Who Is It that Conquers the World? – Br. Keith Nelson

For your homiletic dessert I have whipped up 500 words about one word. The word is nīké, if you enjoy New Testament Greek; or Nike, if you have ever heard of basketball. “To conquer.”

The word “conquer” makes me uncomfortable generally, and even more so when it appears in Scripture. But for those of us who place the Johannine witness at the center of our discipleship, it is a word to be reckoned with.

In our reading from the First Letter of John, we heard: “And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4-5)

Do you think of yourself as a world-conquerer?

This isn’t an isolated use of that word. In John’s gospel, we hear Jesus at the Last Supper say, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world, you face persecution. But take courage: I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33).

This adds shadows and highlights to the basic meaning of “conquer” in these writings. What is conquered? The world: not the earth, but the complex web of circumstances, influences, false narratives and outright lies woven by sin and our captivity to sin. Who is the conquerer? First and foremost: Jesus, the only one whose trust in God and love for us sinners was strong enough to create away forward, through, and out of the tangle and mangle of sin and death.

I’ll add one further nuance, this time from the Revelation to John, whose author makes clear use of John’s gospel. The Christian prophet John hears Jesus promise: “To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.” (Rev. 3:21). Whatever else our world-conquering may mean, it is at heart a participation in Christ – in his divine freedom, his agency, his sovereignty, his love. It is a gift, not a possession.

Who is it that conquers but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

The world teaches that to conquer is to know, to be in the know, and to be known to be so. To possess a self-righteous certitude in our own ideological posture and the way of life that flows from it. Its modus operandi in the face of opposition is: double down; admit no fragility; captivate those who will like, follow, and subscribe; and cancel the rest.

For us, to conquer is to believe. We are told that the Beloved Disciple “saw and believed, for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” (John 20:8-9). To believe is not to first comprehend and then assent to a reasonable claim. To believe is always an act in which understanding is provisional. Believing requires the vulnerable and continual choice to place our trust in a divine Person, rather than a proposition or a posture.

 To believe is to risk yielding all that we have, all that we do, all that we are to Jesus. To make this continual choice for Him a way of life until we pass through death and see him as He Is: this is what it means to conquer.

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