This is Our Altar Call (A Sermon for Easter 7B)
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church (Cypress, Texas)
1 John 5:9–13
May 13, 2018
I heard a really bad joke this week that I thought I’d start with…
There was a couple that was getting married during the main Sunday service one day, and the priest stood up to call the couple to the front. But he forgot their name.
For the life of him, he couldn’t remember the names of those who were to be married.
So, he says “Will those desiring to get married today please come to the front?”
Immediately, nine single ladies, three widows, four widowers, and six single men stepped to the front.
Talk about an altar call…
We’re actually going to talk about altar calls in a little bit, but not in the way you might think.
We’ve reached the end of First John, which we’ve been looking at since Easter. In the closing of this letter, or sermon, or whatever John was doing, he starts to wrap up some of the main themes from the whole piece.
In today’s verses, written as the whole thing comes to a close, we watch John draw on two themes that are familiar to us: faith and eternal life.
This about John 3:16, probably the most famous verse in all of the Bible. “For God so loved the world, that whoever believes in him — whoever has faith in him — shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Faith and eternal life.
“Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. … I write these things to you, who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:10, 13).
This belief in Jesus isn’t a matter of intellectual agreement. When we say the Nicene Creed, we’ll say “we believe” and then recite a long list of claims that we say we believe. But maybe there’s some things in there that you have to say while crossing your fingers. Maybe there are some things in there that you struggle to believe.
But when we talk about believing in Jesus, when we talk about faith in Christ, we’re not talking about something you choose to agree with. We’re not saying we believe in Jesus like some people might believe in Santa Claus. We’re not saying we believe that Jesus existed.
Our belief in Jesus, our faith in Jesus, is not about that.
If I tell you all that I believe in Elizabeth, are you going to think that I’m saying I believe Elizabeth exists?
When I say I believe in Elizabeth, I mean that she will do what she says she can do. And I also believe that I can do what she says I can do. I believe in Elizabeth because my experience shows me she is trustworthy and good and knows what she’s talking about.
Same with Jesus. Saying we believe in Jesus Christ means we trust what Jesus says, and we believe what Jesus says he can do, and we believe we can do what Jesus would have us do.
And it means we have to believe what Jesus says…what God says…about eternal life.
But here’s where it gets tricky.
In First John, and throughout the Gospel of John, eternal life doesn’t just mean life beyond the grave. Eternal life isn’t just talking about what happens after we die, but instead it is about how we live now — before we die — once we put our faith in Christ.
Eternal life is full life, everlasting life, changed life, now and in the world to come.
Listen to what John says: those who “believe in the name of the Son of God may know that they have eternal life.” He’s not talking about believing now and receiving eternal life later.
Those who believe in Jesus, those who put their faith in Christ, know that we have eternal life, we have real life, we have a changed life, right now.
Have you ever had someone ask you, “Do you know where you’ll go when you die?” That’s a key question for many followers of Jesus, because we get so preoccupied with eternal life as life after death.
But the question we should be asking is, “How are we going to live right now?”
John gives us some clues throughout this whole letter.
From 1 John 3:14: “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.”
Or how about 1 John 3:17: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”
When John is talking about eternal life, he’s already given us clues about what it means to truly live. We know we have life when we love one another. And we know we don’t have life if we refuse to help someone that needs help.
That’s eternal life. It isn’t about life after death, but rather about life before death. Jesus wasn’t too concerned with what happened to people after they die — he talks about it some, but not too much. But Jesus is very — very — interested in how people live once they decide to follow him.
So what are we going to do about it?
That’s easy…we’re going to have an altar call. (Celeste starts playing I have Decided…)
Maybe you’ve been to a service where there’s been an altar call. A preacher gives a powerful sermon, then some music starts to play in the background, and then comes the charge. Then comes the call.
Altar calls as we know them started in the 19th century, but they weren’t like we think of today.
One of the most famous 19th century revivalists, Charles Grandison Finney, popularized the idea of the altar call, but not so that people could just say a prayer and know they were going to heaven.
The altar call started because at the end of his revivals he put sign up sheets down front, on the altar rail. Finney, a white preacher, had an altar call so that people would come down and sign up for the abolition movement.
Because when we put our faith in Jesus — when we decide to follow Jesus — it should change how we live right now.
Now, I don’t have any sign up sheets down here, but in a couple of minutes you’ll be invited to this altar rail. You’ll be invited to come down here and receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. And Jesus says — in the Gospel of John — that whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood has… eternal life.
This is our altar call, every week. This is our opportunity, every week, to commit ourselves to Jesus. To decide, every week, to follow Jesus. This is our opportunity, every single week, to know that we already have that eternal, everlasting, never-ending, overflowing, new life.
And then we get to share that life with everyone around us.
Are you with me?