Sunday, January 22, 2012

Life Signs - #3 A Life of Authenticity

Perhaps you've heard the spoken word video by Jefferson Bethke that’s had over 16 million hits on youtube.  It’s called, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.”  Here are a few lines:

   What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?
See, the problem with religion is it never gets to the core
It’s just behavior modification, like a long list of chores
Like, “Let’s dress up the outside, make it look nice and neat”
But it’s funny, that’s what they used to do to mummies while the corpse rots underneath.
Now I ain’t judging, I’m just sayin’, “Quit puttin’ on a fake look”
’Cause there’s a problem if people only know that you’re a Christian by your Facebook.  

For the record, Bethke has clarified in a CBS morning news broadcast that what he speaks against is not religion, per se, but religious hypocrisy and that "what my generation wants is authenticity."  That being the case, there never seems to be a  problem identifying fake religion…but how to identify authentic religion – that’s the more important challenge.  How can we be sure that we are genuine followers of Christ, and not just "puttin' on a fake look" as Bethke warns?  John’s letter was written to help us recognize some clear signs of true Christian faith.  The third of these from 1 John 2: 3-11, is a life of authenticity in which we practice what we say we believe.

The fruit of authentic faith: obeying God’s commands.  How can we know that we know that we know we are God’s children?  How can we know that our own spiritual experiences are genuine?  John’s answer may shock us by its simplicity… We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands (2:3 NIV), periodSome may object: We thought Christianity was about grace…not about our works? Remember the bumper sticker?  “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”  Dallas Willard once pointed out that this bumper sticker implies that Christianity is only about forgiveness; and that it’s really not fair to expect anything more from a Christian!  We’re saved by grace, so it doesn’t really matter what we do.  Right?  Here’s the problem: there’s big room for improvement between “not perfect” and “just forgiven.”  And in fact, Jesus is much more hopeful about the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in your life and mine than this bumper sticker. Consider these verses...

  • John 15:16 - “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit--fruit that will last.”
  • 2 Cor. 5:15 - “And [Christ] died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
  • James 1:2 - “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
  • Titus 2:14 - “[Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good  
Now many of us would assume that it takes Herculean faith to obey God, and that our problem is a lack of it.  I've even heard some excuse their lack of obedience by saying that "I'm just not a very strong believer.  If I had a stronger faith, I could obey God more."  In other words, "Only those who believe God can obey him."  Dietrich Bonhoeffer unmasked that self-deception in The Cost of Discipleship where he counters that “Only those who obey God can believe him.”  In other words, it is when we take God’s word seriously and obey his commands that we find his word trustworthy, and our faith in him strengthened. Only after Peter stepped out on to the water did he find that Jesus' word was trustworthy.  Only after placing your weight on the downhill ski, is the truth of your instructor's word validated. Some things have to be practiced before they can be believed. “Show me your faith apart from your works” says James, “and I by my works will show you my faith.” 

Olympic gold medalist Darrel Pace was to give an archery exhibition in New York City's Central Park, and the event received coverage by all the news stations. Shooting steel- tipped hunting arrows, Pace punctured bull's-eyes without a miss. Then he called for a volunteer. “All you have to do,” said Pace, “Is hold this apple in your hand, waist-high.” ABC correspondent Josh Howell took a bold step forward. He stood there, a small apple in his hand, a larger one in his throat. Pace took aim from 30 yards away as we all held our breath. Then THWACK-a clean hit that exploded the apple before striking the target behind. Everybody applauded Howell, who was all smiles--until his cameraman approached with a hangdog look. “I'm sorry, Josh,” he said. “I didn't get it. Had a problem with my viewfinder. Could you do it again?”  That reporter had faith… and he communicated it with his deeds. The fruit -- or evidence -- of authentic faith is obeying God’s commands; practicing his word; but how do we get to obedience?  What is the path we are to walk?  Jesus says, “I am the way...I am the route…follow me.”

The route of authentic faith: walking with Christ.  God not only gave us a world to live in that bears witness to his creative power; he not only gave us his commands, inscribed on tablets of stone…he gave us his Son, a living example in flesh and blood, to show us the way.  “This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (2:6 NIV).

It was not only Jesus’ death for us on the cross that saved us…it was his whole life too, and how he lived it.  Think of the cross as really representing three things about Jesus: (1) his life with arms open wide beckoning us to follow him and to walk in his ways, (2) his death, arms stretched out on the cross for our sins, and (3) his resurrection, because the cross stands empty to the sky…and he is risen. We need to take Jesus’ whole life seriously…and how he lived it, imitating his spiritual practices and habits.  No one would go out on a mission without training.  No one would go out on the field without training.  Jesus trained, spiritually, just as an athlete trains physically.  He spent time with the Father in prayer.  He knew the Scriptures, memorized them; walked with them.  He spent time in the synagogue, the center of worship.  He devoted himself to a close knit fellowship of his followers, like a Lifegroup.  He intentionally served others, helping and healing those in need. 

I spent some time with a church member last week at a local hospital, and he was commenting to me about several things that happened while he was there that reminded him of God’s presence.  One of these signs literally saved his life.  Seventeen years ago, the last time he had been hospitalized with foot problems…he nearly died.  There was a nurse on duty at the time who saw my friend in distress…ran into his room, knew exactly what to do, and saved his life.  She was 63 years old at the time.  Now get this… last week, this very nurse, who just happened to be working on the same floor that my friend was on, walked into his room: she is 80 years old.  He instantly recognized her.  “This is the nurse who saved my life,” he was telling everybody. Here was a nurse who knew what to do when it really counted, because she had trained for it.  Too often we think that as Jesus’ followers we can just wing it…without any practice.  We can put on the clothing of a medic without any training and walk around saving people in the hospital; or put on the jersey without any practice, and play like we’re heading for the Super bowl. 

The Christian life isn’t like that.  We’ve got to train, like that nurse, or a seasoned athlete, we’ve got to train with Jesus, observe his life and imitate it, so that when the time of testing comes, we are ready to be used by God and, then, who knows?  We may be given the privilege of saving someone’s life…by literally feeding the hungry or by leading someone to Christ the Bread of Life. The fruit of authentic faith is obedience to God’s commands.  The route of authentic faith is walking with Jesus and…

The heart of authentic faith: loving as we have been loved.  Beloved (or “dear friends” NIV) I am writing you no new command…” (v. 7).  John has been speaking of the importance of obedience… and that message, if spoken in the wrong tone, could feel legalistic and defeating.  But John is careful to convey that the strong word he speaks, he speaks to those who are beloved.  John uses the word “agapetoi” (lit. beloved) six times in this letter and “little/dear children” seven times! 

Another way of saying this is that the call to obey is always given “in the hug.”  Jesus does not  hold us at arms length, saying “No hug until you get this right.”  He wraps his arms around us, grasps us with his love, and then says, “You can do this!  You are the salt of the earth, no go be the salt… You are the light of the world, now go be the light!”  You are loved…now go and start loving.  Only the hug, only his hug, can empower us to obey him…and above all to love him and each other wholeheartedly. One who has not been loved cannot easily love.  None of us have been loved perfectly in this life by another human being, but, as we read earlier, God does love us perfectly (v. 5) heals us with this love, and empowers us to love in the same way.  

Therefore, John says, Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning.”  Then again, “I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you” (vv. 7-8).   How can this command to love be both old and new?

It is old because it was given long ago in the torah.  Deut. 6:5 says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength.”  Lev. 19:18 says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  These are ancient commands from the torah, so why does John call them new? They are new in the sense that Jesus invested the command to “love” with a richer and deeper meaning in 3 ways…

  • First, the importance he gave this command was new.  Jesus took the two love commands and told us that they are the greatest commands of Scripture; that all of the law and prophets could be summarized in them.
  • Second, the quality of the love that he commanded was new… for he told them to love one another as he had loved them…sacrificially, selflessly, even to the point of laying down their lives for each other.
  • Third, the extent of the love he commanded was new…for Jesus told us not only to love our neighbor, but to love them regardless of race, gender, social position or background…a love that even included our enemies.
Therefore, John writes: “Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him” (2: 10-11 NIV).  Jesus astounded both his friends and his enemies as he actually practiced this sacrificial love right in front of them…a love that embraced the sinner and outcast, a love that touched the untouchables, a love that spoke the absolute truth even when it was painful, a love that said to his enemies, “Father forgive them” from the cross.
I began by reading from spoken word artist Jefferson Bethke.  He was talking about religion in the negative sense…fake religion, a religion without authenticity…a religion without grace or truth.  Father Claude Burns, a Catholic priest, decided to respond to Bethke’s spoken word poem about fake religion with his own.  He calls it: Why I Love Religion…and Love Jesus. Father Burns talks not about fake religion but about authentic religion…the evidence that God’s grace is operating in us, not a means to earn it…an active, living faith that is not content to sit on the sidelines but to obey God’s commands, walk in the way of Christ, and love those around us.  Here are a few lines…

What if I told you that Jesus loves religion
And that by his coming as man he brought his religion to fruition.
See what makes his religion great is not errors of wars and inquisitions
It’s that broken men and women can participate in his mission.
Sins of the Body and internal treason will never ever make me leave him
And that Jesus said “it is done,” is absolutely true
But he also gave us a mission with many things to DO.
Jesus says if you love me, you will Do what I command.
Go baptize in the name of the Father, Son & Spirit….in Every Land.

Heavenly Father, we praise you for the gift of your grace which we receive by faith; faith in the atoning work of Christ alone who cleanses us from every sin, and gives us the gift of everlasting life.  We praise you for the grace that accepts us where we are, but that refuses to leave us where we are; for the grace that purifies us as gold and silver are refined by fire.  Therefore we pray, Holy Spirit that you would reveal in us any inconsistencies -- in thought, word, or deed -- with the light of your truth.  Give us both the will and the power to walk as Jesus walked, and may your fruit  – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – be increasingly evident in our lives.  To this end may we come to authentically know you, love you, and serve you, through Jesus the Christ, our Lord.  Amen!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Life Signs - #2 An Illuminated Life

How can we recognize true Christianity or be sure that we are authentic followers of Christ in the spiritual and religious maze that we live in? John’s letter was written to help us recognize some clear signs of genuine Christian faith.  The second of these “life signs” is an illuminated life (1 John 1:5 - 2:2)

On my college ring are the words, “Let there be light,” with an open book and light streaming from it.  It is the motto of the University of California, and it refers to the Enlightenment principle of human advancement through the power of reason.  With some irony, many have forgotten that these words are also a direct citation from Genesis chapter one and to God who is the source of all light and truth.  This is the original Enlightenment…to be illuminated by the light of God…the purifying light which speaks the truth about sin, leads us to the blessing of repentance, and restores our fellowship with him and others.

“God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (5).  What John means is that God’s light is the light of truth and purity. The Bible is filled with images of God, and of Christ as the light which illuminates our path in a darkened world.
  • As Moses led his people through the wilderness, the Lord went before them as “a pillar of fire by night, to give them light” (Exodus 13.21). 
  • The golden lamp stand that burned continuously in the tabernacle and later, in the temple (Exodus 25.31ff.; 27.20ff.) was to be a reminder of God’s saving presence and eternal guidance. 
  • The Psalmist declares: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Ps. 27.1); “Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell” (Ps. 43:3). Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O LORD” (Ps. 89:15); and again, “Your word is a light to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119: 105). 

Thus, John goes on to say, “in him there is no darkness at all… there is no falsehood, there is no deception, there is not a shred of evil in him.  Clearly, having fellowship with God is the greatest privilege of human existence, yet we can’t claim to walk with God in the light and walk from him into the dark.

One summer our family traveled to Carlsbad Caverns where it takes about an hour just to descend the entrance to this massive underground world.  All along the path of these caves there are dim electric lights that guide your steps; but we didn’t appreciate that light until we took a tour of the Queen’s Chamber.  There, the ranger asked one of us to turn off the switch which illuminated the caverns.  All at once we were thrown into absolute darkness. I couldn't help wondering what it would be like to navigate the miles of narrow switch backs and bottomless gorges of Carlsbad Caverns without light. It would be quite simply, terrifying.  Who would choose to grope their way out of here without light?  No one!  And yet many of us try to walk in the dark instead of God’s light.

Now there are three forms of denial which John identifies as the evidence that we are trying to walk in darkness (vv. 6, 8, 10)…. 

The first of these is the denial that habitual sin breaks our fellowship with God. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true” (6).   I think the easiest way to understand this is to think about our human relationships.  I could say that “I love my wife,” but if I began chasing after other women, never listened to her, served or supported her, those words would mean nothing.  No one would call that a marriage.  Yet, we can do the same thing with God. We can claim that we have fellowship with God but do the very things that grieve his heart…thumbing our nose at his commands, chasing after the gods of me, mine, and always more… It’s important to understand that such an attitude not only hurts us, it hurts God who loves us and wants us to have fellowship with him.

The next sign that we are walking in darkness is denying the truth of our sin nature. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (8)  John speaks here of those who deny the truth of our sin nature as human being; that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). After the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State, NY Times writer David Brooks noted how many commentators contemptuously asked, "How could they have let this happen?"  We assume that we would have done better than they did. But Brooks argues that history shows how often ordinary people don't get involved in tragic or unjust situations.  Psychologists even have a name for it—"the Bystander Effect." Brooks writes, "In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness…They reminded people of the evil within themselves,” yet today "we live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness" [see David Brooks, "Let's All Feel Superior," The New York Times (11-14-11)].  Our shock at the daily news headlines is simply the denial of our own readiness to do evil, given the right conditions.

The third false claim that John speaks of here is the most blatant: “If we say that we have not sinned  [perfect tense] we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (10). It’s the denial of the truth of our sin history; the refusal to acknowledge our own past and to deal with it.  One of the reasons that John makes this point is that there was a spiritual movement in the 1st century called Gnosticism. Gnostics claimed to have special spiritual knowledge that was not available to the common herd.  They thought of themselves as living on an exalted spiritual plane far above the rift raft below them.  They were beyond the normal categories of sin and evil. John addresses this phenomenon in his letter.  By the way, beware of spiritual leaders who over-promise!  Beware of those who claim to be spiritual "supermen."  Beware of those who claim to have the 10 easy steps to spiritual enlightenment; or the elevator to spiritual and material success.  Even the most godly person you have ever met has done things in the past and in the present for which they need to repent and seek God’s forgiveness.  There is such a thing as an abuse of spiritual power, and we must be suspect of those who would deny their humanity or their dependence on God's grace.

I think it noteworthy that the only person to walk this earth without sin, did so with the most awe-inspiring humility...for our Savior called us to follow his example of servanthood; and humbled himself even to the point of offering his life for us on the cross.  Now perhaps this is a bit of a tangent, but I think that the one good thing about Denver's loss to the Patriots on January 14th is that it humanized Tim Tebow!  People now know that God does not guarantee a touchdown every time you "Tebow" (the phrase coined for spontaneously kneeling in prayer like Christian quarterback, Tim Tebow).  Tebow knows that both he and we are flawed and imperfect human beings; and that to claim otherwise is to deny the truth, as John would say, and to walk in the shadows.

So much for the evidence that we are walking in the darkness, but what about the evidence that we are walking in the light?

First, pursuing holiness in a healing fellowship. For “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” (7). To walk in the light is to consciously and intentionally live in accordance with God’s revealed truth and character.  It does not mean that we are free of all sin, but rather that we understand we are not.  Notice that John says that one sign that we are walking in the light is that we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin. In other words, we need one another as we seek to walk in the light; and when we fail, and we will…we will also need the blood of Jesus which cleanses us from all sin.  What does John mean by the “blood” of Jesus?  Biblically speaking, “blood” is the symbol of life; and it is the life of Jesus that was born in Mary, that lived with us, that died and was risen from the grave for us, it is this life that heals us and cleanses his Body.  Blood brings life!  Blood contains hemoglobin which carries oxygen throughout the body.  It carries white blood cells that fight infection and promote healing.  Blood transports glucose, which provides energy; and one of the most visible signs that Christ’s blood -- his life -- is at work cleansing, energizing, and healing is when we are…

Secondly, confessing our sins and receiving God’s forgiveness. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (9; cf. James 5:16). The word “confess” translates the Greek word homologomen (lit. say the same thing, or agree).  To confess is to agree with God about our sin and its consequences (Rom. 6:23), and our need of his cleansing power. Now confession is not only to God…but to one another and those we have hurt:  Therefore James says, “Confess your sins to one another and be healed.”  We know we are in a healing fellowship when we can take off our masks of perfection, be honest about our sins, and receive God’s forgiveness.  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote in his classic on Christian community Life Together that, “The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner.  So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship.  We dare not be sinners. . .so we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.  The fact is that we are sinners!” Yet our Lord promises us that when we confess our sins, when we practice honesty and transparency in a gracious fellowship of fellow sinners who seek to be more and more like Jesus…he who is faithful and just forgives us our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.  And finally, we are walking in the light when we are…

Finally, trusting in Christ as our Advocate. “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; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and…for the sins of the whole world” (2:1-2). To walk in the light is to pursue holiness in a healing fellowship of Christ’s people; to walk in the light is to confess our sins to God and each other and receive his forgiveness. And finally,  to walk in the light is to know that Christ is our Advocate (lit. our parakletos, the one who comes alongside to help us in our time of need” the one who is the atonement for our sin. In the coming weeks we will explore what it means that Christ is the atonement for our sin…but let it suffice to say that atonement means “at-one-ment” – that Christ has joined us to God through his life, death, and resurrection; that joined to Christ by faith I can be assured of victory over the powers of sin, evil, death, and hell.  He is really is my Advocate, the one who came to help us.

One weekend, author Paul Tripp gave his teenage son permission to spend the weekend at a friend's house. But during the weekend Paul got a call from the friend's mother, telling him that his son was not at her home. (Her son had felt guilty about covering for Paul's son and confessed to his mom.) Paul was truly grieving that the trust between him and his son had been broken.   He went to his bedroom to pray for God's help, and then it hit him…Because of his love, God had already begun a work of rescue in his son's life. “Now, rather than wanting to rip into my son,” Paul wrote, “I wanted to be part of what this God of grace was doing in this moment.” After giving his son a couple of hours to relax upon his return, Paul asked if they could talk.
    "Do you ever think about how much God loves you?" Paul asked his son.
"Sometimes," he answered.
"Do you ever think how much God's grace operates in your life every day?"
His son looked up but didn't speak.
"Do you know how much God's grace was working in your life this weekend?"
"Who told you?" his son asked.
   “Son, you have lived your life in the light. You've made good choices. You've been an easy son to parent, but this weekend you took a step toward the darkness. You can live in the dark if you want. You can learn to lie and deceive. You can use your friends as your cover…or you can choose to live in God's light. I'm pleading with you: don't live in the darkness; live in the light."
   "As I turned to walk away," Paul says, "I heard his voice from behind me saying, 'Dad, don't go…I want to live in the light. Will you help me?'"

Will you help me?!  Can you imagine Paul Tripp saying, “No”?  I can’t, nor can I imagine that Jesus our Advocate and Helper who has called us out of the darkness and into the light, would say anything but “Yes.” [Paul David Tripp, Forever: Why You Can't Live Without It (Zondervan, 2011), pp. 151-153].

Back in Carlsbad, NM, 750 feet below the surface in the Queen’s Chamber I  could not see the hand in front of my face for a few brief moments…but instead of turning on the electric lights again, the Park Ranger struck a match, a single candle flame suddenly pierced the darkness. We could see the walls of the cave again, we could see each other, we could see the Ranger who was about to lead us back out.  “I am the light of the world” Jesus said, “and those who follow me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”    

Almighty God, Light of the World, please shine your light into the shadows and darkest corners of our hearts; illuminating us with your truth and purifying love, and leading us to confess every sin, habit, or activity that is harming our relationship with You and those around us.  Let your light also shine into our homes, into our neighborhoods and cities, and into the heart of our nation.  Let this world be drawn to the light of your word which commands us to love one another as you have loved us.  Draw us now into the radiant fellowship of your Son who revealed your perfect, self-giving love when he became one with our human flesh in the womb of Mary, and one with our sin and shame on the cross. Through faith in Christ we are now united to your death-conquering life…and walk in the power of your Spirit as children of the light.  Amen!  

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Life Signs - #1 A Life of Fellowship

We live in a time of declining trust in spiritual leaders, an era of disappointment with organized religion, when alternative creeds and philosophies abound, where many feel that “truth is in the eye of the beholder.”  In such a day, how can Christians be sure that their own spiritual experiences are genuine? In his letter, John gives us some clear signs of an authentically Christian faith that will also be compelling to others. The first of these “life signs” is a life lived in fellowship (1 John 1: 1-4)  Now most professing Christians are pretty enthusiastic about “fellowship.”  We gather in “fellowship halls,” meet in "home fellowship groups," have big potluck dinners together and enjoy activities that strengthen a sense of belonging and community. But is that all there is to what we call “fellowship”?  What is the real basis for this fellowship?  What makes it any different from other social gatherings?  That is the subject of John’s opening verses, where he testifies that…

This fellowship broke into history… when the Word of Life appeared in the flesh (vv.1-2a)!  That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched--this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it…. John’s point is that the fellowship we treasure as Jesus' followers is based not in fantasy or mythology, but in history…that it was founded by a person who he heard with his own ears, beheld with his own eyes, touched with his own hands.  

My wife Lisa and I like to go to the Hollywood Bowl at least once during the summer with some old friends.  We enter the turn styles and then begin the climb past section one up the first escalator…then the second, then the third…above the tree line where the air is pretty thin and binoculars are mandatory.  We’re thrifty…what can I say? There was a time, though, when we got to sit in one of those really good box seats at the Bowl with a vice president at Warner Bros who who just happened to be my church's Clerk of Session (please excuse my Presbyterian polity lingo).  What thrill: I could actually see the performer’s eyes!  He was almost close enough to touch.  Now when John says that he saw Jesus “with his own eyes” he uses the Greek word theaomai: to look at intently, to calmly and continuously contemplate.  In other words, this was not someone John saw from the upper deck of a crowded stadium.  He got a really close look; touched him with his own hands; spent countless hours with him…and shared real fellowship with this extraordinary person. He calls him “the Word (logos) of Life.”  The Greek word "logos" combines the Hebrew idea of wisdom (hokmah), and the Greek notion of reason/word/thought. John seems to be saying that the very mind and wisdom of God appeared in flesh and blood. For the first chapter of John's gospel says that this very Word "was with God" and "was God" (John 1:1) "...and became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14).

Along these lines, it amazes me that some actually doubt that Jesus was a flesh and blood man.  Director Brian Flemming, a self-described “atheist Christian,” in his documentary, The God Who Wasn’t There, tries to prove – rather unconvincingly -- that Jesus never existed.  That’s a tough assignment considering not only the witness of the gospels but the first century Jewish and Roman historians who wrote about him (see Josephus who at the very least testifies to Jesus' crucifixion; and the hostile Roman sources, Tacitus, and Pliny the Elder among others).  In addition to these is the very fellowship that has bared his name for 2000 years!  Of course, the miracle is that in this fellowship we can still meet him today.  Not just in a symbolic sense…but really and truly.  He speaks to us through his word, and guides us with his Spirit in the company of his followers. Spend enough time among his genuine followers and you will hear them speak as though they really know him and talk with him…and they do.  How is such a supernatural fellowship possible?  Because, as John testifies…

This fellowship existed from eternity…with the Father and the Son (vv. 2b). “…and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father (from the beginning v. 1) and has appeared to us.” Jesus was not only a figure of history…He was “from the beginning” with God the Father in eternity.  There are two great truths that Christianity affirms about Jesus. One is his complete humanity…that he was not a ghost or spirit masquerading as a man, but a flesh and blood human being who could be seen and heard and touched, as John just told us. The other is Jesus’ complete divinity…that  he was the incarnation of God, the Eternal Son who existed with the Father from the beginning.  

In case you’re wondering, this doctrine was not invented in an ivory theological tower.  Within 20 years of his crucifixion, they began writing down how the One True God had become incarnate, embodied in the person of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection; and afterward, in his continuing presence through the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 15; Philippians 2, which can be confidently dated between 55-60 AD). The implication of this testimony is astounding…because it means that the one true God is a fellowship of loving Persons!  In God there is perfect community.  In God there is perfect relationship.   And because in God there is perfect self-giving love, we have been invited to experience the intimacy of this ever-expanding family with Him.

This is the witness of Scripture: that all human beings have turned through sin and pride from the very one who made us and loved us and therefore from the very fellowship of life and love itself.  Outside this fellowship there can be only death and darkness because he alone is the source of eternal life and light.  This is why his Son came: to restore us to real fellowship with God once and for all.  Occasionally someone will say to me, “I’m really not that in to organized religion.”  Or, “I believe in Jesus, but I don’t need the church.” John gives me a whole new appreciation for “the Church” (ekklesia)…because it is really something so much bigger than churches, denominations, potlucks, and fellowship halls.  It’s something so much older than the thousand year old cathedrals of Europe…older than Christianity and time itself…for it is born of the original fellowship of infinite love which has existed from Eternity.  That’s the Church I really want to be part of; I really need to be a part of; I’m really grateful to be a part of because…

John testifies that this fellowship is a growing family… marked by joy (vv. 3-4)!   “And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.”  Christianity is unique among the religions of the world in that it describes God with family language: the Father and the Son in communion with the Holy Spirit.  “I and the Father are one,” says Jesus (John 10:30).  At his baptism, the Father says, “Listen to my beloved Son, in him I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17; Mark 9:7; Luke 10:35). But here is the key point: John says that “our fellowship is with the Father and his Son…”  That “our fellowship” is with “their fellowship.”  That their circle of love, is now “our circle.”  That we are now part of this ever growing family. That’s Jesus’ prayer for us!  For “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17: 23).  

Finally, John says, “we write things that our joy may be complete.”  That tells me two things about the fellowship of God’s family… 

First, joy is a mark of God’s family.  In other words, the essential character of the church is not despair, or discouragement…it is one of joy and hope.  This is not to say that there are no tears here, that there is never frustration or anger or sin here…there is.  But there is something greater than that here.  There is life here, there is forgiveness here, there is laughter here; and there is hope here because we serve a Risen Savior…and behind all this is One who loves us and gave himself for us.  Joy is the gigantic secret of the Christian life (G.K. Chesterton).  

And secondly, the joy of this family must be shared, for John writes so that our joy (his and ours) may be complete (pleroma): fulfilled and filled full! Hear me!  The fellowship of the church is a joyous life-giving fellowship which must be shared or it is not a fellowship at all.  St. John’s, as a part of Christ’s Body is not truly a fellowship or a church…if it is not also an open channel of joy; welcoming others into the ever-expanding family of the Father, who sent his only Son who sent the Holy Spirit to reclaim us as his children!

I came across a news story about two men who worked together every day at a furniture delivery company.  Gary would lift one end of the couch and Randy the other. People said they looked alike, but they chalked that up to coincidence.  Randy had been researching his family history. He was an adopted son, and a new law in Maine allowed him to finally see his birth certificate. He learned that both his parents had died but that they had another son, born June 10, 1974. Then, on a furniture delivery run, it happened again. A customer commented on how much Randy looked like Gary. Randy started nonchalantly asking Gary some more personal questions—like when his birthday is. "As soon as he said his birthday, I knew," Randy said later. Gary is his brother. Here they had grown up in neighboring towns and attended rival schools—only a year apart in age—and never known about each other. It was a shock to both of them. "Phenomenal," said Gary. "I still can't wrap my head around it." A co-worker, Greg Berry, said, "There's nothing like family, especially when you don't have one. Now they've got it."  But that's not all. After their story appeared in the local paper, "a teary-eyed woman showed up at the brothers' workplace clutching a birth certificate." She was their half-sister, born 5 or 6 years before them to the same mother. "After all these years," she said, "here I am 41, and now I finally found my brothers' [from "Adopted brothers reunited by work," from the Bangor Daily News and The Nashua Telegraph (9-22-09)]. 

That is a striking picture of the fellowship of the Jesus' followers! Men and women meet here and discover that they are really brothers and sisters—that there is a uncanny family resemblance, a deep, inexplicable bond. And finally we can start being the family we never knew we had.  Friends, you have a family you may not know you have …a forever family that began in history, that existed from all eternity, a growing family whose joy shall not be complete until you are part of it.