WHAT WAS FROM THE BEGINNING
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We’re at the start of a new season. You came back! We’re always happy to see people come back. For some of us we never really left of course. It’s significant that we’re here too. It feels like the beginning of something new. For many a kind of ramping up in terms of activities. Back to school, back to the grind. No more hazy lazy days and all that kind of thing.
What would it be good for us to do here at Blythwood in the face of such a season? We’re proposing that we take the next few weeks to re-centre. To refresh. To go back to basics in a way. We’re going to be doing this by looking at the letters of John.
They’re much-loved letters, particularly the first one. Martin Luther had this to say about 1st John – “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.” It contains verses like “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” “Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”
All is not sweetness and light in the letter though. Buoys not only act as flotation devices but as warnings after all. So we have verses like “Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this, we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belonged to us.” Or this one – “The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way; all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.”
So what is going on here exactly?
Church tradition has it that these letters were written by the Apostle John, brother of James. One half of the Sons of Thunder. It’s impossible to say one way or another and I don’t like to get dogmatic about this sort of thing. For our purposes, I’ll call the writer John. If it’s not John it’s someone who was familiar with his writings, teaching and thought processes. Some have described the author as belonging to a Johannine school or community. A cursory reading of both reveals themes of life, of light and darkness, abiding, the beginning.
And the letter was written to a community or set of faith communities. It was written for a purpose. It’s not really set up like a letter at all. We’d be better to call it a writing perhaps. There’s no “To the church” at the beginning or any kind of sign off. It’s been described as a tract. I received a tract from someone not long ago.
The thing about this tract from John though, is that it applied not just to the people he was writing to but it has had a message to Christians throughout the centuries and it has a message for us today. John is writing because there’s been some sort of schism in the church. He doesn’t go into detail about what has caused the schism, but we can infer from what he writes that there are those who are denying the humanity (or full humanity) of Jesus. These same people are not being very loving. We talk a lot around here about how following Christ is an exercise in steadfastness (sticktoitiveness as they say). John is writing to encourage people to stick to it. He’s doing this by focussing on two things – what it is that we believe and how what we believe is worked out in our actions. These two things are not to act independently of one another. They are both operative in the Christian life. Comparing the message of the Gospel of John to the letters of John, John Stott said this – “His desire for the readers of the Gospel was that through faith they might receive life; for the readers of the Epistle that they might know they already had it.” What we believe. Who we are called to be. Let’s ask for God’s help as we look at the start of the letter this morning.
I’m not really one for labels. I’ve never described myself as a fundamentalist and I don’t now. I remember my father saying to me once “We’re not fundamentalists, but we believe in the fundamentals.” I agree with him. John begins with the fundamental truth of our faith. Our cornerstone. Our solid ground. Where we always must begin. With Christ. These lines don’t make much sense if we’re not familiar with the opening of John’s Gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” The letter starts without a verb – our NRSV Bibles put “We declare” in verse 1 for it to make grammatical sense. The way John writes it is much more poetic. Listen to the lines – “That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we did behold, and our hands did handle, concerning the Word of the Life…” (YLT) The revelation of God. The revealing of God. It’s like a progression through which God drew closer to us. Hearing. Seeing. Beholding. Handling. The word for handle here denotes seeking after, like groping after in the dark. The thing which we groped for, stumbled around in the darkness looking for - we have touched.
John is looking back. If he wasn’t one of the ones who touched Jesus, he was connected to them, just as we are in a long line of succession. Our faith always looks back. Our faith always looks back to that which has come before; to those who have come before. Our look back takes us to Christ. The Word, as John’s Gospel, describes him. Also the word. The good news. The word of life. The word that began when God was manifested among us in the person of God’s son. The bringer of life. Life of the ages. Life the way it was meant to be lived. The message that we have received. The message that someone told us. Thank God for the people who told us about the good news as we look back.
The word of life. The word that brings life. The good news. Elsewhere it’s called the word of the kingdom (Matt), the word of salvation (Acts), the word of reconciliation (1 Cor).
We’re talking about life. I think this is pretty exciting. I was excited to start this look at 1 John. I still am. We’re talking about the best news the world has ever received. The establishment of the kingdom of God. Humanity and all creation brought back to God. Life.
Do you know this life? John knew it. He was writing to a group of people who knew it. If you don’t know it, you can say I want to make Jesus Lord of my life. Have you made that decision? Do you make that decision every day? In Jesus God has said
“Yes” to us. The invitation is to say our “Yes” back to God. Have you known this? Do you know this?
We’re called to be witnesses to it. This life was revealed, and we have seen it, and testify to it. Taking a chance to go back to the fundamentals gives us a chance to reflect on that to which we are called to be witnesses. What has the revelation of God in Christ Jesus and in the Holy Spirit among us now meant to you? What have the promises of Christ meant to you?
We’re called to be witnesses to it. To testify to it. To declare it. We get together once a week to declare it. We’re called to bear it out in our words as we go through our days and weeks. In our actions. In our thoughts and attitudes. We’ll be talking more about these in the coming weeks of course.
Why do we do all these things? What is the point of all this? It comes back to that great word koinonia. Never mentioned in the Gospel of John. Mentioned a lot by Paul. Mentioned a lot in this writing. This is really quite a tight introduction, isn’t it? 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. Koinonia. Sharing. Fellowship. Association. Communion. Intimacy.
Connection. This is what we crave as human beings. You can read countless articles about it. There’s a big debate in criminal justice circles about the use of solitary confinement as studies have shown it to literally drive people insane. Communion. Connection. It’s what we were made for. This is our position. The good news is that a way has been opened for us to live our lives in connection with the creator of everything. The source of light and life and love. This life is open to us. It’s the joining into that thing that some call the divine dance. The eternal communion/fellowship that exists between God the Father and God the Son and God the Spirit. A hand has been extended to us to join in on that dance. We are called into the same sort of fellowship/sharing with one another. It’s a reminder that the church is not just existing for itself. It’s a reminder that the church is not existing just to look back. We’re to look around us and ask God to give us the discernment and wisdom and courage and new ways to invite others into this sharing in the life of the author of life. John Stott puts it like this in his commentary – “…the Christian message is neither a philosophical speculation, nor a tentative suggestion, nor a modest contribution to religious thought, but a dogmatic affirmation by those whose experience and commission qualify them to make it.”
You may still ask (or be asked) “To what end?”
“We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
Isn’t it interesting that John’s joy is somehow connected to the joy of the friends to whom he writes. There’s no kind of “I’m alright Jack – you worry about yourself” attitude here. We’re to be in this thing together. We’re to stay in it and continue to believe and to act so that our joy may be complete. So that our joy may be made full. Love. Joy. Peace. Patience. Kindness. Goodness. Faithfulness. Gentleness. Self-control. Joy. One of the ways in which the nature of God is to be borne out in us through the Spirit of God. Not simply as an emotion. Not simply as a reaction to circumstance, but as someone once described Biblical joy – “…joy is more is more than a mood or an emotion. Joy is an understanding of existence that encompasses both elation and depression, that can accept with creative submission events which bring delight or dismay because joy allows one to see beyond any particular event to the sovereign Lord, who stands above all events and ultimately has control over them.” A joy that’s going to find it’s fullness one day because our faith looks forward too. A joy that’s going to find its fullness when we sit around that great banquet table in Christ’s presence. The Psalmist put it so well – “You show me the path of life./ In your presence, there is fullness of joy…” (Ps 16:11)
We’re getting back to the fundamentals with John over the coming weeks, friends. May we hear God’s voice in this message, so that we too may know that we have life eternal.