Today’s text from the gospel of John describes John the Baptist’s response to seeing Jesus the first time. Remember this took place along the Jordan, near Bethany, where John was calling folks to repent and baptizing them. Just the day before, he had told his own disciples that he was awaiting the one who would baptize with the spirit, rather than the water John used. Listen:
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1: 29 NRSV)
And now we turn to our selection from 1 John. We continue on from the first four verses that you read last week. Listen again for the word of God:
1:5 This is the message we have heard from him [Jesus] and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7 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.
8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (NRSV)
Sunday morning worship in the Disciples of Christ congregation that formed my faith as a child and young person was pretty similar to our presbyterian way of worshiping. I mean- I still miss celebrating communion every time we open the church…
But there’s one I part of our order of worship that I don’t recall hearing back in the day. Not until I started attending a Presbyterian church. And now it is – apart from communion – the portion of our worship that carries the most weight for me as a worshiper.
I remember the first time I heard a worship leader invite the congregation to pray and confess our sins together… It piqued my curiosity, for sure. Partly because they incorporated these words from 1 John:
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.
Now- I’m not sure how many times I heard that invitation before I realized it was a direct quote from the Bible. Honestly, it just sounded like deep truth about my reality… our human nature… and our need for the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Oh, how we need that grace.
Not just the saving grace that justifies us once and for all.
But the sanctifying grace that reconnects us day by day, moment by moment, thought by thought… to the truth of God’s love for our fickle and wayward human hearts.
Given the apostle Paul’s statement that all sin and fall short of the glory of God…
And given the fact that just about every theologian since Augustine agrees that humankind is capable of great depravity…
I feel fairly confident in saying I am not the only one in this room who stands in need of that grace.
But here’s the thing that I had to learn about these prayers of confession.
They aren’t about me. I mean, they aren’t entirely about me.
They are about us.
Even when they aren’t literally about the “us” that is currently gathered in this space.
These prayers of confession are about our connection to all of God’s children.
Those we know and love,
those we sleep with in the same house,
those we greet in this place,
those we wave to in the neighborhood.
Prayers of confession are about all God’s children… the ones who live and work and play in cities and towns and villages all over this country and around the world.
Whether they call themselves Baptists, Presbyterians, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, agnostic, humanist, unitarian, or spiritual but not religious.
All God’s children.
You see, John isn’t talking primarily about individuals confessing individual sins.
Oh, we can and must confess the sins that we commit on our own.
That is a given.
But let’s think again about what prompted this letter from John. This letter was written to a community of faith, a collective of souls. And unlike the gospel attributed to John, which was focused on the divinity of Christ, this letter is written to a community that needed to recall the humanity of Christ.
Why? Because Jesus – the person, the man who walked and talked and ate and slept right here on earth, wrapped up in human skin – Jesus is the way God encountered humankind. God encountered us in a particular human being at a particular time. **
Which means that the love of God, the living out of the love of God is more than a mere concept, more than a nice idea.
The love of God has been and can be fully embodied.
The Word was and can be made flesh.
In this messy and chaotic and – yes, dark and sinful – world.
John is saying to his readers, and to us –
that the Word made flesh is what it looks like to love God and love our neighbors.
The Word made flesh is what it looks like to keep God’s commands.. All 10 of them.
And that we – the followers of that Word, the followers of that Jesus who was the Christ, are the embodiment of God’s love in this current age.
John wrote this letter to a community of faith, a household of siblings in Christ, whose fellowship was broken.
They had broken fellowship with one another, and thus with God.
There was disunity in the house, and thus their joy, John’s joy, God’s joy…
all that joy was incomplete.
And so, he reminds them, there is need for confession, for forgiveness.
There is need for truth-telling.
You’ll note that there was not a call for finger-pointing
Nor was there a call for blame-laying.
But there was a call for telling the truth about ourselves.
To bring into the light those things we do “in the dark.”
Those things that we’d just as soon leave hidden.
I don’t know about you, but that makes me more than a little squirmy. You know… that squirmy feeling down in your gut… you know the one? Yeah… I’m not a fan of that feeling.
So I would just as soon not go back and look at things I’m ashamed of. Much less take them out of their little boxes that are tucked back into those dark hidey holes of my heart and name them.
Even when we do so in silence… when it’s just between me and God. I mean, that’s why I need longer silence in our prayers of confession… so I’ve got time to work up the courage to go into those hidey holes and open those boxes.
And that’s when it’s just between me and God.
Except… it really rarely ever is just between me and God.
And that’s the whole point.
That thing about broken fellowship?
That’s not about taking God’s name in vain…
That’s about the ways we fail to love one another
That thing about broken fellowship?
Sure, it’s partly about the community that gathers here.
But it is also about many ways the church has failed to be God’s love to and for our neighbors out there in the world.
Broken fellowship is all about about not quite living in the light… in truth…
The difference between fellowship and broken fellowship?
That’s all about integrity. And the lack thereof.
That’s about living the words of scripture that we say we hold dear…
In ways that allow the world to see and believe we are followers of Jesus.
It’s about taking seriously the work God requires of us…
“to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God”
Jesus prayed that the world would know his followers by our love.
Our love for God, yes,
but Jesus made clear that the would ought to know us by our love
for one another and for our neighbors.
So… how’s that going?
No really… how do we think that’s going?
Based on your faces, I know you and I could could swap some anecdotes about ways we’ve gotten it wrong.
And if we take a look at what public interest researchers like the Pew Forum and evangelical pollsters like the Barna group have to say… You’re right… Not so great.
Year after year, a growing number of people identify as de-churched (meaning they have left church for the forseeable future). The same is true for those who have never been members of a church, or would claim a connection to God but have no desire to be part of organized religion.
Many of these folks point to what they see of the church – whether in their own communities or as represented in the media – as the problem.
There are “too many Christians doing un-Christian things”, and “organized religious groups are more divisive than uniting”. According to Pew, large numbers of these folks believe that while churches do good works, faith communities can also be too concerned with money and power, too involved in politics and too focused on rules.
Chances are good that you know at least one or two folks, maybe even in your own family, who have opted out of church. They probably have a story to tell about why. And it likely has to do with something other than Sunday morning worship being scheduled at an inconvenient time.
The stories I have heard from unchurched and dechurched folks are not mine to tell, but I will say this: Now, more than ever, people are watching the church. This church and all churches.
They are watching to see how we respond to the cries of the marginalized and oppressed. To see whether we will advocate for and serve the least of these. Because they know that this is what Jesus commanded.
They are watching.
They are watching the church, and I can assure you that they have come to trust these words from Maya Angelou:
When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.
This is one reason I put on my clergy shirt, grabbed my rain jacket and headed downtown for the Families Belong Together rally yesterday.
I spotted a couple of other presbyterians there, but no other clergy in a collar or stole. Perhaps the raincoats hid them, but I made sure mine was visible, even in a downpour.
Because people are watching.
And the church needs to be seen living in the light,
being a physical manifestation of the love of God for our neighbors.
The coalition of neighbors that organized yesterday’s rally includes groups representing the minority and immigrant communities directly affected by recent policy changes and rulings.
Being love to our neighbors sometimes means standing in a downpour, giving away your umbrella and praying for speakers who are sharing their stories of fear and grief through tears in front of a huge crowd of strangers.
Offering light and love to our neighbors also means thanking police officers who are out in that same rain to assure that everyone is safe.
Loving our neighbors means showing up.
I believe this with all my heart.
Because I have seen that loving our neighbors has ripple effects we might never expect…
Which leads me to a story that Jan Edmiston shared last week. Jan was elected co-moderator of our denomination at the 2016 General Assembly, sharing the duties with another minister, Denise Anderson. They both participated in the protest march that took place in St. Louis.
I was also among the several hundred of our commissioners joined with local activists and pastors in their efforts to end an unjust cash bail and work house system in the city. While GA offerings typically will go to support a local cause, this was the first time we added voice, hands and feet to the effort. And we were quite noisy walking from the Convention Center to the courthouse.
But that isn’t the story I want to share… just the background. Listen to what Jan wrote on her blog about her ride to the airport:
I took a Lyft to the airport last Friday, leaving General Assembly early for a wedding in Philadelphia. It had been a great week for a long list of reasons and I was staring into space and relishing the memories when this conversation happened:
Lyft Driver Kevin: Were you here for a conference?
Jan: Yes, the Presbyterian Church USA. You might have seen us on the news Tuesday night. We were on the local Fox channel.
LDK: Why were you on the news?
Jan: We marched from the Convention Center to the Courthouse with $47,000 to bail out some people who couldn’t pay their cash bail. It was our worship offering from Saturday.
LDK: Your church did that?
Jan: Well, it’s not just my church. But yes, we did that. We paid the bail to release about 3 dozen non-violent offenders. It was pretty great.
We got to the airport, pulled over, and when we went to his trunk to retrieve my luggage, Kevin said, “I feel like I’ve met a friend today. That’s the best thing the Church has ever done.”
And he hugged me good-bye.
This is what the world is looking for, my friends: less talking, more concrete ministry that helps those in need here and now. It wasn’t the very best thing the Church has ever done, but – like I said to Kevin – it was pretty great.
It was pretty great because the church was being the church. And I can assure you that among that crowd of commissioners and delegates marching, there was a lot of diversity of opinion. When we got back to our meetings, there was plenty of debate and plenty of contested votes. But trusting that Jesus would have us fight this injustice, were were out there- together- being love for God’s children in the city.
Living in the light, building koinonia.
It was a really just a drop in the bucket, when you look at all the work that our siblings in Christ are doing up there.
Much like Orlando, St. Louis proper is fairly small, with lots of cities and municipalities squished up against each other. There is a lot of history there, much like there is here, some of which has remained unconfessed, unrepented and unresolved.
The events surrounding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson – no farther from the Saint Louis convention center than this church is from downtown Orlando- those events laid bare some of that history, some of the sin that needs confessing by our churches and the civic structures that Jesus followers have been part of.
And so much has happened since… in Baltimore, Dallas, Baton Rouge, New York, Detroit… even here in Orlando.
A lot of folks would like to pretend that racial injustice doesn’t exist.
That strongly held religious beliefs are fine reasons for refusing to treat all people with the same dignity.
That talking about loving everyone is all that Jesus requires of us.
But when I read this first letter from John, I see a call to the church that says exactly the opposite.
I see a call to integrity.
A call to a life in which our words and actions are a coherent whole.
A call to make sure that people really can know us by our love…
Because they see us doing exactly that – loving.
I hear in this letter a call to community,
A community of relationships in which we confess and trust that we are forgiven… and not only by the one who embodied the amazing grace of God by taking on flesh.
We are also called to be a community in which WE are the embodiment of that grace and love for one another. Right here in the flesh.
Becoming that community – that church… living in the light together?
That is walking into hard stuff… making yourself vulnerable stuff.
Because what we’re talking about is the kind of work that requires spiritual courage and maturity.
Confessing the sins that have held us captive:
Sins of our own and those who came before us
Sins of commission and omission
Approaching those who have been sources of pain,
Opening up about wounds kept hidden and fighting the urge to lash out.
Listening to those who were wronged.
Listening with hearts that are open to confession and repentance,
even as we fight the urge to reframe or tuck our sins back into those dark hidey holes.
We’re talking about a pathway to letting go of the past and
trusting God for a future in which we are truly being the Body of Christ
It can be hard work, learning to live in light.
No… not can be.
It is hard work, learning to live in the light and persisting against all the ways that the world would have us go back to old patterns.
But it is only when we commit to that hard work that we can experience the truth of this invitation:
28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28-29, NRSV)
What a paradox:
Committing to the hard work of living in the light of Christ… That is where we will find rest
Laying down the burden of sin, our shared sin, our common separation from God’s love and from the depth of love we can offer one another.
Laying down the burden of conflict.
Laying down the burden of shame.
That is where we will find rest
Living in fellowship – community – family – that is built on a foundation
Of mutual care,
Of Confession and forgiveness
That is where we find rest, dear friends.
Rest for our souls, weary with trying to find our way in this present darkness…
Let us pray…
** I am deeply grateful for the written commentaries and podcast for the 1 John series posted at Working Preacher for articulating some of these big themes with great clarity.