The Letter of 1st John is written to very early Christian believers who lived a short time after Jesus was raised from the dead -around 100 A.D. The opening lines of this 1st letter indicate that we are receiving witness from someone who was close to first-hand experiences of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. In it’s opening lines, this letter’s writer states that he intends to help Christian believers in a next generation formulate what Christ’s resurrection MEANS for THEIR community of faith as THEY press on into the future. These words are a blessing to us, as Christians who are alive much further into the future, than perhaps this letter writer could even imagine.
Our writer is trying to persuade his original audience, and us, that what happened to Jesus was real. He is inviting us to believe in his witness to the incarnate and resurrected Jesus. By believing his witness, he says, we enter fellowship with Christian believers from the earliest times of Jesus’ life. And together with those who’ve gone before us in the faith, we also enter into fellowship with God the Father and the Son.
Listen again carefully to how the 1st Letter of John begins. “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…”
Remember the gospel of doubting Thomas this past Sunday? Do you hear the echoes here? The word that is even used for “touch” in this first sentence of this letter, isn’t the typical word for touch. It actually is a different word that means “physically examined”. Another special place where this same word for touch is used is a resurrection story, recorded in the gospel of Luke, when Jesus says in one resurrection appearance to his friends, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. TOUCH me and see; (in other words, “physically examine me and see”) for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.”
Our writer, 1st John, implores us to believe that the resurrection of Jesus is real because some who have gone before us, really, really did physically examine our risen Lord and found his resurrection to be true. Therefore, if we join our writer and these early witnesses in this belief, we are included in a beautiful and historical connection of fellowship that goes way back to the beginning. I don’t think often enough about my connection to these early believers. How about you?
This passionate plea from 1st John to those of us living generations in the future, also makes me wonder about our own passionate pleas as a Christian community. What are WE bearing witness to – in what WE HAVE SEEN AND HEARD of Jesus Christ? What have we actually examined or experienced ourselves about Jesus that we passionately believe about him enough that we actually want to share that news with the next generation?
I asked that question when I started studying this text last week. I got a glimpse of my answer this past Sunday afternoon. Over 30 8th grade confirmation/AMPED students of our church gathered masked and outside for a retreat on the topic of Christian community. Becca, our Director of Youth and Family Ministry, had arranged for speakers, to talk to our 8th graders about how church is a different community than most other groups we belong to. Speakers were to share personal stories about where we truly have met Jesus in the most remarkable times and especially through each other in the church.
I spoke as a pastor who cares for other people in my work. But the other reason for my being a speaker was to share a few stories from my own life about when I was not longer giving Christian care, but receiving it. I’ve had my life turn upside down a couple times. In those times, I’ve truly received Christ’s resurrection power through the loving care of all of you – the fellowship of my church family. A life threating experience for my newborn decades ago put me in a spot to be on the receiving end of love and care. And another chapter in my life brought me breast cancer. As I endured treatment, your prayers, encouragement, sympathy and accompaniment brought Christ’s risen presence to me in a difficult time.
Now, I was just one speaker for our youth. Others from our church spoke of meeting the risen Jesus through fellowship with the church too. Becca’s fiancé, Dan, spoke of working with his home church and Habitat for Humanity. He said that being a part of a team, who welcomed him when he was a middle schooler – brought him together with people of all ages working to build a house for someone. He said volunteering with Habitat was a huge faith experience in his early Christian life that he wants to give witness to. Sarah – another church member – spoke how church is like no other group she belongs to in life. Here, in our church, she feels most welcomed and loved. Cam and McKenzie – high school youth – noted that same experience as even younger people. All of we speakers gave witness to encountering Christ in connection with our church fellowship.
What witness would you have given about how Christ has met you in the church community? What would you say to encourage these 8th graders who are the church of the present and also the future? How would you suggest we continue as a congregation to pursue these young people – telling them how much we long for fellowship with them in faith, so that they can continue to connect with us and in turn connect to God the Father and our risen Lord Jesus?
I reflected further on these same questions this past week from a different angle when I had a different opportunity for witness. I don’t know how many of you are signed up for this, but I’m on the Nextdoor App for my neighborhood. It’s a site where you get an email or two a day with questions and interests or notices like lost and found info. from people in your neighborhood.
The other day, a new resident to Madison inquired on this site if anyone had a local church to recommend. He has moved to this area from the southern part of the US, and he would be looking to connect to a church for faith and fellowship. “Church shopping” is not an easy task during a pandemic. But the notes in response to this young man’s inquiry were very supportive.
Various responders welcomed this young man to the Madison area and each made a pitch about their church community. We have great music, said one. We’re just beginning to safely gather in-person, I said. We are known for our service to the downtown Madison community, said another. We have small groups for Bible Study, one noted. Someone else said ‘I’m serving coffee at my church this Sunday after the 9am service, stop by and say ‘hi’.
We were all encouraging and supportive of this person of faith. We were inviting, just like we’ve all been encouraged to do. We are all hoping this guy will find just the right church community to find fellowship with other Christians and with God our Father and with Jesus the Son.
But then, in my mind, I came back to tonight’s Bible reading. The letter of 1st John moves forward after speaking about our fellowship with each other and other believers. The letter continues with instruction. The letter states that Jesus brings the light of God into our lives. And if we live in that light together, one of the most identifiable characteristics about our church fellowship should be — that we walk in God’s light by making confession of our sins together and receiving Christ’s forgiveness. Confessing our sins is a mark of our true fellowship.
Hmmmm……Isn’t that interesting. I pointed a finger back to myself and to the other church invitations posted on the Nextdoor App. None of us offered that reality to this young man in our church fellowship invitations. Let me say that more clearly. None of us said, “I belong to this church, where one of the most important things for you to know about us – is that we regularly confess that we are all sinners. We are a collection of sinners who, at our best, try not to deceive ourselves. We try to acknowledge the truth that is in us. And that truth is, we each are sinners. But the greater news is that when we come together and confess that sin with repentant hearts in this faith community – we believe with all our hearts that our sins are forgiven, thanks to the reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which has set us free from those sins. Come join us in our church – where our fellowship is really grounded in our being forgiven sinners.” I believe our confession of sin and Christ’s forgiveness of us — is one of the most compelling reasons to invite anyone into the fellowship of our church community!
It binds us together and to God through Jesus Christ when we begin most of our worship services confessing our sins using the words from this 1st Letter of John. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
1st John not only longed for us to be in fellowship with those who experienced Jesus in their past. His real reason for writing this letter was to challenge early Christians in their living in the present and the future. As forgiven sinners, thanks to the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection, may we regularly live into the joy of the forgiveness we’ve been given. And may we regularly look for ways to tell anyone around us who needs to hear it — of the life changing love and fellowship that Christ’s forgiveness has brought into our lives.
Thanks be to God! Amen.