Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
Trinity Church, Mr. Airy, NC
April 8, 2018 8:30
Καὶ ἔστιν αὕτη ἡ ἀγγελία ἣν ἀκηκόαμεν ἀπʼ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀναγγέλλομεν ὑμῖν, ὅτι ὁ θεὸς φῶς ἐστιν καὶ σκοτία ἐν αὐτῷ οὐκ ἔστιν οὐδεμία. ἐὰν εἴπωμεν ὅτι κοινωνίαν ἔχομεν μετʼαὐτοῦ καὶ ἐν τῷ σκότει περιπατῶμεν, ψευδόμεθα καὶ οὐ ποιοῦμεν τὴν ἀλήθειαν· ἐὰν ἐν τῷ φωτὶ περιπατῶμεν, ὡς αὐτός ἐστιν ἐν τῷ φωτί, κοινωνίαν ἔχομεν μετʼ ἀλλήλων, καὶ τὸ αἷμα Ἰησοῦ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ καθαρίζει ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ πάσης ἁμαρτίας.
Now this is the message we heard from him and announced to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him. If we say we have communion with him and [yet] walk in darkness, we are lying and are not doing the truth. If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have communion with each other; and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7)
We don’t know who wrote First John or exactly why its unknown writer composed it. But here it is today as our longest reading for the second Sunday in Easter, and I hope we can discover in it a unique witness to the power of Christ’s resurrection.
Contrary to the movie versions, most early Christians didn’t suffer persecution. Christianity was an illegal religion, of course, but so were most of the popular religions of the Roman Empire, including the cult of Mithras practiced empire-wide by the Roman army. The Roman authorities didn’t have the will or the inclination to persecute people for their religious beliefs, so long as those beliefs didn’t breed insurrection against the emperor or threaten the good order of the empire. Indeed, even when some Christians were facing opposition and even persecution in the third century, other Christians in Syria and Palestine were building modest church buildinga right in public view and certainly with the knowledge and implicit consent of local authorities. For the most part, most Christians in the Empire could go about their business, raise their families, earn their livings, and pray to Jesus without undue pressure to do anything else. Had things been otherwise, you and I would probably not be meeting here in a Christian church this morning. To be sure, hotbeds of persecution glowed fiery red from time to time and in certain places; and the stories of the brave Christians who bore witness to their faith through suffering and death inspired generations of Jesus people after them. But other Christians lived without such danger and found it possible to practice their faith openly.
The pagans of the Mediterranean world who heard about the Jesus people sometimes thought of them a Palestinian mystery cult, comparing the story of the dying and rising Jesus to the stories of the other dying and rising gods like Osiris, Persephone or Adonis. Indeed, Christians sometimes thought of themselves that way too, even adopting the word “mystery” (or its Latin equivalent sacramentum) to represent what they believed happened in their own worship. On this side of Cecil B. DeMille, we may be surprised, sometimes, at just how comfortable it could be to practice the faith of Jesus.
So here’s the problem: What’s so special about being a follower of Jesus? I can imagine an ancient pagan interrogating an early Christian like this: What makes you so virtuous? Your pagan neighbors are pretty good people, weren’t they? They don’t approve of lying, stealing, or drunkenness any more than you do. For the most part, they don’t sell their children into prostitution or murder their enemies. What makes Christians so superior? Can your Christian spirituality surpass the intelligence and dedication of the Stoics or Pythagoreans? Do your public offerings for the good of the community, your “liturgies” (as they were called then) outstrip those of other citizens? Enjoy your Palestinian mystery. Tell your stories about Jesus. Just don’t pretend you’re somehow better than everyone else!
What then did it mean to bear the name of Christ? What did make the way of Jesus special?
The author of First John thinks he knows and wants to share his answer with us. Like the author of the Gospel of John, our epistle writer believes that Christ gave his disciples one and only one commandment, just one. According to the Fourth Gospel, Jesus told his students on the night before he died for them that if they would follow this one commandment, all people would know that they were his disciples: Αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ ἐντολὴ ἡ ἐμή, ἵνα ἀγαπᾶτε ἀλλήλους καθὼς ἠγάπησα ὑμᾶς, “This is my commandment, that you love one another just as I have loved you. (John 15:12).” This isn’t puppy love. “Just as I have loved you” had a particular bite to it on that night of betrayal and suffering. Their Lord would love them by laying down his life for them, and their love for each other needed to be the same fierce variety.
Our lesson directs us to that same commandment. Instead of writing a laundry list of virtues the true Christian ought to demonstrate, our author tells the Christians in Syria that “walking in the light,” being a student of Jesus, following Jesus means loving the other followers of Jesus, loving them as dearly and as well as their Lord loved them. And I can only imagine the Christians of Antioch and Damascus had just the same problem with that commandment you and I probably have with it. It’s fine to love Jesus, but how am I supposed to love somebody I barely know?
How much easier the mysteries were! If you belonged to the mystery cult of Mithras or to the cult of Isis and Osiris, your religion came to you prepackaged through a ceremony that let you commune with the god in question directly through a common meal or some other sacramental act. It was just you and Mithras or you and Osiris or you and Adonis. Your religion consisted of building up your relationship with the god by letting the god come into your heart or by dying with the god metaphorically and rising up spiritually with her or him into new life. Yes, there were other people doing the same thing with you, perhaps sitting next to you in the mithraeum or standing before you in the temple of Isis. And, yes, you would probably feel a certain bond with these believers, a certain common cause; but the religion was about you, about the salvation of your soul about the mystical union you could experience with the divine. There was nothing in the prayers about those other worshippers, no sense that they belonged to you or that you belonged to them. The religion, the cult, the mystery was for your benefit. The test of the thing was whether you got anything out of it or would gradually fall away, perhaps into the arms of another cult, perhaps into the general apathy about religion tI hat most people shared.
That’s what makes our writer’s words so revolutionary: ἐὰν ἐν τῷ φωτὶ περιπατῶμεν, ὡς αὐτός ἐστιν ἐν τῷ φωτί, κοινωνίαν ἔχομεν μετʼ ἀλλήλων, “If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have communion with each other.” Did I want communion or fellowship or commonality or however the word is translated with somebody else? What kind of a religion promises that? If I walk in the light, doesn’t that mean I’m walking with Jesus; and if I’m walking with Jesus, does it matter who else shares the road with me? I thought I was signing up for Jesus and got you instead!
The hardest thing about the new commandment has to do with the redemption believers gain through the blood of Jesus. First John finishes his paraphrase of the single commandment with the words καὶ τὸ αἷμα Ἰησοῦ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ καθαρίζει ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ πάσης ἁμαρτίας, “and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
If ours could be a religious mystery like that of Adonis, then then the blood of Jesus would cleanse a sinner like me from my worldly affections, would purify me from my unworthy thoughts, would forgive my wicked actions, and would bring me ever closer to my God. But that’s not how it works in First John. The blood of Jesus cleanses us from sin as a result of learning to walk the walk with our sisters and brothers. The writer doesn’t know anything about private sins, about heart-to-heart confession and remission with Jesus alone. The blood of Jesus cleanses us as members of a society, a company of people being cleansed, a league of fellow travelers. Whatever sins we have on our consciences are right out there in public. Our sins push our companions away, isolate us, make us such rugged individuals that we seem to have no hope of redemption at all. So, we must confess to each other. We must receive our absolution from one another. We have no private space for our sins on this journey.
This Easter season, we celebrate our Lord’s resurrection as members of each other. We succeed and we fail in our love as members of a single body. We ask for forgiveness and hope from a God who redeems us all as a new people, not as individuals hoping to feel better about ourselves or wanting to heal ourselves from our private faults. What’s new about our faith? Just this. We are learning to love each other to the depth and breadth that our Lord loved us; and as we learn to love this way, we learn that nobody can stand outside the shadow of such love. This love is our redemption, not our religion, not our philosophy. This love holds our desperate, final and sure hope in the risen Jesus.
 For a convenient review of discoveries of pre-Constantine Christian structures in Israel, Syria, and Jordan, see Andrew Lawler, “First Churches of the Jesus Cult,” Archaeology 60/5 (September/October 2007): 46-51.