1 John Fridays-When you need him most…

I hit 1 John 2:1-2 briefly in my last 1 John Friday post.  The “if” clause there continues as a fitting conclusion to the 5 “if”s carried over from chapter 1.  But it also opens a few things that are worth exploring on their own.

1) One of the titles Jesus gives to the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John is “the comforter.”  In fact, that forms a major part of his concluding words to his disciples on the night before he was betrayed, letting them know that His return to the Father was better for them, because the “Comforter” would come.  We may remember that the Holy Spirit is referred to as “another comforter”, in essence implying that the disciples currently had a comforter with them already. Here, John lets us know that Jesus is still our comforter, or advocate.  Here, specifically, Jesus comes alongside us in the times of our sin.  This is Jesus, the word of Life, from the Father.  We would expect him to be as far away from our sin as possible, but he is not.  “If someone sins, we have an advocate with the Father.” And John reminds us of the condescension involved, it is “Jesus Christ the righteous one” who is our advocate in our lowest moments. (In chapter 1, John also describes God the Father as the “righteous”…again in the area of forgiving and cleansing our sins.)

2) “Not for our sins only, but also the sins of the whole world.” I think John is doing a couple things here by adding this:

-First, he is highlighting the magnitude of Jesus’ propitiation.  It is more than enough.  Lest we think our sin abounds too great for us to confess, too great for even the faithful and just God who promises forgiveness to follow through on, John reminds us His grace is more than enough because Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf was more than enough.

-He is also reminding the huddle of its external obligations.  John will later emphasize acts of love.  He also will warn against the dangers of loving the “world” (same word for world here). But remember this is a church that has experience abandonment from their so-called brothers and sisters following the false teachers. Their tendency will be to huddle up, to go into their shells for self-protection.  And John, while giving them a great amount of encouragement, gently reminds them that there is more at stake than just their group.  There is a world outside that Christ also died for that they should keep in mind. (and yes, this verse would make the stricter, unqualified forms of “limited atonement” Biblically untenable).

1 John Fridays- Ifs, ands, and buts…

This week, I want to take a brief look at 1:5-2:2.

There are noticeably 6 big “if” statements in this section:

v. 6- “If we say we have fellowship with him but walk in darkness…”

v. 7- “If we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light…”

v. 8- “If we say we do not have sin…”

v. 9- “If we say that we haven’t sinned…”

v. 10- “If we say that we have not sinned…”

2:1- “If anyone sins…”

What can we see from comparing these? Well, a few things:

1) Talk is cheap.

Notice that all 3 conditions that John ends up critiquing involve our “saying” something. (v. 6, 9, 10) The danger John sees is not in underestimating our spiritual reality, but in saying more than is actually true of ourselves.  Talking big about a non-existent relationship with the Father, talking up our current sinlessness, or denying our past sins.  John does not believe in some weird kind of “spoken” spiritual magic.  What we choose to say about ourselves does not actually create spiritual reality (sorry, televangelists of today).  Heretics that John will deal with later in the letter apparently are known by how much talking they do.

2) “Walking in the light” is not sinlessness, but “needy authenticity.”

This one requires a little logic, but notice how the only spiritual perfection here is found in the misguided statements that John condemns.  Which means that what John must mean by “walking in the light” can’t simply be “not sinning.”  The three “positive” conditions together are “walk in the light”, “confess our sin” and even “sinning” itself.  John wants us to make sure to see that true spirituality, walking in relationship with the Father, is not characterized by our greatness but by our neediness.  Walking in the light means our sin is followed by confession; walking in darkness is hiding our sin.  John is by no means declaring that the more we sin the more spiritual we are.  But he is saying that more we confess our sin, the closer our walk with the Father in the light really is.

3) There are beautiful rewards for needy authenticity.

-fellowship with one another. -every sin cleansed from us by the blood of Jesus his Son. -we experience the faithfulness and righteousness of God. -sins forgiven, cleansed from all unrighteousness. -We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. -we have propitiation for our sins.

4) Inauthentic, proud spirituality is condemned in the strongest of terms.

-we are lying. -we are not practicing the truth. -we deceive ourselves. -the truth is not in us. -we make God a liar. -God’s Word is not in us.

John is encouraging these faithful Christians by reminding them that the neediness they feel after being deserted by the false teachers and the others who left their fellowship is not a bad thing, but is actually what is required for true spirituality, a relationship with God the Father. What is not good is the proud talk of those who have claimed sudden spiritual superstardom.

1 John Fridays- No Green Lantern Here

Begin 1 John and your mind should jump to other Biblical passages, namely John 1 and Genesis 1.  “That which was from the beginning…” mirrors the opening phrases of Genesis “In the beginning, God created…” and of John’s Gospel “In the beginning was the Word.”  In Genesis the focus is on the God who speaks, calling out creation each day and exercising creative kingship over the universe.  In John’s Gospel, the focus is not on the God who speaks as much as the God who IS speech, the Word (logos) who was before God and who is God.  Now in this first letter of John, the focus is not on the Word’s Speaker or the Word Spoken directly, but on the the Word experienced by John and the apostles.  The Word is not impersonal or merely some kind of cosmic energy or the good side of the Force…but rather is heard, has been seen by “our eyes” (not the eyes of the mind, mind you, or the great “eye of faith”, but real round human eyes), was touched by their hands as they walked the shores of Galilee and through the crowded streets of pilgrim-populated Jerusalem.  Here (as opposed to the Gospel where John takes 14 verses to bring the Word out of eternal glory into a real tabernacle of human flesh) John orients us to the reality of the Word.  Yes, the Word is life, but this is not to be thought of as a kind of impersonal spiritual power that can be tapped into (perhaps with secret “knowledge”?) as we pursue our own spiritual perfections.  The Word isn’t a sacred Green Lantern for a quick spiritual recharge to escape and fight this evil material world on our way to demigod status.

No, the Word is Jesus.  One touched by hands, seen by eyes, heard, witnessed.

And the reason John reminds us of all this not to brag about his great experiences or remind us that we can no longer see Jesus like he could.  Because this Jesus was real, their proclamation to us now, those once removed (or 2000 years removed) gives us fellowship.  The connection between John and these readers is that they have shared in experiencing Jesus, the Word of Life.  One experienced directly, but now we share in it as we accept the apostolic proclamation of the Word of life to us.  And this fellowship goes deeper than readers-apostle, no, “our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” We may not touch Jesus as John did, but as we receive his word about the Word, we share fellowship with this manifested Life as well.

And by writing to remind us of such, our joy indeed should be filled.

Shooting the wounded- 1 John Fridays

It’s Friday, so time to jump into 1 John.  Some of these posts will be more textual, others more like riffs or tangents from my studies in this letter. Today is a little introduction, so I don’t know which category that fits in.

Last week I teased you with my concerns about the pastoral handling of a Biblical text like 1 John.  After all, most of us have been taught in pastoral or counseling training to love nuance and treat situations uniquely.  Then we run into some texts in Scripture that apparently have no use for nuance.  Everything is black/white, good/evil, love/hate.  The Johannine literature (1 John is no exception) is full of this, as well as are many Psalms (the Psalmist prays rescuing judgment for the good guys and punitive judgment for the wicked), many of Jesus’ parables (Wise man and the fool), and wisdom literature like Proverbs or James.  Ok, so maybe these types of polarized statements aren’t so strange to students of Scripture.

But, where we run into trouble in 1 John, is that many of the polarities are placed as test cases.  If X, then Y, not X, then not Y.  “If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.” or “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness.” Well, what about when I got mad at my spouse the other day (hypothetical of course) or what about someone who was abused by a family member and is struggling with strong feelings that aren’t warm and fuzzy love in reaction to that?  See, nuance would be nice, we think. At least it would make us feel better in most of these test questions.  After all, it would be easy to read through the polarities of 1 John and see ourselves on the negative side of most of those.  And of course it is easy for us to preach or teach this letter in such a way that our feelings of failure as followers of Jesus are shared by those within earshot.  Misery loves company.

But that doesn’t seem to be John’s goal in writing this letter (or transcribed sermon).  In fact, the love and attention he shows towards the audience (terms of affection and familiarity like “little children” are easy to find) makes us think he does not want them to come out of this hearing with the weight of failed Christianity hanging over them.  We don’t know much about the situation, but apparently a significant group had recently deserted this Christian community (2:19), were teaching false doctrine (2:26, the doctrinal tests of chapters 4-5), and apparently were causing these believers who stayed behind to have some doubts (1 John 5:13 assumes a congregation in need of re-assurance of their faith.)  There are a lot of polarized statements, but these are aimed at those who left, perhaps who are still seeing the faithful Christians at the marketplace or homes and are pressuring them to leave as well.  John’s readers may have been wondering, “Were those who left really wrong, or were we wrong to stay? Does the fact so many left undermine all we have now believed?  How can we even tell who the true followers of Jesus are when we have been taught 1 thing by John but a pretty convincing teacher has managed to persuade our friends, people we called “brother’ and “sister”?”

1 John is meant to be an answer of comfort and assurance to these questions. His tests are designed to assure those who stayed that this is the real deal, they are truly “Christian”, assured by one who saw and spoke with and touched the incarnate “Word of life”.  They can see these tests not as measures of their perfection, but as signposts of the change the Spirit of God is working in their lives.

So we should preach and teach 1 John accordingly.  It is not a text for raising more doubt for our people or scaring them out of what we might perceive as complacent Christianity (there are such texts…Hebrews or Mark’s Gospel, for example).  Rather it is a text to build up, to strengthen faith and provide assurance.  We should not hold John’s tests over their heads as pass/fail exams, but as hopeful signposts that change has happened.  Even in the hard cases mentioned above, perhaps hate has given way to thoughtful wrestling over the implications and applications of forgiveness and justice.

1 John is meant to be an infirmary for Christians wounded in the battles of faith, perhaps by what looked like friendly fire even. Don’t use it as boot camp for whipping your church into shape or as a place to shoot the wounded.

1 John Fridays…

Well, to get myself back into this writing stuff,  I will be starting a weekly series of posts on 1 John (and 2nd and 3rd), which I studied some last year. (This year I’m going through Luke’s Gospel. I felt a lot better about my Greek when I was in 1 John, I will admit!)

So next week, look forward to an introductory discussion on how the message of 1 John can be abused.  After all, this letter is filled with polarities between good/evil, light/dark, love/hate.  John rarely has a phrase that “dies the death of 10,000 qualifications.” That makes it difficult for us, especially as pastors, to apply its message to the deeply nuanced situations of our own hearts and people. And of course, the irony there is that John (I’m using the traditional author’s name for shorthand) has a Pastor’s heart, clearly loves his people, and in fact seeks to encourage and strengthen their faith in this writing.  So how do we reconcile his absolutism with his intended pastoral concerns?  (And by extension, how can we appropriate it as well?)

What makes old commands new?

from 1 John 2:7-8:

Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command, but an old command that you have had from the beginning. The old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command, which is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.”

The command here is “to love another.” It’s not explicitly stated, but like the unseen current propelling a ship towards its destination, this command to love invisibly pushes much of chapter 2 toward its goal.  (Verses 9-10 relate response to this command as involving either hatred or love of the brother, as further proof.)

But as John says, this is not a new command. From Genesis 4 where Cain asked “Am I my brother’s keeper?” the essence of Scripture from the Law to the Prophets to Christ’s own words is “Yes, love one another.  You are responsible for your brother’s well-being.”  This command is from the beginning.

But something is new about it.  What?  John tells us.  What’s new is that this command is now true in us, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is shining.  Here, one’s mind goes back to John’s Gospel where the eternal Word brought a “life that was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.”  In chapter 1 of this letter, we are told that God himself is light.  The light that is in the Father is manifested in the Son, the Word, Christ.

And because Christ now shines (being manifested in the Gospel they heard), the darkness is passing away, retreating like a beaten dog into a safe corner.

So what makes the old command new?  The commandment has not changed but the situation has.  The darkness is leaving, the light now shines.  The “Not yet” is becoming the “already” bit by bit, and now in this light of Christ shown us in the victory over the darkness declared by the Gospel, we can love one another because the command is now true not only “in him” but “in us” who “remain in the light”.