April 06, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Don’t you hate it when you make one mistake and it defines you from then on out?! One little mistake and Thomas becomes a morality lesson, a byword, a counter-example of anything we’d ever want to be. In truth, however, there is more than a little of Thomas in all of us.
When Thomas was first told about the meeting with Jesus that he had missed, he was understandably guarded. The notion that a dead man was back alive again was not exactly something you grabbed hold of and easily believed in a minute or two, not today and not 2,000 years ago, either. Modern scholars sometimes peg the disciples as such naïve bumpkins that they’d believe anything.
They knew the dead stayed dead and this was not a fact you revised on a whim. So Thomas plays it safe but also then speculates aloud as to what it might take for him to believe this after all. As he talks, his rhetoric gets more and more exaggerated. “My friends, I’d have to see with my own eyes the nail holes in his hands. No, tell you what, I’d need to touch those holes with my own finger. Better yet, I’d want to stick my whole hand right into his side where the sword pierced him!” Thomas kept mounting up an ever-larger heap of evidence that he thought he’d need to believe. His words seemed calculated to induce some eye-rolling.
Of course, once he does meet Jesus, all that evaporates.
It reminds me of when I met Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign. In our house we always referred to him as “Barack” and I was sure that if I met him, I’d want to call him by name. Well, when I did meet him, that went away in an instant and I fumbled even to get out the words “Senator” and “Sir” every time I addressed him in my fairly brief encounter. When you’re face to face with the real deal, things feel different.
Things felt different for Thomas, too. No way was he going to do—or even ask to do—what he said he was going to do. But he did believe. The evidence was right in front of him in ways the rest of us now don’t have. But it’s still faith that leads the way to the truth of it all.
To paraphrase a traditional aphorism, if you don’t have faith, then there will never be evidence enough to convince you, and if you do have faith, no evidence is needed.
Without faith, no evidence is sufficient; with faith, no evidence is necessary.
And although most of us probably agree with that in principle, we can perhaps admit that sometimes we are still hungry for a little evidence, or a little more evidence than we usually have.
Jesus himself knows that faith is both a blessing and a miracle. That’s why he says in verse 29 that while it was one thing for Thomas to believe with Jesus standing right in front of him, it would one day be quite another thing to believe without such undeniable physical proof standing in the same room. But John at least seems confident that he has given us enough for just such faith to be born. That’s why he immediately follows this comment by Jesus with his own commentary in which he says, “Now listen, friends: I have left out a ton. Jesus said and did lots of other really amazing things that I just have not gotten around to even mentioning. But what I have given you is enough. Read it and believe!”
Sometimes we may find ourselves wanting more, but by faith we need to be satisfied with enough, which is exactly what our God in Christ gives us. Thanks be to God for enough.
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
One of the most difficult disciplines that film actors need to learn is to resist the temptation to look directly at the camera. Actors need to pretend like the camera is not even there because if for even a second or two they glance into that lens, viewers see it immediately. In fact, if you’ve ever watched amateur video productions, then you know that one of the main things that distinguishes amateur work from professional films is that you can often spy one of the people in the scene cutting their eyes in the direction of the camera. It’s hard to resist!
But it’s a problem because when it happens, it breaks the magic spell that films try to cast—it busts down what in show business is referred to as the “fourth wall,” which refers to the wall of the room that is missing and that allows people in a theater to peer in on the action inside of a house. Viewers need to suspend the awareness that this is just play acting so as to get immersed in the movie or the play as though it were really happening. But the second some actor becomes obviously aware of the camera (or in the case of live theater, when the actor looks out directly into the eyes of people in the audience), the viewer is aware of it too and the gig is up.
Occasionally, of course, having an actor intentionally look at the camera is done for humorous effect. It becomes like an inside joke between the actor and the audience. (Here is a classic example from the movie Trading Places where Eddie Murphy looks at the camera to indicate his incredulity at being condescended to by another character in the film.
This can be used dramatically, too. Sometimes the premise of a film is that the main character is himself telling the story and so he may frequently step out of the scene to look you in the eye. Otherwise, however, not looking into the camera remains a thespian rule of thumb.
If you read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, then you know that these three evangelists also avoid, as it were, “looking into the camera.” They tell the story of Jesus straight out but without addressing their reading audiences directly.
John, however, is different. Throughout his gospel John keeps stepping out of the scene to talk to us directly as readers. As you read various stories, it’s almost as though John stops the narrative now and again to whisper into your ear, “Now, remember, when Jesus first said this to us, we didn’t get it. It was only years later that we figured it out. OK, now back to our story!”
But nowhere is this as clearly evident as at the end of John 20 when we readers take center stage as John turns directly toward us. He even uses the second person pronoun: “This is written so that you may believe.” You can almost see John’s finger pointed in your direction. John does not in the least try to hide the fact that he was writing this gospel many years after the events recorded within the story.
He is not shy about admitting that as a matter of fact, it took many years really to figure it all out. And above all he is not hesitant to let the world know that in and through it all, he is grinding an axe here: this is a purpose-driven narrative with the overt goal of producing faith in the hearts of his readers. Some modern scholars have claimed that the theological bias of the evangelists is precisely what makes them unreliable. How can you trust writers who are probably manipulating and skewing things in order to achieve the kind of portrait of Jesus they want?
Whether or not John could have anticipated that kind of thing–and maybe he and the other apostles ran into the exact same criticism already way back then–it’s clear he doesn’t care. Had someone asked John, “Are you picking and choosing your material, and then also spinning it and interpreting it a certain way?” John’s straightforward reply would have been, “You bet I am!”
The church has never had any doubt that the gospels were written with a certain bias based on faith and that they were composed with a definite interpretive slant. It’s just that by faith we believe that what these writers chose to present and how they interpreted it all was absolutely true and correct because they were being moved and inspired by the Holy Spirit. Of course this is an interpretation of Jesus’ life. But it’s the right one!
To be honest, when I read how much John left out, there is a part of me that wants to cry, “Tell me!” It’s rather like narrating a story to a little child. You know what happens the moment you say something like, “I’ve left out some of the best parts but I’m not going to tell you all that now!” The child’s reaction is predictably along the lines of, “Awww, come on! Tell me!”
There was so much more to say but John seems convinced that he had said and written enough. And by the Holy Spirit who guided John’s pen, we believe that he’s right about that. If John could know how many millions of people over the centuries have come to faith, or had their faith strengthened, by what he wrote in this gospel, wouldn’t it most certainly reduce him to tears? Could he have had any idea how great an effect his carefully crafted account of Jesus would finally have?
“I didn’t tell you everything,” John said, “but what I have told you is meant to generate faith in your heart.” In this Eastertide Season the fact that we are here still celebrating Jesus’ victory over death lets us know that when John said he had given us enough, he was exactly right.
There is a curious textual dispute concerning the tense of the verb “to believe” in John 20:31. Textual critics seem to be divided between those who think this is an aorist subjective (which would mean “so that you may believe”) or a present subjunctive (which would have the sense of “so that you may keep on believing”). Obviously the choice one makes has something to say about the audience one envisions here. If John is writing to a missionary context in which the potential readers of this gospel are not yet believers, then the aorist would make sense: John is trying to generate faith.
But if John is writing to an established Christian community, then the present tense makes sense in that he is furthering and bolstering a faith already present. If you consult the critical apparatus of the text, you see that the present subjunctive may well be the better attested in early manuscripts, including Codex Vaticanus and Parchment 66 but the aorist version can call some heavy early manuscript hitters to its side, too, including Alexandrinus and certain versions of Sinaiticus. Most translations skirt the issue by translating it “that you may believe” which could go either way. This may be similar to how in an Assurance of Pardon we pastors may say to the congregation, “Believe the Gospel—your sins are forgiven!” knowing that some who hear those words have believed that for a long time already and are now re-celebrating that belief even as some who maybe have not believed before could be called to faith via that same expression. Maybe that ambiguity works in also John 20:31. Those who believe find their faith deepened each time they read this gospel but those who have not known Jesus as Messiah before may well come to belief via that same gospel witness.
When I was a kid, my father read the end of John 20 at the dinner table one night for our family devotions. After he read the part about Jesus’ telling Thomas that there would be lots of people who would not see him but who would still believe in him anyway, my mother commented, “Jesus means us. He’s talking about us. We’ve never seen him the way the disciples did, but he is our Savior and we believe in him. Jesus is talking about us.”
All these years later, I can still remember marveling a bit over a thought that tantalized my young heart: I am in the Bible! Little Scott Hoezee of Ada, Michigan, is in the Bible!
A few years later when I ran across that same passage in high school, I realized that my mom might have been guilty of a little rhetorical excess. No, I am not in the Bible. Not specifically, not personally, not really. That’s the kind of thing a naïve kid thinks. And when I was a child, I thought like a child and reasoned like a child but now . . .
Then a few more years passed. I entered Seminary and began to understand a few things about the divine inspiration of Scripture, about how the Word of God is alive, living, vibrant, sharper than a two-edged sword and cutting clean to the bone of those who read that Word. I began to understand that the living God really can and does encounter his people through his Word and that he’d been doing just that to countless millions of people across the millennia. And so when the evangelist John turns to the reader to say, “These are written that you may believe,” by the Holy Spirit, that is a direct and living address to me as the reader. Maybe all of us are, maybe each of us is, really in the Bible after all. I am in the Bible. This is my story.
And all God’s people said,
Author: Scott Hoezee
Acts 4 is enough to break your heart.
Was it really true at the earliest stage of the Christian community that the believers were completely one in heart and mind? Did they really share absolutely everything even as they fell adoringly and reverently at the feet of the apostles, hanging on their every word (and with nary a criticism of any sermon they preached)?
The truth is that even the Book of Acts itself testifies to the fact that from the earliest days of the Christian church forward, a measure of disagreement and strife and conflict was present. Acts is remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which is its bracing honesty in admitting that sometimes the apostles disagreed and had to call special councils to hammer out their understanding of grace. Sometimes some of the apostles disagreed so sharply with one another that they had to continue their work for the Lord down separate paths.
And that’s just the Book of Acts. If you read between the lines—and sometimes you can read the lines themselves—in epistles like I Corinthians, Galatians, and Thessalonians, you can see how often Paul had to mediate disagreements among believers and correct (sometimes sharply and harshly) false ideas and practices the earliest Christians had adopted within their church communities. Even the friendliest letter in the New Testament, the Letter to the Philippians, has to pause near the end to tell two women to stop their public squabble and get along for Jesus’ sake.
It is good and pleasant when brothers and sisters in the Lord get along. It is good and pleasant when Christian believers can share things in common and cling to the one Word of Life that just is the apostolic witness of the gospel. But it is also sadly true that complete unity and utter harmony across all boundaries, times, and places are rare and unusual.
As William Willimon has noted, there may even be something curious about the fact that this snippet of Acts 4 get assigned for the Sunday after Easter in the Year B Common Lectionary. After all, this is known as “Low Sunday” in a lot of places, not least because whereas the church had probably been full to capacity the Sunday prior, the Sunday after Easter often features a whole lot of empty pews.
A couple of years ago I attended one of three Easter Sunday morning services at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. It was the first time in my life I had to stand in line for church! The young people of the congregation were carrying around trays of hot cider to warm us as we waited in an April chill in lines that snaked all the way around several city blocks just off Michigan Avenue. But I know that had I attended this same church the following Sunday, I could have arrived 5 minutes late and still had no problem in finding a seat—indeed, I would likely have my pick of lots of places to sit.
So how curious to assign a reading about the people of God being all together in one place on a Sunday when, if anything, we note how many people are missing! (And then aren’t we also tempted to grumble about those fellow church members who show up just on Christmas and Easter and oh my goodness what kind of a faith is that . . .!?)
But, of course, the key is not really the size of the crowd at any given church on any given Sunday. And to be honest, the real deep spiritual key to Acts 4 is not the presence of air-tight Christian unity, either. The key is the fact that we still have a Christian community in the first place all these centuries after the resurrection. Despite all that has changed in the church, despite all the fractures and schisms and splits and theological hair-splitting that along the ages have resulted in the kaleidoscope of denominations that we have across the world today, there remains a common article of faith that all Christian people are still able to say in complete unity each time they recite the great creed:
“The third day he rose again from the dead.”
“With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and there was much grace on them all.” That’s what we read in Acts 4:33 and as William Willimon notes, that was the core to it all. The resurrection made all the difference. The resurrection created a community of faith among disparate people who had never before been part of such a community. And despite all the tug-o-wars in Acts and throughout the rest of the New Testament, that core conviction that Jesus lives and that he is the resurrected Lord of Life persisted then and persists all the way down to this present day.
Our unity is never perfect. We have a hard time sharing all things in common. And yet . . . the Church is still here. In a million places and ways every single day believers continue to witness to the power of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. And even though we cannot agree on what happens to the bread at the Lord’s Supper or whether it’s OK to ask the Virgin Mary to pray for us or whether babies should be baptized or whether the Bible says the earth is 10,000 years old or allows for it being millions of years old: despite it all, the Christian community continues to exist as a living testament to the truth of the line “Jesus lives and so do we.”
Even on the Sunday after Easter—or maybe it’s really especially on the Sunday after Easter—when the lilies are gone, the brass is packed away, and the crowds are a little thin, it is still true that when the people of God gather as they have gathered for twenty centuries now, they bear witness to the resurrection and to that common Christian conviction that “on the third day he rose again from the dead.” In John 20 Jesus told Thomas that lots of people would come who had not been an eyewitness to the resurrected Christ the way Thomas was but they would be blessed for their faith anyway. Today we are here as living proof that Jesus was right. And just maybe that is proof enough.
No, none of this is an excuse for the arguments we too often have in our congregations or for the other signs of disunity that mar and mark the church today. But it is testament to the grace-filled fact that just beneath the surface of all that divides people is the living presence of the resurrected Savior and that it is finally his holy voice that makes our every gathering a good and pleasant thing after all.
A pastor friend of mine has long had a great affinity for the Orthodox part of the larger Christian Body on earth and in particular he has been a student of Russian Orthodoxy for a long time. He speaks fluent Russian and has led many tour groups to Russia across the years.
Quite a few years ago, when the Soviet Union was still in full command of its large communist empire, my friend was in Moscow over Easter. And he participated in a large Easter Vigil in front of one of the biggest Russian Orthodox churches. As part of the vigil, large crowds gathered in the square in front of the cathedral. At midnight as Holy Saturday gave way to Easter Sunday, someone knocked on the large doors leading into the church. At that moment the priest on the inside flung open the doors and said (in Russian, of course) in a loud voice to the waiting crowd, “He is risen!”
And with one voice the crowd thundered back, “Risen indeed!”
My friend will testify that he is a life-long Christian believer. But he will also tell you that at that moment—when in the heart of communist darkness he heard that throng of people roar forth its unison “Risen indeed”—he just knew the whole thing was true. The gospel, the resurrection, the abiding presence of Jesus among his people to this day: it’s all true. He just knew it in a way he had seldom known it before.
One of the earliest evidences of the truth of the resurrection was the fact that the disciples—who had so teetered on the brink of just scattering into the wind after the death of Jesus—not only reassembled themselves but managed to create a whole new community that grew beyond all telling. The community of the resurrected One bore witness to the truth of the whole gospel enterprise.
As my friend will tell you, to this day when God’s people testify together in harmony and unity to the fact that he is “Risen indeed,” that apostolic witness is confirmed in a most dramatic way indeed.
Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 133 is a song that at first glance appears to applaud familial unity. After all, it uses familial language when it speaks of the wonder and beauty of “brotherly” unity. In fact, some scholars suggest this lends credence to the idea that families sang Psalm 133 on their pilgrimages to and from Jerusalem.
An emphasis on familial unity certainly would be appropriate in light of the seeming countless things that have all too often fragmented families ever since our first parents fell into sin. So Psalm 133 may offer an opportunity for preachers and teachers to reflect with hearers about the blessings of familial unity.
However, it’s quite clear to most scholars that the unity to which Psalm 133 primarily refers is unity among God’s adopted sons and daughters, among “brothers” (and sisters!) in God’s family, our true family. After all, verse 3 refers to Mount Zion, that symbol of God’s house where God’s people gathered together, as the place where God bestows God’s blessing of life forevermore.
However, the unity Psalm 133 praises is distinctly counter-cultural. We sometimes talk about the “balkanization” of society by which we seem to increasingly define ourselves by and divide ourselves along racial, gender, socio-economic, national and other lines. Sadly, such lack of the unity this psalm lauds haunts Christ’s church as well. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once famously called 11:00 on Sunday morning the most segregated hour of the whole week. Beyond that, of course, Christ’s church has divided itself into three main branches: Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, as well as a nearly infinite number of denominations.
So Psalm 133 offers preachers and teachers a good opportunity to explore both the sad fragmentation of Christ’s church and steps Christians might take to deepen our unity. After all, Jesus himself prayed for such unity among Christian brothers and sisters in John 17:20:1: “I pray also for those who believe in me through [the disciples’] message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”
Yet the psalmist doesn’t seem to be praising just the kind of theological unity for which many Christians long. She isn’t just claiming that it’s beautiful and wonderful when God’s people “get along,” as The Message paraphrases verse 1. Psalm 133 also seems to be a song in praise of physical unity among God’s sons and daughters. After all, in verse 1 the psalmist prays, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together [italics added] in unity!”
This may refer to God’s Israelite children’s practice of eating and living together like family during festivals like the Tabernacles. James Mays suggests that such festivals transformed pilgrims into one big family that temporarily lived and ate together. This is a unity part of the early Christian church also tried to literally embody. After all, in Acts 4:32-35 we read, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had . . . There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” Augustine even claimed that Psalm 133 served as the inspiration for the monastic movement. Even if that isn’t literally true, Psalm 133 is a song in praise of unity that was important for such communities that came together to serve God and God’s kingdom.
In verse 1 the psalmist refers to unity among God’s children as “good” (tob). He may mean it’s either the opposite of moral evil or that it’s valuable. Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrases it as “wonderful.” Its use ties it to verse 2 where the psalmist compares unity to the tob oil poured on Aaron’s head. In verse 1 the psalmist also refers to unity among brothers and sisters in God’s family as “pleasant” (na’im). The Hebrew word can mean acceptable, favorable or beautiful. However, na’im is also used elsewhere to refer to a song’s melodiousness. That at least hints that Christian unity is like a beautiful song.
In verse 2 the psalmist compares the value and beauty of Christian unity to “precious oil poured on the head … running down Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes.” This would seem to refer to the oil with which Aaron was anointed for priestly service that soaked not only his head, but also his beard, in fact, running down on the collar of his priestly garment. The NIV Study Bible suggests that this profusion of anointing oil symbolized Aaron’s total preparation by God for service to God and God’s sons and daughters.
Preachers and teachers might explore how, in a similar way, God’s Spirit uses Christian unity to prepare God’s children for service to the Lord and each other. In fact, it might prompt a search for a more modern metaphor for Christian unity such as, perhaps, a cool shower on a hot day or a bowl of soup on a cold night that heartens a person for further work.
In verse 3 the psalmist also compares the value and beauty of unity among God’s people to “the dew of Hermon … falling on Mount Zion.” After all, if as much dew were to fall on Zion as regularly falls on Hermon, Zion’s hillside would be very fruitful. Similarly, The NIV Study Bible notes, unity makes God’s children very fruitful.
The psalmist closes this lovely short psalm by noting that Christian unity has wonderful benefits. It doesn’t just please the Lord who created us for such unity. Wherever there is Christian unity, the psalmist suggests, God also gives the gift of God’s blessing, perhaps referring to the gift of prosperity. God also, however, gifts God’s united children with “life forevermore,” with life that lasts into the future without end.
Preachers and teachers might reflect on how where there is unity among God’s adopted sons and daughters, there is real life, in fact, eternal life. As an old cliché goes, Christians might as well get used to spending time with fellow Christians, even those with whom they don’t fully agree. After all, by God’s grace we’re going to spend eternity, “life forevermore” united with them in the glory of God’s redeemed and renewed creation.
There’s certainly no shortage of modern tips on how to promote family values. One website encourages parents to ask their children what they think are their family’s most important beliefs and values. Another offers tips on how to “create a foundation which allows your children to make healthy choices on their own.” Still another “promotes traditional family values, focusing primarily on the influence of television and other media on our society.”
However, Psalm 133 reminds us that while such discussions about strengthening the nuclear family are important, they’re often far too narrow. After all, we easily turn biological families into idols that exclude those outside of them. They’re also all too often places of abuse and neglect.
By the Holy Spirit, God is busy graciously incorporating otherwise unrelated individuals into the family of God, making us the brothers and sisters whom God longs to unite. As James Mays writes, Psalm 133 “is a witness that God was at work building a family that transcends all the given and instituted barriers that separate and diminish life.” Even when members of Jesus’ own family came to visit him, he pointed to his followers when he said, according to Mark 3:34-35, “Here are my brothers and sisters! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
1 John 1:1-2:2
Author: Stan Mast
All of the readings from the epistles for the season after Easter are from I John. That’s an interesting choice, since the theme of I John is certainty, assurance of salvation. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” In this post-modern age, it is impossible to be sure of anything, because all truth claims are seen as merely human inventions, nothing more than the products of a particular culture. Indeed, truth claims are often seen as attempts to gain power, part of an imperial agenda that aims to control others. So, you have your truth and I have mine, and we’ll all be happier if we just leave it that way. John’s agenda is not imperialism, but precisely happiness. Or as he says in verse 4, “We write this to make our (all of us) joy complete.”
Most of I John is focused on how we can be sure we are truly children of God. The Christians to whom he writes had been badly shaken by an early version of Gnosticism that emphasized the importance of a special knowledge and deemphasized the importance of a distinctively Christian lifestyle. So John gives them four tests that will help them grow in their assurance of salvation and thus in their joy. Not surprisingly, the tests that help us know we are saved focus not on secret knowledge, but on lifestyle. For example, you know you are God’s child if you obey God’s commands (I John 3:10). And it’s also not surprising that at the beginning of his letter, John zeroes in on the heart of the Gospel. We are saved, not by some new esoteric doctrine, but by the message proclaimed publicly by all of the apostles from the beginning of the church.
On this first Sunday after Easter, this text gives us opportunity to emphasize how we know that the Christian faith is true. Before we can talk about that, we must help our people to be certain about what true Christianity is. As I listen to the mass media, I’m struck by how much confusion there is about that. In a letter to the editor in my local paper, a critic of the church’s position on a controversial social issue dismissed Christianity as “a typical Western knowledge system….” But that is most assuredly what Christianity is not—not typical, nor Western, nor a knowledge system.
What is true Christianity? I John puts it very succinctly in one word—“proclaim.” Christianity is what the apostles proclaimed—not what they carefully thought out, but what they shouted out. What did they proclaim? Verse 1 says, “this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” What does that mean—a word about life, a message, a teaching, a philosophy, a knowledge system, a gnosis? That is exactly not what John means. He defines “the Word of life” in the words just preceding– “That which was from the beginning.” Of course those words have a familiar ring to them. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word as with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. In him was life and that life was the light of men.” (John 1:1ff.) What John and the other apostles proclaimed was the eternal God, specifically, the eternal Word that was with God in the beginning and gives life to the human race.
What did they proclaim about that eternal Word of life? “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched….” Here is the shock at the center of true Christianity. It is the proclamation that ordinary people, not crazies or fanatics, but people like you and me, heard and saw and touched the eternal Word that was with God in the beginning.
How can that be? Well, says verse 2, “the life appeared… the eternal life that was with the Father… has appeared to us.” The word “appeared” is in the passive voice, indicating that we humans didn’t discover it through a long process of human thought and discussion. It was revealed to the human race nearly 2000 years ago in the nation of Israel, when a man named Jesus lived and died and rose from the dead. In other words, human beings did not invent Jesus with their minds. They simply heard him and saw him and touched him.
Further, says John in verses 3 and 4, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard,” so that you may have fellowship with us and, more importantly, with the Father and his Son Jesus. Ultimately, that will bring us the joy all humans crave. That is what Christianity proclaims—that the almighty eternal Word of God became human in Jesus, so that human beings can have fellowship with God and each other and, thus, have the fullness of joy. That is true Christianity.
But how can we be sure Christianity is true? The apostles were sure simply because they had witnessed Jesus alive and then dead and, most importantly, alive again. They were ear-witnesses—“which we have heard.” They were eye-witnesses—“which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon.” The second word for sight there means that they had given Jesus a very careful investigation. What’s more, they were hand-witnesses—“and touched with our hands.” The word there is a rare and graphic word that suggests probing or groping. Think of Thomas’ demand to put his fingers in the nail holes. Not satisfied with seeing and hearing, which might have been illusory, they made prolonged physical contact with the Risen Christ.
The apostles knew very well that they were proclaiming a preposterous message, so they took great pains to assure us that they didn’t make it up. At its heart, Christianity is not a secret gnosis, a philosophical speculation, a carefully devised system of ideas, “a typical Western knowledge system.” It is not an intricate moral code embedded in a particular culture. Of course, innumerable philosophies, theologies and ethical systems have grown up out of Christianity, but at its heart it is the simply straightforward proclamation about what really happened. That’s why John and the other apostles were so sure—not because of logical proof, but because of concrete historical fact that they witnessed together.
They were so sure that they were willing to stake their lives on it, literally. That’s what John turns to next—the life to which this Gospel should lead. His claim about fellowship with the Father and the Son leads him to an attack on the Gnostic claim that how one lived made no difference once you had that special gnosis. If you knew the right thing, you could live any way you wanted to. Nonsense, says John. “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth.” That is the introduction to a profound discussion about sin and forgiveness and atonement.
In fact, that discussion is so profound that I want to illumine it with a piece of ancient history. The last time I preached on this text was 2006, when I was mesmerized by the story of then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and gangbanger Tookie Williams. The words of the Governator about the gangster helped me think more clearly about sin and forgiveness and atonement. Here’s what Arnold said about Tookie. “Is Williams’ redemption complete and sincere, or is it just a hollow promise? Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption.”
Tookie Williams was one of the founders of the vicious street gang known as the Crips back in 1971. In February of 1979, Tookie killed his first person in a convenience store robbery, putting two bullets execution style in the victim’s back. A month later, he killed 3 members of an immigrant family from Taiwan as he robbed their hotel. They were 76, 63, and 46 years old. In 1981, Williams was found guilty of all 4 murders and sentenced to die, though he maintained his innocence. In 1987, he was place in solitary confinement for over 6 years because of his violence toward guards and fellow inmates.
Then in 1996 he published the first of 9 anti-gang books for children. In 1997 he publicly thanked the Almighty for changing his life and apologized for creating the Crips. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 6 times. In 2004 he released his autobiography, Blue Rage, Black Redemption, and the next year a movie entitled, “Redemption,” dramatized his story for the public.
On December 8, 2005, as Tookie’s execution was just days away, Gov. Schwarzenegger held a closed hearing to help decide whether Tookie’s death sentence should be commuted to life in prison. Many famous people argued that Tookie should live because he was a changed man. But the Governor was troubled by two things—Williams never apologized for killing those 4 people and had never cooperated with the police in their efforts to deal with the gang problem in California. That’s why Arnold spoke those works about redemption and apology and atonement that I quoted above. Hours before his death Tookie told a local radio station, “I stand strong and continue to tell you that I am innocent. Yes, I have been a wretched person, but I have redeemed myself.” He was executed at San Quentin on December 13, 2005.
That story raised powerful questions. Is it possible to redeem yourself? What does a person have to do to be completely redeemed? What does it take to have your sins so completely forgiven that your punishment is not only lessened but entirely cancelled? Arnold said, “It takes an apology and atonement.” Listen to I John.
“If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Not an apology, a simple “I’m sorry,” but confession, a profound “I agree with God about my sin.” That’s what the word “confess” means here—“to agree with, to say the same thing” as God about my sin. To use the imagery of I John, true confession allows the brilliant light of God’s holiness to fall on our sins, so that not one of them is hidden in the darkness. That’s what verse 7 means when it talks about “walking in the light.” We humans have a tendency to walk in the darkness when it comes to our sins. We deny that we have sinned. Oh, we’ll admit that we haven’t always been perfect, but we don’t see our actions as terrible sins. Or we deny that we are inherently sinful. We say, “Yes, I’ve committed some sins, but I’m basically a good person.” We try to stay in the darkness, so that we don’t have to face the ugly truth about ourselves.
Confession walks in the light of God’s truth about ourselves and our sins. It agrees with God. “These sins are terrible, I did them, I mourn them, I want to stop them. I don’t want to be merely forgiven for my past. I want to become pure and holy like my God.” If we do that, says our text, God is faithful and just and will forgive us and purify us.
So is confession all it takes to be forgiven? Listen to I John. “My little children, I have said this to you so that you will not sin.” Does that mean that we can atone for our sins by becoming better people? Will we be forgiven if we don’t sin anymore, or at least not as much? Can we redeem ourselves by changing our lives? How much change would that take? I John 2:1 seems to say that we can’t sin at all. Atonement requires not just a little change, but a total change. Of course, we cannot do that, no matter how hard we try. We just heard John say, “If we say we have not sinned in the past and have no sin now, we deceive ourselves and make God a liar.” Thus, we cannot atone for our own sins.
That’s why John goes on to say, “But if anyone does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense…” The word there is paraklete, one comes alongside us to plead our case, a defense attorney, so to speak. His name is Jesus Christ, and John says he is “the Righteous One,” completely righteous, without sin. That’s important because he defends us not by talking in court, but by offering himself as “an atoning sacrifice for our sins” on the cross.
I know that John’s words are offensive to many sensitive Christians today, but let’s hear him out. John is saying that when God forgives sin, he doesn’t just wink at it and simply wave it away, as though it didn’t really matter. Sin is such a terrible destructive force in the world and in human lives that God cannot simply let it go. Think of what Tookie did to those people and their families. If Arnold had simply waved away Tookie’s sin, what sort of message would Arnold be sending to those whose lives had been devastated by Tookie? The family of the second victims was appalled when the man who murdered their loved ones was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. There is such a thing as justice, after all. The Bible says that justice without mercy is not Christian. But it is also true that mercy without justice is not human. If there is such a thing as justice in this universe, then somewhere, somehow crimes must be punished, sins must be paid for, damages must be paid back, justice must be served, and righteousness must be reestablished. If those things don’t happen, human existence will just get worse and worse, and life on this earth will be hell.
That’s exactly why God send the eternal Word of life, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One– to be punished for our crimes, to pay for our sins, to satisfy God’s justice on our behalf, to settle the damages done to God’s world by human wickedness, to bring righteousness to our lives and to the world. Yes, I know this sounds positively medieval to some Christians, but medieval theologians didn’t make it up. It’s right here at the very beginning of the Christian faith. (See Romans 4:25-26 for an even clearer proclamation about justice and Jesus’ atoning death.) The early Christians were sure this proclamation was true, so sure that they literally staked their lives on it. They proclaimed the Good News not to dominate people’s lives, but “so that the joy of the human race might be complete.”
To help people grasp how offensive this certainty about the Gospel sounds to our post-modern age, here’s an example of a thoroughly postmodern man in Jane Hamilton’s novel, A Map of the World. His name is Howard Goodwin. His wife, Alice, has been accused of a terrible crime and though Howard stands by her and defends her, he isn’t entirely sure she is innocent. Torn by indecision, he describes his state of mind: “I hated the fact that I would never really know what was true. There were reasons not to believe either side. It is better, I think, never to finally decide.” In fact, he was so accustomed to living with such uncertainty that he had long ago decided on the epitaph for his tombstone. “He never stayed the course. He was never sure.” Our text is a call to live and die with certainty because of a certain Gospel.