A sermon on 1 John 1:1-4 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 7 February 2021
The Gettysburg Address was a speech delivered by the United States president Abraham Lincoln in 1863. By all appearances, it doesn’t seem much. It’s only 275 words long. News reports at the time say that Lincoln was interrupted five times by thunderous applause, and it still only took two minutes to say. And yet it remains one of the most famous speeches in the history of the United States of America. It refers back to the founding principles of the USA of liberty and equality and applies them to a new generation, facing new threats and new challenges. And it’s last sentence contains one of the most memorable descriptions of democracy: government of the people, by the people, for the people.
They are stirring, inspiring words because they are words that arose in the midst of conflict. At the time of the Gettysburg Address America was fighting its civil war. Gettysburg was the scene of one of its most bloody battles and the occasion for Lincoln’s speech was the dedication of a cemetery for the soldiers who had been killed. War is a time when actions matter. But war is also a time when words matter even more. When words can shape attitudes and opinions, behaviours and choices. When words can inspire the actions that can change the course of history.
Today we start looking at John’s first letter. John’s letter shares three similarities with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Firstly, it contains memorable words.
Behold what manner of love the Father has given to us that we should be called the children of God.
This is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
And, of course, the simple statement:
God is love.
Beautiful words. Inspiring and life changing words.
Secondly, John’s letter recalls the founding principles of the Christian faith and applies them to a new generation facing new threats and new challenges. But thirdly, like the Gettysburg Address, John’s words were also born out of conflict. The church he wrote to had been torn in two. Half of its members had walked out in a bitter civil war over who Jesus is and what he came to do. It was a time when actions mattered. But it was a time when words mattered even more.
This morning we are looking at the opening words of John’s letter. In them he tells his readers that he has a word, a message, that he has received and that he is trying to tell. God’s promise through John to us is that by hearing this word, by believing this message, we receive Holy Communion. And that’s why we are here today. That’s why we have come together in this place: to receive holy communion. Fellowship with the true and living God. John’s message for us today is that we receive real holy communion, not just by stretching out our hands, not just by putting something in our mouth, but more importantly by trusting in the risen Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
John’s letter begins with these words in verse 1:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.
John has a message for his readers. It wasn’t just a recent invention. It wasn’t just an abstract idea. It wasn’t just something that John heard about from someone else and passed along the chain in a game of Chinese whispers. It was a message older than creation. That existed from the beginning of time because it was older than time. The original message. The first word ever spoken.
John calls it the Word of life, because not only is the Word alive, but the Word gives life. It is nothing less than the creative force of God himself, who spoke the word, who said, “Let there be light…Let there be fish in the sky and fish in the sea.” And what God said happened. It happened because his Word is the expression of his will and nothing can stop the will of God from coming to be.
It is a power that we don’t know or have. We make promises but can’t keep them all. Some people are full of talk, but never do anything. Their words are ineffective and powerless. empty and ultimately meaningless. God, however, knows no distinction between words and deed, or between will and action. His Word is his deed. His will is expressed in action. It creates new realities and possibilities, and makes things exist yhat weren’t there before.
John’s message for his readers is a Word that he heard for himself at first hand. It wasn’t something he read in a book. It wasn’t a word that escaped from someone’s lips and disappeared into nothing. It was something he had not only heard, but seen and touched. The Word of God, God’s own creative power had literally taken on flesh and appeared to John and his contemporaries.
This is John’s great message for his readers with which he began his letter. This is his good news for us. God’s Word is not just an expression of the will of a person, even of a divine person like the true and living God. His Word is a person, Jesus, and he made God known to people on earth. In his birth. In his life. In his words and deeds. In his death and resurrection.
It is nothing less than the secret of the ages. We long for communion with God. For the touch of the divine power in our lives. To know that our lives mean something, that there is some enduring significance to the otherwise random seeming events of life that pass away as quickly as they happen. But we stare up into the clouds in vain. We interpret our dreams and discover only the emptiness of our longing. But God is not found in the sunset or in our hearts. For all their beauty and depth of feeling we only sense the rumour of his passing. Like catching a glimpse of God’s shadow or his footprint long after he has passed by. For God is not found in nature or in ourselves, but in the word of life, the life and words and works of his Son Jesus Christ. This is the word John heard because he himself heard Jesus speak. This is the word John saw when he watched Jesus act. This is the word he touched when with his own hands John felt the Word of God share our flesh and blood, our life, our burden, our death, our pain, our debt. As John wrote in verse 2 of his letter,
The life appeared. We have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.
It is the same message that John wrote in chapter 1 of his Gospel.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth … For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. But God, the one and only, he has made him known.
It’s an interesting comment in verse 1 of his letter that John not only heard and saw this word of life, but also touched it. Those words point in a very precise direction. Because John’s life would have been filled with any number of careless and meaningless brushes with the physical existence of Jesus. He would have touched him and known that he was real. Even at the Last Supper, John sat next to Jesus and leaned back onto his shoulder to speak to him. But the Gospels don’t make much of touching Jesus until after he was raised from the dead. The risen Lord Jesus appeared to his disciples and said,
Why are you troubled? Why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is me. Touch me and see a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.
What John and the other disciples heard and saw and touched was the word of life, the divine power, of the living Lord Jesus. This is the glory they beheld. This is the truth they learned. This is the grace that they experienced. The complete triumph of God over sin and death and hell and judgment in the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. Not the ghost of an idea that appeared to them because they believed in him. But a living existence, a physical reality, that revealed himself to them because they didn’t believe. That appeared to them not when they were expecting him, but when they were hiding behind locked doors. Testifying to the triumph of God over their fears and doubts and made them believe. Not because they thought he was true. But because they knew for themselves.
This is John’s message to his readers. This is his word to us: Jesus Christ the Son of God. Not a spiritual hero who appeared in one place at one time, a martyr who died for what he believed in and is now lost and gone. But a living reality, the word of life for the people of every place in every time. Jesus Christ who is the source of true holy communion. As John wrote in verse 3
We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
By sharing what he heard and saw with his readers, John invited them into a shared experience. They had communion, they had fellowship with each other. They shared a faith, a calling. They weren’t just a collection of people, but a community. A family. They shared their lives. They shared their love. They shared a common hope. But the foundation of their community was the relationship they shared with God the Father through Jesus Christ. They weren’t just a community, but the community of God. His church. The body of Christ. They were family because they were brothers and sisters by their faith in Jesus Christ.
This is the true holy communion. It isn’t something you can put on a plate. It isn’t something you can get from a cup. It is something that comes from receiving the word of life, Jesus Christ himself into your life through faith. He is the basis of our fellowship with each other. He is the source of our love and our unity. He is the basis of our fellowship with God because in his own body with his own flesh and blood he paid the price of our peace with God. That we might know him and love him and serve him.
This is the Holy Communion that this sacrament we celebrate today, this physical retelling of the gospel acted out in this meal points to. The bread reminds us of his flesh. The cup reminds us of his blood. In his humanity, in his flesh and blood, in his death and new life, Jesus Christ reveals the love of God for us. We take and eat this. We take and drink this, because by doing so we act out receiving Christ by faith. We remember him as our Saviour. We honour him as our Lord. In life and in death, we belong to him. He is ours and we are his. And Jesus Christ welcomes us into the embrace of his own love and shared life with his Father.
What the world longs for and by its religion it gropes blindly for and perishes for lack of it, we have in Jesus Christ. Holy Communion with the true and living God, our creator and judge from whom we all come and to whom we will all go. The source of our life, our purpose and our joy. So brothers and sisters, take and eat. Drink from the cup of the Lord. And as you do, feed on Christ by faith.