April 15, 2012

Our Fellowship Is With The Father And With His Son Jesus Christ

Passage: 1 John 1:1-3

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 ... 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.

The annual Easter Egg hunt in a historic area of Colorado Springs was cancelled this year due to parents who got out of control last year. According to this news story, "Hundreds of parents reportedly jumped over ropes into a kids-only section of the hunt to ensure their kids got as many eggs as possible. Their actions caused the hunt to be over in seconds, to the dismay of egg-less children and their parents." So the organizers of the event decided to cancel it until further notice.

If only parents were as eager to see their children participate in Sunday school to know the real story of why such a fuss was made of Easter in the first place.  (Imagine people elbowing their way through the doors of the church to ensure their child a place to hear).  But the story of Jesus raised from the dead is difficult to explain; Easter eggs are much more, well, tangible.  You can get your hands on chocolate eggs; Jesus raised seems so elusive. Wait a minute, the Apostle John said “we declare to you ... what we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life (meaning Jesus).  John said it was most certainly tangible.

The Apostles’ declarations that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead are so—let’s say it out loud—fantastic that it sounds like fantasy to many.   Could the disciples really shake hands with the risen Jesus?  Indeed, Jesus raised to life has a physicality different from before—he could now enter a room with doors locked—but a physicality none the less, insisted the disciples.  It is so very hard to think about because we have no category for it; indeed we don’t Jesus was the first one after all.  I think it very helpful to observe that on that morning when the women discovered the tomb empty and heard the messenger announce “he is not here; he is risen from the dead”; it was just as bewildering and unbelievable to them as it sounds to people generations removed.

Here is one thing we can prove historically about this resurrection event.  Jesus’ former followers, who had misunderstood him over and over and who had finally forsaken him and written off their time with him as embarrassing naiveness; his former followers began announcing zealously that he was alive. They were convinced he was alive, they said, simply because they had met him. Therefore they would no more think of trying to prove he was alive than you would try to prove me alive when you meet me at the door of the church after the service. Jesus himself convinced them he was alive; it is the reason people believed it then and the reason people believe it now.

1. So after all the excitement of the discovery of the empty tomb, the angelic announcement, the appearances of Jesus very much alive; after the excitement dissipates then what?  What did it all mean and what does it have to do with me?

These disciples who had abandoned Jesus at the cross now no longer regarding him as deluded and themselves as naive, they worshipped him as Lord—he hadn’t been blasphemous after all when claimed to be the Son of God—and they insisted that with him a new age had dawned, the dawn of the “Age-to Come.”

N. T. Wright put it this way (Surprised by Hope, p. 56): “Insofar as the event is interpreted, (by his first followers) Easter has a very this-worldly, present-age meaning: Jesus is raised, so he is Messiah, and therefore is the world’s true Lord; Jesus is raised, so God’s new creation has begun—and we, his followers, have a job to do! Jesus is raised, so we must act as his heralds, announcing his lordship of the entire world, making his kingdom come on earth as in heaven!

We read today from two of the works the Apostle John authored.  John’s gospel is aimed at striking fire in the hearts of those who hadn’t yet owned Jesus Christ in faith.  John’s first letter was written for people who were already part of the Christian fellowship. John’s letter is written for all the churches in Asia Minor (Turkey today).   In this respect it gives us a window into how these first Christians understood the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; how they answered the question of what they thought it had to do with humanity.  These people, gathered in small fellowships of people in various locations, understood themselves as part of a greater fellowship; “truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ”, wrote John.

One of the aspects of the good news of Jesus Christ is that in Christ human fellowship with God has been restored.  The human, created for fellowship with God, now lives in alienation from God; fellowship with God is now possible through Jesus Christ having reconciled us to God.  (in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, 2 Corinthians 5:19) The church of Jesus Christ is where this fellowship is lived; the place where the present age and the “age-to-come” overlap or intersect.

The world does not know that alienation from God is at the root of its ills.  Sin so thoroughly blinds people as to be unaware that alienation from God is even a problem.  As I read the newspaper all manner of human problems are described—but alienation from God is not typically among them.  People outside of faith are not waking each morning, thinking that today I need to get my relationship with God fixed.  Some of you can remember the time before you came to faith in Jesus—was getting relationship with God resolved a concern that occupied your days?

The church is to be a herald of this great news.

2.  John’s letter, like other Biblical letters, addresses a specific problem in church life.  Ours is not the first generation that had those in the church questioning the reality of Jesus’ bodily existence—that is that God had come in the flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and was fully human.  You can tell the issue is at stake by how John opens the letter; he insists that the Jesus being proclaimed they “saw with their eyes and touched with their hands”.

Why is John so insistent on this point?  John insists that unless Jesus Christ is God, he can’t save us, since only God can save sinners. Unless Jesus Christ is human, he can’t save us, since only his sinless humanness can restore ours. Victor Shepherd tells the story of the Unitarian speaker in Glasgow who stated in an open-air service that Jesus was a good man; Jesus was a kind fellow; Jesus was a sensitive person. (This is as much as Unitarians will ever say about Jesus, since Unitarians deny the Incarnation.) A streetwalker who listened for a while turned away saying to the Unitarian spokesperson, “Your rope isn’t long enough for me”.

How long do you think the rope has to be? The church catholic knows that in Jesus Christ God has let down a rope that never dangles just above our humanness; which is to say, never dangles just above our suffering, and worse, just above our sin. More than let it down, God has descended the rope himself; in fact, in Christ Jesus our Lord, God is that rope which reaches all the way down to us precisely in order that we might reach all the way up to him.

I am highly suspicious of those who tell me that Christianity needs to be reinvented.  It is one thing to say that we need to find a fresh way to communicate the gospel to this generation; but it is the gospel that needs to be communicated; the gospel is the standard for any reform of the church.  John said “this is the message we have heard from him (Jesus) and proclaim to you”.  John Wesley rejected what he called theological novelty as wrong by definition; if it wasn’t taught in the scripture or early church fathers (the generation closest to the Apostles) then it was novelty.  There is a lot to be said for Wesley’s conviction.

3. “Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ”; you will notice in the gospel that God forges his own categories for understanding the condition in which humans find their lives unfolding.  In John’s letter the gospel categories of darkness, sin, falsehood, and unrighteousness alongside those of light, life, truth, and righteousness frame his discussion of “the message we heard from him (Jesus)”.  We are rescued in Christ from sin for righteousness.

The next time you open read a newspaper underline the categories in which the article assumes human life unfolds.  You will see talk of poor administration, lack of accountability, bad-decision making, private vs. public interests, political right and left, minority vs. majority, values, prejudice, any number of ‘isms”, rights, and freedoms.  I recently put the word “sin” into the search engine of a national newspaper, chose “anytime” as the time parameter for the search and only three articles were found to contain the word.

Here is the thing.  Our newspapers are a reflection of what our world believes to be the nature of the human situation; if humanity has a clear description of the true condition of human life then why do we ever remain mired in the same mess with every news cycle.  The gospel says that while humans have many angels of vision to describe the human situation only in Christ is our true condition revealed.

4.  “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin”, wrote the Apostle.  Fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ is the power to be delivered from sin’s grip.  To walk in the light is to see sin for what it is in all its destructiveness of life.  John counsels the church that we must not presume upon the forgiveness of God; we must never act as though sin doesn’t matter; as if God’s gracious forgiveness means that sin is trivial.

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”, said John.  There are those who deny the category of sin; the gospel says that such denial does not release us from our accountability to God for our sin.  The very denial is the sin of lying.  Others perhaps reserve the category of “sinner” for really bad actors; I am not like the person who defrauds, or steals.  This is a calculation game—Jesus said sin is also in the imagination.  John knows the deceptiveness of sin.

Two hundred and fifty years ago John Wesley wrote in his diary, “Resentment at an affront is sin, and I have been guilty of this a thousand times.” We want to say, “Resentment at an imagined affront would be sin, since it would be wrong to harbour resentment towards someone when that person had committed no real offence at all; but of course it would be entirely in order to harbour resentment at a real affront. Because resentment at a real affront, at a real offence, comes naturally to fallen people we think it isn’t sin. Then what are we to do with our resentment? Do we hold it to us ever so closely because its smouldering heat will fuel our self-pity and our self-justification? Or do we deplore it and drop it at the foot of the cross?

The Apostle John knows that the bigger problem we have as Christians is feeling overwhelmed by sin; we discover in our fellowship with Christ the sin of our hearts is far more deceptive that we knew.  John knows that we can feel discouraged, defeated.

The story is told that the Devil was having a yard sale, and all of his tools were marked with different prices. They were a fiendish lot. There was hatred, jealously, deceit, lying, pride--all at expensive prices. But over to the side of the yard on display was a tool more obviously worn than any of the other tools. It was also the most costly. The tool was labeled, DISCOURAGEMENT.  When questioned, the Devil said, "It's more useful to me than any other tool. When I can't bring down my victims with any of the rest of these tools, I use discouragement, because so few people realize that it belongs to me."

The Apostle knows how readily sin’s deception discourages the believer and he offers more counsel on this point that with respect to presumption.  John writes: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Note that he does not indicate that God only forgives the sins we confess—rather he goes above and beyond cleansing us from all unrighteousness.  To confess isn’t simply to admit it is wrong, it includes the purpose to turn from it; such confession receives the fullness of God’s power to cleanse and overcome.

If we walk in the light of God we are prone to think that we will be exposed.  No, John counsels, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.  Truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.