri, handing him his gun and surrendering. Frank James, it seems, was tired of living as a fugitive. In the months that followed, James faced charges in both Missouri–for a robbery that ended in the murder of an engineer–and in Alabama–for the robbery of an Army Corps of Engineers payroll. In neither case would this Confederate veteran and hero of folk mythology be found guilty. James successfully resisted extradition to Minnesota to answer for the ill-fated Northfield raid until the end of his days. Still, those and charges always hung over him, even as, in his waning days, he charged a quarter to those who wanted to visit the James family farm.

The case of Jesse and Frank James is a complicated one, intertwined with the injustices of the American Civil War and the later industrial excesses. Regardless of mitigating circumstances, though, it cannot be denied that these men robbed and killed people who had done them no harm. Their crimes cannot be ignored.

Similarly, my crimes, although not as bloody or headline-worthy, cannot be simply ignored. They do not go away just because I am not discovered today. They remain over me, threatening me, unless . . .

Unless as John Milton puts it “one greater man restore us, and regain the blissful seat.” Only in Christ do our sins actually go away.  Only Jesus can deliver us from lives as fugitives.

…and my lungs and limbs and all the rest of me.