This morning we begin a five week study on the book of First John. Earlier this year, we spent months in the Gospel of John, and in many ways First John is a companion to that book. Although they share a name, most scholars no longer believe that they were written by the same person. It's more likely that they were written by two people who shared Christian beliefs that were shaped by John. Much of the language and ideas are the same. You will hear themes of light, love and truth. But some things will sound very different, such as direct statements about sin and forgiveness. We believe these strong statements are in here as a response to some other teachers who had been leading this community away from the original message of the Gospel. This book was written to "reaffirm the beliefs of the community during a time of spiritual upheaval or confusion." It doesn't read like a letter; it reads like a sermon or a pamphlet. This book is a work of interpretation for those who never saw Jesus in the flesh. The author is taking the tradition presented in the gospel for John, and reinterpreting it for a new situation. This community has new questions and new challenges. The faith is growing and spreading and people are getting new ideas. So the question for that community and for this one is "How do we hang on to the core of the message, while being flexible enough to allow a new word to be spoken for a new time?" The book of First John provides some markers on the path.
Scripture Reading 1 John 1:1-10
That which was from the beginning,
which we have heard,
which we have seen with our eyes,
which we have looked at and our hands have touched—
this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.
The life was revealed; we have seen it and testify to it,
and we proclaim to you the eternal life,
which was with the Father and was revealed to us.
We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard,
so that you also may have fellowship with us.
And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
We write this to make our joy complete.
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you:
God is light; in God there is no darkness at all.
If we claim to have fellowship with God and yet walk in the darkness,
we lie and do not do the truth.
But if we walk in the light, as God is in the light,
we have fellowship with one another,
and the blood of Jesus, the Son, purifies us from all sin.
If we claim to have no sin,
we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
If we confess our sins,
he who is faithful and righteous will release us from our sins
and purify us from all unrighteousness.
If we claim we have not sinned,
we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
When I was a little girl, I had a big antique bed and an overactive imagination. At night I used to imagine that there were snakes in the dark at the end of my bed under the covers, and I would never put my feet down there. One night, in a flash of inspiration, I realized that since I was imagining the snakes, I was free to imagine something else. So I imagined flowers growing up under the snakes and lifting the snakes up into the sunlight, where they shriveled up and died. And then I stretched my legs out and went to sleep.
That feeling of snakes lifted up to the sun on flowers is how I feel when I hear, "God is light, and in God there is no darkness at all." And feeling is a really good way to address the beginning of this book, because it's heavy on inspiring imagery and light on explanation. Like the Gospel of John, it describes what we experience in our faith, but does not explain how it works. "What we have looked at, what we have seen with our eyes and our hands have touched—THIS we proclaim to you about the Word of Life!" In Greek, this is not a well-structured sentence. It runs on and the verb tenses are all over the place, but that's OK because the goal is not to get you to understand something but to experience something. To feel again in your imagination what it would be like to feel with your hands the Son of God. The real human divine one. See, we may understand something, but it's not really real for us until we experience it somehow. And we can experience something and know it is real and yet not understand it.
The difference between understanding and experience is especially important for us to remember as we gather this morning around the table. Our celebration at the table is full of things we understand like bread and cup, and also full of mystery. It is a reminder that our faith is built on real experiences like eating and drinking, and also a reminder that we will never fully understand God. When we forget that, when we think we have God figured out, we get cocky and immediately lose our integrity as Christians. Because there's nothing uglier than a cocky follower of Jesus.
The author of this book, who we will just call John, is very concerned about Christian integrity. In the second half of this chapter, we read the first of several strong statements about truth and sin. Let's remember that this book was written to a community earnestly trying to live out the original message of Jesus in a new time and place. So when the text says, "We," it's talking about US. Not all of humanity, but those who profess faith. It's not about just what we think; it's about what we do. Verse 6 says, "If we Christians claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not do the truth. If we claim have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us."
That's some strong stuff. What's going on here? Like I said, the issue here is integrity. Are we telling the truth? Are we living in reality, or are we lying and deceiving ourselves and making God out to be a liar? I hope you all know me well enough by now to know that I do not believe that humans are awful and worthless and shameful, nor do I think that's what's being said here. On the contrary, as people of faith, we perhaps have more temptation than others to get uppity, to get self-righteous, to begin looking down on other people, ESPECIALLY other people who think differently from us.
To put ourselves above someone else is a disruption of the communion that God intends for us, and anything that disrupts communion is wrong and harmful. The Christian word for that is sin. It is our constant temptation. In fact, our original goodness, our inherent dignity is what allows us to recognize sin, to recognize that something is off. Think about it: If we were bad by nature, sin wouldn't be a big deal because we'd just be doing what we were designed to do. The point is we weren't designed for selfishness and superiority and shame. We were designed for wholeness and harmony and righteousness. And so when we get off track from those things, thank God we are able to recognize it and return.
According to First John, the method of returning is repentance and confession, which brings us to the table where we always begin with confession. Verse 9 says "If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and righteous will release us from our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." We do confession and communion in part to keep us from being uppity. Confession is a moment of freedom and release where we honestly look at ourselves and say, "Egh. I can see that I have deviated from the wholeness and harmony and righteousness that I was designed for. That's the truth. That's reality, and I want to be a person who lives in reality and not in some illusion." If we can't or won't do that, John says we are deceiving ourselves.
The one who hears our confession is Jesus Christ, the very one who himself is beautifully righteous and completely faithful and worthy of our trust. The word forgive means release and as we release the illusion that we are perfect, we are released from the shame we feel for not being perfect. God does not expect flawlessness, but faithfulness from us. God's joyful invitation to us is to live in the truth, to walk in the light without shame, loving one another and being fully loved in return.
Because, we are beloved, and as our ancestors in the faith have proclaimed for hundreds of years, This is the joyful feast of the people of God. So people of all genders, all ages, and all races — every type of BODY — y'all come — from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and gather here, about Christ’s table.