Narrative Lectionary Year 4
1 John 1:1-4
Today we move from the desert mountain of Sinai forward in time, from centuries before Jesus walked the earth to the early days of Christianity. Welcome to our next summer sermon series, where we move from the book of Exodus to the New Testament document known as 1 John. We don’t know very much for certain about this letter, but we can make educated guesses based on what is written there. The first thing to notice is that this letter has a lot of similarities in writing and themes to the Gospel of John. In fact, the verses that we have before us today sound very similar to the opening chapter of the Gospel of John, which is why these two readings have been paired together. However, there are some differences in these two documents as well. So scholars theorize that, while the Gospel of John and 1 John may not have been written by the same person—and we note that neither of these two documents has a name attached to them; it is tradition that assigns them both to someone named John—it is very probable that they were written in the same community of Christians. Tradition associates the ministry of the apostle John with the city of Ephesus, so it is possible that 1 John originated with the community of Christians in Ephesus, but we don’t know for certain.
What we can also deduce from this letter, and from 2 and 3 John as well, is that the community was experiencing schism or division between different factions who believed different things about Jesus. Whereas the Gospel of John was written to show that the human being known as Jesus of Nazareth was also the Son of God, it appears from 1 John that some groups of Christians were going too far in the other direction, and claiming that Jesus was more divine than he was human. So, what does that look like and why is it a bad thing? Well, if Jesus is more divine than he is human, we run the risk of having our faith become too much of a private thing, a “me and you, Jesus,” kind of thing. These are the people that would say they don’t have the need to come and worship Jesus with other members of the Christian community, because they are spiritual, but not religious—they worship Jesus on their own terms. One of the things that 1 John is written for is to counteract that attitude, and to remind people of how important it was that Jesus was human as well as divine, and how that translates into a need for a flesh-and-blood Christian community.
You might be saying to yourselves, “Well, of course, Jesus was both divine and human. We get that. And I understand the need for flesh-and-blood community and worship; otherwise I wouldn’t be here today.” But, let’s go a little bit deeper and examine these assumptions, and I’m going to start with two Gospel stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus appears to the disciples on the evening of Easter Sunday, their first reaction is that Jesus is a ghost. Well, of course they would think that—because they had seen Jesus die in the most gruesome way possible, and no one ever comes back from the dead! But Jesus invites them to touch him, “for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And just to emphasize the point, he eats a piece of broiled fish in front of them. Ghosts don’t do that—Jesus was resurrected in the body, not as some kind of spirit floating around! And in the Gospel of John, we have the story of Thomas, who wouldn’t believe Jesus was raised until he put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in Jesus’ side. And when Jesus appeared to Thomas, he invited Thomas to do just that. We’ve heard these stories so often that we don’t think about it anymore: Jesus was raised in the body—and because of that, we have the same promise, that we will one day be raised in the body—not as spirits floating around on clouds playing harps, but in flesh and blood walking around on a renewed earth.
That’s one of the points that 1 John is trying to make in our reading today: “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.” Jesus isn’t just some spiritual being floating around in the clouds with God. Jesus was a real-live flesh-and-blood human being, someone who could be seen and touched, and somehow, at the same time, the Son of God, divine. In some miraculous, mysterious way, the Divine Son of God came to earth and became one of us, flesh-and-blood, a real human being. That is the mystery that 1 John is proclaiming to us. And because Jesus thought it was important enough to take on human flesh and blood, then that means not only our spirits but our bodies are important to God as well.
So again I ask, what does this look like in today’s society? Well, I think our culture struggles with this as well. On the one hand, we have doctors urging us to take care of our bodies so that we can live healthier and longer lives. Trust me, I’ve been on the receiving end of that speech more times than I can count! As I mentioned last week when I was talking about the commandment against coveting, we also have the advertising industry bombarding us with messages to join fitness clubs, to go on diets, to use the right soap, lotion, perfume, and so on, so that we can be beautiful and somehow more worthy of love and other good things in life. But on the other hand, there is a growing pushback in our society that it is our spirit that is more important than our body. I recently read a review of a movie called Every Day. This is the only place I’ve read about it, but apparently it came out a few months ago. The premise is this: a being without gender inhabits a different body each day and meets a shy teenager named Rhiannon—each day in a different body. In other words, the spirit remains the same, but it is only the body that changes; the body is unimportant. The idea behind this is that the outside appearance of a person doesn’t matter so much; rather, it is the spirit of the person that you love.
In some ways, this is a good message. It teaches us to look beyond the appearance of a person and to love the good qualities of that person: kindness, loyalty, friendliness, responsibility, and whatever other personality traits we find attractive in a friend or a mate. But that is not to say that we should completely discount the body in which we find the spirit that we love. The reviewer of this movie, Cara Strickland, writes, “I think it matters that you are exactly your height, with exactly your vision of the world. At just over 5 feet, 2 inches tall, I see things differently than my 6-foot brother does. It matters whether our hair is curly or straight and if we bite our nails. It matters how we walk, laugh and what we do with our hands when we’re nervous. All of these things and more shape the way we see the world and the way the world sees us. All of these things make us who we are.” In other words, love for another person means embracing the complete person, both body and spirit, and committing to be with that person completely, both body and spirit.
And this is what Jesus did, and this is what 1 John, and we, too, proclaim: Jesus loved us so completely, both body and spirit, that he, who, yes, was divine, took on human flesh and lived among us. God became human in the person of Jesus, and in Jesus, God now understands what it is like to physically be a human being. In the person of Jesus, God laughed and God wept; was hungry and thirsty and was tired. And yes, on that Good Friday so long ago, God in Jesus died a physical death on the cross. For us. Because God loved us so much. This is the mystery that we proclaim. It’s a mystery that even I and all those of us who spent years at seminary cannot understand with our minds, but can only cling to with faith. Somehow Jesus was both divine and human at the same time, and our struggle in faith is to not go too far either to the divine, which would mean thinking of the material world as completely bad, or too far to the human side, which would mean that Jesus was nothing more than another teacher and there would be nothing about his death which would save us.
So, what does all of this mean for us in practical terms? We come together on Sundays to hear the good news: that God loved us so much that God came to be one of us in Jesus Christ, and died on the cross for us. We understand that God loves the material world that God created. From this, we can understand that we are to love one another, both body and spirit, and care for one another’s needs that are both in the body—such as hunger, thirst, shelter, and so on—and one another’s spiritual needs—caring for people who are grieving, who are lonely, who are depressed, and who wonder where God is in their lives. Not only this, but we are to see the material world that God created as good and to care for it as God does—by recycling, by taking good care of the animals that God has given us, by working to reduce pollution, by not using chemicals that could harm life, and by so many other ways. The material world is not disposable and the spiritual world is also not disposable. We are creatures of both spirit and body, and both of these things matter.
Let us then proclaim this word of life that we have seen and heard and touched with our hands to all of those around us. And let us have fellowship with one another and with God the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ—caring for one another, both body and spirit, and coming together to worship God each week so we may go out into the world once more refreshed. And when we do this, we pray that our joy, too, may be complete. Amen.