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.

 

What is the gospel?

John Wesley answers the question “What is the gospel?” in his sermon “The Way to the Kingdom.”

The gospel, (that is, good tidings, good news for guilty, helpless sinners,) in the largest sense of the word, means, the whole revelation made to men by Jesus Christ; and sometimes the whole account of what our Lord did and suffered while he tabernacled among men. The substance of all is, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners;” or, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end we might not perish, but have everlasting life;” or, “He was bruised for our transgressions, he was wounded for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

We can see a little of the Wesleyan both/and here. He acknowledges that the gospel includes the entire account of Jesus’ incarnation and ministry. Fans of N.T. Wright can cheer this. But he also identifies the “substance,” a word that in philosophy and theology means the essential nature of the thing. That essential heart of the gospel is the saving and atoning work of Jesus.

In the shadow of the cross

How early did Jesus know?

One conventional answer is that he was born to die, and as God incarnate he knew this all along. Even if we wait for explicit biblical references, though, it is clear that Jesus saw the cross looming up a long time before he got there.

And yet he kept walking forward. He kept teaching. He kept healing. He kept praying. He kept on doing what he was here to do.

This is the way life responds to death and fear.

A word to myself today.

You are not a rhubarb pie

I really don’t understand this.

A fellow pastor posted on his Facebook page this blog post from a self-identified progressive Christian blogger and ordained Presbyterian minister. My fellow pastor lauded the post as providing great food for thought.

The point of the post, if you don’t want to read it, is that Jesus never said he was God in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so worshiping Jesus as God should not be a requirement for calling ourselves Christians. The writer informs us that he calls himself a Christian because Jesus is the best teacher he knows about “this god thing.” The title of the blog post does not beat around the bush: Jesus Is Not My God.

As I say, I don’t understand this.

I’m not terribly familiar with the doctrinal standards of the Presbyterian Church (USA), but I assume somewhere in there it talks about Jesus being God. I feel fairly confident about this because this has been a more or less settled question for 1,700 years. What I read of John Calvin and what I’ve read about John Knox suggests to me that they took the whole Jesus is God thing pretty seriously, too.

The blog writer says he is not trying to say orthodox Christians are wrong (I’m allowed to use orthodox in this case, right Via Media?). He just wants to be free to call himself a Christian even though he openly denies that Jesus is God.

Of course, it is a free country. If he wants to call himself a rhubarb pie, he can do so. But the rest of us are still allowed to tell him he is wrong.

Right? Could we still do that if he were a United Methodist?

Not a bad gig some days

“How do I get that?”

I had been talking to a woman about God. She was convinced that God could never look on her with love. She had done too much that in her own eyes was wrong and unworthy of God.

In all her talk, she had never uttered the word “Jesus,” even though she had talked over and over about her certainty that God “is there.”

So, I asked her about Jesus. She did not know what to say about him. She was not sure how God was Jesus and Jesus was God. It was all confusing. So, we talked about that for a little bit.

Then I talked to her about the fact that God loves us, loves her. I talked about the fact that all of us — me as much as any — fall short of the glory of God. We all are sinners. We all have a list of the ways we fall short of God’s dreams for our lives.

But the good news is this: While we were yet sinners, Jesus Christ died for us.

And I talked about the cross and forgiveness and new life.

I talked about the sense, the assurance, the knowledge that one can have that Jesus Christ loves me and died for me and forgives me, even me, for all sin.

“How can I get that?” she asked.

And so I talked about faith. I talked about trust in Jesus. I talked about it being something that we receive not something we do. I asked her if she would like to pray with me.

“I was going to ask you if we could,” she said.

And so we prayed. We confessed our sin. We asked to be forgiven. We named Jesus as Lord and Savior. We thanked him for all he has done and will do for us. One after the other. Voice after voice.

As she prayed, she cried.

We said “Amen.”

When I saw her the next day we talked about building on that foundation. We talked about finding a church where others could help her continue what had begun.

She said that before she had been seeking relationship with God. She thought she had it. But what she had was not real. It needed drugs and alcohol to keep her numb.

“I know what it means now. I know what it means to have a relationship with Jesus.”

She smiled.

Some days, being a pastor is not at all a bad way to get along in this world.

Tearing ‘em to pieces

In a letter to a Methodist preacher in 1750, John Wesley cautioned Joseph Cownley against preaching nothing but God’s love and thereby neglecting the law. Here are Wesley’s words:

Let the Law always prepare for the Gospel. I scare ever spoke more earnestly here of the love of God in Christ than last night: But it was after I had been tearing the unawakened to pieces. Go thou and do likewise.

Remember, Wesley preached in many churches once, but far fewer twice.

It is true, the love of God in Christ alone feeds his children; but even they are to be guided as well as fed; yea, and often physicked too: And the bulk of our hearers must be purged before they are fed; else we only feed the disease. Beware of all honey. It is the best extreme; but it is an extreme.

I really wrestle with how to follow this advice of Wesley. It is hard to preach the law, especially in congregations where few people are bold and open sinners and most believe themselves to be good, earnest Christians. The specter of hypocrisy and legalism hovers over my shoulder whenever I try to do this. I never come close to tearing them to pieces.

Just last week, I was preaching on Matthew 10:24-39. It was not a Law text, really. It was about the apostles getting abused in word and body and about not being worthy of Jesus if they did not love Jesus more than family and did not take up there cross.

It was a tough sermon for me to preach. I was determined not to preach it in a way that rounded off the hard edges of that text, but I’m sure my distress over the text showed in the preaching — as well as not managing my week terribly well and not leaving myself enough time to work on it. Thank you lectionary for forcing me to attempt it.

Wesley writes in this letter — and elsewhere — that he too finds the preaching of Gospel pleasing. He suggests that he preached Law because it was necessary to the salvation of his hearers.

His insistence on these points stands as a challenge to me. Do I need more Law in my preaching? Am I tearing the unawakened to pieces?