Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Easter 3, 18th of April, 2021
1 John 3:1-7
Over the Easter season this year the lectionary gives us a series of readings from the First Letter of John. This delights me, the First Letter of John is one of my favourite books in the Bible, but I have had more trouble in writing this sermon than with any other that I have preached in my time here, because of one single verse. ‘No one who abides in [Jesus] sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.’ What on earth does the author of this letter mean?
It will probably not surprise you that although we call this a letter of John, we do not in fact know who wrote it, when it was written, or to whom. It does not begin with a salutation and end with a valediction so it might not be a letter at all. Modern commentators refer to the author of this letter as ‘the Elder,’ rather than John, because that is how the author names themself in the second and third letters of John, and I will use that name, too.
Martin Luther said of this letter: ‘This is an outstanding Epistle. It can buoy up afflicted hearts. Furthermore, it has John’s style and manner of expression, so beautifully and gently does it picture Christ to us.’ I do not always agree with Luther, but on this I do. The theme of this letter is love; the love of God for us and the love we are to show each other in imitation of God. The letter uses the word agape, love, twenty-seven times, usually in phrases like ‘God has loved us,’ ‘we love God,’ ‘let us love one another’. Agape love is the spontaneous, unmerited, creative love that flows from God to us, and that we are then called to show each other. Agape love means communion with God, a communion that we go on to demonstrate through our love for our own community. And so today’s reading starts: ‘See what love (agape) the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are’. Absolutely beautiful and gentle, as Luther says.
However, the lectionary does not simply offer us a paragraph about love. It asks us to read on to a second paragraph in which the Elder writes:
Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.
If the proof that one abides in Jesus is that one lives without sinning, then I for one do not. I sin all the time! The reason I have a ‘Prayer of Confession’ near the beginning of any service of worship that I lead is because I know that I need a quick metaphorical bath before I can genuinely worship God. Some of my colleagues place prayers of confession after the sermon, because they believe that we can only know our sins in the light of the revelation of God’s Word. Other colleagues do not have prayers of confession at all in their services, because they believe that such prayers tell people that they are miserable sinners rather than beloved children of God. But I know that I think, say, and do things that are wrong, things that hurt other people or the planet, things that do not demonstrate the love I believe God has for me and for the whole creation. Each week I confess those and am reminded that God has already forgiven me for them and then I can settle down to listen to the Word. Despite today’s reading, I believe that I both sin and that I know and am known by Jesus.
At the beginning of this letter the Elder has said the same thing. The Elder writes:
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. (1 John 1:8-10)
If that is what the Elder believes, and it does make much more sense than believing that human beings can live without sin, then what on earth does the Elder mean in today’s reading?
Reading a letter is like eavesdropping on one side of a conversation. We can only make guesses at why the Elder wrote and to what he was responding. It seems from hints in this letter that some people who had been part of the Johannine community have broken fellowship and left. From what the Elder writes they do not appear to have believed in the Incarnation, that Jesus came from God ‘in the flesh’. (1 John 4:1-3). That was the argument made by some of the gnostic sects, that the Word of God only appeared to take on humanity but in fact remained completely spiritual, and so Jesus only seemed to suffer in the crucifixion. The opening of this letter says, ‘We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life’. (1 John 1:1) Something that can be seen, looked at, and touched, is obviously not just pretending to be human.
The second reason for the split in the community may have been that some members believed that they were perfect, that they did not sin and so did not need forgiveness. Hence the Elder writing that warning to which I have already referred: ‘if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’. (1 John 1:8) Finally, those who have left do not seem to have loved other members of the Johannine community. The Elder warns: ‘whoever says, “I am in the light”, while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness’ (1 John 2:9); asks ‘how does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?’ (1 John 3:17); and states, ‘whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love’ (1 John 4:8). This letter is a letter of love, and it seems that it is because of their lack of love that some community members have left.
Today’s reading begins with the astounding statement that God loves us so much that we have become children of God. I think we forget how incredibly bizarre that statement would have appeared to the surrounding culture when this letter was written. The sons of god were the Roman emperors, not their subjects. And yet not only did the early church make the outrageous claim that Jesus, who had lived a human life and died a human death, was the Son of God, it also claimed the Jesus had made it possible for the rest of humanity to be adopted by God as God’s children. This is the incredible good news that the Elder shares with his readers.
That God loves us so much that we can be called God’s children has existential, eschatological, and ethical dimensions. ‘Existential’ because this is our truest identity. I am not primarily a middle-aged woman, an Anglo-Celtic Australian, a sister and aunt, a minister. I am, first and foremost, a child of God. And the same is true of each of you. Each of us, at our deepest level, in our truest identity, is a child of God. ‘Eschatological’ because we have not yet finished becoming what God wants us to be. We do not yet know what that will look like: ‘what we will be has not yet been revealed’. What we do know, the Elder writes, is this: when Jesus is revealed we will be like him, for we will then see him as he is. This is what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, ‘now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known’. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
Finally, being called the children of God has an ethical dimension, which is why the Elder writes that ‘no one who abides in him sins’. We cannot simply relax into our identity as God’s children, knowing that no matter what we may do we have already been forgiven for it. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome: ‘Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?’ (Romans 6:1-2) This, I think, is why the Elder writes to his readers, ‘Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous’. We know our righteousness, our right relationship with God, comes through the mediation of Jesus. We know that nothing we do places us beyond God’s love and forgiveness. This, however, does not mean that we should happily do wrong. That every Sunday I confess my sins to God and am reminded that God has already forgiven me does not mean that I should give up at least trying to do better on the other days of the week.
Today’s lectionary reading ends with verse 7, probably because verses 8-10 compare the children of God with the children of the devil and for Christians to start believing that we are the children of God, while those others over there are the children of the devil, has in the past led to the burning of witches, the destruction of Indigenous cultures, and the Holocaust. But the end of verse ten is well worth quoting: ‘all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters’. This is why I love this letter; it is, I say again, all about love. Over the remaining weeks of Easter you will hear that again and again. ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them,’ (1 John 4:16) writes the Elder, summing up in one sentence what I try to say ever single week. ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.’ (1 John 4:7) Let us live in God’s love. Amen.