Comments and Observations
All of the readings from the epistles for the season after Easter are from I John. That’s an interesting choice, since the theme of I John is certainty, assurance of salvation. “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.” In this post-modern age, it is impossible to be sure of anything, because all truth claims are seen as merely human inventions, nothing more than the products of a particular culture. Indeed, truth claims are often seen as attempts to gain power, part of an imperial agenda that aims to control others. So, you have your truth and I have mine, and we’ll all be happier if we just leave it that way. John’s agenda is not imperialism, but precisely happiness. Or as he says in verse 4, “We write this to make our (all of us) joy complete.”
Most of I John is focused on how we can be sure we are truly children of God. The Christians to whom he writes had been badly shaken by an early version of Gnosticism that emphasized the importance of a special knowledge and deemphasized the importance of a distinctively Christian lifestyle. So John gives them four tests that will help them grow in their assurance of salvation and thus in their joy. Not surprisingly, the tests that help us know we are saved focus not on secret knowledge, but on lifestyle. For example, you know you are God’s child if you obey God’s commands (I John 3:10). And it’s also not surprising that at the beginning of his letter, John zeroes in on the heart of the Gospel. We are saved, not by some new esoteric doctrine, but by the message proclaimed publicly by all of the apostles from the beginning of the church.
On this first Sunday after Easter, this text gives us opportunity to emphasize how we know that the Christian faith is true. Before we can talk about that, we must help our people to be certain about what true Christianity is. As I listen to the mass media, I’m struck by how much confusion there is about that. In a letter to the editor in my local paper, a critic of the church’s position on a controversial social issue dismissed Christianity as “a typical Western knowledge system….” But that is most assuredly what Christianity is not—not typical, nor Western, nor a knowledge system.
What is true Christianity? I John puts it very succinctly in one word—“proclaim.” Christianity is what the apostles proclaimed—not what they carefully thought out, but what they shouted out. What did they proclaim? Verse 1 says, “this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” What does that mean—a word about life, a message, a teaching, a philosophy, a knowledge system, a gnosis? That is exactly not what John means. He defines “the Word of life” in the words just preceding– “That which was from the beginning.” Of course those words have a familiar ring to them. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word as with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. In him was life and that life was the light of men.” (John 1:1ff.) What John and the other apostles proclaimed was the eternal God, specifically, the eternal Word that was with God in the beginning and gives life to the human race.
What did they proclaim about that eternal Word of life? “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….” Here is the shock at the center of true Christianity. It is the proclamation that ordinary people, not crazies or fanatics, but people like you and me, heard and saw and touched the eternal Word that was with God in the beginning.
How can that be? Well, says verse 2, “the life appeared… the eternal life that was with the Father… has appeared to us.” The word “appeared” is in the passive voice, indicating that we humans didn’t discover it through a long process of human thought and discussion. It was revealed to the human race nearly 2000 years ago in the nation of Israel, when a man named Jesus lived and died and rose from the dead. In other words, human beings did not invent Jesus with their minds. They simply heard him and saw him and touched him.
Further, says John in verses 3 and 4, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard,” so that you may have fellowship with us and, more importantly, with the Father and his Son Jesus. Ultimately, that will bring us the joy all humans crave. That is what Christianity proclaims—that the almighty eternal Word of God became human in Jesus, so that human beings can have fellowship with God and each other and, thus, have the fullness of joy. That is true Christianity.
But how can we be sure Christianity is true? The apostles were sure simply because they had witnessed Jesus alive and then dead and, most importantly, alive again. They were ear-witnesses—“which we have heard.” They were eye-witnesses—“which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon.” The second word for sight there means that they had given Jesus a very careful investigation. What’s more, they were hand-witnesses—“and touched with our hands.” The word there is a rare and graphic word that suggests probing or groping. Think of Thomas’ demand to put his fingers in the nail holes. Not satisfied with seeing and hearing, which might have been illusory, they made prolonged physical contact with the Risen Christ.
The apostles knew very well that they were proclaiming a preposterous message, so they took great pains to assure us that they didn’t make it up. At its heart, Christianity is not a secret gnosis, a philosophical speculation, a carefully devised system of ideas, “a typical Western knowledge system.” It is not an intricate moral code embedded in a particular culture. Of course, innumerable philosophies, theologies and ethical systems have grown up out of Christianity, but at its heart it is the simply straightforward proclamation about what really happened. That’s why John and the other apostles were so sure—not because of logical proof, but because of concrete historical fact that they witnessed together.
They were so sure that they were willing to stake their lives on it, literally. That’s what John turns to next—the life to which this Gospel should lead. His claim about fellowship with the Father and the Son leads him to an attack on the Gnostic claim that how one lived made no difference once you had that special gnosis. If you knew the right thing, you could live any way you wanted to. Nonsense, says John. “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth.” That is the introduction to a profound discussion about sin and forgiveness and atonement.
In fact, that discussion is so profound that I want to illumine it with a piece of ancient history. The last time I preached on this text was 2006, when I was mesmerized by the story of then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and gangbanger Tookie Williams. The words of the Governator about the gangster helped me think more clearly about sin and forgiveness and atonement. Here’s what Arnold said about Tookie. “Is Williams’ redemption complete and sincere, or is it just a hollow promise? Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption.”
Tookie Williams was one of the founders of the vicious street gang known as the Crips back in 1971. In February of 1979, Tookie killed his first person in a convenience store robbery, putting two bullets execution style in the victim’s back. A month later, he killed 3 members of an immigrant family from Taiwan as he robbed their hotel. They were 76, 63, and 46 years old. In 1981, Williams was found guilty of all 4 murders and sentenced to die, though he maintained his innocence. In 1987, he was place in solitary confinement for over 6 years because of his violence toward guards and fellow inmates.
Then in 1996 he published the first of 9 anti-gang books for children. In 1997 he publicly thanked the Almighty for changing his life and apologized for creating the Crips. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 6 times. In 2004 he released his autobiography, Blue Rage, Black Redemption, and the next year a movie entitled, “Redemption,” dramatized his story for the public.
On December 8, 2005, as Tookie’s execution was just days away, Gov. Schwarzenegger held a closed hearing to help decide whether Tookie’s death sentence should be commuted to life in prison. Many famous people argued that Tookie should live because he was a changed man. But the Governor was troubled by two things—Williams never apologized for killing those 4 people and had never cooperated with the police in their efforts to deal with the gang problem in California. That’s why Arnold spoke those works about redemption and apology and atonement that I quoted above. Hours before his death Tookie told a local radio station, “I stand strong and continue to tell you that I am innocent. Yes, I have been a wretched person, but I have redeemed myself.” He was executed at San Quentin on December 13, 2005.
That story raised powerful questions. Is it possible to redeem yourself? What does a person have to do to be completely redeemed? What does it take to have your sins so completely forgiven that your punishment is not only lessened but entirely cancelled? Arnold said, “It takes an apology and atonement.” Listen to I John.
“If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Not an apology, a simple “I’m sorry,” but confession, a profound “I agree with God about my sin.” That’s what the word “confess” means here—“to agree with, to say the same thing” as God about my sin. To use the imagery of I John, true confession allows the brilliant light of God’s holiness to fall on our sins, so that not one of them is hidden in the darkness. That’s what verse 7 means when it talks about “walking in the light.” We humans have a tendency to walk in the darkness when it comes to our sins. We deny that we have sinned. Oh, we’ll admit that we haven’t always been perfect, but we don’t see our actions as terrible sins. Or we deny that we are inherently sinful. We say, “Yes, I’ve committed some sins, but I’m basically a good person.” We try to stay in the darkness, so that we don’t have to face the ugly truth about ourselves.
Confession walks in the light of God’s truth about ourselves and our sins. It agrees with God. “These sins are terrible, I did them, I mourn them, I want to stop them. I don’t want to be merely forgiven for my past. I want to become pure and holy like my God.” If we do that, says our text, God is faithful and just and will forgive us and purify us.
So is confession all it takes to be forgiven? Listen to I John. “My little children, I have said this to you so that you will not sin.” Does that mean that we can atone for our sins by becoming better people? Will we be forgiven if we don’t sin anymore, or at least not as much? Can we redeem ourselves by changing our lives? How much change would that take? I John 2:1 seems to say that we can’t sin at all. Atonement requires not just a little change, but a total change. Of course, we cannot do that, no matter how hard we try. We just heard John say, “If we say we have not sinned in the past and have no sin now, we deceive ourselves and make God a liar.” Thus, we cannot atone for our own sins.
That’s why John goes on to say, “But if anyone does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense…” The word there is paraklete, one comes alongside us to plead our case, a defense attorney, so to speak. His name is Jesus Christ, and John says he is “the Righteous One,” completely righteous, without sin. That’s important because he defends us not by talking in court, but by offering himself as “an atoning sacrifice for our sins” on the cross.
I know that John’s words are offensive to many sensitive Christians today, but let’s hear him out. John is saying that when God forgives sin, he doesn’t just wink at it and simply wave it away, as though it didn’t really matter. Sin is such a terrible destructive force in the world and in human lives that God cannot simply let it go. Think of what Tookie did to those people and their families. If Arnold had simply waved away Tookie’s sin, what sort of message would Arnold be sending to those whose lives had been devastated by Tookie? The family of the second victims was appalled when the man who murdered their loved ones was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. There is such a thing as justice, after all. The Bible says that justice without mercy is not Christian. But it is also true that mercy without justice is not human. If there is such a thing as justice in this universe, then somewhere, somehow crimes must be punished, sins must be paid for, damages must be paid back, justice must be served, and righteousness must be reestablished. If those things don’t happen, human existence will just get worse and worse, and life on this earth will be hell.
That’s exactly why God send the eternal Word of life, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One– to be punished for our crimes, to pay for our sins, to satisfy God’s justice on our behalf, to settle the damages done to God’s world by human wickedness, to bring righteousness to our lives and to the world. Yes, I know this sounds positively medieval to some Christians, but medieval theologians didn’t make it up. It’s right here at the very beginning of the Christian faith. (See Romans 4:25-26 for an even clearer proclamation about justice and Jesus’ atoning death.) The early Christians were sure this proclamation was true, so sure that they literally staked their lives on it. They proclaimed the Good News not to dominate people’s lives, but “so that the joy of the human race might be complete.”
To help people grasp how offensive this certainty about the Gospel sounds to our post-modern age, here’s an example of a thoroughly postmodern man in Jane Hamilton’s novel, A Map of the World. His name is Howard Goodwin. His wife, Alive, has been accused of a terrible crime and though Howard stands by her and defends her, he isn’t entirely sure she is innocent. Torn by indecision, he describes his state of mind: “I hated the fact that I would never really know what was true. There were reasons not to believe either side. It is better, I think, never to finally decide.” In fact, he was so accustomed to living with such uncertainty that he had long ago decided on the epitaph for his tombstone. “He never stayed the course. He was never sure.” Our text is a call to live and die with certainty because of a certain Gospel.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 12, 2015
1 John 1:1-2:2 Commentary