Do you think that with the wonderful celebration we had last Sunday that Easter has come and gone? Actually, it began the season of Easter, which continues for fifty days and will conclude with the celebration of Pentecost on Sunday, May 20th. During this season the church will often look at what it means to live as “Easter people,” people who live in the light of the resurrection of Jesus. Beginning this week, we will look at it through our sermon series, Love Is the Answer, as we examine John’s first letter. Everything that brought us to Easter and what we get to experience because of Easter all have to do with love and how we live that out.
What we call 1 John is less like a formal letter and more like a sermon or an essay. Tradition attributes this letter to the Apostle John or, at the very least, the same person who wrote the Gospel of John. In the second and third letters, the author refers to himself as “The Elder.” This would certainly apply if the Apostle John was writing this near the end of the first century. For ease of understanding, I will be referring to the author as John.
He was writing to a fractured community. Some who had left the community had insisted that Christ was divine only and had not really come to earth in human form. They also insisted that due to the resurrection, they could behave any way that they wished. John was to reassure the remaining group of the truth, which he physically witnessed. Whether or not our weekly text includes the word “love,” John emphasizes that the way of being in relationship with God and other follower of The Way is through love, for God and for one another.
Today, our passage comes from the very start of the letter. It is reminiscent of the opening of John’s Gospel. The difference is that John’s Gospel was emphasizing the divinity of this person named Jesus. Here he is emphasizing the physical humanity of the Christ. The text is 1 John 1:1-2:2 found starting on page 1889 of your Pew Bible, however, the wording is kind of hard to follow, so I will be reading it out of The Message.
1 John 1:1-2:3 The Message (MSG)
1-2 From the very first day, we were there, taking it all in—we heard it with our own ears, saw it with our own eyes, verified it with our own hands. The Word of Life appeared right before our eyes; we saw it happen! And now we’re telling you in most sober prose that what we witnessed was, incredibly, this: The infinite Life of God himself took shape before us.
3-4 We saw it, we heard it, and now we’re telling you so you can experience it along with us, this experience of communion [or fellowship] with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Our motive for writing is simply this: We want you to enjoy this, too. Your joy will double our joy!
5 This, in essence, is the message we heard from Christ and are passing on to you: God is light, pure light; there’s not a trace of darkness in him.
6-7 If we claim that we experience a shared life [or fellowship] with him and continue to stumble around in the dark, we’re obviously lying through our teeth—we’re not living what we claim. But if we walk in the light, God himself being the light, we also experience a shared life [or fellowship] with one another, as the sacrificed blood of Jesus, God’s Son, purges all our sin.
8-10 If we claim that we’re free of sin [on our own], we’re only fooling ourselves. A claim like that is errant nonsense. On the other hand, if we admit our sins—make a clean breast of them—[God] won’t let us down; he’ll be true to himself. He’ll forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing. If we claim that we’ve never sinned, we out-and-out contradict God—make a liar out of him. A claim like that only shows off our ignorance of God.
2: 1-2 I write this, dear children, to guide you out of sin. But if anyone does sin, we have a Priest-Friend in the presence of the Father: Jesus Christ, righteous Jesus. When he served as a sacrifice for our sins, he solved the sin problem for good—not only ours, but the whole world’s.
In any community of people it natural for them to come up with specialized terms and language when talking among themselves. Sometimes, it can be hard for people outside the community to really understand what people are talking about. These days we would call this “jargon.” Have you ever had to talk to tech support due to a problem you were having with your computer? Just the term “tech support” could be considered jargon. A more generally understandable description might be a computer help service or even customer support. Then, when you starting talking to the expert on the phone, they may begin asking you for information using all kinds of terminology that may sound like gibberish if you don’t know much about computers. Is you operating system Mac, Windows, CITRIX, or something else? If it is Windows, is it 32 bit or 64 bit? What is your RAM? The size of your hard drive? Have you rebooted your computer? These days most people would know that rebooting means to restart your computer, but that wasn’t always the case. And, this is just the beginning. Every community has these kinds of things, and people within them use these terms to save time, to communicate efficiently, and to be precise. The same is true within the medical community, the law, and football (are you talking American football or soccer?).
I remember when I worked in the business office at a hospital, and we would, and we would have interdisciplinary meetings to prepare for an inspection or a computer upgrade. Even within the specialized medical community there would be confusion between the computer people, medical records, the actual medical personnel, and the finance people. More often than not it had to do with the specialized language or jargon of the different disciplines rather than disagreements about priorities or goals.
Of course, the church being around for over two thousand years has developed its own jargon, specialized language, and it was drawing from a tradition thousands of years older than that! Combine that with the different primary languages of the documents and differences in translations, and not only do people outside of our church community have difficulty understanding our jargon, specialized, or as it is often called, insider language, but we may not all have the same definitions for these terms among ourselves.
A major one of these terms appears in many translations of today’s text, fellowship.” It is a term that is heard all the time in church communities. It is also used in the academic setting and other areas, but they aren’t talking about the same thing.
When you hear the word “fellowship” around a church or church activities, what does it mean to you? Last week, I took an informal and unscientific poll on Facebook of different people’s definitions of “fellowship.” One of my favorites from an Idaho friend was having, “Many FELLOWS in my ship!” Another good one with a more serious flavor was, “The coming together with intent to put divisiveness and negativity aside. To bathe in love for one another. Usually involves lots of laughter and good food.” Another, “Coming together of a variety of people for a common purpose whether it be to eat worship discuss learn or play;” “Sharing, caring for each other, doing things together;” and with more of an academic flavor, “A paid or otherwise financially-supported opportunity to study or work on something you care about. Recognition for achievements that are valued by others in power or prestige. Could also be a group of people who enjoy mutually beneficial relationships, which could be positive for them, but might be perceived as exclusive by others.”
These were all responses from people that I would consider religious or spiritual folks. You can even see the varieties of definitions among them. Several of them mentioned food as an important component.
To me, it has simply means hanging out at a gathering under a Christian heading of some sort. If it is with people I don’t know so well, it might mean getting to know them better, but if I already know them, it could simply mean spending time together. We refer to our Wednesday breakfast gathering as a time to join in “fellowship.”
In the translation that I read this morning, it uses the phrases “communion” and “experience a shared life” where our Pew Bibles (NIV) use “fellowship.” “Communion” sounds like more jargon to me, and “experience a shared life” sounds like something more involved than simply handing out.
What John is talking about here is so much more than any of that. In your bulletin is an image inspired by a fifteenth century Russian monk named Andrei Rublev called The Holy Trinity. It is intended to represent the members of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is inspired by the passage in Genesis 18 where three men come to visit Abraham and Sarah. Abraham is showing them great hospitality arranging for a wonderful meal. One of them promises that when they return in about a year, Sarah will have had a baby. As the visit continues, it becomes clear that these are not merely three men or three angels (messengers of God), but Abraham is in the presence of Almighty God.
Notice in this picture that the three are sitting around a table and how similar they look to one another. They are all oriented towards one another. They are “co-equal in power and glory, and mutual in unity and love (Dr. Jonathan Raymond, “In the Company of God, December 12, 2017).” It is really difficult to tell which member of the Trinity is represented by which figure. There is code in the color and symbols, artistic jargon, but those of us who don’t know the jargon how would we know who is meant to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? What is supposed to be represented here is the mutual love and the close relationship that they have with one another. They are individuals, but they share a commonality. Some refer to it as a kind of dance. Part of what is meant to be communicated is a love, a respect, a deference for each other, wanting to do good or the best for the other. This is what John means by the term “fellowship.” Is it important that they are doing this around a dining table? Perhaps, perhaps is it a coincidence.
There is another thing that I would like you to notice about this picture. On the front of the table facing us there is a silver rectangle. On the original work from the fifteenth century there is glue in that area that art historians think may be from a mirror that was originally there (Raymond). The implication is that we are invited to be a part of this fellowship, a part of this dance, among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This is what John is talking about in verses three and four. When Jesus came to live among us, in the way that John and the other disciples could hear, see, look at, and touch, there was a sharing of the life of God, unlike anything experienced before. “There is a kind of life, a quality of life, which is God’s very own life, and which God … is now sharing with the people who have heard and seen the life-come-to life called Jesus” (NT Wright, The Early Christian Letters for Everyone, 132). The Pew Bibles says it, “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.”
The Message puts it this way, “We saw it, we heard it, and how we’re telling you so you can experience it along with us, this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Our motive for writing is simply this: We want you to enjoy this, too. Your joy will double our joy!”
John, as one of the eyewitnesses, already enjoys this relationship, and he is inviting us to join in, to see the Lord in this way. By being a part of it, we experience life in a new way. We all see each other differently because we’ve all seen the Lord. It can seem clubbish and exclusive, but we (like John) want to invite everyone who is not part of this experience yet to have that opportunity. Not everyone is going to accept the invitation, like the people who left the community that John is writing to, but our thought should be the same as John’s from verse four, “We want you to enjoy this, too. Your joy will double our joy!”
There are many who claim the name Christian or say that they are followers of Jesus who don’t think that they have had this “fellowship” with God. How can we experience this? The first thing is that we have to fess up (confess) that we really do need Jesus with a capital “N.” If we don’t truly think that we need Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we can’t experience this close relationship.
Next, we have to want to live in this “communion” with the Trinity and the community. If we think that we can have the life we want on our own without having to rely and be joined with others, perhaps we don’t really want this co-union with God and God’s people. Pretending is not enough, or we won’t experience the joy that John talks about.
Now, there is a difference between pretending and going through a stressful period in our lives where we might be doing things out of habit and routine. We may not feel the joy during that season, but things change and we can return to living it out authentically. There is also a difference between pretending and investigating. You may not be sure about what you think you should believe and are trying to figure things out. I did this for many years. I participated in the life of the church, but I wasn’t sure. Obviously, there came a point where I became sure, or at least sure enough to keep moving forward with the church. It may reassure you to know that now, I’m downright confident.
So, there are these times of stresses in our lives or when we are trying to figure things out, but then there is just plain pretending, pretending to being a follower of Jesus, one who accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior. If it doesn’t seem real to you, I ask you to consider, what might make it real for you? What would it take? Maybe you never thought it COULD be real. That there could be something beyond simply hanging out and learning what it means to be a “good person.” Maybe, you never really thought of it as pretending.
Here’s the thing: Our joy is incomplete if you aren’t authentically a part of this fellowship, this communion, this shared life.
Last week, we talked about the personal side of Jesus’ resurrection. Yes, “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today, Alleluia.” Through his death and resurrection, Christ atoned for the sins of the whole world. That is cosmic and grand. It can also seem impersonal and overwhelming. Last week, we looked at those first appearances that the Risen Jesus Christ made to the woman with the bad reputation, disreputable fishermen, people without wealth and power, individuals who were hurting and had doubt. We learned that the Risen Christ came back … for you, and you, and you, and you, and me. He came back … for us. We learned that Almighty God could not go on ruling in heaven without you.
Those of us that experience this relationship, this fellowship, this communion with God feel the same way. It just wouldn’t be a party without you.
Like I said, we can’t live the life that is pleasing to God on our own, the life that allows us to enter into God’s presence and participate in that communion. We can try, but we will fail. We are broken, and we need help.
Let me tell you a story about a woman named Betsy. She had a problem. She recently moved into a new house, and her parents bought her a housewarming gift. They got her a wonderful and comfortable armchair. They had it upholstered in a special fabric that went with the décor in her new home. They were happy, and she was happy to receive it.
Then, the day before her parents were coming for a visit, there was an accident. Betsy’s friends were over trying to help her get everything ready, and a glass of grape juice was spilled all over the chair. She and her friends tried everything they could think of to remove the stain. They even managed to get a lot of the grape juice out, but it was still plain to see. Betsy knew that her parents would be disappointed, and she was devastated. There was no time to get the chair recovered or have it professionally cleaned. Her parents were coming. There was no way to delay. There was no way to hide it. She would have to tell the truth and deal with their disappointment. (Wright 134)
We’re going to press “pause” on this story for a moment. We hear from John about this wonderful opportunity for relationship with God in an unimaginable new way. But we are broken people. How can we approach the holy righteous, sinless God? Before we even knew that we have been given such a wonderful gift, we have already messed it up. We may have done it by carelessness, poor choices, or even downright wickedness. You may have never done anything wicked, but I know that I have.
We call this sin. This is more than just an “ooops!” These days we often classify it as something else, a mistake, a bad decision. We often ignore it by saying things like, “I’m only human.” We say it’s human nature. It’s not. It’s our fallen nature in a world that is broken by sin. Jesus is our example of what being human is supposed to look like, act like, be like. For us to be truly human is to be like Jesus, but we are broken. We do sin in big ways and small, and we should be ashamed when we do. That is the appropriate response to the invitation of fellowship with God that we have been talking about. “If only God would put it off until we’d had a chance to clean up!” (Wright 135)
But there is no denying, there is no pretending. God is light, and it shines wherever God looks. We can deceive ourselves, but we cannot deceive God. But here is the Good News, God has come to rescue us from all of that!
We return to the story of Betsy and the ruined chair that her parents bought for her housewarming present. Imagine if when Betsy’s parents arrive they have this wonderful cleaning fluid, think like what you see in the commercials for Oxy-Clean. I’ve never had it work that well for me, but perhaps I wasn’t using it correctly. So, suddenly, just like that, the stain is completely gone!
Can you imagine Betsy’s emotions? She started afraid and ashamed over having to present this ruined chair. She is so embarrassed and filled with sorrow and disappointment. Suddenly, she is filled with joy, relief, gratitude. That may be too good to be true when it comes to grape juice stains, but that is exactly how it works with God and our sin.
If we try to cleanse ourselves, we will fail. Paul talks about trying to do that in Romans 7. He says that he knows what the right thing is, but he still does the wrong thing. How many of you have done that. Don’t raise your hands! This is the thought that I have. I know I shouldn’t, but I’m going to do it anyway. That’s what happens when we try to fix ourselves. We can’t perfect ourselves, and God knows that. That’s why he gives us an escape. All we have to do it confess and ask for forgiveness, and God will give us that great cleaning fluid. We can’t buy it on our own. All we have to do is ask. Then we can be in full communion. That is the joy. That is the love. We can live in the love of God with all the others who love God. We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19), and that allows us to love others. Love IS the Answer.