Circuit Pastors’ Conference
Week of Second Sunday of Easter
Tuesday, April 17, 2012
“Fellowship through the Word of Life” (1 John 1:1 – 2:2)
As of this past Sunday, the Three-Year Lectionary is featuring six straight weeks of Epistle readings from First John. This is quite appropriate for Easter, since First John is all about a crucified-and-risen, real flesh-and-blood Savior for real flesh-and-blood sinners. John in his epistle is telling us that this is the only way we have fellowship with God and thus with one another: It is through Christ the eternal Son of God coming in the flesh, shedding his blood for us, and rising from the dead, bodily, to give us eternal life. And so right here in the beginning of John’s letter, he announces his theme, “Fellowship through the Word of Life”: We have fellowship with God and with one another only through the enfleshed and proclaimed Word of Life.
First, though, a little background on this epistle, to help us understand the purpose and nature of what we’re hearing. What we learn from church history is that the Apostle John, around the time that Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70–John left Jerusalem and moved to the city of Ephesus, in western Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey. Ephesus was one of the largest and most important cities in the Roman Empire. By this time Peter and Paul were dead, a number of the other apostles were dead, and before long John would be the last one left, the last living link to the Lord Jesus Christ. He who had been the youngest disciple was now the last apostle, and he developed a strong bond with those churches in Asia Minor. John was affectionately known as “the Elder,” “the Old Man,” and he in turn called the Christians in these churches “my children,” “my little children.”
This was now in the late first century, perhaps around the year 85 or 90, and John himself was probably in his 80s. He was still busy teaching the pure apostolic doctrine. But there arose around this time, in Ephesus and elsewhere, certain false doctrines and false teachers who challenged the right teaching about Christ, who drew off followers for themselves, and who withdrew from the fellowship of the church in order to form their own groups. These false teachers were influenced by philosophical ideas that said that physical matter was evil, that one had to ascend from the material to the spiritual, and that this secret “knowledge” is what made one “super-spiritual,” advanced and superior, and, really, without sin.
One of the false teachers who was popular in Ephesus at the time was a guy named Cerinthus. Cerinthus taught that the man Jesus was not really God, that he was just a man born the ordinary way, the son of Joseph and Mary, but a really good man, very wise. At his baptism the spirit of Christ came upon this man Jesus, and so was he was able to do miracles and teach about God and so on. But the Christ-spirit left Jesus before he suffered and died, since of course God cannot suffer and die. That’s what Cerinthus taught. Like most heretics, he couldn’t get God and man together in the one person of Christ. How could God become man? How could God come in the flesh? How could God suffer and die and rise from the dead, bodily? This did not make sense to Cerinthus, and so he tried to explain it away.
But John, the old apostle, who had been with Jesus, knew better. He knew that a flesh-and-blood, God-in-the-flesh Jesus, who is the Christ in himself, who is the eternal Son of God–that only this Jesus could be the Savior from sin. It isn’t by us ascending from the physical to the spiritual. It was by the spiritual–namely, the divine, heavenly Son of God–descending to us and taking on our physical flesh and suffering and dying and shedding his blood for us–that is how we are saved. It is not by us “super-spiritual” ones attaining to some higher level of secret knowledge. No, it is by the blood of Christ cleansing us from our sins.
History tells us that the old man John deeply opposed the dangerous heresies of the false teacher Cerinthus. One day, when John was going to the public bathhouse in Ephesus, and he heard that Cerinthus was in there, John ran out of the building, exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bathhouse fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.”
Well, that seems to be the backdrop for this epistle from John. He’s writing to the churches around Ephesus, warning them of the false teachings that were going around, explaining how they are harmful, divisive of fellowship with God and fellowship within the church, and how these wrong views about Christ cannot save you. On the positive side, John is teaching clearly the right doctrine of Christ and how this truth does bring about fellowship with God and cleanse from sin and produce love and fellowship within the church. That is the nature and purpose of this letter, and it has tremendous implications for us and our churches today.
John starts out: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us–that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
“Fellowship through the Word of Life”: We have fellowship with God and with one another only through the enfleshed and proclaimed Word of Life. John had been there on Easter evening–of course, he had been with Jesus throughout his ministry, and he had been there at the cross, too, when Jesus was suffering and bleeding and dying. But John had been there, with the disciples, on Easter evening, when he heard the risen Lord say, “Peace be with you.” He saw Christ’s hands and his side, where the nails had gone in and the spear had been thrust. This was a physical, resurrected, glorified, flesh-and-blood Savior. This was no phantom, no ghost, no hallucination of distraught disciples. No, Jesus had really risen from the dead, bodily–Jesus, the Christ, the same one John had heard and seen throughout his ministry. And John was there a week later, when Jesus came in their midst again, this time with Thomas present, and Jesus spoke his word of peace to them again, and he invited Thomas to touch and see his hands and side. And Thomas acknowledged and worshiped the risen Lord Jesus Christ, crying out, “My Lord and my God!”
John was there for all of that, all those years before. And now he is bearing witness to the truth about Jesus, contrary to what the false teachers were saying. He is saying that Jesus is indeed God come in the flesh, the eternal Son of God. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. John starts out this epistle like he starts out his gospel, asserting the divinity of Christ. In his gospel John states: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” Then he goes on to say: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Now in his epistle John says the same thing: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it.” John emphasizes that the eternal Son of God, who was there in the beginning, really did come in the flesh: “We apostles were there, we saw it with our own eyes. We have even touched and handled his crucified and risen body.” The implication: Those who say otherwise to you, guys like Cerinthus–they are lying. And you will not find life or fellowship with God by listening to them.
Friends, we have life, eternal life, and fellowship with God only through the incarnate Word of Life, the Lord Jesus Christ. It takes a flesh-and-blood Savior, crucified and risen, to rescue sinners like you and me. You see, that is the problem with Cerinthus and all his modern counterparts: They downplay, or even deny, the person of Christ, his divine and human natures in one person. They downplay the work of Christ, his shedding his blood for our sins. These false teachers are robbing souls of the only life-giving gospel. For all the Cerinthuses of the world hate the idea that we cannot save ourselves by our own wisdom or knowledge, thus attaining to a higher level of spirituality. All the Cerinthuses, ancient and modern, hate the idea that it takes the death of God himself to save us from our sins, that our sins are that bad and we are in such bad shape. We all, by nature, want to think of ourselves as not that bad, not that lost, not that unable to pull ourselves up to God. We’re satisfied if we can compare ourselves to others who are not as advanced as we are. At heart, then, we all are like Cerinthus.
But God has a better idea, the only idea that works, and old man John is the faithful witness who tells us about it. He tells us it is this God in the flesh who gives us life. John tells us that, yes, we are sinners, that we are not so advanced that we can get to the place where we are without sin. But at the same time, God’s Son, Jesus Christ, shed his blood for us to cleanse us from our sin. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
That’s what it takes to save a world of sinners like you and me. It takes a bloody Savior. It takes the eternal Son of God dying for us. “He is the propitiation for our sins,” meaning, he, Jesus, is the one who takes the wrath of God against sinners and suffers it in our place. He, Jesus Christ, satisfies God’s justice, and now, risen from the dead, he is our advocate in heaven, pleading our case, so that God declares us not guilty for Christ’s sake. That’s what Jesus has done and is doing for each one of you! “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
We have fellowship with God and fellowship with one another through the incarnate Word of Life, Jesus Christ the Son of God, our flesh-and-blood Savior. And we know and believe in the enfleshed Word of Life now through the proclaimed Word of Life. John and Thomas and those other eyewitnesses could actually see and hear and touch and handle Jesus “up close and personal.” But you and I, even though we have not seen and heard and touched like they did–we are at no disadvantage. Christ proclaimed is as good as Christ seen and heard. As Jesus himself said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Today the Word of Life is proclaimed in your hearing. Through this proclamation, you have fellowship with God and you have eternal life. And in this sacrament, we do touch and handle things unseen, for with the bread and the wine we are receiving the very body and blood of Christ by which our sins are forgiven.
It’s Easter, once again today! Yes, Jesus is here with us, right here in our midst, speaking his word of peace and life to us! Rejoice, fellow believers! We have fellowship with God and fellowship with one another through Christ, the Word of Life, enfleshed and proclaimed! And we are proclaiming these things to one and all so that our joy may be complete.