Sunday, July 13, 2014
It is a few days before Jesus will go to the cross. John 12:21, “[The Greeks] came to Philip who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’
“Philip went and told Andrew; then Philip and Andrew went and told Jesus.
And Jesus told them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
Jesus continues speaking about glory. As he does, note that he never answers or addresses the two disciples when they tell him these Greeks want to meet him. Probably Jesus sensed that their curiosity was more about seeing something new, something others had not seen. Jesus would die for the world; but he does not perform for Herod or Pilate or Greeks looking for something different; or for people in the 21st century looking for a wise teacher, or a quick and easy pass to Heaven, or a basis for their politics.
Before he even completed his ministry, people around him came with roles they thought Jesus should fill. It has happened through history up to this day. Ideas about who Jesus should be, who we want him to be – these ideas fill the popular consciousness making us think we know who Jesus is; or worse, we think we can define who Jesus is.
Sir, we wish to see Jesus. What does it mean?
Indeed, do we who have gathered today, we who live in 21st century technology, we who enjoy countless options in every sphere of life – do we wish to see Jesus? Yes? OK, then, when we say, “we wish to see Jesus,” do we know what we are saying?
This quest to see Jesus, to live our lives in Christ; it is this quest that carries us into our reading of 1st John. Nearly every scholar who studies the New Testament and specializes in the Gospel of John agrees that the Gospel and the three letters, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John all come from the same community and that community is rooted in the leadership of the Apostle John. Recently I had speculated that the one called the “Beloved Disciple,” might be Lazarus, not John of the 12, the Apostle John. I acknowledged then my thoughts were speculation. I did not know how strongly the consensus is that the disciple, the Apostle John, is the one at the heart of the community out of which we have these four New Testament writings. From the most conservative to the most liberal, scholars connect this community to the Christianity that grew up around John. I have not abandoned Lazarus. The Gospel tells us he was “the one Jesus loved” (11:3). I am sure he was part of this church, the church of the Apostle John.
It was a church with many people who had many ideas. Raymond Brown, a scholar who has written extensively on the Gospel and the letters, demonstrates in great detail how the Gospel of John and 1st John were written in different contexts. The Gospel and the Epistle were each written to deal with challenges that threatened early Christianity and the challenges were different in each case. The letter we call First John is a response to problems within the church; this response presents a theology that helps readers today understand life in Christ.
A key question for the community of the Beloved Disciple and for Christians today is what is the identity of Jesus? What does it mean to see and know and walk with Jesus?
It is a quest and we bring something very important to it – our lifetime of experiences. In 1st John, real-life memories and real life interactions are always front and center. Your experiences, the life that is uniquely yours, and my experiences, the story that is only mine, these things are critical parts of the walk to Jesus especially on the path we will walk with 1st John as our leader. So, as we step into this quest to live life in Jesus, we must prepare. We must pack. And what we need in our bag is our own story. The good, the bad, the boring, the scary – we need it all.
First John comes from people who knew and walked with Jesus. The met him in the flesh. Listen to the opening verses.
1 We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— 3 we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
“From the beginning …”; 1st John is not a second generation witness even if it ultimately is read by second and third generation believers, and by us. In fact, the essay is precisely a link between original Christ followers and subsequent generations. 1st John has none of the markers of an epistle or a letter; no greeting, none of the traditional farewells. All the characteristics in Paul’s writings and in 2nd and 3rd John that tell us these are epistles are absent in 1st John. It is a persuasive essay making a case for Jesus over against false claims made about him by others.
It is from the beginning and it is a testimony. “We declare what we have seen with our eyes … and touched with our hands.” The news reports a five-car accident on I40. You half-way watch the report without thinking about it, but someone in the room with you says, “Hey, I was there. I remember right after it happened.” You’ll listen to every detail of what your friend says and you’ll ask as many probing questions as you can think of. He was there. We are numb to news reports to the point that it almost seems like fiction. What happens on the TV screen is in another world. But to here an eyewitness report from someone we trust is another matter. 1st John is an eyewitness report for us and the testimony is that Jesus could be seen and touched. God in the flesh really did come – the God of eternity taking on human skin, stepping into the trappings of time and physical limitation that is our daily reality.
The witness reports that life was revealed. Jesus was revealed to be God. When we see Jesus, we see God and what our relationship with God can be. So, when we say “We wish to see Jesus,” whether we know it or now, we are seeking God. First John gives us original, first hand testimony that Jesus is God and in Jesus we meet God.
This was important because of the depth of relationships within Christianity. “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you may also have fellowship with us” (1:3). I have fellowship with people who do not know Jesus. I am friends with nonbelievers. I think, for a lot of reasons, Christ followers should be in meaningful relationships with people who do not follow Jesus.
However, the fellowship we have with other people who know Jesus as we know Jesus is different. I offer two stories. First, someone I know who has signed up to be a foster parent is uncertain about the process. She fears falling in love with the kids who will be entrusted to her only to have her heart break when those kids are re-united with their birth families. Foster care is a temporary set-up intended to provide a safe family environment for children until those children can be in a permanent situation. My friend expressed her fears to a social worker who was involved in approving her to be a foster parent. My friend did not know the social worker was also a Christ follower. When both women realized they were sisters in Christ, the entire conversation changed. They prayed together and joined hearts in their love for children and their love for Jesus. Precisely because both women were in Christ, their fellowship was changed.
Shortly into my first pastorate, 1997, I went with some friends to a Fleetwood Mac concert. Fleetwood Mac is not a Christian band at all. They do not mention Jesus in their concerts. I had just completed five years of youth ministry; five years of concerts by Christian performers like Stephen Curtis Chapman, Amy Grant, and Jars of Clay. All those Christian concerts have a worship element. I don’t know the performers but I feel like our hearts are connected in Christ. Halfway through, I had to walk out on Fleetwood Mac. I had paid a lot for the tickets. The performance was excellent. But, something was missing. While I could enjoy the music, and I still do occasionally listen to Fleetwood Mac, I could not stay. In that concert, Jesus was not at the center of things. No matter how well Fleetwood Mac played, nothing without Jesus at the center compares to those moments in life when we know how deeply our hearts are connected to Him. With Fleetwood Mac, I did not have that fellowship that comes when I know the singer on the stage is In Christ just as I am.
In giving his witness, the elder tells us his readers, “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you may also have fellowship with us.” Fellowship means more than sharing time, laughs, and food. It means in our joy, our hearts are joined. That is why the elder says “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1:4). Joy in Christ is complete when it is shared by telling the gospel to unbelievers and sharing life with others who love and worship Jesus.
We began with a story from John’s Gospel of Greeks who wanted to know what the buzz was all about. “We wish to see Jesus,” they said. We have taken up their quest but with a different motivation. We’re not looking for a show or something we can write on out Facebook wall or an adrenalin rush. We want something more – more real and more wonderful. We want to meet God. That’s why we come to Jesus.
Our guide, the Elder who serves as the narrator in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John, has told us that all he will share is firsthand, original testimony of one who knew Jesus in person. His motivation is that when he shares his story of Jesus with us, his joy is made complete. So we come and we listen, we go where the Elder leads. For the journey, we’ve packed our own stories – everything we’ve been through. We bring ourselves and every experience that has made us who we are.
It is not an easy walk. The elder makes that clear in chapter 1, verses 8-10.
8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
There is no way to see Jesus without walking right through the truth of our sins. Yes, there is joy in the fellowship with Jesus and with others who like us seek, love, and worship him. However, that joy cannot be polluted by our greed, our lies, our mistakes, our failures. All the sins we commit and have committed against us must be named. If we claim to have no sin, we are liars.
However, if we are honest in coming to Jesus, he forgives and cleanses us. He, says, the elder is the “atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world” (2:2). If the basic truth about Jesus is he is God in the flesh and in him we meet God, and if the basic question is what does it mean for us to see and know and walk with Jesus, then one conclusions stands out. Because of him, we are forgiven and the sins we cannot shake are gone. We stand before God free of sin, free to love and be loved.
Do we know what that is like, to experience pure love? Do we want to know? As we continue in worship, we are each invited to open our hearts to God. First, we bring all the messes of life that have not yet been cleaned up. Right now, we bring it to the cross and lay our junk before Jesus. Second, we turn our hearts to God and ask, “Can we see Jesus?”
God does not turn away the humble seeker. As John shows in the gospel and in 1st John, God invites, God welcomes, God forgives and renews, and God loves. You are beloved and God who is the light and the life invites you to come and receive life in Jesus’ name.