Easter 2, Year B, April 8, 2018
Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1—2:2, John 20:19-31
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Whenever I read the first chapter of the first letter of John, I remember worship as a kid, back in the days of the green hymnal, the LBW. If you remember, the part of the confession used at the beginning of service was taken from this passage: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This piece of scripture, repeated over and over, sunk in deep to my mind and heart and shaped the way I saw God and humans. All humans are sinners, but God loves us and saves us anyway. This was—and still is—the bedrock certainty on which my faith rests.
Which is why I was shocked and confounded, in my mid-twenties, to deal with a woman who complained about having to confess each week—because, she insisted, she was not a sinner and didn’t need to confess anything. She was a good person who followed the commandments, so, she claimed, she had no need of confession and forgiveness. I love this passage from First John, it is beautiful and poetic and meaningful. But in order to understand it, I think we need to unpack a little bit what it means when it talks about “sin,” and why it is so certain—and so right—that all human beings are sinners in need of forgiveness.
We talked about what “sin” is in Confirmation the other day. And when I asked the kids if they could define “sin,” the answers were sort of circular. “Sin” is breaking the commandments and doing things God doesn’t like. Why doesn’t God like them? Because they’re sins. Which isn’t wrong, but it also doesn’t help us figure out what sin is in a complicated world. And so we went back to Mark 12:30-31, when Jesus tells his disciples that all of God’s commandments and teachings can be summed up in two phrases: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Which is why one of the most ancient definitions of sin is that sin is anything that curves you in on yourself, away from God and your neighbors. Sin is the thing that breaks relationships. Sin is what makes us selfish, suspicious, and callous. Sin is when we see injustice and cruelty and look the other way. Sin is when we surround ourselves with people we like and ignore or get suspicious of anyone who is different.
The word “fellowship” appears four times in just this one chapter. Now, fellowship means community, companionship, a relationship of equality and fairness. To have fellowship with the community is to have fellowship with God, and to walk in the light is to have fellowship with God and one another. But you can’t have fellowship while sinning. Sin and fellowship are mutually exclusive. Or, to take a verse from the next chapter of 1 John, “Whoever says ‘I am in the light’ while hating a brother or sister is still in the darkness.” And when the Bible talks about spiritual siblings like this, it doesn’t just mean people we like who are like us. It means all children of God. If you hate God’s children, you are walking in darkness. If you are indifferent to the pain and suffering of God’s children, you are walking in darkness.
One of the greatest sins of our culture—the root of many other sins—is a belief that compassion and kindness and generosity are “stupid,” and that selfishness and coldness are somehow “smarter.” It’s a sin full of self-justification. When you believe that, you can walk past anyone who needs help, and tell yourself that you’re ignoring them because you’re smart, not because you’re selfish. You can attack anyone who is different than you or who disagrees with you, and tell yourself you’re being courageous, not cruel and hate-filled. You can spread all the darkness you want, and tell yourself it’s not sin, it’s being realistic. And I don’t know anybody living in America today, who hasn’t given in to that temptation at least a little bit occasionally. We are all sinners, stumbling around in the dark and telling ourselves it’s light.
That kind of darkness—selfishness and hate and callousness hidden under self-serving justifications—has no place in God’s kingdom. God is love, as John tells us over and over again. That’s the core of who and what God is, and that’s the core of God’s plan for us: that we will love God and love one another by everything that we say and do, and that we will never neglect to do the loving thing that praises God and serves our neighbors. Our whole culture is marinating in that darkness, it shapes our thoughts and how we see the world, and as long as we continue in that spiritual darkness, God’s living Word, Jesus Christ, is not in us.
Thanks be to God for the forgiveness in Christ Jesus. We can’t purge ourselves of the evil in our hearts and minds. It keeps creeping in no matter what we do, and so often we don’t even recognize it for what it is. But that’s why Christ gave his life. That’s why he became human like us, to share in our world and be connected to us in baptism, so that we might share in his death and resurrection, and be washed clean. We are connected with Jesus, who forgives our sins when we confess them, and helps us live towards the glorious light of God’s coming kingdom.
While we live in this life, we cannot fully be in the light all the time. Darkness creeps back in: all the temptations that curve us in on ourselves, away from right and life-giving relationships with God and our neighbors. Jesus forgives us, fills us with his Holy Spirit, calls us out into the world to spread God’s love in word and deed … and eventually, sooner or later, we fail. But God is faithful even when we are faithless. God is love, even when we are filled with callousness, cruelty, selfishness, fear, and hate. And no matter how far we fall, no matter how wrong we go, no matter how much we harden our hearts and tell ourselves we’re being smart to do so, God keeps coming to us and breathing his Holy Spirit into us and calling us to repentance and change.
God is love, and we cannot follow God unless and until we learn to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. When that happens, when we learn to put God’s love into action and not just pious words, amazing things happen. We’ll hear some of the stories of those amazing things in our readings from the book of Acts this Easter season, including our first reading today. After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, after the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the followers of Jesus set about building a community based on God’s love. And they started by making sure nobody was going hungry, that everybody had what they needed. They made sure that everybody had what they needed, that nobody was forgotten or ignored by the community. Now, they didn’t go about it in the best way for long-term stability, and people started lying and undermining the system pretty soon after. This is a pattern we see often in Christian history. The Spirit comes, amazing things are accomplished, and then human sinfulness comes in and brings things to an end. And then the Spirit comes in someplace else, inspiring humans to great acts of love and community. No matter how much we fail, no matter how much we turn to darkness, God’s light keeps breaking into our lives, teaching us to live in love with God and our neighbors.
How has God’s love and light broken into your world, recently? I know the world can seem like a grim and heartless place full of darkness and death, but we worship a God who can bring light and life to every time and place—even to the grave. We worship a God who cannot be kept out, a God who brings new life and resurrection even in the midst of death, who brings love in the midst of hate, generosity in the midst of selfishness, and forgiveness for all our sins.
The God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, who inspired Christian communities in Acts and throughout history since then, is at work in us and among us. The God whose very nature is love is calling us to love God and one another, and to put that love into action, even in a world that calls such love stupid and foolish and unrealistic. The God who forgives all who repent is softening our hard hearts and calling us to return to him, calling us into loving fellowship not just with him but with all his children.