1 John 1:1-2:2
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— 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. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
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. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 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.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
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.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “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.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God! ”Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
It’s usually hard for we 21st Century Americans who live on the outskirts of a city to grasp what a first Century writer meant when he used images of light and darkness. Until about seventy years ago, when the sun went down, the world changed. Candles and oil lamps and other forms of artificial light were expensive and not very bright, so they were used only for emergencies or long enough to get people to bed. Work happened in the daylight, which was abundant and free; the night was dark indeed, and was the time when crime and evil reigned. When a first Century writer like John talked about living in the light, he meant to live as we live in the daytime, when all can see who we are and what we do. To live in the darkness meant to embrace secrecy and evil.
Like virtually every letter in the New Testament, the first letter of John addresses a problem in the infant church. No one who seriously reads the Bible can be under any delusions that back in the good old days -- whether before Jesus or after Jesus – people of faith lived in trouble-free relationships with each other or that theology and ethics were unblemished. Romans is written to a church divided between Gentiles and Jews, the Corinthian letters are addressed to a church imploding from spiritual pride, Galatians is sent to a church arguing about the relationship between faith and works. In this first letter of John, which we will be looking at for the next several weeks, there has already been a split in the church and people have left. Imagine that! The particular issue here concerns the humanity of Jesus. There’s no problem with Jesus as the Son of God – the whole Johannine church understands that Jesus was divinity come to earth. Some in the congregation, on the other hand, insisted that Jesus wasn’t really human in the same way that you and I are flesh and blood. He only seemed to be human, they said, like a really good actor playing a part. The fancy theological name for this belief is docetism – from the Greek word for to seem.
Now, docetism is alive and well two millennia later, mostly within the Christian church. We see it every time someone is talking about how Jesus struggled with temptation and doubt and grief and loneliness and pain and the full range of human experience, and someone else says yes, but that was Jesus. In other words, it wasn’t the same for Jesus as it was for us, because he wasn’t human in the same way you and I are. That’s docetism: Jesus only seemed human in the way you and I are human. Jesus was more like Superman, because, after all, he was God.
What’s the problem with Jesus being more divine than human? (By the way, when you think of Jesus being both divine and human, it’s not 50/50 – half human, half God. That’s what leads to docetism. Jesus is fully human and fully divine: 100/100. Yes, Jesus is 200%. How can that be? That’s called the mystery of the incarnation, that Jesus is completely human and also completely God. But more about that later.) The problem with Jesus being more divine than human is that if Jesus isn’t fully human, then his life really doesn’t apply to how you and I live our lives. If Jesus is primarily spiritual, then what he did and what is said is about spiritual, non-material reality, not about how we treat each other and how we live in a very physical and real world. So, when Jesus says that we shouldn’t lay up treasure on earth, he means that in a spiritual sense: you can accumulate all the stuff you want, as long as you aren’t spiritually attached to it. Or when Jesus says that to follow him means taking up our crosses and dying, that means we should be spiritually free, but Jesus doesn’t really expect us to literally suffer for our faith. Do you begin to see how docetism is alive and well in us?
John’s answer to the people who have left the church because they insisted that Jesus was a matter of spiritual but not physical truth is that he and the other disciples had literally heard and seen and touched Jesus. In this morning’s gospel lesson, Thomas says he won’t believe this resurrection nonsense until he has touched the physical body of Jesus. The Gospel of John is addressed to people like the troublemakers in the Johannine church, who saw physicality as evil and incompatible with true spirituality. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth the Gospel of John begins. At the end of the Gospel, Thomas touches Jesus’ wounds and Jesus eats breakfast by the Sea of Galillee. Following Jesus isn’t just about what we do in our heads and hearts – it’s about what we do with our hands and mouths and feet and time and money. When Jesus tells Peter, at the end of the Gospel, to feed his sheep, he’s not just talking about sharing esoteric spiritual truths: he is telling Peter to fill people’s stomachs.
The false believers in John’s church insisted that what they did with their bodies was irrelevant to following Jesus, as long as their minds and hearts were pure. They had no sin to confess, because their spirits were right with God. That, John said, was like people who lived honest lives in the daylight, but who robbed and murdered and raped under the cover of darkness. If we are going to follow Jesus, the first requirement is for us to be honest – honest with God, honest with others, and honest with ourselves. Honesty is bringing everything into the light, not hiding anything in the dark. To be honest is to be one whole person, not two, just as Jesus is one whole person, wholly God, wholly human. To be faithful, said Martin Luther, is to tell it like it is.
If we’re going to be honest, we need to confess the division between light and darkness in who we are. Even though we now live in a world where it’s difficult to ever find a place with no lights shining in the dark, we’ve developed sophisticated ways of creating our own darkness. I recently changed the internet browser I use on my computer to Google Chrome. I discovered that Chrome has something called an Incognito Window, where you can visit websites and not be tracked. I’ll leave it to your imagination what kind of websites might be visited anonymously. People can establish completely false identities in chat rooms and on social networking sites. Hardly a day goes by without us hearing lurid tales of predators luring victims under false pretenses. But darkness doesn’t require a computer: some politicians campaigning for office will say anything to win votes, making impossible promises. Our taxes are due on Tuesday: how many of us have been really honest about everything we’ve spent and earned?
How many of us will live our faith in the light this week? When a neighbor is in need, or when the weak are being picked on, or when a classmate or co-worker attacks God or faith, will we stand up for Jesus? How much of our time this week will be spent talking with others about sports or television or politics, and how much will be spent talking about God? We need to pay for the new building we built, and this week we learned we’re going to have to do some significant work on the twenty year old HVAC system for the fellowship hall: does following Jesus a matter of our hearts, or our wallets? As the political campaigns shift into high gear, will we ask questions about how a policy affects the poor, the children, and the elderly, or will we worry more about ourselves? We need you to step forward to teach our children and our youth in Sunday School, to advise our youth program, to staff our nursery. Are you going to pray for someone else to do it, or are you going to put your time, and your energies, and your bodies on the line?
God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 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. To walk in the light means putting our faith on the line, openly, publicly, without shame and without compromise. If Jesus was 100% human, then the only way to follow him is with 100% of our humanity. John says there will be no forgiveness without living that way.
We need you. The world needs you. Stop hiding in the darkness: come, live in the light.