John wants us to be serious about sin. Of course, some Christian traditions—my own Reformed Calvinism perhaps leading the pack—have perennially been pretty good about having such seriousness. As the late Lewis Smedes once wrote (tongue firmly embedded in cheek), “Anyone who knows he’s totally depraved can’t be all bad.”
In a more serious vein, however, years ago Smedes commented on what great spiritual catastrophizers we can be. We’re not content to say merely that we made a mistake. Instead we take any single failure and hang it like a millstone around our necks. As Smedes wrote, “When I get into this joyless abyss, my demon speaks to me in King James English: ‘Oh thou feckless fop of a man, surely there is no spark of spiritual strength in thee. Fie on thee, fatuous wretch! For such a worm as thou there is no hope.’”
Well, OK, we don’t want to go that far. But here we are one week after the joyous celebration of Easter and 1 John 1-2 bring us swiftly face-to-face with the reality of sin. John’s point seems to be that if you really believe Jesus rose again from the dead, then you must likewise believe that the punishment on the cross that made Jesus a candidate for resurrection in the first place was the only way to bring about a life that now cannot die. It was the only way to forgive sin.
So people who are serious about the cross and the resurrection cannot be unserious about sin. That would make no sense. It would be like being so very happy about having gotten married and indeed now being married and yet having little desire actually to spend time with your spouse or even being pretty casual about flirting with (or worse) people not your spouse. You cannot be excited about marriage and be sangfroid about extra-marital sexual contact.
But John sees all of this two ways. First there is the idea of consistently walking in the darkness of sin. For anyone who claims to be a believer in Jesus, that is impossible. It is an inconsistency so grave as to count as not really an inconsistency at all but rather an outright disqualification. This is the serial adulterer who still claims to love the idea of marriage to his spouse. Nope, doesn’t work that way, pal. The light and the dark cannot coexist. You cannot try to walk in the light and have a heart of darkness on the inside. Or if you do attempt that, sooner or later you will get revealed to be exactly what you are: a fraud.
But in the two verses of 1 John 2 included in this Lectionary text, John countenances something that can happen and does happen without necessarily threatening one’s entire identity as a disciple: one will now and then commit a sin. Such a person is not wallowing in sin. Such a person is not willfully harboring darkness or walking in darkness or having no true joy over new life in Jesus. And yet mistakes are made. Slip-ups happen. In a moment of weakness you lose your temper and yell at somebody. An attractive person catches your eye and suddenly images flash in your mind that should really only and ever be about your spouse. You eat a little more than you should, drink a little more than you should, tell a white lie (or a not-so-white lie) to make yourself look better.
These things happen, John writes. Maybe they shouldn’t and maybe we all wish they didn’t but there it is: we sin. So in addition to warning against big-time wallowing in sin—children of darkness masquerading as children of the light—John also wants to give a pastoral word for more commonplace sins that come our way: we still have an Advocate, we still have a Savior, we still can and will be forgiven.
But all of that with one proviso: you have to own it. You have to confess it. Otherwise you deceive yourself (but you do not deceive God). Perhaps that seems obvious enough and if you do come from a tradition that has long emphasized sin and the need to confess, John’s admonition here may seem superfluous.
Yet I wonder . . . I serve as a guest preacher in a variety of congregations more weeks than not on Sunday. More and more it seems that those congregations that have a regular, set time in the worship service to acknowledge sinfulness are in the minority. Songs may celebrate Jesus as Savior and many certainly premise that praise on the fact that we need to be washed from our sins. But actually having a time to do that individually and collectively happens a lot less than it once did in some churches.
The sociologist Christian Smith has also lately been describing what he calls “moral therapeutic Deism” as a regnant form of spiritual thought among many especially younger people today. God, in this belief system, is pretty remote from our daily lives. He’s not peering in on our morality or behavior much and insofar as he takes note of us at all from afar, he’s mostly interested that we be “pretty good” people who maybe keep our plusses running just ahead of our minuses. Be nice, live a little better than the next guy and all will be well. God will surely reward you if you can just be “good enough” and so let’s not get hung up too much on issues of sexuality or substance abuse or bad language and the like.
There are lots of ways by which to “deceive ourselves” and not really have God’s truth in us. And, of course, one of the “charms” of self-deception is that we usually do the double-bind maneuver of first deceiving ourselves that we do not deceive ourselves as precursor to then deceiving ourselves about this or that (most addicts know this pattern well but it applies to most all of us if we can muster some honesty about it all). No one hops out of bed in the morning and says “Today I will lie to myself about various facets to my character.” No, that’s not the drill at all. Yet do lie to ourselves pretty often but it helps if first you have convinced yourself you never do that. These are the psychological gymnastics we perform to keep us from the truth, which is pretty much John’s point, too.
We will appreciate the Good News of Easter a whole lot more if we acknowledge the oft-sad truth about our sinfulness. It’s a logical part of celebrating Easter (and its necessary forerunner of the crucifixion) in the first place. But beyond logic, honesty about our need for forgiveness is finally also an engine for joy.
In his novel Continental Drift Russell Banks captures nicely the moral malaise of a lot of people. The novel’s main character is a man named Bob, and Banks describes Bob this way. “Bob finds it difficult to know right from wrong. He relies on taboos and circumstances to make him a ‘good man,’ but he doesn’t know if he has been a good man or merely a stupid or scared man. Most people like Bob, unchurched since childhood, now and then reach that point of not knowing whether they’ve been good, bad, stupid, or scared, and the anxiety this provokes obliges them to cease wondering as soon as possible. They bury the question the way a dog buries a bone, marking the spot and promising to themselves that they will return to the bone later when they have time and energy to gnaw on it. This is a promise that is never kept, of course, and rarely was is it ever meant to be kept.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 8, 2018
1 John 1:1-2:2 Commentary