In his footsteps

Some thoughts on 1 John 2:1-6.

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.

I love that “but.” John is saying — and has just written with a stark image of darkness and light — that we should not sin. BUT if we do sin.

In other words, John is a realist. Indeed, he knows himself. He speaks of “our” sins and the advocate that “we” have in Jesus Christ. He writes in the first person, placing himself among the sinners.

I notice, as well, the atonement language here. Jesus is the “atoning sacrifice,” as the NRSV puts it, or the propitiation. What a contested word we have here. I’m not up on the debate enough to comment, but I will rest on the simple point that John sees in Jesus’ death a radical cure for sin, not only ours but the world’s.

It is not just Paul who makes such a big deal about the death of Jesus and the cross and all that goes with it. Any Christian theology that shies away from the significance of the cross is missing something of utmost importance about Jesus Christ.

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.

What a series of hammer blows to lazy faith we find here. John does not write it just once and move on. He circles around his point and piles it on. If we claim to know God but do not obey his commands, we are liars. Just a few verses earlier, he said the same thing. If we say we have fellowship with him but walk in darkness, we lie and the truth is not in us.

It is interesting to me how much of these early verses of 1 John are tied up in testimony and action. There is a real concern with how well our actions match our words, and whether our words are shown to be true in our deeds.

That last verse about walking as he walked sounds like an outline of discipleship to me. There is a sermon series there, I would think: Walking like Jesus.

And how is it that we can walk the way he did? Not because we are creatures of light and goodness, no. We can walk as he walked because he is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. If we confess our sins, he will cleanse of of all unrighteousness (1 Jn 1:9).

As I reflect on these verses, I find that John is offering us a fairly easy to use litmus test for the disciples of Jesus Christ. We in the United Methodist Church talk a fair amount about wanting to make disciples, but we are not often very good at describing what it means to be a disciple. Here is an answer. Obey his commandments. Walk as Jesus walked.

I need a new pair of sandals.

Walk in the light child of the dark

Some thoughts on 1 John 1:5-10.

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.

I read earlier this week an essay by Stanley Hauerwas on Augustine’s theology of evil. Augustine argued that evil does not exist, as such. Evil is merely an absence of or deprivation of what is good, that is to say God. This may not be the point John is trying to make, but the analysis seems apt.

God is light. Darkness — as such — does not exist. It is only the absence of light. Evil does not exist. It is only the absence of good.

Such thinking makes me wonder if other attributes we connect with God might be thought of in the same way.

Does hate exist, or is it only the absence of love?

Is injustice — as the name implies — merely an absence of justice?

As I consider these questions, I also find my mind turning to the depravity of human nature. It becomes much less of a hard doctrine if we understand that depravity — or darkness — simply means falling short of the total goodness of God. We are creatures of light and shadow. We walk in the twilight and even in darkness.

If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true;

When we walk in darkness we — literally — are outside the fellowship of God. Darkness is the absence of God, who is all light. So to walk in darkness is to walk apart from God. To claim otherwise is to speak an untruth.

It would be as untrue as claiming to be walking on Mars while crossing our front lawn.

but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another,

As in the opening verses of the chapter, John here brings us back to the conditions that make our fellowship possible. Our communion is a communion of light and in the light. It exists only so long as we all walk in the light of God. We might keep in contact with one another in a worldly way once fellowship is broken, but we can only be in communion with each other to the extent that we both walk in the light of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes something similar in his book Life Together. He argues that our fellowship with one another exists only via Jesus Christ. You and I each are in fellowship with Christ and therefore — and only therefore — we might have fellowship with each other.

and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

If we walk in the light, two things happen. We have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us of all sin. Doesn’t that mean that if we walk in darkness that not only do we lose communion with one another but we also remain stained by sin?

There is a fountain of forgiveness for you and for me, but it stands in the place of light. Easter comes at dawn.

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.

We are creatures of darkness — and light. We fall short of the glory of God. To deny that simple truth is to fool ourselves.

The only proper response to the truth of who we are is confession. As someone told me once, the word “confession” simply means “to acknowledge.” It is to state what is true. It is to stand in the light and acknowledge our darkness.

If we do this, John tells us, our God will forgive. He will replace shadows with sunlight. He will bless our brokenness.

To speak what is not true, however, to claim that we are creatures of pure light already is the deepest lie. It is a lie not just against God but to ourselves. It is the lie that betrays us to try in vain to burn with a brightness that belongs only to God. We are like the cold stones hurtling through space that believe the sunlight they reflect comes from their own hard, dusty face.

The word, the life, the Son is not in us.

What we have heard and seen

Some thoughts on 1 John 1:1-4.

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 — this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.

What we are about to be told about stretches back into time, to the very beginning of time. It is also something these witnesses have come to know in the most concrete and personal way. They have heard. They have seen with their own eyes. They have touched. Their knowledge of the Word is not an abstract theory or piece of book learning. It stood right there before them, touchable and touched.

The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.

What these witnesses report is none other than the eternal life that has been with the Father since the beginning. This is no mere man touched by great wisdom or even a mere mortal blessed by a miraculous gift of the Spirit. He was and is the eternal Word, the eternal life, the eternal soul, who — and this is the miracle — appeared to us. We tell only what we have seen, not what we have heard or hoped.

We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

And yet, fellowship is possible by hearing second hand. The true and faithful proclamation makes it possible that you and I — who did not walk the shores of Galilee with them or touch his wounded hands — can be united in community with those who did see and hear and touch.

How this happens, the writer does not tell us. But here he does, at least, reveal the name. The one mentioned first as Word and second as life is now reported to us as Son and named Jesus the Christ.

We write this to make our joy complete.

In sharing the name, in forging the fellowship, the witness completes his own joy. To share the name is itself joy and fellowship. It is a gift to giver and receiver alike.

I wonder if that is so for you?

Whenever I turn to these verses, I recall all the short-shrift versions of Jesus people tried to sell me for so many years of my life. I remember the accounts of Jesus that made him nothing more than another man, a really good and compassionate and bold man, perhaps, but still just a man.

Whatever else someone says about the Bible when they peddle this version of Jesus, I can never believe that they really trust what it says. And I find it very hard to believe that they have any fellowship with the apostles. Here these words were written in joy, to testify to what was seen and heard and touched. Here these words promise that we who receive them enter fellowship with those who shared hardship and laughter with Jesus. Here these words proclaim that he was from the beginning, eternal life and Word. How do we hear these words and respond with a “yes, but”?

Before we talk of sin and hell. Before we speculate about heaven and resurrection, let us start with this simple witness. The eternal life appeared to us, to our fellowship. We are keepers of that witness. We exist because the sharing of the witness binds us together in a fellowship that reaches across time and distance.

Let us take joy in that. Let us proclaim what we have heard, the Son, Jesus Christ.

 

Google and the problem of evil

I was reading this story about Google — and how it is the most important company in the world — when I came across this little discussion about the problem of identifying evil:

[W]e don’t have a book that defines evil in terms of how we should specifically behave. I think we understand as a culture what is good and what is evil. You need some mechanism to judge that. So I welcome the criticism that “this is evil” but it’s also possible that the critic is wrong, right? In other words, the critic doesn’t understand the trade off, doesn’t understand the consequence. I spend lots of time with people criticizing Google on this or that and I sit there and I think, “I just don’t agree.”

Of course, as a Christian, the “we don’t have a book” bit made me smile. He is correct, though, that there are times when even our book does not tell us specifically how to behave in every moment. It does give us some pretty good landmarks, though. Many of them are problematic for a global corporation bent on making profits as its reason to exist, but that is an issue for another day. What struck me more about the quote is how it captures wonderfully the contemporary mind.

Part of the truth about the culture we live in is that everything is contested. Everything is justified based on competing human perceptions. It can’t be evil, the Google executive says to himself, because I’ve looked at the data and I don’t agree. It is all he said, she said.

This is one way that Christianity simply does not fit the world in which we live. It is something else entirely, a kingdom breaking in and hidden in the shadows of this world, a place where evil has a name.

When God told the priests to kill

After the Golden Calf episode, Moses received a word from God for the Levites.

Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.” (Exodus 32:27-29, NIV)

Here is where I run into problems with some contemporary ways of reading the Bible.

I have a problem with the “three buckets” approach that reads of the Levites slaughtering 3,000 Israelites under the command of God and declares that this is not in keeping with the character of Jesus and must therefore be deemed not reflective of God’s character or will.

I have a problem with the historical-critical method that declares that this passage is really just a literary justification for the Levitical priesthood foisted on the people by religious elites in a time of social crisis or upheaval.

I even have a problem with the spiritual approach that teaches me to read in this text a call to cut out from my life everything at odds with worship of God.

I have a problem with all of these because they look at this text and flinch. They don’t start with the affirmation that God could and might and did do such a thing as order the killing of his rebellious and idolatrous people. I’m not sure what the motivation is that causes us to turn away from these parts of the Bible. And let’s be clear, there are lots stories like this one. I don’t know why we flinch, other than fear.

The God of Exodus 32 is dangerous. He is no butler waiting for our permission to enter the room and living only to serve our needs. The God of Exodus 32 is a dealer of life and death. Standing too close to that God is like walking on the edge of a high rooftop on a windy day or standing near the jaws of a wood chipper as it tears apart tree limbs. You can sense the danger in the pit of your stomach just by being there.

The biblical response to this fear is worship. Our response — so often — is to pretend Exodus 32 does not exist.

I understand the impulse to do that, but I don’t understand how we turn to the Bible once we’ve decided it is lying to us about who God is and what God does.

The Word of God for the people of God

We often use these words after we read from the Bible in worship: The Word of God for the people of God.

But I wonder if we always mean it.

Do we mean it when we call the Bible the Word of God? Many of us do not. We do not take the words of scripture to be the words of God to us. They are not from God, but about God. They are the words of humans grasping at an invisible and unknowable truth. That is what many of us believe, even if we do not say it in so many words during worship.

What would it mean for us to be a people who actually lived as if those words we speak out of liturgical habit were held in our hearts and not just on our lips? If the Bible is the Word of God rather than a word about God, shouldn’t we take it much more seriously?