"Love in the Body" - Sermon on 1 John 1:1-4 by Joe Ellis - January 16, 2022
Today we are beginning our walk through what’s sometimes called the First Letter of John (it’s actually less of a letter than it is a sermon). I felt inspired to camp here in 1 John for the next 10 weeks, because the community that John is writing to has fractured — people have parted ways — John’s singular challenge for those who remain in the community is for them to love one another. This must be our singular focus! — how can we practically show love to each other in a time where practically showing love to each other can sometimes be exceedingly difficult?
I want to introduce this letter by inviting you to think of a time when you were sitting down, minding your own business when all of a sudden someone within earshot starts having a conversation on their cell phone. If you weren’t just simply annoyed with having to listen to someone else’s conversation, maybe you started eavesdropping. This sort of eavesdropping can be fun because it's like doing a puzzle — you’re trying to figure out the conversation with only half the data. You can’t see or hear the person on the other end of the conversation, so you don’t know what they’re saying. So you listen to the person that you can see and hear, and you try and put together what they’re talking about — You wonder, “Why did she say elephant and bubble bath in the same sentence?" Sometimes you feel certain enough about what’s going on, that in your mind you start giving the person advice on what to say next.
That, in a nutshell, is what biblical scholars attempt to do when they studying the books of the Bible — even the Gospels, but more so the letters. After all, these books and letters are written to specific places and people for specific reasons. Luke opens his Gospel by addressing a person named “Theophilus”. Bible scholars try and reconstruct the conversation because that helps you understand why the writer says what they’re saying — you have to do that with humility though. After all, we are listening to only one side of a conversation that is nearly 2000 years old.
The writings called 1 John, 2 John and 3 John are likely all written by the same person — either the Apostle John, or one of his students (these letters never identify the author — the closest we get is that the author calls himself the “the elder” in 2 John and 3 John).
When you read through these writings, you get the sense that all three letters are addressing the same situation — a significant conflict has occurred. The leaders in the church have disagreed sharply with each other, so much so that there has been broken fellowship, some have left the church, and some have denied each other hospitality.
In addition to all the beauty in the letter, you’ll also encounter grief and anger and hurt throughout these letters. This is understandable. After all, this community has as their central text the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John was probably written in their community, and some say that First John is essentially a commentary on John’s Gospel. If that’s the case, then you could see how the writer of First John would be blindsided by the conflict in their community. How could this community disagree over such fundamental matters of doctrine? Doesn’t Jesus say in John 16:13, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth…?” How can the community that has received the Spirit of Truth be divided about such fundamentals as who Jesus is? How can a community that is imbued with the Spirit of Truth have division over doctrine?
In John 17:20-21, Jesus prays for the unity of all believers — Jesus says, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” John says in the first 4 verses of First John that the whole reason he’s writing this letter is so that they may have fellowship, brotherhood, partnership with one another — so that their joy may be complete. How can a fellowship which has the inner life of God as the basis of their life together — how can such a fellowship experience fracture? This isn’t simply a community conflict, its an existential crisis. Didn’t Jesus promise that the Holy Spirit will be the glue that will hold us together?
So, what’s happened? What’s shaken this community so deeply? Again, remember that we’re only listening to one half of a conversation — in this case we are only privy to a small fraction of the conversations that have taken place. This means that what I’m saying next I’m saying with humility. We can’t know the situation with certainty, but I think that we can get an idea of what’s going on. There are certain themes that are repeated again and again throughout First John. One theme that’s repeated and emphasized is a focus on the physical humanity of Jesus. Remember — this is a community that has its theology deeply rooted in the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John has an incredibly high Christology — its phenomenal. When theological people say something has a “high Christology” we are talking about a theology that strongly emphasizes Jesus as God. Listen again to the way John’s Gospel begins, it has 'high Christology': “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” We could spend a year on just these two verses of John’s Gospel — John’s Gospel doesn’t open with talking about the human nature of Jesus, but opens with talking about something called “The Word”. He says this “Word” is pre-existent”, the Word doesn’t have a beginning. "The Word was with God, and the Word was God."
As stated in one of the church’s first attempts at saying who Christ is at the council of Nicaea: “There never was a time when (Christ) was not.” That’s what we find in the start in the Gospel of John. And Christ is fully human and fully divine. Although the Gospel opens with a powerful proclamation about the pre-existence and deity of Jesus, there is less about the humanity and fleshiness of Jesus (for that you need to wait until you get to verse 14 in John’s Gospel). Instead, the first part of John’s Gospel focuses on the fact that the Word was God and with God in the beginning. Assuming that 1 John is a commentary on John’s Gospel, look at the way that the letter begins: “That which was from the beginning,” (the letter starts out in the same way as John’s Gospel — we’re talking about the beginning — but instead of emphasizing deity, the letter emphasizes something else) “That which we have heard, and we have seen with our eyes, which we have gazed at, and our hands have handled — concerning the Word of life.” Between the words “In the beginning” and “the Word” John’s letter reminds that the Word was heard, and seen and touched. John’s letter reminds us that the Word that was with God in the beginning could be heard with the ears, seen with the eyes, and touched with the hands. The Word became flesh.
Raymond Brown argues that John inserted these words about seeing, and hearing and touching because that was the heart of the conflict in the community. Those who broke away from the church had begun to emphasize the pre-existence of the Word, the divinity of the Word (Jesus) to the exclusion of the humanity of the Word, a rejection of the humanity of Jesus. We take this for granted, but for the early church, the idea of God taking on flesh is a huge intellectual, spiritual and physical hurdle! How God could humble Himself to the point of not only taking on flesh but also submitting to the humiliation of death on a cross? The Christian community would wrestle with this for the next several centuries. That’s the conflict over which this community is wrestling with. This sort of belief, that it was beneath God to take on flesh, that belief would flower into a part of “Gnosticism” that was later called “Docetism”. Docetism comes from the Greek word that means “to seem”. The idea was that Jesus only seemed to have flesh but there was no true reality in his flesh. He just looked physical but wasn’t really physical. Docetists would eventually write their own Gospels— one depiction was that Jesus only appeared to suffer on the cross — and that while he was suffering the Son was looking down and laughing at those foolish humans who thought they could touch and harm the pre-existent Word. That is Docetism.
John’s letter is the strongest possible rebuttal to such a view of Christ. He says: not only have we heard the Word, not only have we gazed upon the Word, but we have touched the Word. We have handled the Word. Thomas felt in Jesus’ side and witnessed the physical humanness of Jesus.
Not only does Docetism deny the beauty of the incarnation, it denies the beauty of creation. You see, when you hold a view like Docetism, you begin to despise the created physical world — life here doesn’t really matter. Physical life becomes at best an inconvenience for us to put up with, and at worst physical life is an evil that must be beaten into submission. One person put it this way, “my body kills me so I kill it.”
On the other hand, it is hard to overstate how much the doctrine of the incarnation says about how much God loves this world. God loves our bodies. God loves his creation. Listen to these familiar words, “This, you see, is how much God loved the world: enough to give his only, special Son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age.” The fact that God became flesh is God’s loving and profound “yes” to the goodness and importance of all creation! Our bodies and our souls are so important that God became flesh, died on the cross, rose from the dead so that we might find bodily life in the hereafter. Created life is good and beautiful — so much that he won’t let decay have the final Word. He will raise us from the dead! Creation is so important that God promises the renewal and restoration of all Creation. Creation and the body are so important that the Word himself became flesh.
This of course means that the ways we relate to each other through our bodies matters — our embodied life together matters so deeply. This has been a painful couple of years of learning this lesson, in this season where we have been separated from each other physically. We are still learning this lesson — the tensions we feel in the way that we gather in person are testimony to how much our embodied life together matters.
Sadly, many of us have been learning in other ways how much our embodied life together matters — many of us know this through the heartache we carry when we’ve seen friends and loved ones, loved family members, taken by illness. We never feel this greater than when we weep over the death of ones we have loved. Our embodied life matters, there are few things that matter more.
The novelist Pearl Buck was a child of missionaries in China. She recalls how her infant brother took fever and died, as happened with so many missionary children. When friends attempted to comfort her by saying, “It’s only his body that is gone,” the mother practically flew at them for it, crying out in her distress that she had conceived and born this little body, dressed and fed and cared for it, and that she loved this body!
This last Thursday I was talking to my mom on FaceTime. Mom was sitting in the hospital chair awaiting her first chemo treatment for this round of cancer. It tore at my soul to be so far away from Mom and Dad while they were in that hospital room without me. My heart yearned to be with them, hold my mom’s hand and help carry the burden of that moment with my physical presence. We each have our own stories — stories where we are painfully reminded just how much our embodied life together matters so much.
So when we read the letter of First John, we are reading a letter written to a community who has been shaken to the core over a sharp disagreement over bodily theology, about how much body life matters— some took their bodies and left. To those who remained, John pleads for the community to learn how to love one another in the body. That’s the whole point of the letter — these relationships matter so deeply, and loving each other does not come easily, but loving each other through the difficulties of life is the most important work we can do.
I just said, “Most important!” Is it really that important? Am I saying that too strongly? What about loving God? Isn’t that more important? In chapter 4:10-12 of 1 John, John says, “Love consists of this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the sacrifice that would atone for our sins. Beloved, if that’s how God loved us, we ought to love one another in the same way. Nobody has ever seen God. If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is completed in us.” One of the strongest ways that we show our love for God is through loving each other. We don’t love each other in some abstract way. We don’t love each other by paying lip service to the idea of love. We love each other the same way that God loves us: through sacrificial words and through sacrificial actions.
So, while we cannot say with John that we have heard with our ears, seen with our eyes, and touched with our hands the Word of life — we can say that we have seen, heard and touched each other. When we see, hear and touch each other in love — John says that we are entering more deeply into fellowship with God. That’s why in 1 John 1:3, John says, “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” We are invited into God’s community of love.
John explains the point of this letter in verse 4: “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” That is the end goal of our fellowship — Joy. When we experience conflict, tension, disappointment, frustration with those we love — we work it out, trusting in the hope that at the end of the road lies joy. The community John’s writing to had entered into a deep conflict over how God relates to bodies, and as a result that impacted the way they related to each other in the body — in doing so, those who left lost track of that which is most important. For those who remained, John challenges them to consider deeply how to love one another in their embodied lives, with their bodies, their hearts and their minds.
Talking about loving each other can often be abstract — so let’s close this sermon reflecting on how Paul defines love in 1 Corinthians 13 — as you listen, ask the Holy Spirit which of these you need to live into in order to love the people in your life. The people you are in relationship with. The people who you hear and see and touch:
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
As Christ loves us, let’s practice loving one another.