“God is Light” – Sermon on 1 John 1:5-2:2 by Joe Ellis - January 23, 2022
“God is light, in Him there is no darkness at all.” (1John 1:5) This is one of John’s three metaphors about who God is. God is Light. God is Spirit. God is love. Metaphors capture the imagination and speak so deeply to the heart.
I’d be curious to hear what comes to mind for each of you when you think of God being light. What image of light comes to mind? Do you think of light from a reading lamp? Or do you imagine spring sunlight restoring life to the land? Or do you think of a flashlight that lights a path through the dark of night? Or do you remember the light of a campfire, both captivating and warming, as you stare into its embers? Or maybe you have one of those magnifying cosmetic mirrors that have huge lights attached to it so you can see more clearly your every wrinkle and blemish? Which type of light do you think John has in mind when he says “God is light”? That will probably impact the way you hear the passage — a light so you can see your pimples is very different than the light that gives life in Spring. That’s the power of a metaphor - they can speak on so many different levels of our mind and heart at the same time. But which is it? When John says, “God is light”, what is he talking about?
You get a clearer idea of what John means when you look at the rest of the passage — certain words are repeated over and over again, like the word ‘darkness’. God is light, the complete antithesis of darkness. “God is light, in him there is no darkness, none at all.” John challenges his church to flee from the darkness, and that means fleeing from lying, self deception and sin. John says that when we flee the darkness by doing the truth. John wants us to not just believe the truth, but “do the truth.”
It seems that John is being fairly specific when he says, “God is light”. John seems to be saying “God is true”, or “God is truth” when he says “God is light.” So much of what is said in the next few verses is about how we live in relation to God’s truth. For John, the goal is to always imitate God, to be a reflection of God’s character. So for us to walk in the light, is to do the truth, to live our lives according to the truth that has been revealed in Jesus Christ. That’s why in verse five John says, “This is the message we heard from him and declare to you: God is light.” John is attempting to live faithfully to the message he received from Jesus. John challenges the church community to this as well — to walk in the light, to live lives grounded in the truth as revealed in Jesus Christ. Doing the truth together is far easier said than done.
Remember that John is writing this letter to a church community that was seriously rattled because some people in their fellowship severely disagreed about some essential matters of truth and how to live in relation to that truth. John frames the ones who have left the fellowship as walking in darkness.
It can be really hard to be a part of community that has different understandings of what is true. That’s probably one reason why there have been so many church splits since the Reformation. As we develop different ways of discerning the truth, we live out that truth in different ways. Sometimes we label those differences as sins. This creates significant tension, and as the tension grows, the bond that binds us together can finally break.
Think of a time when you’ve been a part of a community — maybe a church, your family, at work — think of a time when you’ve had a different understanding of what it meant to live faithfully to the truth. It’s not easy.
John reflects on this sort of thing. He names the tension between how we relate to the truth and how we relate to each other. When we all agree on Truth, when we all see each other as in the Light, life is easy — he says, “If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1John 1:7)
But when we don’t agree on the light, on the truth, then it is much more difficult. Then you find words like darkness, liars, self-deception. Those are uncomfortable words. We might try and reduce our discomfort by asking questions like:
“Does truth even matter?”
“Should we sacrifice our convictions for the sake of fellowship?”
“Can I be in fellowship with people I disagree with?”
“What if I view the way that person is living their life as a great sin? What should I do? Does it matter? Should I pretend that everything is normal?”
I think that we can get some direction in answering those questions from this passage. After all, this is the sort of thing John addresses in this passage. He takes three statements from the people who’ve left and looks at them in the light of those questions. He then holds up those statements to the light of the Gospel — which shows what truly binds us together in truth.
The first quote from the group that left is, “We have fellowship with him”. John says, “If we say we have fellowship with him, but at the same time are walking in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.” (1John 1:6) He clearly labels this group as walking in darkness. The group said that they had fellowship with God regardless of their actions. John says, You can’t have your cake and eat it too. We cannot have both fellowship with God and disregard what he has revealed to be truth. We cannot act like truth does not matter. Truth matters!
It is often surprising to hear us described as living in what is called a “post truth age” — but this is really a child of postmodern relativism (which gets at the idea that there are multiple truths, multiple ways of finding truth, and it doesn’t really matter what is true as long it is true for you.)
It doesn’t take much to imagine someone saying, “I have fellowship with God, and what you call falsehood isn’t falsehood for me. What you call sin isn’t sin for me. What you call darkness isn’t darkness for me. I am living out my truth.”
John has strong words for this — If John were here he would say that living from a sense of postmodern relativism is to live a lie and it’s not living out the truth. This is challenging — it means that truth does matter. How we do the truth matters. How we do truth impacts our relationship with God. How we do truth impacts our relationship with each other. That means that we do need to have difficult conversations on how to discern and discover the truth. Not easy, as none of us has a corner on what is Truth. Only God knows all Truth.
But we have guides — we reflect on Scripture, we learn from our church tradition and history, we use our reason, we read the reasoned thoughts of others, and we reflect on our experience of the Holy Spirit and life. Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience are the four tools that John Wesley said we are to use to determine and understand truth — Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience help us in determining what is the Light and how to walk in it. And of course we remember that some things matter more than others.
There was a famous motto in the 1600s, found in Lutheran and German Reformed Churches:
IN ESSENTIALS - UNITY, IN NON-ESSENTIALS - LIBERTY, IN ALL THINGS - CHARITY.
We recognize that truth matters, walking in the light matters, but some things matter more than others. As we strive together to walk in the light and do the truth, we look to have unity amongst the essentials, and allow freedom in those non-essential things. And as we do so, we do so with charity, with grace, with kindness. IN ESSENTIALS - UNITY, IN NON-ESSENTIALS - LIBERTY, IN ALL THINGS - CHARITY.
The second statement John quotes from the group that left the church is this: they were saying, “We do not bear the guilt of sin.” This idea is a bit more nuanced than the first statement. The idea in the second statement is that if we sin after we’ve come into fellowship with Jesus and have received his forgiveness, then we no longer carry guilt from the sins we recently commit. The group that left might say, “Well, if I sinned by kicking a puppy on the way to church, the guilt of that wrongdoing doesn’t stick to me because I’ve already received forgiveness for my sins from Christ”.
John says, that’s nonsense — if we say something like that we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. What we do matters, even after we know Christ and are forgiven of our sins. When we sin as Christians, it matters. This means that striving to avoid sin matters. This means that how we shape our lives around what we believe to be true matters. Yes, the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin, but that does not mean that the impact of our sinful actions are null and void. The dog still cries out in pain when it is kicked. That is one reason why John recommends we confess our sins together — it is a recognition of the significance of sinful actions and a reaffirmation that Jesus’ blood cleanses us from these specific sins.
The final statement that John quotes from the group that left is this “if we say ‘we have not sinned’”. This quote concerns their misguided believe that it is in fact possible to live the perfect life. That with the Holy Spirit it is possible to live a faultless life, without sin. To this John says, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar and his word is not in us.” (1John 1:10) We make God a liar because we all sin — and if we say that we have not sinned, when God is saying we have sinned — then we are adding to our sin by calling God a liar.
So, here is the challenge — we are reflecting on sin in relation to not living out the truth. None of us knows truth perfectly — God alone is light. That means that all of us are to cultivate humility in the way we live our lives. As we have noted throughout, truth does matter — walking in truth matters deeply — yet we all are (hopefully) attempting to do the best we can with our finite minds, our frail bodies, our sinful inclinations, and our mixed motives. So, we walk together with humility. As we do truth together, as we disagree together, we do so with humility. We recognize that we will never have a full handle on the truth, and must consider the possibility that we have been walking outside the truth. IN ESSENTIALS -UNITY, IN NON-ESSENTIALS -LIBERTY, IN ALL THINGS -CHARITY. There is a real tension there as we call each other to accountability in humility.
So, as we strive for unity in the essentials, what are they? To each of these statements John shines a light. He not only says why each statement is misguided, but he also declares truth, essential truth, alongside them. I’m going to read these statements together. 1) “If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” 2) “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.” 3) “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous One, and he himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but for the whole world.”
What is essential comes out loud and clear, doesn’t it? Walking in the light matters, truth matters, living the truth matters — yet no one can say “I have not sinned.” And this is our unity, the blood of Jesus washes us from all sin, he cleanses us from all unrighteousness. Jesus is our advocate before the Father, speaking on our behalf. Jesus is the sacrificial lamb, who paid the deep price for our sins. This is our unity. That’s what binds us together. We are declared righteous purely on account of the blood of the Lamb, which has washed away our sins.
Splits happen because as Christians we have different areas of darkness and different areas of light, and we sometimes disagree about what is darkness and what is light. Yet, all the Christian churches in this valley agree on this essential: we have an advocate before the Father, Jesus Christ, and he is the atoning sacrifice for not only our sins but for the whole world. We have unity in the essentials — but it can be very hard to hold onto unity when we differ in the nonessentials. After all, what are nonessential? Who gets to decide what’s nonessential? After all truth is truth. As we talked about, these things can often matter in significant ways. So we struggle together to walk in the light and together to do the truth.
Yet we know that all does not rise and fall on our ability to discern truth rightly. And this is what unites us: We are united by the unchanging, powerful, complete truth that Jesus, the Son of the Father, has washed us with His blood, and forgiven us from all our sins. This means that it is possible for us to live together, struggle together, and confess together our sins knowing that Jesus who is our way and truth, has forgiven us and continues to lead us together into truth.