A Sermon preached by Lay Reader Eleanor Childs on 8 April 2018
1 John 1-2:2
I’m speaking from John’s epistle this morning and you might find it helpful to have it open before you as it’s quite a complex passage. And I hope that warning doesn’t send you all off to sleep before I start! Also, I used the NIV version of the Bible in preparing it and your translation is from the NRSV, so there may be slight differences in language.
John has two purposes in writing this letter: to proclaim what he and the other apostles have seen and heard ‘so that you also might have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.’ So his first purpose is to develop their relationship with each other and with God. And it is a source of joy. Joy is never far away in John’s epistle, nor it love.
His second purpose is stated at the beginning of ch. 2 . ‘ He’s an old man and he addresses them affectionately, ‘My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin.’ Sin is really serious because it wrecks relationship between people and between people and God. There are false teachers infiltrating the church and John is really concerned lest the Christians are led astray into sin. I was struck when researching the background to this letter by how many similarities there are between our culture and that of John’s time. Spirituality was all the rage then, but sin was discounted. There was a disconnect between spirituality and your habits or behaviour. And Christians were being influenced by this. And this is so relevant to us today, because Christianity is subtly changing, heavily influenced by secularism. The concerns of the early church – being obedient to Christ’s teaching, holiness of life, serving others- these concerns are receding or being diluted in our politically correct environment. The word ‘sin’ is almost a joke word nowadays, a remnant of medieval superstition in our modern world. So we really need to hear from John.
His message is that ‘God is light; in him is no darkness at all.’ Light is what we see by, it reveals the world, reality to us. Without light, we grope around in the dark, we can’t walk safely, we can’t get on with things, we don’t know what or who is out there in the darkness and that can feel scary. The writer of Proverbs says, ‘Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.’ Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world.’ Light throughout Scripture is associated with goodness, truth, purity, fellowship, enlightenment. John is concerned lest his hearers are led astray from the light into the darkness of sin.
There were 3 types of error that were creeping into the church and John introduces them in v.6,8 and 10 with ‘If we claim.. (or ‘if we say..)and he specifies the false teaching. Then he contradicts it with a sharp diagnosis ‘we lie (v6), we deceive ourselves (v8) and ‘we make God a liar (v10). Then in each case he follows up with a true statement and the solution to the problem. That’s the structure of the passage.
Let’s look at each in turn. V6 If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.’ The false teachers wanted fellowship with God but on easy terms, their terms. It has a very modern ring, this heresy, hasn’t it. We like to hear that God is love and wants a personal relationship with us, but we don’t want to hear that if we are engaging in behaviour that is contrary to his will, we can’t enjoy that relationship, because we have broken it. We can’t fiddle our income tax, , spread gossip, watch porn, tell lies, hate people and kid ourselves that we are in relationship with God. John says, ‘If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.’ Then follows the great positive, ‘If we walk in the light, as he is in the light we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.’ Sin is really serious because it cost Jesus his life. He purchased our forgiveness and deliverance from the power of sin with his own blood. The consequence of living in the light is not only fellowship with God but also with one another.
The second claim of the false teachers (v8) was to be without sin. And surely that is the major claim of our culture. We’re all good people. Those who aren’t have suffered neglect or deprivation, but good experiences and re-education will set that right. I always think it’s amazing you can believe that, when you look at the state of the world or read the newspapers. Have prosperity and education and good family backgrounds made us all good people? I’ve had conversations with people where they have said, ‘I’m a good person and you’re a good person!’ And I wonder – really? Have you never lost your temper? Never wanted to murder your children? Never been spitting feathers at something someone has said about you or done to you? Never been selfish? It’s easy to laugh at this, because we accept that’s how we are, we think that’s what it is to be human, nobody’s perfect. We forgive ourselves easily, though the person we may have hurt or offended doesn’t forgive us so easily. And God does not forgive us easily for it cost him his son’s death. I’ve always found the Christian doctrine of original sin makes perfect sense of the world we live in. I’m not denying that there is goodness or self sacrifice and concern for others in our world, for we are made in the image of God, though by and large we have chosen to ignore him and his will. Nowadays secularism has blatantly put the self at the centre of the world, with its ‘what’s right for me’, but throughout history looking out for number one has been the default setting of most lives. Scripture says, ‘All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.’ And John says, ‘If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.’ We are all very good at deceiving ourselves about sin. But sin is really serious in God’s sight because he is light and purity and holiness and love.
And the remedy for our situation? ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.’ It is when we acknowledge or own our sinfulness and turn to God that we are forgiven and released from the burden and darkness and can enjoy walking in the light of his presence. Forgiveness and restoration of relationship is a most wonderful gift that God bestows on us.
The third false teaching v10 is indicated by the words ‘if we claim we have not sinned….we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.’ People can imagine they are Christians, because they assent to the existence of God and Jesus, they can even assent to the existence of sin in the world, yet blatantly deny that they personally have sinned. But our behaviour gives the lie to this. John reserves his harshest judgment for these people. If our behaviour does not match up to our profession, if we deny that our behaviour is contrary to God’s will, then his word has no place in us. We may imagine or call ourselves Christians but they are not.
Never has confession or owning the truth been so unpopular as in our modern society. When caught out in wrongdoing, the most people are willing to acknowledge is ‘inappropriate behaviour’. or that they will see a therapist about it, which implies it is an illness for which they are not responsible. No Christian can ever trivialise or deny sin like that.
Basically, there are two approaches to sin – being too lenient and being too severe. Being too lenient suggests that sin doesn’t really matter, because God has provided a remedy for it. Being too severe might prevent the person acknowledging it, overwhelm them with guilt or refuse them forgiveness and restoration so they give up. John avoids both extremes. At the beginning of chapter 2 he says ‘If anybody does sin… we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence – Jesus Christ, the righteous one. He is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.’ John recognises with his Lord that we are only human, that we will mess up at times, we stray into darkness, but we need not despair, because Christ comes to our defence. The disciples in our gospel reading had betrayed, deserted, and disbelieved Christ, but their hearts, their basic orientation (including Thomas’s) was still towards him, though they had failed him. And how did he greet them? ‘Peace be with you.’ When our hearts are turned towards God, his gift to us, along with forgiveness and acceptance is peace, made possible through Christ’s atoning death. What good news we have for our broken world!
Trevor and I sometimes listen to a podcast when we are travelling and recently we listened to one by the archbishop of Canterbury. He goes jogging every morning and uses the time to say his prayers. Sometimes, he says, he’s almost back home before he has got to the end of confessing his sins! So if the Archbishop of Canterbury needs to devote serious time to this, how much more do we!
One practice I personally am finding helpful is what is called the Prayer of Examen. You can find it on the internet. It’s very simple. At the end of every day you settle quietly and review the day in the presence of God, giving thanks for his blessings. You reflect on the highs and lows. When you felt most at peace and most stressed, what was going on for you? Is there something God is saying to you at those times? Do you need to face up to anything that is wrong in your life and let go of it and receive forgiveness? What do you need God’s help and strength for in the day ahead? Then close with a prayer of thanksgiving. I can really recommend this prayer for all of us who want to live in the light of God’s truth and love.