April 12, 2015
He calls himself “The Elder” and we don’t even discover that much about him unless we read into the second and third letters that bear his name. Elder is an appropriate name for him. John was an old man. He’d seen a lot happen in his long life. He’d been one of the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth, and he had seen the risen Lord with his own eyes. John had somehow survived the persecutions that had erupted in the early years of the church. Most of the other apostles had died, and a second generation of leaders had stepped up to keep telling the good news.
Based in Ephesus, John served as the pastor for a network of house churches that were scattered over the region. These were churches that had been established by the Apostle Paul, and now John was left in charge of them. He had already written his account of the Good News, but it had been a few years since those words made their way through the community, encouraging the church with the story of Jesus.
In the meantime, false teachers had tried to lead the believing community astray. They had twisted the gospel message, and were teaching people that Jesus had not been a real person. Some had even left the church, following a belief system that would come to be called Gnosticism, after the Greek word ‘gnosis’ – to know.
Not only did the Gnostics insist that God could not have become flesh, because flesh is corruptible and God must remain pure spirit, they also promoted the idea that, in order to move from the fleshly realm to the spiritual realm, which was the goal of life, you had to acquire secret knowledge. This system of secret information was arranged in a progression, and you could only move up the system as you proved yourself worthy to receive it. This was a religion for the elite, for the intelligent, for insiders only. Common people – like the ones Jesus actually spent time with during his life – they weren’t invited.
As Gnosticism evolved, it developed practices that ignored personal hygiene or care of the physical body, because the body wasn’t important. And since sin had to do with satisfying the desires of the body, and the body didn’t matter, the Gnostics didn’t concern themselves with sin. Real sin was wrong thinking, not wrong doing, as far as they were concerned. It didn’t matter what you did or how you behaved. What mattered was the quest for spiritual knowledge, and hoarding that knowledge as some mystical secret that could not be shared.
This heresy was threatening to tear apart the church. John wrote to encourage believers to stand fast in the gospel, to remain firm against attacks from those who wanted to dilute the power of the good news.
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. – 1 John 1:1-2:2
Those of us who have grown up in the church may not recognize that sometimes, we talk in secret code, just as those Gnostics did. We use words that have special meaning only in church. Secular society doesn’t use the same definitions for these words, so people who come into the church for the first time might be confused by the way we use language inside these walls.
For example, take the word “witness.” In the secular world, a witness might be someone who sees a crime committed, or who testifies in a court of law. My brother-in-law is an “expert witness” for an automobile maker. He’s a mechanical engineer, who evaluates the evidence whenever someone tries to sue the company for damages from an accident. If the case goes to trial, he takes the stand to give his expert opinion. My brother-in-law testifies to what he knows to be true, from his own experience and training as a mechanical engineer.
In the church, though, the word “witness” might bring to mind people going door to door, handing out tracts or asking strangers on the street if they’ve been saved. It might mean wearing T-shirts with Bible verses printed on them, or sitting down with a friend to share the plan of salvation. Witness, in the evangelical sense, often carries with it a negative feeling of being pushy or loud.
But in John’s first letter to his church, witness means something else. Here in the Prologue, John describes Jesus as the real deal. “We bear witness to what we have seen with our own eyes, heard with our own ears, and touched with our own hands,” he writes. You just heard the story of Thomas demanding to see the risen Lord with his own eyes and put his own finger in Christ’s wounds. Here’s John, saying, “he’s real, and we’ve experienced him ourselves.”
That’s all a witness does. A witness may not know all the facts, but a witness can give a first-hand account of personal experience.
When we bear witness to Jesus, we don’t need to memorize certain Bible references or practice a sales pitch to win people to Christ. We share our own story. We don’t tell more, and we don’t tell less than what we know for ourselves to be true. We can’t know everything, so what we say must be shared in humility, but if there’s one area where we are the expert, it’s our own experience of the living God in the person of Jesus Christ.
That’s what the Samaritan woman at the well did (John 4). She ran back to her village saying, “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did.”
When Jesus sent a man’s demons into a herd of pigs, the man wanted to follow Jesus into the boat that would take him across the lake. But Jesus said, “No, go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him.” (Mark 4:19-20)
When Mary Magdalene recognized Jesus at the empty tomb, she hurried back to the disciples with the news: ’I have seen the Lord!’ (John 20: 18) She didn’t go into a deep theological discussion about theophanies or try to impress the disciples with her wisdom. She just told them her own story of encountering the living Christ.
As witnesses, we share our own personal experience, no more and no less.
Here’s another word that people outside the church don’t use very much, but even insiders have trouble defining sometimes: fellowship. Ask someone under the age of 40 what they think of when they hear the word “fellowship” and you’re likely to get something about hobbits and elves and dwarves.
But that isn’t what fellowship means in the New Testament. In fact, the word we see translated as “fellowship” means quite a bit more than coffee and cookies after worship, or the time we spend visiting with each other in the narthex. The word koinonia means partnership, communion, working together as we share something beyond ourselves with each other. The members of The Fellowship of the Ring had very little in common with each other, but they shared a single purpose. In that respect, they had a lot in common with what we mean when we talk about Christian fellowship, or koinonia.
Christian koinonia is about participation. In the words of the Communion liturgy, taken from 1 Corinthians 10, we could say, “the cup which we bless, is it not a koinonia in the blood of Christ? And the bread we break, is it not a koinonia in the body of Christ?”
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and the koinonia of his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11)
In the passage we heard earlier from Acts 4, the koinonia of believers held everything in common, worshipping together daily in the temple and eating in one another’s homes. Koinonia, or fellowship, means sharing life, and Christian fellowship is grounded in fellowship with God. That means we participate in the life of God, as God participates in our lives. We walk in partnership with God.
And, according to John, that walk needs to stay in the light. This brings us to the core truth of John’s message: This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.
John follows this proclamation with a series of comparisons.
|If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true;||But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.|
|If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.||But if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.|
|If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.||But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, who is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.|
Those who were threatening the Christian community with Gnostic heresy claimed to be in right relationship with God. They claimed to be without sin, because sin belonged to the world of flesh and blood, and they claimed to be completely spiritual. But John says, “it doesn’t work that way.”
Participating in God’s fellowship, God’s koinonia, means recognizing our sin, confessing our sin, and claiming forgiveness for our sin. Walking in the light, as he is in the light, means allowing that light to shine into the dark corners of our soul, where sin likes to hide, where sin likes to pretend it doesn’t matter. But sin does matter. John mentions sin 27 times in this first letter to the church.
Sin is what separates us from God. Walking in the light, confessing our sin and seeking forgiveness, keeps us connected to God. Sin divides us from each other, but walking in God’s light connects us to one another through the blood of Jesus that cleanses us from all sin. Sin is a big deal, but Christ’s ‘atoning sacrifice’ is bigger than all the world’s sin put together.
That word, “atonement” is another one that people often don’t understand. But the simplest definition is the word itself: at-one-ment. Christ sacrificed himself so we could be ‘at one’ with God, and ‘at one’ with each other.
We are witnesses of what we know. We have experienced the risen Lord in our own lives. He is real. He lives and reigns, the Son of God. We participate in his reign by walking in the light of God, as he is in the light. That light shines into our darkness, and shows us our sin. But if we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sin, and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness.
He died to make us one with him and the Father. He died so we could be at one with each other. Let us keep walking in the light, with Jesus and each other, free of sin – not because of anything we have done, but because Christ died for us, Christ rose again in a real body, and Christ reigns over this whole world he came to save. Alleluia! Amen.