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A Community of Light and Truth

April 13, 2015

“A Community of Light and Truth” 1 John 1:1-2:2 © 4.12.15 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I’ve never been much good with numbers. In fact, I’ve suffered from a rather severe math anxiety ever since I couldn’t learn to add in the first grade, which I started when I was five. I didn’t get into a PhD program partly because I couldn’t pass the math portion of the GRE, despite having a tutor who was a high school math teacher. I don’t even trust myself usually with the simplest subtraction or multiplication; I rely on a calculator. How I made it through pre-calculus in college is beyond me.

All those formulas and methods for solving equations escape me. But there is one little piece of math trivia I recall. And that’s the difference between a circle and an ellipse, beyond the obvious fact that one is round and the other is oval. An ellipse, unlike a circle, has two focal points. Anything else about it, I have no idea.

But that’s enough to know this morning. It seems to me that our lives are a lot like that geometric figure. We orbit one focal point, then the other, and sometimes we’re in between. One focus is individual needs and wants, personal gifts and abilities. I think of my own survival—how to keep from being hurt emotionally and physically, how to get enough to eat, have clothes to wear, a roof over my head, how to get people to listen to me and do what I want. Such needs drive me to attempt new things, strive for goals, pursue my ambition. I say “this is who I am” and then list my tastes, talents, desires, affiliations, and difficulties. I state what makes me unique, what I can do and be that sets me apart from everyone else. And I take ownership of my life.

The other focus is community. I’m born into a family that reaches across oceans and generations. In it, I learn to speak the language of “we” and “us.” Growing up, I find that I belong to and with others and want to be with them. Maybe I’m lonely and discover that life is richer when I have friends. I fall in love and decide that the cost to me in independence and freedom is more than compensated for by the companionship and comfort and help I give and receive. Could be I join a group that shares my political or religious views, and we set about trying to achieve some mutual goals. There’s strength in numbers and more can be accomplished together than when I try to act alone. For whatever reason, I become part of a fellowship.

So, individual identity and community involvement. These are the poles around which we revolve, the stars we orbit. Because we naturally gravitate toward the individual focus, I’m not going to spend any time on that this morning. Instead, I want to take some cues from 1 John and meditate a little on the meaning of Christian community or fellowship.

The author of this epistle is preoccupied with questions about community. His was a split, conflicted church. Some people had left, claiming they were the true interpreters of the tradition handed down from the Beloved Disciple through the author of the Gospel of John. With people fighting each other, the writer had to do some hard thinking about the Christian life. He especially had to ask how believers could live in unity when they were faced with so many challenges.

I think he came up with some pretty good answers. For example, fellowship in the church grows out of our common relationship with God and with Jesus Christ. God has come to us in Jesus and brought the church into being. He has saved each and all of us. Put another way, we are bound together in the church by water and blood. The water of baptism. The blood of Christ shed on the cross, remembered in the Eucharist.

I suspect that all of us find our natural ties are much more important than our supernatural ones. So we persist in making the basis of fellowship something other than the common experience of God’s grace, our fathering and mothering by God. Race and ethnicity, class, economic or marital status, education, culture, gender, political affiliation, regional loyalties, any of a long list of things turns out to be the real basis for being in community with others. “We all belong to God” simply doesn’t cross our minds or enter our hearts as a criterion for inclusion. “Jesus welcomes all,” as a Methodist congregation in Arkansas recently tried to proclaim in a Christian Easter parade, is a message to be rejected, as it was for that event.

I once heard the true story of a church in Tennessee. The congregation was located in a changing neighborhood, where many poor people were moving in and those more affluent were making a mass exodus to the suburbs. In a meeting one afternoon, a church officer made the motion that only people who owned property in the area would be admitted as new members. Motion passed, over the objections of the young pastor. Years went by, and the minister became a renowned seminary professor, author, and sought-after speaker. For some reason I don’t recall, he decided to visit the town and the church where he had begun his career. Much to his delight, he found that the parking lot at the church was full, and people were streaming in. But then he saw the reason. The building was no longer home to a congregation. Instead, it had been converted into a BBQ restaurant, with a big sign out front: “Everybody welcome.”

The ties that bind us in fellowship in the church are not those of money, property, tribe, race, gender, status, lifestyle or neighborhood. Instead they’re the bonds of love that link us with our Divine Parent and with his Holy Child Jesus Christ. They’re the sinews of faith that hold us tightly to the One who is the Source and Goal of our lives and our salvation. A relationship with God in Christ places the source of our being and our identity outside ourselves. We can therefore be secure. We don’t need to define ourselves by anything other than the wondrous fact that we belong to God.

So, then, fellowship in the church flows out of our common parentage. We have been born into a new family, with God as Parent and Christ as firstborn sibling. That’s the beginning. But how do we keep it going?

Certainly John suggests many ways: love, obedience, hope. But the text this morning focuses on one very important factor, namely, honesty. Honesty with ourselves. Honesty with others. Honesty in God’s presence. No doubt we would agree that such truthfulness is in short supply everywhere these days.

The author’s term for this sort of approach to living is “walking in the light.” Pretty good image. Strong light exposes flaws that don’t appear in the shadows. It shows things for what they really are and doesn’t allow for deception.

Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I used to collect and sometimes build plastic model kits. One of the hardest parts of plastic modeling as an adult craft, and one reason I gave it up, was covering seams where one part meets another. The modeler tries to make sure that the only lines that appear on the plane or the tank model are the ones found on the real thing, where one panel meets another. So, he or she hides the seams with gap-filling glue or putty, going through an elaborate process of application, filling, sanding, rescribing, and on and on, until it looks right. Except whenever I thought I had everything finished, I would place the model under a strong lamp, and all the flaws and seams would show up. I was not an expert modeler after all, and I wasn’t going to be. I was barely a novice. I finally sold the collection for pennies on the dollar, after wasting a great deal of time and money and experiencing a lot of frustration.

God’s Word is like my strong modeling lamp. It doesn’t let us hold onto fantasies about ourselves. It calls us to speak the truth to God and each other. We admit we’re not perfect. In fact, we sin, sometimes a great deal. We make mistakes. When we gather in community for worship, we admit our common problem when we “confess” our sin. We acknowledge together, in public, that the church is a flawed community, a body not yet whole. And, as I always say, we’re making that affirmation about the whole world, for whom we are priests.

When we realize what sin really is, it becomes clear why the whole process of confession and forgiveness is so important for fellowship. Sin is often thought of as not following some rule or commandment. But at its root, sin is really a broken relationship. With each other. With God. That’s true whether the sin is murder or promiscuity or apathy or power-grabbing or greed or irresponsibility or hatred of our neighbor. Sin puts up walls. It breaks bonds. It grinds promises under foot as if they were dust. It reduces people to things.

We human beings can trace all our troubles back to a fundamental refusal to acknowledge who we are and what we are. We can’t seem to admit that we are not the ultimate reality in the universe. We pose as infinite when in fact we are finite. So we believe there is no better thought than we can think, no finer culture than our own, no other approach than the one we recommend, no other way to read the Bible than the one we grew up with. We can’t pretend to be free from sin as long as we grab power, treat others badly, refuse to admit anything is wrong with our actions and attitude, and clutch at privilege.

Sin is not always active, though. Sometimes it’s simply not caring enough even to try to do something to stop evil from winning. It’s laziness, spiritual inertia that keeps us planted in our recliners in front of the flat-screen or checking our status on Facebook while injustice is all around. We like to say our consciences are pure and we have no sin because we haven’t done anything bad. But what we have left undone convicts us as much as we what do.

So, if we are to experience true community, we need to be honest about ourselves with ourselves. And honest with God, whom we can’t fool anyway. When we admit our sin, the promise of Scripture is forgiveness. And by that I mean restoration of a broken relationship, first of all with God. That’s the starting place, because it’s out of our bond with God that community grows. When we are forgiven by God, we can forgive others and be forgiven. Then wholeness starts to be a possibility again. If we are honest with God and with ourselves, maybe we can experience ever more authentic and open relationships with others. We get used to telling the truth about our shortcomings instead of pretending we know it all or have it all. We know we’re not “all that,” as the saying goes. We discover how destructive hiding our faults can be, how hurtful it is to go about our merry way as if nothing were wrong in our treatment of others. And we find how fulfilling it is to let down our guard so we relate with vulnerability, generosity, genuineness, and grace.

Fellowship in the church is so much more than the trivial thing we make it into. You know, the covered dish suppers with their small talk, and the back-slapping, glad-handing camaraderie, as if the church were just another club. Or the insistence on agreeing about theology or ritual before we will talk with each other or share mission together.

Instead, fellowship is a serious spiritual discipline, and it’s sometimes hard work. Because honesty is hard. Forgiveness is hard. Being authentic or genuine or open is hard. But we are sustained in the effort by God’s grace, which brought the community of faith into being. And by that same grace, one day everyone will experience the joy of sin forgiven and hope restored.

And that’s God’s honest truth.

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