A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
June 24, 2018
1 John 1
Who, exactly, was Jesus?
Was he a teacher who said some cool stuff, a healer who healed some folk, but was pretty much just like you and me—maybe a wiser version of the best of humanity?
Was he God, himself, come down from the clouds of heaven on a lightning bolt to walk among us, but not really be like us? Did he just appear to be human, a divine hologram, but was actually all divine, angel, glory filled awesomeness?
Was he somehow both? Fully human. Fully God.
There is a struggle in the books of the Bible, contending for the nature of Jesus’ identity. It’s why we claim that the whole of scripture is God’s word to us, because it takes a lot of different voices for us to get a handle on God.
The next four weeks, we’ll be hearing from one of those voices, the First Epistle (or Letter) of John. It was written 60-70 or so years after the death of Jesus, and eye witnesses to the life of Jesus have died. People who actually knew Jesus, and walked with him through Galilee, or heard him speak in Jerusalem—they aren’t around to tell their stories of eating fish on a beach with Jesus, or tell about the stories he’d share over dinner, or the way he’d get angry when people did blasphemous stuff in the Temple, or the way he always stopped to talk with children, bending down so they could see him eye to eye.
Scholars are unclear about who authored these letters in John’s name. Tradition has it that the author of John’s Gospel is also the author of the letters of John. There is a connection to the two, but many scholars today contend that the Gospel’s emphasis on the divinity of God was taken too far by subsequent generations, and that in John’s community, years later, people had begun teaching that Jesus wasn’t fully human, that he only appeared to be human, but was in fact, all God. These letters in John’s name offer a course correction, a reminder of the humanity of Jesus.
In some ways, the community of First John is not that unlike our own. They too, have to rely on the witness and the testimony of those who came before us in the faith. “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….”
It is not just a game of speculation for theologians and church nerds, wondering who Jesus was. It has real implications in our lives, as it did for the community in First John.
“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true”.
To claim Jesus was not fully human, and to only lift up his spiritual qualities, his divine power, is to claim that what happens to our bodies doesn’t matter. If our souls going to heaven is the only concern, then the conditions of human bodies and the lived experience of our fellow human bodies—right here, right now—can be ignored. And dehumanized. And devalued. And discarded.
This letter reminds us that our bodies matter very much.
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, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
This past week, at the 223rd meeting of the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly, a lot of really wonderful things happened. In the offering for the opening worship service, $47,000 was collected (from people in the pews in St Louis to people in pews all across the country) to help pay bail for non-violent offenders who were sitting in jail only because they did not have money to pay their bail or court fines. (You, too, can contribute to the offering here.)
The city of St Louis showed us some lovely hospitality. At the same time, there is a long history of racial struggle and strife. The city has a long history of racism that has been institutionalized, meaning that it was written into laws, practices, school policies, police strategies, real estate codes, etc. (Other cities have similar problems, whether they are as visible or not).
And so we marched from our convention center over to the justice center, somewhere around 500 Presbyterians on a really hot day, and we paid bail. The first of the people released from jail started walking out the door shortly after we had turned around to march back.
“….but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
As we marched, I was trying to remember that I was “walking in the light as he is in the light”, but in truth, I was also realizing that I had a blister for which I needed a bandaid. And I needed to drink water because it was really hot. I was grateful my friend Amy Kim had let me use her sunscreen. I was glad I had a hat. My body was hot and sweaty, and it got frustrated with the lady in front of me who was waving her sign around so my body couldn’t see. I got to walk with Alden, and with some of my dearest friends.
I also got to walk with the people who drive me nuts. (no photo will be provided for that….)
That’s the truth about claiming Jesus was fully human and fully divine. We are concerned with divine things—justice and love and peace and hope—AND we have to live those things out in and for human bodies. We can’t talk about love or justice as ideas that are separated from the way love and justice get lived in the lives of the human bodies around us.
After the march, we went back to our hotels and had the privilege of showers, and AC, and plentiful clean water for our bodies. At the same time, the bodies of our brothers and sisters in Flint, Michigan still do not have access to clean water. And the bodies of our siblings in Puerto Rico still do not have access to electricity, almost a year after the hurricanes that devastated their home.
Being people who claim that Jesus lived life in a human body, fully human, fully divine, we are reminded that human bodies matter.
And so after we cooled off and recovered from our march, the assembly got back to work. And they passed some really important bills and overtures.
Here’s a quick sampling of them. And as I share them, think about the way our bodies, our lived experience, is connected to these overtures.
From the overture about celebrating the lives of people who are transgender:
Standing in the conviction that all people are created in the image of God and that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for all people, the 223rd General Assembly (2018) affirms its commitment to the full welcome, acceptance, and inclusion of transgender people, people who identify as gender non-binary, and people of all gender identities within the full life of the church and the world. The assembly affirms the full dignity and the full humanity of transgender people, their full inclusion in all human rights, and their giftedness for service. The assembly affirms the church’s obligation to stand for the right of people of all gender identities to live free from discrimination, violence, and every form of injustice.
GA also celebrated the gifts of the LGBTQ community for ministry,
affirmed our commitment to non-discrimination,
commended Martin Luther King, Jr’s Letter From Birmingham Jail to the church for study,
agreed to fund the repair of Native American churches,
lifted up the need for good mental health care,
spoke against racist nationalism,
continued our call to seek an end to gun violence, and
deplored the harms of sexual abuse and harassment.
That is a very partial list. Much good work was done by this assembly. In one of the more emotional moments, a young man, on the floor of the assembly, came out. The national meeting of his church was a safe place for him to speak a truth about his life.
He knew his life, his body, mattered. And he was supported and affirmed. And we were church. I love that in this picture, we can’t see him. We just see this blob of humanity, coming together to love and support him.
At the same time, I was sitting with a good friend who is gay, and who mused aloud, “I wonder what my life would have been like had I been able to do what that young man has just done when I was his age”.
John’s letter reminds us of the need to confess when we get it wrong. “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”.
And so while there was much good this week, it is also held alongside the times we were not good to some of the people whose lives and bodies also matter.
The work of the church is messy. When we get it right, people are loved and affirmed and know they matter. When we don’t get it right, we harm people and hurt people. When we don’t get it right, we forget that we are connected to each other.
People of faith can, and do, and should vote for different people and different policies. And the issues that upset us today are not limited to one political party and did not begin in one presidential administration. This letter of John reminds me that our ability to hurt each other is rooted in our ability to forget that human bodies, and their lived experience matter. Here and now.
Lately, there have been actions by our government, done in our name, that call on followers of Jesus to stand up and cry out.
Our nation must have substantive conversations about immigration policies. Because right now, while quoting scripture to defend it, people who try to cross our border are being arrested and jailed, and their children are being taken from them. Over 2,000 children, many of them infants, have been taken from their parents for the crime of not having the right papers to enter our country. At the same time, people are being arrested, who aren’t at the border, but who have been living and working here for many years, because they don’t have the right papers either. And their children have been left at schools and daycares, because the parents are arrested while at work.
Some news commentators have claimed it isn’t that bad, or it isn’t a big deal. Here’s a quote:
“And these are not — like it or not, these are not our kids. Show them compassion, but it’s not like he is doing this to the people of Idaho or Texas.”
The writer of First John reminds us that we are all connected. And that if we don’t care what is happening to other human lives, then we are walking in darkness.
“If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another…”
Fellowship with one another. The word in Greek for fellowship is “koinonia”. In addition to being the winning word in the national Spelling Bee this year, it is also a word that occurs often in the New Testament. It means communion, joint participation, shared community, intimacy,
And if we want to have koinonia with God, we are called to have koinonia with each other. If our relationship with God matters, our relationship to other people matters too.
Our faith calls us to care for these children, being housed in cages, as if they were our very own. Because they are. Our faith calls us to also recognize our connection to the people putting children in cages. Because they are our own too.
Confession is woven through the letter of First John because of the complexity of koinonia. We can’t just be in fellowship with the people we like, or the people who vote like us, or the people who look like us. We are called to be in fellowship as God is in fellowship.
And we aren’t God.
So we get it wrong sometimes. And then we get back to it. And we protest. And we work for change. And then we acknowledge our own complicity in the system. And then we confess. And seek fellowship. And we seek the light because we don’t want to walk in the darkness anymore.
I’m so humbled and grateful to be able to walk with you as we seek to walk in the light as God is in the light. Thank you for the ways you shed light, for your ability to confess that we don’t always get it right, and for your willingness to get back up and try again.