April 12, 2015

Advocate and Atoning Sacrifice

Passage: Acts 2:32-36, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-18
Service Type:

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; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

In a 2011 article in the New York Times titled The Joy of Quiet, author Pico Iyer wrote that for those willing to “part with $2,285 a night to stay in a cliff-top room at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California, pay partly for the privilege of not having a TV in their rooms; the future of travel, I’m reliably told, lies in “black-hole resorts,” which charge high prices precisely because you can’t get online in their rooms.” He went on to ask, “Has it really come to this? In barely one generation we've moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them—often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug.”

It is often so that the very thing we believe will help us get control of our lives is that very thing that takes control of our lives. Not unlike the pursuit of wealth. Sufficient money promises financial freedom only to find the pursuit and maintenance of wealth to be a terrible task master.
What is it that we are trying to engineer in life with our “connection devices”, for example? Will more time for family and friends or instant connection with them really satisfy us? I know that my wife loves me but to have me around all day every day—that may be a test of that love. Why is it that too much of a good thing becomes so profoundly unsatisfying? This illusive sense of satisfaction; is this not partly the reason people are constantly on the go—we don’t want to dwell too long on the way we feel the let-down after some event?

1. The Apostle John was a fisherman. He and his brother James were the next generation in their father Zebedee’s fishing business on the Sea of Galilee. That day that our Lord called him to follow, I wonder what he was aspiring for in life? Was he envisioning an expanding business; looking to build a home with a view overlooking Galilee; dreaming of a family of his own? We get some hint of his desire for spiritual life in that he had become a disciple of John the Baptist. My guess is that while the expression of what a satisfying life might look like would be shaped by the context of his first-century experience the inner need for such satisfaction would very much be in sync with the sorts of things we feel.

By the time John writes this letter he has been a bishop in the church for some time. He is looking back on those days with Jesus in Galilee as he takes up the pen to write. With that in mind listen again to these opening lines of his letter. “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— 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”. (1 John 1:1-2) Clearly he is speaking about Jesus; further, it is evident the writer identifies himself as an eye witness to Jesus’ life and ministry.

We have heard this description of Jesus before from the Apostle John. Listen to the opening lines of his gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:1-4)

So when John writes and reminds people of his preaching; preaching they have heard on many occasions; preaching that consistently explored the ocean depths “concerning the word of life” ; these people knew that when John said “the word of life” he was talking about Jesus.

When we hear John speak of Jesus as “the life” we need an expanded imagination to be begin to grasp its grandeur. All of these words or expressions humans use to speak about what it is we aspire for in life—meaning, satisfaction, life will-lived, peace of heart, making a difference, counting for something—imagine them all gathered up under one heading and you have something of what John means by “in him is life.” But it is more than all these aspirations gathered together; and John declares that it is found in relationship with the one who is life. Relationship with Jesus Christ opens us up to an ever-increasing awareness of depths and profundity of life as nothing else can do. It is so all-encompassing that John calls Jesus “the word of life!”

Today we read of that first resurrection day and in the brightness of that dawn the disciples were staggered, their imaginations altered, the wonder of what they were seeing, hearing, touching was too much to take in let alone begin to understand. But as the wonder is embraced and Jesus helps them understand the meaning of his life, death and resurrection John would come to exude—he is the word of life.

And even though I know that and in some measure have experienced its truth, I keep on thinking that other things are going to do it. “What are you doing this weekend”, is a common question we ask as if the stuff that really matters is what we look forward to doing when not working. Is real life simply a series of weekend highs? Or how about the next destination I plan to visit—will this satiate that inner unsettledness? I know they won’t because they were never designed to supply so profound a need. This is not to say that leisure and travel have no place in life; there are many human experiences that have a place in life and bring their commensurate joys. But they cannot ever substitute for relationship with the One who is the life—even our Saviour Jesus Christ.

2. Why does John begin his letter with his emphasis on the reality of Jesus’ human existence? You notice his emphasis on the human senses as he talks of Jesus—what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands. A reading of the rest or this letter shows that in the early church there were philosophies about the nature of life encroaching on the church that denied the humanity of Jesus. And to deny his humanity is to deny him, so John wants to confront this false teaching reminding these Christians of the real humanity of Jesus. We do this when we say the Apostles’ Creed—born of the virgin Mary (real baby), suffered under Pontius Pilate (actual history).

Hand in hand with the denial of Jesus’ humanity was a great discomfort with the gospel analysis that the human problem is our sinfulness. Both the condition of sin—our sinnership—and the sins that arise out of that condition. John goes on to correct the understanding that these false teachers were disseminating—they had no sin (denied the category) or that sin didn’t matter (doesn’t matter how you live because matter doesn’t matter)—you can have fellowship with God with walking in darkness.

I remind you that when these disciples saw the risen Jesus they didn’t automatically conclude—“I get it, my sins are forgiven.” There is nothing in the facts of crucifixion and resurrection that makes that obvious. When John writes that Jesus is our advocate and atoning sacrifice for our sins he does so because Jesus connected the dots for him as he instructed the disciples about the meaning of his life, death, and resurrection. This is why John insists that the Apostles declared what they had heard and seen from Jesus. (1 John 1:1-3)

As it was in the first century so today the message that this story of Jesus has to do with human sinfulness is not readily received. I spoke with a friend recently who is in the middle of theological studies at Emmanuel College (UCC School at TST) and he indicated there is a strong move to bury atonement theology—that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sin is not popular thought. And I can understand that it makes many uneasy.

As we have noted before God confronts us about our sinfulness only in bringing us the cure. John wrote that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5) In his gospel he wrote that that “the life (Jesus) was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” To be sure on the cross it looks like the darkness has overcome the light. However, on the cross the light of God shines on human sinfulness and exposes it for what it is. It is here that God deals with sin and evil and resolves it in himself.

As we stand at the cross it is hard for us to believe that my sin could be this awful; clearly we are not able to grasp what sin means to God. At the cross we see the utter madness of evil exposed by the utter innocence of the Son; we are never told to try to understand as if we could fathom an equation that would deal with sin. We are invited to believe and receive forgiveness—God’s release from the penalty and power of sin. “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” said the Apostle John. (1 John 1:9)

I have shared with you before of how, when I was a boy, I threw a ball through the window of the one room school house I attended Not just one window but also through the opposite window on the other side of the school with a single throw. (Unfortunately no baseball scouts were present.) My father ended up as my advocate that day. He didn’t say, “My boy is innocent”. In his actions he said, “this is my boy”, and he paid for the repair of those windows. Not only my advocate but also the one who made things right for me.

In being our advocate our Lord doesn’t say, “my disciple is innocent.” Through his actions on the cross he says, “This is my disciple”, and he is also the one who makes all things right for us as our atoning sacrifice.

3. If in Christ the believer is freed from the power and penalty of sin why isn’t perfect behaviour automatic? Why isn’t love of one another in the church simply default behaviour? The Apostle John gives this counsel: “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.” John shows us that our Lord’s commitment to us is complete. Jesus leaves none of his own behind. The objective is that our Lord would help us to put sin away but he ever remains our advocate if we do fall. No one is ever beyond his grace. We rely on his grace yet we are never to presume upon such grace.

Reverent John Zahl is the Associate Priest at Grace Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In a blog posting he related the following:

“A few years ago, a friend and the owner of a local high-end department store gave me a very generous gift certificate. When I went to use the gift certificate he met me at the store, and walked with me as I selected a sports coat, a dress shirt, and a pair of shoes. I made sure to look at each of the price tags (on the sly) so I could overshoot the gift certificate enough and put some cash back into the store's register, thereby showing my gratitude for his generosity.

When I got to the register, I put my wallet on the counter and got out my credit card, but he placed the gift certificate in front of me and said, "Well, it looks like you've only spent a little more than half of your credit with us." I was shocked. In that moment I realized he had only been charging me half of the ticket price, which meant that I was still in his debt.

In a few weeks I returned to the store with my wife determined to show my appreciation by overspending the gift card. So this time we approached the counter as a unified front, and with a huge armload of clothing and accessories. I handed our friend the gift certificate, and got my wallet out. He took the gift certificate in hand and started entering the purchases into the register.
Finally, when the bags were full, he turned to us and said, "You're not going to believe this, but I've rung everything up, and the total comes to exactly zero." We started protesting: "That can't be right. The total should be well above what was left of our store credit."

Then he said, "I don't think you understand how this gift certificate works. No matter what you throw at it, the total will always read zero." We finally understood his arrangement. In our attempts to buy our way out of the debt, we had completely missed the value of the gift, which this generous man took such pleasure in bestowing upon us.”

If someone were to give us a gift card like this we would treat it carefully because we have some idea of what it cost our friend to give it to us. We would never treat it cavalierly thinking our friend has a lots of money so he would hardly miss it. Such disrespect exposes our love as shallow at best or betrays it altogether. We would use it carefully never presuming on our friend’s largess.

The atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ is so much more than a gift card. Yet no matter what we throw at the card, so to speak, with respect to sin it will always read “forgiven”—nothing is owed. WE know something of the sacrifice our Lord made for our sakes so we want to live in a fashion where we don’t’ have to use it. Yet we should also know that such forgiveness is always available and he will in no wise cast us away.

But there is a difference. If we had the department store bottomless gift card we wouldn’t be inviting our neighbours to come to the store with us for a shopping spree. But our Lord’s atoning sacrifice is not only for us but for the world and so we should be inviting others to find for themselves the forgiveness we have experienced.

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; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.