1 John 2:12-17
The highest grossing film in British cinema history is ‘Mamma Mia!’. You may well know that it began life as a West End musical, in which the story is woven around songs by ABBA. It tells of a bride-to-be named Sophie, who is trying to find her real father. She discovers from reading her mother’s diary that her father could be any one of three different men, and so invites them all to the wedding.
In a conversation with her fiancé, a character called Sky, she says, “I want to know who I am.”
He replies, “That doesn’t come from finding your father; that comes from finding yourself.”
Knowing who you are is vital to healthy living. And knowing who we are seems to be John’s point here in the battle against sin. When he tells us not to ‘love the world’ (verse 15) – that is, the parts of creation organised in rebellion against God – it would be easy to issue a list of what to do and what not to do. A set of rules. He could tell us what is wrong in terms of the greed and lust he describes ‘the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of riches’ (verse 16), naming and shaming all the wrong behaviour. It would all be so easy.
And so wrong.
It would fail. A list of rules on its own doesn’t work. Telling us what is right and wrong isn’t enough to induce good behaviour. It doesn’t transform us. If anything, it makes wrongdoing more appealing.
John has a different tactic here. He encourages us to know our identity first. He wants us to know who we are in the sight of God. Because that will make a difference.
So to get to how we resist the allure of a world in opposition to God, we examine the words before that, the words addressed to ‘children’, ‘young people’ and ‘fathers’ – because in spiritual terms,
All Christians should have the innocence of childhood, the strength of youth, and the mature knowledge of age.
To be innocent, strong and mature in the face of temptation to sin requires knowing our spiritual identity. We need to know who we are in God’s eyes.
Firstly, we are forgiven:
I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven on account of his name. (Verse 12)
You will recall, no doubt, that my predecessor was a big fan of Doctor Who. I do not share his passion. However, Rebekah and Mark avidly watch repeats of the children’s spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures and Debbie loves the adult spin-off, Torchwood. This last summer, there was a Torchwood story called Miracle Day, where suddenly humanity becomes immortal. A convicted child killer thus survives execution and lives to make this statement:
I have been forgiven, a substantial number of people have forgiven me. I can feel that in my heart, my guts. And forgiveness is like a tide or storm – it clears the air. I’m very lucky to have been forgiven and I feel very blessed. And I think of forgiveness as a cure.
The character is right. Forgiveness clears the air. It is a cure. Amongst other things, it is not only a cure for past wrongs, it is a cure as we face present temptation.
How so? Like this: if we face temptation and simply invoke the ‘right and wrong’ approach, we shall get worked up about failure, because we shall feel both guilt and hopelessness on the occasions when we fail. There is no good news for someone who breaks the rules, if that is all there is.
But what if we know we are forgiven? People who are forgiven still have a deep sense of right and wrong. They too do not want to depart from God’s ways. However, their motive is different. They know they are loved, even when they transgress God’s laws. They still want to do what is right, but it is not out of fear. It is because they long to please the God who loves them enough to forgive them in Jesus Christ and him crucified.
Next time you face temptation, remember that God has already forgiven you in Jesus Christ. Remember what that tells you about the God of love, grace and mercy. When fear paralyses you, remember what kind of God we believe in: the God of the manger, the Cross and the empty tomb. He offers forgiveness before we receive it. Let that set you free in the face of temptation.
Secondly, we know Jesus:
I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning. (Verse 13)
‘Him who is from the beginning’ could be God the Father, but he gets a name check in the next verse, so we’ll assume this is Jesus. In any case, knowledge of one is similar to knowledge of the other. However, for the purposes of this point we’ll stick with knowing Jesus, and see that as covering what John says about knowing the Father, too. But what is the significance to overcoming sin of knowing Jesus?
Let me approach it this way. I expect you remember the quiz show Mr and Mrs. Husbands and wives took it in turns to answer questions about each other while their spouse could not hear their replies. Then the spouse came back and we saw whether the answers were correct. You would see how well they knew each other. Sometimes it was surprisingly accurate, sometimes the surprise came in what they didn’t know about each other, however many years they’d been married.
Let me venture to suggest that our relationship with Jesus is a little bit like that. We come to know him through the forgiveness we have just talked about, and that relationship grows over the years. Our knowledge of him is far from perfect, but as we get to know him better we discover someone who is an amazing support in our struggle against sin.
It isn’t that Jesus is like an indulgent grandfather who trivialises the misdeeds of his grandchildren, who explains away their actions and makes easy excuses for their wrongdoing. Such an answer would not go down well on a spiritual ‘Mr and Mrs’.
Nor is it true to envisage Jesus as a severe monster, ready to rip to shreds any being that puts the slightest foot wrong. Again, that would be a wrong answer about our relationship with him.
The Bible presents an image of Jesus as full of both acceptance and holiness. His holiness means he cannot abide sin, but he also accepts us through the Cross, in which he has conquered sin. And furthermore, he is the Lord of the broken and the weak. If he has a particular group that he targets for criticism, it is religious leaders who harshly apply the rules and end up excluding people for no good reason.
When you know you are loved, warts and all, you can stand strong. If you doubt whether you are loved or accepted, you will wobble in the face of sin. If you are unsure of Jesus and his love, you will struggle. But if you know a relationship with Jesus in which you are accepted then yes, you will still stumble and fall from time to time, but you will be able to pick yourself up because Jesus does that for you and sets you on your way again. To know he loves you is to be in a different place when facing temptation.
Remember – Jesus is ‘him who is from the beginning’ – and since the beginning of all things, the Father and Jesus have had grand designs on your life. They have planned good things for you. Jesus is called ‘the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world’ (Revelation 13:8). Jesus is on our side in the war against sin. He is not standing back, waiting to condemn us at the earliest opportunity. He is for us, he has always been planning for our welfare, he is our cheerleader and he gives us all we need to fight against the lusts and desires of the world.
Thirdly and finally, we are winners. Compare the two statements John makes to those he calls ‘young people’:
I am writing to you, young people,
because you have conquered the evil one. (Verse 13)
I write to you, young people,
because you are strong
and the word of God abides in you,
and you have overcome the evil one. (Verse 14)
When our children are having one of their altogether too frequent wars with each other, they insult one another by calling out, ‘Loser!’ And sadly that’s what a lot of us think we are. We don’t see ourselves as winners, but as losers. We know our failures. The idea that we are in any sense winners makes little sense to us. We are conscious of our many failures, and some of us go further, tipping into low self-esteem, practising what someone once called ‘worm theology’ – as if we say, ‘I am only a worm.’ We might see ourselves the way Elvis Costello once described in a song:
I was a fine idea at the time
But now I’m a brilliant mistake.
So talk of being winners in the spiritual life may sound like a foreign language to us. But John says we have conquered the evil one, we are strong, the word of God abides in us and we have overcome the evil one. In other words, whatever mess we have made of our lives, whatever mistakes and failures we can count, whatever disappointments we have caused, the Holy Spirit gives us the tools that can enable us to be winners – to ‘conquer’ or ‘overcome’ the evil one.
What are those tools? They come in our being ‘strong’ and in ‘the word of God [abiding] in [us]’. We have a new strength in that the Gospel is about more than the forgiveness of our sins. The kingdom message is not only that we are forgiven through the Cross of Christ. It is also that we are given power to live differently, because the Holy Spirit lives in us. Therefore, in the face of temptation, we have new resources to call on. When we struggle on our own, we frequently fail. But we are a new creation in Christ, the Spirit of God resides within us, and sometimes what we need to do is call out to the Holy Spirit for help.
We also have the ‘tool’ of ‘the word of God [which] abides in [us]’. The message of the Gospel, encapsulated in the Scriptures, is available to us, just as Jesus used it time and again in the wilderness when he was tempted. One of the things we can do to build up our defences ready to withstand seasons of temptation is to soak ourselves in the Scriptures. Not so much the quickly dashed off reading of the Bible for daily devotions, but taking the time to meditate on the Scriptures and give time for them to soak into us.
All in all, then, we don’t have to face the temptations of worldly lusts and desires with just our own willpower. We face temptation, knowing that it is not about struggling to achieve a certain performance level of holiness, because we are already forgiven. We face it too, in the knowledge that we are known and loved by Jesus and his Father. We cannot earn their love by attaining perfection; rather, we know already they are on our side, full of grace, mercy and love for the broken and the failures. And to our astonishment, we are no longer weak but strong, because the Holy Spirit gives us not only his own power but also unlocks the power of the Scriptures, as we take deliberate steps to store them up in our hearts and minds during our ‘seven years of plenty’ before the spiritual famine comes.
Let us be encouraged, then, that by the grace of God, the love of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the resources to resist worldly appetites. May we live more closely according to this Good News.
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.’