But ‘the Prologue’ deserves a much more distinguished meaning for Christians. From the first eighteen verses of John’s Gospel, those famous words that begin, ‘In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God and the Word was God’, to the reading we have heard this morning, which constitutes the Prologue to the First Letter of John.
We reflect this morning on the Prologue to the First Letter of John as we begin a sermon series on that Epistle. Why 1 John? Because – at the risk of sounding like John Major – it helps us get ‘back to basics’. 1 John gets back to basics in two main areas – what we believe about Jesus and how we behave as Christians. Both were under threat in the community to which John wrote. It appears that some people had come along saying that Jesus hadn’t really taken on human flesh, it only looked like it. They also seemed to be saying that you could lower your ethical standards as a Christian. These people felt superior to the ordinary Christians, and had broken away. Who knows, perhaps they were trying to persuade others to go with them?
Are there not some similarities today? Are we tempted to water down what we believe about Jesus in order to keep the peace with people? And are there not serious issues about how some of us choose to behave in the church today? In a sermon at Knaphill last week, I alluded to problems of heavy drinking in some church circles. But whether it’s drinking or some other issue, isn’t it the case that we often amend our behaviour to fit in with society? If so, then 1 John is for us.
But enough by way of general introduction. What about the Prologue itself this week? How does that set the agenda for what is to come?
You may have heard the story about the preacher who gives a children’s address and asks the children, “What is either grey or red, is furry, has a tail and climbs trees?”
A child puts up her hand and says, “I know the answer should be Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel to me.”
Well, the Prologue to 1 John is one place where the answer is Jesus. John puts Jesus up front and central for our faith from the word ‘go’. In fact, not merely up front and central: Jesus is essential, says John in the Prologue, in three areas.
Firstly, Jesus is central to life. Hear again all those references to life in the first two verses: Jesus and his message are ‘the word of life’ (verse 1). ‘This life was revealed’ (verse 2) – that is, Jesus, the eternal Word of God, according to the Prologue of John’s Gospel, took on human flesh. John and co ‘declare to [their readers] the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to [them]’ (verse 2). That is to say, Jesus, who always has been and always will be, and who also gives eternal life, is the content of John’s preaching.
So Jesus is the life, and he is the life-giver. And when John says ‘life’, he does not merely mean ordinary life into which we are born. John means spiritual life, eternal life, the life of faith in God through Jesus Christ.
If Jesus is central to life, then, what we have here is the claim that you cannot contemplate any true discussion of what it means to have faith in God and find spiritual life unless it is centred on Jesus. God does not base entry into his kingdom on being good, being nice or being sincere, but on faith in Jesus Christ crucified and risen, whom he gave up for us.
And so we cannot water down our commitments when it comes to faith being centred on Jesus. This doesn’t prevent us from talking courteously and lovingly with people who disagree with us, whether they be people of other faiths or of no faith. It certainly doesn’t mean we have to put on our spiritual hobnail boots. In fact, it means the opposite, because the centre of our faith is Jesus Christ crucified. It is a faith that is based not on inflicting violence upon others, like a crusade or a jihad. It is a faith grounded in suffering love.
But because it is about Jesus and the Cross, it is difficult to speak as if all roads lead to God. If we say that all roads lead to God, then we are telling Jesus that his death on the Cross was unnecessary. Why go through that if there were paths to God that didn’t involve the suffering?
It will be tempting to compromise on the uniqueness of Jesus in our witness to faith today. To many, it seems that the different religions are just trying to claim that they are right, everybody else is wrong and using coercion or fear to persuade. However, as I said, the Cross is not about force. It is about the opposite. And what we know as Christians is that there is nothing else to compare with the transforming power of Christ and his Cross. It means the forgiveness of sins. It means the defeat of evil. It means there is a God who loves us so much he will stop at nothing to bring us back from the disastrous mess we have made of life and creation. How many of us know that it is Christ crucified who has changed our lives beyond recognition?
However tempting it may seem, let us not shrink back from humbly but clearly holding onto Jesus and his Cross as the centre of life and faith.
Secondly, Jesus is central to fellowship. Listen to verse 3 again:
we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
All true Christian fellowship is based on Jesus and his Father. It starts with them, it extends to us and all that we truly share as Christians is in Christ. I want us to get away from that notion that fellowship is just a warm, fuzzy feeling of friends being together, perhaps induced by a caffeine buzz we get from the coffee we drink. I heard one minister say he was in favour of church bazaars, because they promoted fellowship. I suppose he was getting at the camaraderie that comes from working together, but it seems to me that he – and many of us – have sold the New Testament notion of fellowship short.
The word translated ‘fellowship’ has to do with what we share, with what we have in common. At the heart of the life of the Father and Son is that they share the divine nature and love. What Jesus shares with us is that love of God. What we share together is the love of God in Christ.
Is it not strange, then, that for many Christians we can’t get our conversation past the weather and our aching limbs to talking together about our faith in Jesus? How sad! Of course it happens in home groups and the Discovery Group, but might we not also strengthen each other more on a Sunday if we were able to encourage one another in the faith, and not merely listen to the preacher? (Not that I’m against you listening to the sermon!)
And does not our sharing in Christ go further than that? Remember, 1 John is about both belief and behaviour. You could say our belief leads to our behaviour. When it is Christ that we share in fellowship, then not only do we have that knowledge and experience in common, we also share together the call to walk in his ways. You’ll remember that the early church shared money, possessions and even land together. Why? Because they understood fellowship in Christ. Following Jesus doesn’t just commit each one of us to him: it commits all who follow him to each other.
You’ll often hear me say that the church is a sign of God’s kingdom, a witness to his kingdom. Surely when we share fellowship in these ways we are witnessing to the world that God is building a new community. It isn’t based on greed, it isn’t based on grabbing power and it certainly isn’t based on celebrity. True fellowship – sharing all that we are and all that we have in Christ – is a powerful witness.
Thirdly and finally, Jesus is central to our joy. Verse 4:
We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
Why would writing a long tract about belief in Jesus and the behaviour that follows make John’s joy complete? The great New Testament scholar Howard Marshall puts it as simply as this:
He has the heart of a pastor which cannot be completely happy so long as some of those for whom he feels responsible are not experiencing the full blessings of the gospel.
Who or what makes us happy in the church? A good sing? Enough money in the accounts? Increased numbers? None of these is a bad thing, but they are secondary. When we focus on them, we are looking in the wrong places. If they flow from concentrating on the main thing – Jesus himself – then they are good and healthy consequences of that.
As the saying goes, we need ‘to keep the main thing the main thing’. And Jesus is ‘the main thing’. He is our joy. He is the one who brings the blessings of the gospel. When we concentrate on the gifts rather than the giver, the blessings rather than the blesser (to coin a word), we get it all wrong. We worship idols instead of Christ.
And what if we accept the poor substitutes the world offers us for joy. Money? Possessions? A good job? Food? Drugs or drunkenness? Sporting success? All can be idols, and all are pathetic substitutes for the joy that comes from Jesus Christ.
Why? Because in Jesus God gives us the way to himself. In Jesus we have fellowship with the Creator, and so we enjoy his creation, but not for its own sake: we enjoy it with thankfulness to him. In Jesus we see the Father. In Jesus we see and experience the sacrificial love of God. In Jesus we have the forgiveness of sins. In Jesus we have the call to join the cause of God’s transforming kingdom. In Jesus, all we do for him will prove to be worthwhile. Why would we look anywhere else on earth or in heaven for the foundation of joy, happiness and fulfilment?
I said just before I launched into the first of these three points that ‘John puts Jesus up front and central’. At the beginning of this sermon series, and indeed at the beginning of a new Methodist year, may we too put Jesus up front and central in our lives. May we renew our devotion to him in our commitment to worship, reading his Word and prayer. May we allow all that we learn of him to shape our lives so that we don’t just believe things about him, he affects our behaviour too.
May we hold onto him as the centre of our lives and the centre the universe, humbly but without compromise. May he so shape our fellowship that the life of the church is a powerful witness in the world to God’s redeeming love. And as we devote ourselves to him, may we be filled with ‘joy unspeakable’, joy that the world cannot match, joy that the world will envy.
In the words of one modern worship song, ‘Jesus, be the centre.’