“Taking Light Steps”
Easter Living: A Journey with the First Letter of John
1 John 1: 1-10 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ April 8, 2018
Are you feeling the after-effects Easter? Do you have an Easter hangover? Well…let’s take a short quiz: If you have bits of Easter-egg tinfoil wrappers littered throughout your home, then you might just have an Easter hangover. If you have partially eaten chocolate bunnies literring your kitchen counter and, in fact, you don’t want to see another piece of chocolate ever, ever again, then you might just have an Easter hangover. If your fridge reveals the leftovers of last week’s Easter feast ~ turkey carcasses, ham shavings and homemade soup, you might just have an Easter hangover. If the words “Christ is Risen” provoke your less than enthusiastic response of “He is risen indeed!” you might just have an Easter hangover. If you thought (and dare I say it), ‘what’s the point of going to church again this Sunday. I attended ALL through Holy Week…I need a Sunday off’, you might just have an Easter hangover. This Sunday in the church is affectionately called ‘Low Sunday’, partly because we tend to see a drop in attendance immediately after Easter Sunday and people tend to take a week or two until they return to church routines after Easter Sunday. But even more than this Sunday being “low Sunday” due to a dip in attendance, it is also “low Sunday” because, if we think on it, no Sunday can shine as brightly or more powerfully as last Easter Sunday ever could. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that every Sunday is a ‘little Easter’, but last Sunday was the big one! Easter Sunday is the cornerstone of our faith; the resurrection ~ the gift of new life after death. We experience, again, the resurrection of Jesus Christ and ponder its meaning. And here, in the aftermath of that glory, we now wander on our spiritual journey into the season of Eastertide.
As many are aware, this is the year that the lectionary focusses on the gospel according to Mark. In the Easter season, the lectionary gospel selections tend to be post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. And so, in this season, you might expect to hear the story of the doubting Thomas and his interaction with the Risen Jesus ~ which we did just that last year, when our gospel focus was on Matthew. Similarly, when the gospel focus was on Luke, we focus on Luke’s post-resurrection accounts. But we have an interesting dilemma facing us this year. In Mark, there are no post-resurrection appearances in the original gospel account. So what shall we do? Well…aside from gospel lections, the lectionary offers the option of looking at the Epistle. Each week, aside from the gospel lections, there are three other readings. Two are from the Old Testament. And the fourth reading is an epistle. And in this Eastertide, the epistle’s focus is upon the First Letter of John. And as we open this letter, we gain an opportunity to dig deeply into the ways in which the early Christian community embodied and lived out their identity of being Easter people who follow their Risen Lord. We are given an opportunity of ‘listening in’ on how this community lived out their Easter faith, as one of the elders of the followers of John’s community guides them in how to live in this post Easter time. And over the coming Easter Sundays, we will have a chance to ‘mine’ this letter for the riches that it presents: guidance for us as a community of faith and guidance for us as individual followers of faith. And so, let us begin as we imagine a community existing towards the end of the first century ~ followers, predominantly of John’s version of the gospel as they seek to live out the way of the Risen Christ.
One of the first things we need to do when looking at a piece of scripture is consider the setting and the purpose of the text. As we will discover, this letter was written to an increasingly disillusioned community eking out an existence towards the end of the first century in a land dominated by Roman occupation. Paul Tillich, a great theologian from the last century, wrote in his essay “You are Accepted” about what this must have been like: “year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage”. There was an empty tomb…the women had run screaming in terror and amazement from it…yet there still was not the sense that Jesus’ Way was being realized, that Jesus’ Way was overcoming, that the Kingdom had come. They were still living under the iron rule of the Romans and Christ’s Way had not ushered in a new rule of God. One of the realities that had been of concern to the elders of the community was the sin of ‘rugged individualism’. It was that sin of thinking that they can go it alone, that they do not need to follow Jesus’ Way anymore. Easter was barely over; the decorations had been freshly put away and life was going back to pretty-much normal. And they were forgetting the point of their existence ~ to be an Easter community where the Risen Christ becomes realized in their gathering. Or in Greek ‘koinonia’ ~ which later gave us the word community.
The text puts it like this: “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you may also have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete”. There was that deep sense that to be in community with other believers was that opportunity to see Christ in their midst. And the sin of ‘rugged individualism’ was that push to go it alone and believe that one could accomplish things all on one’s own. We have increasingly been realizing this as a world today…the need for community…the need for one another. As people spend more time in isolation ~ working electronically ~ separated geographically from family ~ heck we can even stay at home and attend a church service! Community is in tremendous threat! This letter begins with this beautiful call for form authentic community: “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you may also have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete”. Joy may not be complete until EVERYONE is gathered together in community…in koinonia. Notice in the letter that the meaning of being an Easter people is not defined by a set of creeds or doctrines. The meaning of being a Christian is in how they gather in community. It is defined by fellowship…by community. Easter people are defined as a gathering of Christ’s people who for the good and the bad gather together…as a crazy Christian community…and create family.
There is a second theme to the opening of the letter, which really builds on this call to community, and that is the nature of human brokenness, of sin. In the text, there is the realization of our human brokenness ~ our nature to sin and our human tendency then to immediately cover up those mistakes by hiding them. This makes reference to the original sin of Adam and Eve who ate from the forbidden fruit and immediately covered up their bodies to hide that they were naked, to hide from God in the Garden. In a sense, the text points to the paradox of the world we live in: that the world is divided into those who live in darkness and those who live in light. As the text puts it: “if we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another”. I did a funeral some years ago for a younger man and the family wanted to use classic rock in the service as that was his genre of music. One song they chose was the 1969 Norman Greenbaum song “Spirit in the Sky”. The refrain, echoes the beliefs of our world on sin. It goes like this: “Never been a sinner. I’ve never sinned. I’ve got a friend in Jesus”. I cringed as this was played over the speakers. Did I love the beat and energy for this younger person’s service? Absolutely! Yet, I just hated the theology presented in the song. What the song skips over is that we need God. And we need forgiveness. We are constantly messing up. And that is the nature of Jesus’ Good News…that Jesus loves us despite our failings and failures. And that God offers us forgiveness. To say: “Never been a sinner. I’ve never sinned. I’ve got a friend in Jesus” seems to me, to be a complete perversion of the very gospel Jesus came to bring. As the letter concludes chapter one: “If we say 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 our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. One of the most challenging and beautiful parts of being a Christian is to acknowledge our human frailty and brokenness…to acknowledge our sin…and to know that we find forgiveness as a core part of our faith. Coming clean before God can be the most challenging and the most liberating experience in one’s life. It is that true gift in our Easter faith to be our true selves…to stand naked and vulnerable before God and find forgiveness…find hope…and know the Easter message of new life. Brenee’ Brown is a Psychologist from Vanderbilt University who specializes in vulnerability. In her book Daring Greatly, she offers this wisdom “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
And that brings the writer to the key verse for this chapter ~ that God is light. “This is the message that we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all”. The chapter, then, becomes a call towards taking steps that lead towards light ~ towards God. Taking light steps are those intentional steps that we walk as people of the Easter faith. Taking light steps are about creating ‘koinonia’ ~ creating community where all are gathered / none are excluded as a spiritual family and the Risen One becomes found in our midst. Taking light steps are about acknowledging our humanity ~ our brokenness and finding forgiveness in our renewed connection with God whose very desire is to bring wholeness to each of us. Taking light steps is about seeing the risen Christ in our lives and in our communities. Theologian C. Clifton Black in his commentary on First John wrote of the presence of the risen Christ saying: “Christ is made present to a generation of Christians who no longer can see or hear him, except by the eyes and ears of faith”. May we take light steps and find the Risen Christ in our journeys this Easter season and beyond.