The message communicated in the beginning of 1 John may seem simple enough–there are certainly many often quoted verses included–but deriving its true meaning cannot be done without considering the context in which it was written. This week, Faith in Real Life discussed this history, and what that means for us in practical terms today.
1 John 1-2:2
1 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— 2 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— 3 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. 4 We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
5 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. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7 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. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
2 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; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
Before we can consider real life applications for this passage, we need to unpack it enough to have a basic understanding of its theology. 1 John was probably written within a few years of the Gospel of John to counter divisions in the church concerning the nature of Jesus. There were groups within the community that argued that Jesus was not fully human. He was a spirit in disguise—a spirit clothed in a body. The idea of God suffering was inconceivable so a theology arose that suggested that it just looked like Jesus suffered. In contrast, 1 John argued for a fully human Jesus. He testifies to “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”. Jesus was a real man with earthly flesh. Christianity is not just an idea or an ideal. It is about living and loving more than understanding. The Council of Nicea, two hundred years later, declared that Jesus was both fully man and fully God but the issue was plainly unsettled when 1 John was written.
In particular, for John, fellowship is the indicator of the life revealed in Jesus—” 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.” Joining with Jesus means joining with God and leads directly to fellowship with one another. As we are to see as we move through this epistle, we can not claim to know Jesus if we are not in fellowship with each other. We must walk the walk. Talking about fellowship and love is insufficient.
Historically fellowship with the Father has required a variety of purification rituals in order to be fit to come into God’s presence. Dirt and blood were unacceptable as were impure thoughts and misdeeds. These were the indictations of lack of purity and unrighteousness. Such people were disqualified from worship. As a practical matter, we share similar thinking. Most of us bathe before worship. We wear more presentable clothes and are usually quite uncomfortable with someone wandering into our church who has done neither. While there is nothing wrong with preparing ourselves or showing respect to our maker, there is something wrong with our thinking that purity or impurity make us (or anyone else) more or less acceptable to God.
This is where ‘walking the walk’ of fellowship gets tough. We may talk the talk of God’s love and inclusion but it is difficult to be hospitable to someone sitting next to you who smells bad. (At least I know this is true for me). And most of the time we attribute our discomfort to their inappropriate presentation rather than our own limited ability to be accepting. This is the real life dilemma that 1 John puts before us.
John announces that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. Think about this image literally for a moment. If we fix our eyes on a bright light, there are no shadows. There are no contrasts. If the light is bright enough, it illumines everything around it, and if it is brighter still, it absorbs everything around it. Details and distinctions that are so important to us are both made clearer and disappear as we focus on the light. Only if we turn our back on the light will we see shadows and only if we turn our back to the light will we walk in darkness. Fellowship with the Father means loving God with all of our heart, mind and strength. It means facing the light and focusing on the light. When that happens, we realize we are all one with God. The distinctions we make to rank ourselves and each other—the distinctions we make to judge and discriminate—are meaningless to God. Only when we see that the categories which we use to rank each other are not God’s can we be in true fellowship with each other.
We are forever trying to figure out what is good and bad or at least better or worse. We want to have something, besides God’s promises, that guarantees our safety. So we compare our sins—’at least I’m not that bad’. We expect to be treated well if we act well. We keep mental lists of our kindnesses and then use them to demand reciprocity. We judge ourselves as inadequate and not enough—and worse, decide such realities disqualify us from God’s care. Each of these, as well as a thousand more, are examples of our turning from the light and our distrusting of God’s steadfast love. All sin is turning from the light. That is what we do and we might as well reconcile ourselves to our sinfulness. ( “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”).
All of this is based on the real suffering of a flesh and blood Jesus. There is no way we could imagine that suffering, humiliation, unjust criminal conviction or finally death could be viewed as anything less than ‘bad’. Such a person could never be viewed as pure, much less acceptable to God. Yet we worship such a man. We see the Son of God in such a man. Every human judgement and distinction we would make is called into question by the suffering and death of Jesus. Jesus did not divide the creation as humans do—into good and bad or right and wrong. He trusted God in every circumstance. It doesn’t really help us if superman or a disguised spirit was crucified. The fear and anguish of cancer or crucifixion is visceral. It overwhelms. It is not assuaged with assurances and promises. That is what Jesus faced and why we can believe in him.
Jesus stayed turned toward the light in ways we can not. He was obedient unto death. And by doing so showed us that nothing can separate us from the love of God. We are cleansed from all unrighteousness because the category itself is man made. Fortunately for us, God also knows that we are unable to stay focused on the light. Everyone of us try to advance ourselves at the expense of others—both in thought and deed. Only rarely can we have the fellowship with one another that trusts that we all are God’s children. We all turn from God. We can talk the talk but living it exposes us every time.
Confession is claiming who we are before God. When we do that, we stand in the light. We trust God with all that we would call bad in us. We fail, we are inadequate, we commit many misdeeds—but none of that separate us from God. (It is hard enough to be a sinner without being damned for it.) In him there is no darkness at all. And if we turn to him he sees and loves the darkest corners of our souls. Confession is the doorway to grace. The Lord blesses all that is within us. As the Psalm 103 puts it:
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
2 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits—
3 who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,…
In our FIRL group the question inevitably arose as to whether such love gives us a free pass on life. In our Monday group, Dorothy quoted a secular accusation—”Christians go to church on Sunday to pray so they can prey on the neighbors the rest of the week”. After all, if all is forgiven, there is no reason to worry about consequences for exploitative behavior. That of course, would probably be the most narcissistic interpretation possible. Unfortunately, it is always true that whatever can be used can be misused. That includes God’s gift of grace. Preying on our neighbor is done to gain advantage over others to enhance ourselves. It is the clear indication that we missed Jesus’ promise of unconditional love. If you feel loved, you do not need to create an advantage. Or as John put it: “If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true.”
Even when we distrust. Even when we walk in darkness. Seek the light. In him is our hope. Live in fellowship with all of God’s children. Let it be so.
“He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”