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1 John 1.1-2.2

Delmar Chilton recalls hearing the late South African archbishop Desmond Tutu tell a story about his early days in ministry: He gave a Bible test to a group of young teen-age boys.  One of the questions was: “What did the voice from heaven say to Jesus after his baptism?” [The answer, as you may recall, was “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” [Mark 1.11]] Most of them got it right but one boy got it wrong in a very creative way.  He wrote, “The voice from heaven said ‘You are the Son of God; now act like it!’”   []

          The First Letter of John is saying something very similar, except its message is directed not to Jesus, the Son of God, but to Jesus’ followers: “You are the people of God; now act like it!”

          The author of the three letters attributed to John, who refers to himself simply as “the elder” in Second and Third John, is addressing a congregation which seems to have experienced division. There seem to be some who are espousing questionable, if not heretical, ideas about Jesus. And there is a problem with folks claiming to be Christian but then living in unchristian ways. Thus, the elder encourages his readers “to walk in the light.”

          The elder begins his address with a prologue that harkens back to the opening of the Gospel of John. He reminds his readers of “what was from the beginning:” the gospel message about Jesus Christ shared by those who heard, saw, pondered and even touched the One who is the Word made flesh. In his earthly, human life God has been revealed so that we humans might receive life. That life consists of being in fellowship with God “the Father and his Son Jesus Christ,” a fellowship which is not individualistic but is shared in the common life of the community of Christians.

Having reminded his readers of their shared faith and heritage, the elder turns to the character of God and its ethical implications. “God is light,” he declares, “and in God there is no darkness at all.” This is not meant to be a statement about God’s essence, about what God is, or God’s form. It is a statement about what God is like. It draws on the ancient imagery of light and dark, imagery found not only in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, but also in most of the ancient religious traditions. It is dualistic imagery in which light and dark are opposing forces. [David Rensberger, The Epistles of John, Westminster Bible Companion, p. 19] It is rooted in the fact that humans are diurnal creatures: we are active during the day and sleep at night. Day and light were thus associated with goodness and life, with understanding and knowledge, while night and darkness were associated with evil, ignorance, fear and danger. [Joel Green, “Second Sunday of Easter: 1 John 1.1-2.2; Commentary 1: Connecting the Reading with Scripture,” Connections: Year B, Volume 2, p. 211]   

To say that God is light is thus to declare that God is good. God is the Summum Bonum, the Highest Good. God is Truth. God is Beauty. God is Love. God is the source and sustainer of all life. God is the savoir of those who are suffering, the liberator of the enslaved, the builder of community. God abounds in love that forgives, reconciles and makes new. God is our hope beyond death. There is no trace of darkness, no taint of evil, no falsehood, no wavering of love in God’s character. God is light and life and love.

God’s people, those who follow Jesus, ought to reflect God’s character. We ought to be “people of the light just as God is light.” [Green, ibid.] We ought to “walk in the light,” because Jesus dwelt in the light and revealed it to us. As David Rensberger says, “The light, love and truth that are characteristic of God become models for us to imitate.” [Rensberger, p. 20] Thus, the essential ethical question for Christians, as it is posed in 1 John, is about our direction: Are we oriented toward the light or the dark? Which way are we walking?             

          In these verses, the author is encouraging his readers to act like the people of God, to make sure there is a correspondence between their beliefs and actions. This begins with an honest recognition of one’s own sin and continual need for God’s grace. Everyone is caught up in sin; it is a universal aspect of the human condition. The author’s understanding of sin seems to be focused on the failure to “enact in [one’s] behaviors one’s relationship with God.” [Robert Kysar, I, II, III John, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament, p. 32] Those who say they have no sin are either blind to their faults and limitations or they are blatantly dishonest. Worse, by denying their own sin, they deny the truth of God’s word and the necessity of God’s costly work of atonement in Jesus. To walk in the light is, in part, to walk in humility and honesty by acknowledging our sin and our need for God’s help.

Confession of sin opens us up to the cleansing power of Christ. Specifically, the elder connects this cleansing to the blood Jesus. There is here a sacrificial understanding of the cross, as indeed there is throughout most of the New Testament, regardless of the image or metaphor of atonement employed. Jesus is “the atoning sacrifice” who cleanses us of our sin. This declaration points to the dual nature of Old Testament sacrifices. The sacrifice was both an act that cleansed a person and an act that symbolized atonement or reconciliation, specifically the person’s commitment to live in fidelity to God. In the case of Christ’s sacrifice, the direction of the action is reversed. It is God in Christ who is making the sacrifice in order to cleanse us and reconcile us to God’s self. As with Old Testament sacrifices, it is not that God’s anger needs to be satisfied, but that we need to be purified from sin so we can begin to enter into a right and loving relationship to God and one another.  Again, to be very clear, “the aim of atonement is not to assuage God’s anger, but to cleanse human beings.”  [Green, ibid., p. 212]                                     

           All of this suggests another meaning of “walking in the light”—a second, parallel image of cleansing. By walking in the light of the truth about ourselves, we open ourselves to the cleansing effects of God’s light. Light has a sanitizing effect. Sunlight kills mold and mildew and can disinfect drinking water. UV light can kill Covid and other pathogens. Similarly, God’s light revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who is the Light of the World, can cleanse us of the impurities that adhere to our hearts and minds and thus obscure the image of God in which we have been created.

           Gregory of Nyssa offers a wonderful illustration of the cleansing power of God’s grace and love in Christ. Because humans have been made in the image of God, we have the capacity to reflect, in some small way, the beauty and goodness of our Creator, much as a painting reflects the image of the living subject. He writes, “For as in the matter of physical beauty the original comeliness is in the actual living face, whereas the second place is held by its reflection shown in a picture; so also human nature, which is the image of transcendent beatitude, is itself marked by the beauty of goodness, when it reflects in itself the blessed features [of God]. But since the filth of sin has disfigured the beauty of the image, [Christ] came to wash us with His own water, the living water that springs up unto eternal life.” [“The Beatitudes: Sermon 1,” in St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Lord’s Prayer/The Beatitudes, trans. by Hilda C. Graef, Ancient Christian Writers, p. 88]

          To put it another way, our souls are like mirrors, meant to reflect the light of God, the light that is in Christ. [Gregory uses this analogy in his “Sermon on the 6th Beatitude” and one of his sermons on the Song of Songs.] But the mirror of our souls can become so encrusted with sin, so befouled by the misdeeds that result from turning away from love of God and neighbor, that we cannot reflect the divine light. We cannot clean ourselves. We must be “purified by the Word,” [Gregory of Nyssa, From Glory to Glory: Tests from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, trans. by Herbert Musurillo, 171] washed as it were in the blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Then we may “walk in the light,” by reflecting the divine light in our words and our deeds; by showing forth more clearly the Divine likeness in lives of love and justice; by bearing a greater resemblance to the Beauty of God through lives of care and compassion. 

Hopefully, it is obvious that this is a process. The elder wants his readers not to sin, but knows that humans are weak and fallible, that all of us will inevitably sin. Pamela Saturnia observes, “We walk in the light when we are honest about our sin and the ways we miss the mark. As a result [of this honesty] we have fellowship with Jesus and each other…. For the writer of 1 John, walking in the light is to be authentic, warts and all, and to repent of the ways we sin…. We walk in darkness, not when we sin, but when we do not own up to how we hurt God, others and ourselves [by our thoughts, actions and inactions].” [Saturnia, “Second Sunday of Easter: 1 John 1.1-2.2; Commentary 2: Connecting the Reading with the Word,” Connections: Year B, Volume 2, p. 212] To walk in the light is not to be sinless and live “perfect” lives; it is instead honest, authentic living before God, a way of living that enables growth because we are open to the healing, cleansing, life-giving power of Divine light.

As Martin Luther said, “This life therefore is not righteousness but growth in righteousness; not health but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not what we shall be but we are growing toward it; the process is not yet finished but it is going on; this is not the end but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory but all is being purified.” [Luther, “Defense and Explanation of All the Articles of Dr. Martin Luther,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 32: Career of the Reformer, p. 24. This document, written in 1521, is a response to the papal bull Exsurge Domine. Quoted by Sharron Blezard,] We are pilgrims on the road to the Kingdom of God: we have not yet arrived but in the light of Christ we are shown the way forward. We are works in progress—in the light we see both our sin and need and the cleansing love, the life-giving compassion of God.

This week I read a commentary on our scripture by Doug Bratt in which called to my attention an incident in Jonathan Franzen’s recent novel Crossroads (2021). According to Bratt: Becky Hildebrandt is a pastor’s unbelieving teenaged daughter. [She’s deeply involved in the counterculture of the early 1970s.] Under the influence of illegal drugs, she stumbles into her dad’s church and desperately prays: “‘Please, God. Please, Jesus. I’ve been a bad person. I’ve always thought too highly of myself. I’ve wanted popularity, and money, and I’ve had so many cruel thoughts about other people. All my life I’ve been selfish and inconsiderate. I’ve been the most disgusting sinner, and I am so, so sorry.

‘Can you forgive me? If I promise to be a better and more humble person? If I promise to serve you cheerfully? I’ll take the worst kind of job to earn hours, I’ll be more loving to my enemies and more open with my family, I’ll share everything I have, I’ll live a clean life and not care what other people think of me, if only you’ll forgive me …’

Becky “hoped for a clear answer,” continues Franzen, “Jesus speaking to her in her heart, but there was nothing: the golden light had faded. But she also felt delivered from her sinfulness, at peace again. She’d glimpsed the light of God, if only for a moment, and her prayers had been answered.” [Doug Bratt, “Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 7, 2024: 1 John 1:1-2:2,”

Becky Hildebrandt turned toward the light. In the raw honesty of her prayer, her eyes were opened and she glimpsed the light of God’s love. It was that light, not her desperate promises, that brought her peace. In the light of Christ, she found forgiveness; she received hope; she was shown a way forward.

We are called to turn toward the Divine light revealed in Christ so that we might live light-filled lives [Green, 212], so that we might reflect God’s character in lives of grace, mercy and love, so that we might live rightly and justly. We are called to walk in the light as Christ did so that we might have fellowship with one another and with God. Let us open our hearts and our minds, in honest and humility, that the light of God may shine upon us, cleansing us from sin, nurturing us that we might grow in the good, and illuminating for us the way toward life. Amen.