1 John 1:5-10
Preached by Tracey Leslie
I have always been a bit of a city slicker. When I was in elementary school I went to church camp one summer. My dad was the camp dean of “Rustic Camp.” Now if that sounds to you like it wasn’t quite the right fit for me, you’re right. But I was also an introvert and a homebody so it was helpful to have my dad with me at camp. We spent the night in tents. The tents were these concrete slabs with bunks on them, covered by canvas tent material. The tents were nestled in the woods, along with a couple of outhouses and the dining hall… which was a large building with running water, showers and flushable toilets, thereby making it my favorite building. Any indoor group activities took place in the dining hall. One evening we were to go on a night hike. I realized the air was getting chilly and I was going to be cold so my dad encouraged me to take a little buddy with me and walk down to my tent to get a sweatshirt.
When we walked into the tent, we heard something. We both stopped and looked at one another. It was a strange sound… kind of like a faint scratching on the canvas. I shone my flashlight in the direction of the sound and there was a little field mouse crawling into our tent… no doubt looking for crumbs from the snacks we ate in our bunks… although we were warned not to. When I saw that mouse, I let out a shriek and – instinctively – did a very foolish thing. I hurled my flashlight toward the mouse. Lucky for the mouse, I threw like a girl and it had nothing to worry about. But I did. As my flashlight thudded onto the concrete slab, out went the light. My little friend and I went shrieking and running back up the path toward the dining hall.
In these Sundays of the Easter season, we’re looking at scriptures from 1st John. During the 9:15 Sunday School hour, we’re engaging in a study of John’s gospel; specifically, the signs or miracles we find in John that make clear to us who Jesus is. I know I’ve mentioned before that sometimes we take a very odd – and really inappropriate – perspective on interpreting scripture. We examine the bible like we would a history book or a science document. But scripture is different. It’s not intended to be history or science in the way that we define those disciplines today. Rather, our bible is filled with stories that teach us the truth of who God is, who we are, and what God desires for us in our relationships with God and with one another.
In the gospel of John, we are introduced to Jesus as the Son of God, the Word of God – at one with God – he took on flesh and came to live in our midst to reveal God to us and – through his death, resurrection and gift of the Holy Spirit – to offer us the experience of living in fellowship with God both here and now and into eternity.
In the book of 1st John, some of the concepts or themes introduced in the gospel are further developed. For our class on the gospel of John, I’ve put together a glossary of Johannine terms (I have extras if you want one) because John uses certain words and terms in very distinctive ways.
Last week I spoke about the gift of eternal life Jesus offers us. Sometimes when people speak of eternal life they equate it with going to heaven when we die. But eternal life isn’t just about getting into heaven when we die. The gift of eternal life is meant to be experienced here and now. And if we have received that eternal life through Jesus, then the way in which we live here and now will be different and distinctive. It is described metaphorically in 1st John as “walking in the light.”[i] It is fellowship with Jesus who is the Light of the World.
So, today we focus on that key Johannine term – light. Like life, light might seem like a fairly straightforward concept. But it comes with a very distinctive meaning in John. Jesus, who is the source of life, is also the source of light. In John’s gospel, Jesus says “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me with never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”[ii]
Now we all know that “light” can be thought of metaphorically. We have clichés like “he saw the light” – meaning that something was suddenly recognized or comprehended. But in John light implies more than changing the way we see something or even the way we think about something; walking in the light is about changing the way we live. Light – the light that is Jesus – is what guides us along the path of life. I was very fortunate as a child that I didn’t trip or fall or get turned around in the woods when I thoughtlessly extinguished my light. We need to walk in the light; meaning that we need Jesus to guide and direct the way in which we live.
Not surprisingly, the opposite of walking in the light is walking in darkness and in John, darkness is associated with sin. But here, once again, we need to stretch our understanding and assumptions. Often we think of “sin” in moral categories; a moral infraction; a violation of ethical code. So I frequently hear people speak of the need to teach children the Ten Commandments – a list of do’s and don’ts. But the sin of which John speaks goes far beyond a legalistic list of do’s and don’ts. Sin is a lifestyle choice and John keeps his understanding of sin to a very short list. Sin is a negative response to the presence of God in Christ AND sin is a failure to act lovingly toward our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Now, let me break those down a little bit more. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh; Jesus is one with the heavenly Father. He says, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”[iii] Unfortunately, often in the Church, we use Christianity as a dividing line between ourselves and people of other faiths who we identify as having rejected Jesus. But we fail to recognize that receiving Jesus is not a one-time decision. We are given the opportunity to decline or receive the guidance of Jesus each day. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is still revealing himself to us. And so, we would do well as people who define themselves as followers of Jesus to begin each day with a prayer to recognize Jesus and to walk in his light throughout that very day. We are not followers of Jesus simply because we believe he existed. And I would even contend that we are not even followers of Jesus solely because we believe he was the Son of God. We are followers of Jesus when we purposefully seek his guidance; believing and trusting that he can and will light our path so we can walk in the light and not walk in darkness. There is a very old, on-going tradition in the Church called the Daily Office that begins the day with Morning Prayer. One format I have for it includes a hymn with this verse directed as prayer to God: “Direct, control, suggest this day; all I design or do or say. That all my powers, with all their might, in thy sole glory may unite. Guard my first spring of thought and will and with thyself my spirit fill.”[iv] So sin, John teaches us is not simply some thing we do that is a moral infraction; rather, sin is a lifestyle choice we make – and one might even say, make anew – each day to either seek Jesus to light and guide our life’s path or to set out on our own in the darkness.
But secondly, sin (walking in darkness) – John says clearly – is a failure to show love to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Now let me be clear. We speak of darkness, scientifically, as the absence of light; but we should not think of love as the absence of hatred or disdain. Love, John tells us, is also a lifestyle. John instructs his readers: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”[v]
I said a little bit last week, but I will mention again today, that John’s community, this Christian congregation, has suffered a split, a schism. Some have left this congregation because they refused to accept the humanity of Jesus. They practiced a form of Gnosticism called Docetism; an early Christian heresy. No need to remember those names, unless you want to file them away for a future game of Scrabble, but here’s what is important to remember. By denying that Jesus was God with flesh, they could undermine the value of the physical human condition. And that was a very convenient theology if they didn’t want to be bothered by needing to do things to help their brothers and sisters in Christ. If you are hungry and I deny the value of our physical bodies by claiming that Jesus never would have been bothered by taking on human form, then I don’t need to be responsive to your hunger. I can get off scot free. No fuss; no muss. I’m done.
Now, I know I have given you a lot of information this morning. But I have one more thing and this one will really blow your mind, alright? Stay with me. In the gospel of John, the disciples don’t need to wait until Pentecost to receive the Holy Spirit. In the gospel of John, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples before he returns to heaven, before he ascends to the Father. And as he breathes the Spirit on them, this is what he says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Now, some Churches have interpreted those words to means that only official religious people, like priests, can pronounce forgiveness. But, if we read the whole gospel of John and the letters; if we understand now what sin is; well, I don’t think that’s what that means at all. Here’s what I think it means: that our interactions with one another, the way that we live out our faith in community, becomes the proclamation of Jesus to people. How we live out our faith with one another either repels people from Jesus or attracts them to Jesus. Now, if that sounds like a big responsibility, it is. Friends, Church is not a place you go and it is not an activity you attend. Church is who we are in fellowship with Jesus and one another; living out eternal life as we walk in the light of Christ. When people see us loving one another; that proclaims the love of Jesus. If we are not spending time with one another outside of worship, we are not the Church… at least not according to John. If we are the Church, then we’re going to notice if someone has a need and we’re going to try to meet that need. If we are the Church, then we’re going to know if someone has a concern and we’re going to pray together. If we are the Church, then we’re going to know if someone has a joy or blessing and we’re going to celebrate with them.
To walk in the light of Christ is to have fellowship with God and with the people of God. If we are not regularly seeking out God’s presence and guidance for our lives, then we are living in the dark. And, if we are not seeking to be in active fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, the folks who are sitting around you this morning, then we are living in darkness. Friends, if we want to see Trinity grow, it’s about walking in fellowship with Christ and one another. If we love one another in blatant, obvious ways, people will find that irresistible. Kristi Tippert, host of the radio show, On Being, has just released a book in which she writes of those who have stepped away from organized religion today. She says, “I think what they want is a consonance between what people believe in and how they live, what they believe in and how they treat others. It’s a real faith in the original principles of [our faith] traditions. That how you treat others always trumps any dogma or any position on an issue.”[vi] Friends, let us walk as children of the light, following Jesus as we love and serve one another.
[i] John 8:12 & 9:5
[ii] John 8:12
[iii] John 14:9
[iv] From The Daily Office in Paths to Prayer: Finding Your Own Way to the Presence of God by Patricia Brown. Published by Jossey-Bass; 2003; p. 199.
[v] 1 John 3:18
[vi] An audio excerpt from Becoming Wise: an Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. Krista Tippett.
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