How Will They Know We Are Christians? Part I

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
April 15, 2012

The Second Sunday of Easter

1 John 1:1-2:2

Maybe you’ve heard the joke about the man who is rescued from a deserted island. As the helicopter lifts off the beach and heads back to the boat the pilot asks, “What are those three buildings there?” The man says, “Oh, the one in the middle is my house.” “And what’s the one on the left?” the pilot asks. “Oh, that’s where I go to church,” the man says. “And the one on the right?” the pilot asks. “Oh, that’s where I used to go to church.” OK, it’s not a great joke, but it says a lot about who we are, doesn’t it? It hints at the truth that we sometimes have a hard time getting along with each other, even in the church; that we sometimes disagree about the things we think are most important. I would guess that everyone here knows of at least one church that has split, where some stay and try to make the best of a bad situation while others go off to start a new church somewhere else. I’ve heard people joke about how some churches “multiply by division,” but more often than we would care to imagine that’s just the way it happens.

During the Great Fifty Days of the Easter season I’m going to be preaching through 1 John, and I believe the entire epistle is addressed to a church that has just gone through a split. There’s a lot of “us and them” language in this letter, a lot of thinly veiled accusations. You hear talk about “those who lie and do not do the truth” and those who say they know Jesus but don’t do what he commands. You can almost see the fingers pointing in this little book, almost hear the voices raised as those who remain in the church talk about those who have left. But it also gives us a chance to look at how they made distinctions between what was authentically Christian and what was not. In the opinion of the author those who remained in the church were real Christians, and those who left were not. It was as simple as that. But what made them Christians? How could you tell? That’s what we’re going to be talking about in the next few weeks, but before we do we need to deal with some preliminary issues.

First of all, who wrote this letter? It’s called 1 John, and you could easily conclude that it was written by John, the son of Zebedee, the disciple of Jesus—the same one who wrote the Gospel—except we’re not even sure about that. The author of the Fourth Gospel never identifies himself. It’s tradition that tells us it was John the Son of Zebedee, and that he identified himself only as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” We understand it as modesty on his part. He didn’t want to come out and say, “I, John, the Beloved Disciple, wrote this Gospel,” and so he refers to himself in the third person. But every once in a while you find a first person plural in this Gospel—a “we” instead of a “he.” For example: right at the end of chapter 21 Peter and the risen Christ are walking on the shore of the Sea of Galilee when Peter turns and sees the disciple Jesus loved following them. He says, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus says, “If I want him to remain alive until I return what is that to you?” And then, in verse 23, it says, “Because of this, the rumor spread among the disciples that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?’” And then, in verse 24, it says, “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.”

Wait a minute—“We”!? Who is this “we”?

Tradition has it that the disciple Jesus loved ended up in Ephesus, and that a church soon gathered around him. Can you imagine going to a church where the preacher was the Beloved Disciple? Wouldn’t you hang on his every word, believing that it was just about as close to the heart of Christ himself as any teaching you could get anywhere? Wouldn’t you write down some of his best lines in the margin of your Sunday bulletin so you could refer to them later in the week? And then there was this rumor going around that he wasn’t going to die, although he did seem awfully old and feeble, but wouldn’t you hold on to that rumor in the hope that it was true? Scholars say that when the Beloved Disciple finally died, it created a crisis for the church. Some probably left, thinking, “Well, if you can’t believe rumors, what can you believe?” But the committed core held on, and this is the group some scholars refer to as “the Community of the Beloved Disciple.”[1]

They believe that it was this community that preserved the teaching and preaching about Jesus that we now call the Gospel of John. And sometimes they added editorial comments, like the one I just mentioned from John 21: “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.” Or what about John 19:34 where it says that the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side and “blood and water” flowed out? That seems unbelievable, but the very next verse assures us that, “The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true.” Or what about the way the Gospel seems to end in chapter 20 and then starts up again in chapter 21? Is it possible that the Community of the Beloved Disciple wanted to tell one more story about Jesus, one that their preacher had told them but forgotten to include in his gospel? You can almost see them working together to make sure that his teaching and preaching is preserved for future generations.

But now something has happened in the church. There’s been some sort of division, some kind of split. We don’t really know why. It might have been because the Beloved Disciple died, and things just weren’t the same anymore. Or it might have been that the one who took his place was not as beloved as he was. Or it might have been that some people began to get his teaching twisted up, and he wasn’t there to straighten them out. It’s that last suggestion that most scholars seem to agree on, that it was some kind of doctrinal difference—some sort of heresy—that divided them, and they seem to agree that the heresy in question is docetism. As I once explained it to my teenage daughter, “Docetism is an old Gnostic heresy. It comes from the Greek word dokeo, which means “to seem,” or “to appear.” Some of the Gnostics said that Christ only “appeared” to be human, that he put on the flesh of Jesus like a man would put on an overcoat. According to them Christ didn’t really suffer and die—Jesus did. They nailed Jesus to the cross like an overcoat but the divine Christ simply shrugged it off, and slipped away.”[2]

These people who have left the Church of the Beloved Disciple have done so, apparently, because they have been seduced by some early form of Gnosticism. I don’t know a lot about Gnosticism, but one of the things I still remember from my college days is that Gnosticism thinks of the flesh as evil but the spirit as good. It’s not a huge leap from that idea to the idea that Christ, the Son of the living God, couldn’t possibly have come in the flesh. Flesh is evil! It must have only appeared that way. And so you get this heresy in which Christ is this perfect and pure spirit who condescends to put on human flesh so he can walk around among us, teach us, help us, and heal us. But the Docetists would say, “Just because he looks human doesn’t mean that he is. This Jesus of Nazareth is simply the fleshy overcoat Christ wore when he was on the earth. Jesus is the one who was nailed to the cross and buried in a borrowed tomb. But it was the pure and perfect Christ who rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, the one who lives and reigns with the Father forever. He’s the one we worship.”

It almost sounds right, doesn’t it? And that’s the problem with heresy. It’s not usually a belief that is the opposite of what is true, but something so close you can hardly tell the difference. And yet there is a difference, and you can find it in the first chapter of John. The Word that was in the beginning, the Word that was with God and was God, that Word became flesh. It didn’t appear to be flesh; it was flesh. Now listen to the opening verses of today’s reading from 1 John and see if you can’t hear the point the Beloved Community is trying to make.

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, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy—[and yours]—complete” (1 John 1:1-4, NIV).

Can you hear that? All that talk about seeing, and hearing, and touching the Word of life? They make it clear that they believe Christ has come in the flesh, and that this is part of what it means to be a believer. In 2 John the Elder says that anyone who does not acknowledge Christ as coming in the flesh is “a deceiver and the antichrist” (vs. 7), and he may have been talking about some of those very people who have left the church, or whoever it was who led them astray. On the other hand anyone who does acknowledge that Christ has come in the flesh is welcome to join them. “We want you to have fellowship with us,” they write. “We want you to be part of the beloved community.” And then they tell us how:

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 1:5-2:2, NIV).

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

I’m calling this series “How will they know we are Christians?” Will it be because of the bumper stickers we put on our cars, because of the plaques we hang on the walls of our homes, because of the prayers we say in busy restaurants, or will it be something more than that? The author of 1 John might say it begins with a firm belief in the Incarnation, in the idea that God has come in the flesh in the person of Jesus, but in today’s passage he mentions at least three other things that set Christians apart from other people. Let me mention them briefly:

1. They walk in the light. The Elder begins by saying, “This is the message we have heard from him (that is, from Jesus Christ, the one who was with God and who was God and who has come to reveal God to us in a way he has never been revealed before): he says that God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.” And Jesus should know. So if he says God is light, he is. And if we say we have fellowship with God but keep walking around in the darkness, we don’t. Real Christians walk in the light, John would say. They live their lives in plain view. They’ve got nothing to hide. The blood of Jesus has washed away all their sins and brought them into fellowship with God and each other.

2. They acknowledge their sins. Apparently some of those who left the church were saying that they weren’t sinners. They might have said it this way, that their flesh was sinful but their spirit—their true self—was perfect and pure. The author of 1 John would say that’s nonsense. You can’t separate flesh from spirit. “If we claim to be without sin,” he says, “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And so…

3. Their sins are forgiven. Do you see how it works? You don’t have to deny your sin if there’s an effective way to deal with it. If God can forgive your sin and cleanse you from all unrighteousness then you can own up to it. You can stand up in church on a Sunday morning and say, “My name’s Jim and I’m a sinner!” And every other sinner in the room can say, “Hi, Jim! I’m one too!” Now, that doesn’t give us a license to sin. The writer of 1 John says it plainly: “I’m writing this to you so you won’t sin, but if anyone does sin we have an Advocate with the Father: Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. Through his death he has effectively dealt with the sins of the whole world.”

So, let this be the beginning of a series that will go on for several more weeks. And let this be the message that you hear today: that as far as the author of 1 John is concerned real Christians 1) believe that Christ has come in the flesh, 2) walk in the light of the Lord, 3) are free to acknowledge their sins, and 4) in Jesus Christ their sins are forgiven. That’s not a bad way to begin, is it—free, forgiven, and walking in the light of the Lord?

Who knows what next week will bring?

—Jim Somerville, 2012


1. Particularly Raymond E. Brown, whose book, The Community of the Beloved Disciple, is a classic. Much of the information in this paragraph is gleaned from my years of study with R. Alan Culpepper, who quoted frequently from Brown and referred to him, at that time, as the greatest living Johannine scholar.

2. From my 2006 Easter sermon, “Heresy!” Audio file available at the Boston University library web site (http://dcommon.bu.edu/xmlui/handle/2144/96?show=full).

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