(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on April 27, 2014)
When you are learning Greek, the place in the bible that you often get asked to translate first is the letter we call 1 John.
This is because it is sort of like the Dr. Seuss of the New Testament. It’s written with a simple vocabulary, in short phrases…very much like “I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-am. I do not like them in a house. I do not like them with a mouse. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere. I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-am!”
Don’t get me wrong, the content is great! Profound stuff here in 1 John. But it’s put in prose that is a little bit repetitive and stark, sentences that could be wrongly seen as too simplistic or too black and white.
The reality is deep theology is woven together with practical advice on how to live regular life. The majesty and wonder of what God has done in Christ, the victory we celebrated with such joy last week, is brought down to earth. It seemed to us to be a good place to focus after Easter, after our long series on people in the cloud of witnesses. We’ll spend five weeks looking at the solid foundation of the Christian life as expressed in the book of 1 John.
So we encourage you to read along, to read a chapter each week and dig in on your own. In Your NFC on Friday, we printed some suggestions and a link to some ideas for using the 1 John readings as a source for reflection and worship. I hope we can journey through this together!
Let’s look at the introduction to this letter. [READ 1 John 1:1, TNIV]
What does this introduction remind you of? [ASK] What person’s story, someone we’ve looked at recently together, does it remind you of? [ASK]
I notice several things-the similar wording to the introduction to the gospel of John, with the focus on the tangible “touchableness” of God becoming a human being. I notice a sort of shout out to the Thomas’s of the world, the ones who like the disciple Thomas want to know there were people who actually knew and loved and touched Jesus, who connected the God-in-the-flesh Jesus who taught in Jerusalem with the victorious-and-living post resurrection Jesus. I notice the powerful emphasis on life, on forever, on God’s constant work through all time that hit a peak on that first Easter, and is still going strong today.
It’s beautiful! But here’s the deal-John had a little help from the TNIV translator.
Have you ever had one of those powerful moments, one of those times where you really wanted to be profound and poetic and inspiring…but you just sort of got all tongue tied and it came out all awkward?
The concepts here are rich and deep and beautiful, but the actual expression of it is…well, it’s like some of the pathetically awful songs I write and sing around the house sometimes as I go through my daily life. Ask Aubrey, they’re often really bad.
Let me read the first four verses in TNIV, the one where the author gets some great editing help from the translators. Then let me read the same verses from the New American Standard version, which is much more literal and gives you a feel for the funkiness of what is written. [READ 1:1-4, TNIV, NASB]
I gotta say, part of me likes the lumpy one better!
It’s like it captures the tongue-tied wonder that John is experiencing. The one from the beginning of time-We saw! We heard! We touched! We touched and knew life itself, and we want all of you to know about it!
Last week, one of the things I prayed as a blessing over us was this: “May you find your place in the forever community which is God’s home.” We looked at Jesus as the cornerstone, the reference point for what God is doing…building a community of people in relationship with each other, oriented around Jesus, which God will dwell in forever.
Community, relationship, fellowship-these are the words and themes, the beautiful work God is doing. The point of Easter, of all that God is doing, is not just belief. It’s not just theology, not just an “oh wow what an amazing principle that God became human”. God is bringing about the practical reality of right relationships, with God and with each other.
Why is this letter being written?
This is an important question whenever we are trying to understand a book of the bible. From picking up on the clues dropped throughout 1, 2, and 3rd John, it seems that John is writing to a community that has had a split, a break in the fellowship. John’s writing to the ones who remain, and is encouraging them to live and act in a way that is consistent with the nature and character of God.
The ones who have left the community have gotten some key things wrong. And it isn’t just that their doctrine is wrong-it’s that what they see incorrectly leads them to live differently and causes a break in all their relationships. They rightly think that God saves them and forgives the wrong they have done. But they incorrectly believed God has made it so they never sinned again. In that case, God wouldn’t be needed any longer. They evidently believe being “children of God” makes no demands on the way they live, because by definition, they can’t do anything wrong any more.
This is what John writes to correct, writing to remind the faithful remaining ones of their constant dependence on God and the need to walk and live and act in line with the character of God. This walking and living and acting affect the way truth is defined.
Truth is not just like a right or wrong answer on a test, a principle. It covers the way one lives. Truth is about right relationship and action as much as it is about beliefs and principles. Marianne Thompson says it this way: “Truth is always both belief and practice. One cannot know the truth and fail to do the truth; one cannot do the truth without knowing it. This is a far richer and more integrated view of the Christian life than many Christians hold.”
As we work our way through 1 John, as we see these contrasts, we must remember the fullness and richness of truth as well.
We must remember the split that John is writing to correct, the separation that was such a big problem to the ones being written to. Rather than interpret the contrasts we see as individuals, we must remember this is written to address two communities, one which faithfully remains and one that has wrongly left.
Verse 4 says that this is written so joy may be complete. Keeping in mind the division that John is writing to heal can help us keep the joy. Some of these verses we are going to read, if we look at them only on an individual basis, can be sobering and even scary. What if we mess up? If God is light, and no darkness is in God, what if I mess up? Will it be impossible to be with God? Am I going to be rejected by the perfect God who is light?
That’s some of the fear that can come if we forget the context of why this letter was written.
One more quote from Marianne Thompson: “These letters were not intended primarily to whip believers into shape or to serve as warnings to the faithful, so much as they were to encourage them that the path in which they were walking was indeed the path of God’s will. When John speaks of those who are not doing what God requires, his mind is on [the ones who left].”
So as we look at the rest of chapter one, we can do it without fear of being chided, but with the hope and challenge of having a clear path laid before us.
Verse 5 brings the message that will be the focal point.
[READ in TNIV] The key point here is pretty obvious when we say it out loud: God and God alone is the measure of light and goodness and rightness. This is who God is: the defining point of all that is right.
It’s similar to last week’s image of Jesus as the cornerstone, the one all of us relate to and use as the reference point. Now come several statements about us that all are implications of this statement about God.
[READ v. 6] Because God is the reference point for all goodness, because God is light…if we are going to be in fellowship with God, in right relationship with God, we are getting it exactly wrong if we walk in darkness.
Here is where we should notice the metaphors that are carefully chosen. “Walk in darkness” and “do not live out the truth.” These imply an orientation, a lifestyle, a direction, a pattern.
It’s the direction of our walk, not whether we’ve taken one step in the mud. It’s orienting are lives toward the north star of truth, not whether we went a little east when it was cloudy. Walk toward God and orient around Jesus! That’s how to live in truth.
[READ v. 7] Here is the heart of our joy!
Getting the direction right, walking toward Christ our center leads to two benefits: fellowship and community with each other, and a cleansing and purifying from sin and wrong. To go back to the metaphor, if the direction of our walk is aimed in the right place, towards God, the steps in the mud don’t ruin us. Instead, because we’ve got the aim in the right place, Jesus’ work cleans off the shoes that got muddy from our misstep.
There’s freedom and hope! Joy and good news! Verses 6 and 7, based on the pureness of God, remind us that our direction has to lead us toward God’s light, not toward darkness. This is sort of the boundary line on one side. Verses 8 though 10 give the boundary line on the other side. [READ v. 8]
So verses 6 and 7: walk toward God and goodness rather than away from God toward evil.
But then comes the boundary on the other side, one that it seems those who had left the community were guilty of teaching. Don’t think that it’s possible for us, who are not God, to live without sin. Don’t teach and claim and presume that our special relationship with God makes us perfect in this life.
In fact, we need to open our eyes to the things in us which are not like God’s character. We need to admit and reject our sins. That is where we find freedom! [READ v. 9 and 10]
I have always found 1 John helpful, and this time around I’m seeing an emphasis that is really life-giving to me.
In high school I was around people who rightly emphasized verses 5-7. God is good and holy, full of light, and we should be too. Some of them even taught that it was possible to have God work in such a way that you never consciously sinned again.
I didn’t know what to do with that when I sinned.
I must have been doing something wrong, but what was it? Had I missed God’s special work in me? Did my sin mean I had messed it up forever? I need to try harder or pray harder or something.
The whole time, with all my anxiety, the answer was written down right there in verse 9. I haven’t missed God. I’m not ruined forever. My job isn’t to try harder or pray harder. My job is to confess my sins. God’s job is to forgive and purify.