Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, July 24, 2021
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Knowing and Walking in Truth

1 John 1:1-2:6

What is the situation John is addressing in this letter?

John may have been the last of the Twelve Disciples at this point, the last person who walked with Jesus on the earth. He is writing here somewhere in the mid to late 80s in the city of Ephesus. He is writing to second and third generation Christians, people who never knew Jesus in person, people who never saw him with their own eyes. And he is dealing with a situation of declining commitment, false teaching, and compromise with the world.

There were several false teachings that had cropped up in the Church by this time. The most prevalent was Gnosticism. Gnosticism, among other things said that you shouldn’t worry about sin. It doesn’t make any difference what your body does, since your body is going to be destroyed anyway. Part of Gnosticism was a belief in Docetism, from the Greek word meaning “to appear” or “to seem.” Gnostics believed that Christ was divine but he was never human. He only appeared to be human. Another belief that was taking hold at this time was Cerinthianism. Cerinthianism said that yes, Jesus was a human being, but not divine. But he only became the Christ when God’s Spirit filled him. Both of these beliefs denied the Incarnation, our belief that God took on human flesh and walked among us and died on the cross for our sins.

And there was compromise with the world. Greek culture was strong in the region of Ephesus, and in the Greek mind, knowing God was only an intellectual pursuit. It made no difference how one lived their life. God made no moral demands. And there was also the Imperial cult, which was also strong in this region. The Imperial cult was the worship of the Roman Emperor as a divine being. Those who did not participate were seen as “disloyal” or “unpatriotic.” And there was great pressure on Christians to compromise their beliefs and “go along to get along.”

All of these were factors in the situation John was addressing. And in one way or another, they’re also all factors in our situation today. Declining commitment, false teaching, compromise with the world? Those are all very real in the Church today.

How did John address this situation?

He begins by referring back to his Gospel. The first verse of chapter one is very reminiscent of the Gospel of John. As in, first things first, remember what I have already written about Jesus. “We heard him, he saw him, we touched him.” This is John’s rebuke of these false teachings about Jesus. “We testify about him so that you may have fellowship with us and with the Father.”

Fellowship with God is rooted in truth. To know God, we must know the truth. We must know God as he is. We must know his Son, our Savior. Orthodoxy matters. The word orthodoxy is literally “right glory,” but the way we use it, it basically means “right belief.” We have a Christian faith. There are things we believe as Christians that are not “open for negotiation.” Christian faith is not some squishy, amorphous blob where “you can believe anything you want to believe and still be a Christian.” And there are some people who see it that way today!

There is a temptation to downplay what we believe in order to get along with the world. These first century Christians were tempted in this way. “Jesus is Lord.” Yes, but let’s worship the emperor as “Lord” so we won’t make waves. And we are tempted in the same ways. “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’” Yes, but other people believe there are other ways, so let’s not get all crazy about Jesus being the “only way.” We don’t want to make waves.

Orthodoxy matters. But there’s something else that matters: orthopraxy. Orthopraxy means “right actions.” Christian truth is intellectual truth and moral truth. It’s not just something we know; it’s something we live. It’s about how we live.

In the Greek mind, “knowing God” was an intellectual pursuit and nothing more. If you had the right ideas up here, that was all that mattered. You could live however you wanted to and God didn’t care. Greek religion was devoid of moral demands. This is why Gnosticism was so popular in Greek culture. Most Gnostics agreed that there was no such thing as sin, no such thing as right and wrong. Because if you knew the truth, then you were incapable of committing sin. “Sin” was just about the body, and the body was inconsequential in Greek thought and especially in Gnostic thought.

John says, “No, God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” Light is not just a representation of truth; it’s also a representation of goodness and holiness. This quote comes from a fellow named Charles Harold Dodd, and it’s quite fitting here: “The Church is a society of people, who, believing in a God of pure goodness, accept the obligation to be good like him.”

Well, this is all just a problem for the distant past, right? No, unfortunately. In a recent survey of American Christians, about 1/3 of them said that “While I have made some mistakes, I am not a sinner.” The Church is not holy because we’re sinless. We are holy because we are forgiven! The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a refuge for the sinless. “If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves.”

Confession of sin is necessary for the Christian life. First of all, we must confess our sin to receive Christ as Savior. But second, we must continue to confess our sin.

This is not so that we “keep on being saved.” It’s to keep our sin from becoming a barrier in our relationship with God. Confession is not just, “I’m sorry.” It’s also our commitment to become free from sin in our lives. Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross is sufficient for the forgiveness of all the sins in the world, but it’s only effective for those who confess their sin and receive him.

If we profess to love Christ but deliberately and repeatedly disobey him, then we are liars. It’s true; no matter how hard it is to hear. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments.” A life of obedience and conformity to the moral demands of the gospel demonstrates our commitment to Christ.

John was addressing a situation in the late first century Church. The temptation to compromise or to buy into false teaching or simply to slack off in one’s commitment to Christ was very real in that situation. It is also very real in the early 21st century. It’s probably been a constant all along. But the Christian faith has always been a matter of both knowing the truth and walking in the truth.

Let me change gears for a moment here. There’s something I’ve wanted to bring up for a while, and I think this is a good time. The discussion of problems in the first century Church being like the problems of the 21st century Church reminds me that the Church must always be in a place of self-examination. What are we doing? Where are we seeing fruit? And where are we failing?

Just over a year ago, we entered into pandemic life. Pandemic life meant putting everything down, whether it was good or bad. It all went on the floor. As we start to see the light on the other side of the tunnel, it’s a good time to ask ourselves, “What are we going to pick back up? And what’s going to stay on the floor?”

As much as I am loathe to take anything from a politician, how can we “build back better?” How can the post-pandemic Church be better than the pre-pandemic one? What was good and should be resumed? What was ineffective, and we should let it go away? And what was missing that we should have been doing instead of the things we were doing that weren’t working?

I don’t want things to just pick where we left off. That would be a waste. The pandemic was a crisis, but it also gives us an opportunity for self-examination.

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