I don’t know what Sunday mornings are like for you, but from the way many of my friends have talked about it in the past I get the feeling that Sunday mornings are a source of stress and tension for many, if not all, of us. Indeed, for those of you with small children, I congratulate you on making it out of the doorway and into church with children wearing clothes and I promise I won’t check if their socks are matching!
Our house on a Sunday morning is no less stressful - even if I’m not participating in the service. One of the things that often causes this stress is the tension between competing values. In our house, I’m the one who values punctuality. It’s me that wants to leave the house at a specific time, which will get us here early, just to allow for any contingencies. My wife, on the other hand, is the one who will check that what the children are wearing is suitable, that hair that has been brushed actually looks like it’s been brushed. And she's the one who will think further ahead in the day, and make sure that the washing is on, or that the food for dinner is out of the freezer. These things take time, of course. Time which I, in my wisdom, don’t feel that we have.
So there’s a tension there. Now let me be clear - both of these things are actually really important. It’s not that one is good and the other is bad. Both are good things to value. But our differing priorities between these values are what causes the tensions.
Tensions like this are part of human life and have been for all of history. They exist wherever people have to interact with each other. You see them in families, kirk sessions, boards of trustees, community councils, parent-teacher meetings - you name it. Everyone comes with a set of values, and where those values compete - however good they are - there is tension.
We can see these kinds of tensions played out in the early church too, throughout the pages of the New Testament. We see in Acts and Paul’s letters the tension between the Jewish and Gentile believers. We see in Paul and James’ letters especially the tension between faith and works. And in First John, where our second reading came from, we see a tension too - the tension between the two natures of Jesus. Jesus as God and Jesus as man.
But before we delve any further into 1 John, let us first remind ourselves who Jesus is by singing a song that draws aspects of Him from throughout the Scriptures - Jesus, Name above all Names.
OK - let’s turn our thoughts towards these few verses from the beginning of First John. These few verses have actually caused a bit of a debate amongst scholars. Because they’re not in the usual form of a letter from the first century, some people believe that this was more of a sermon that had been written down to distribute to the churches. What most people seem to agree on, though, is that this book was written by the same author as the gospel of John - they use similar concepts, language and writing style. Of course, neither the gospel nor this book identifies their author, but historically they are both attributed to John.
Knowing that these two books are by the same author gives us a real clarity here, as there are often parallels we can draw between the concepts of the two books. Within this letter, as I mentioned before, we find a real tension between this idea of Jesus as man, and Jesus as God.
Let’s take a look through today’s reading.
1 John 1:1 - “That which was from the beginning”. A good start. A strong start. But, more importantly, a start that mirrors the opening to John’s gospel - “In the beginning was the Word” And, of course, John’s gospel is deliberately mirroring Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” So we’re echoing back to the beginning of time - to creation itself.
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands” - so this is not just about creation, but it’s about something very real, and very present. Something which John is himself testifying about. Something he’s heard. Something he’s seen with his own eyes. Something which he has even touched. What is it - it’s concerning the Word of life. Jesus.
Again - the parallel with John’s gospel - chapter 1 verse 1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” and then dropping to our other reading in verse 14 “And the Word became flesh”. So already here we have John laying out this tension. Jesus is God - he was before all things, present at the creation of the universe. But He is also a real man. He became flesh. They saw him. They heard him. They touched him with their own hands.
So Jesus is the word of life - and, verse 2, “the life was made manifest.” I looked up the word manifest, and it means “clear and obvious” or even “on public display.” So Jesus wasn’t just God revealing himself to special people in dreams or visions. He was a real man, clear and obvious to all - on public display.
“The life was made manifest and we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” So - John and the apostles, have seen Jesus, they testify to him - not just a preaching of philosophy, but bearing witness to real events of a real man - and they proclaim to the reader the eternal life.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
The eternal life they proclaim was “with the Father and was made manifest to us.” I don’t know about you, but when I think about eternal life I tend to think of it as a thing - something that is given to us by God. A gift, as it were. But when I receive a gift, it ceases to belong to the giver, and becomes mine. If I give someone a birthday present, it belongs to them. If it’s a loan, on the other hand, then the ownership remains the same - it never belongs to the loanee. But John here describes eternal life as not a thing, but a person. Jesus. He is the one who was with the Father. He was the one who was made manifest to them.
Salvation - including eternal life - is bound up in the person and work of Jesus. All of the benefits and rewards of the Christian life are intrinsically bound to our relationship with Jesus.
This is underlined in verse three - everything they have proclaimed to the reader about the word of life, the eternal life: Jesus - is in order that they would have fellowship together. And this fellowship isn’t just a human thing. It’s not just a club of like-minded people. Because the fellowship is with the Father and with the Son. It’s with God.
This is a theme that picks up on the teaching of Jesus in John’s gospel. In John chapter 14, just after Jesus tells them that He is the way, truth and life, he begins teaching them about the promise of the Holy Spirit. In verse 19 he says “Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father and you in me, and I in you.”
Can you feel the closeness of this? The Holy Spirit - the Spirit of Jesus - lives in us, and we live in Jesus and Jesus lives in the Father. We are enveloped in God. Surrounded. Embraced. A wonderful fellowship.
Again, in John 17 we have what is known as the ‘High Priestly Prayer.’ Jesus prays for God to be glorified, then he prays for His disciples, then, beginning in verse 20 he prays “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one.”
Jesus is praying here for not just the disciples, but for those who believe through their word. Do you realise that that’s us? That for every person here who has accepted Jesus as Lord there is a direct line to the disciples? Jesus is praying for us! What an amazing thing. And what does he pray for? He prays for unity - that we would be one. That we would have that fellowship with God - us in Jesus and Jesus in the Father.
So - Jesus is God and Jesus is man and we are called into fellowship with each other and with God - a closeness of relationship that is the key to life. And why? Verse 4 - so that our joy may be complete.
If you have footnotes in your Bible, they might say here that some early manuscripts have your rather than our. But I think that our here is the right choice, because I think that this is a very inclusive our. The passage starts off with an us and them feel - us being the writer and presumably the apostles and early church leaders, and them being those he is writing to, the members of the church. But as we go through verse 3 and the calling into the fellowship of believers, I think that the “they” join the “we” and the our in verse 4 means all of us. The leaders and the hearers, joined in fellowship with each other and with God, that all our joy may be complete. And I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want their joy to be complete.
So far, so theological. But, you may well ask, what difference does all this really make? Surely this was all sorted out in the early church, and then codified in Nicea in the 4th century and we don’t really have to worry all that much about it now?
But you’d be wrong. In fact, I would go as far to say that we continue to struggle to get the right balance between the humanity of Jesus and the divinity of Jesus. You may not even realise it, but I think that most of us have, at various times, leaned more heavily on one side or the other, and this can lead to problems.
Sometimes we lean more towards the idea of Jesus as man. But when we do this, all too often Jesus becomes merely an important historical figure. He becomes an good example to follow. A good teacher to read. We focus in on the gospels and the depictions of the life of Jesus, and his divinity, along with his death and resurrection takes a back-seat.
When this happens, it all too often leads us to a position of morality. Salvation comes through living a good life - living a Jesus-like life. We do our best to be self-sacrificing and loving and good. But when we do this we miss part of the core message of the gospel - that, to quote Romans, ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ That salvation is found not in any good works we might be able to do, but in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. That we contribute nothing to our salvation, and he contributes everything.
Alternatively, we sometimes lean more towards the idea of Jesus as God. But when this happens Jesus becomes a much more distant figure. A much less understanding figure. He doesn’t truly understand what it is to be human. He is a vague, spiritual, almost ethereal figure whose appearance on earth was just that - an appearance. Now - this might do us fine in our everyday life. We can go about our business and God can remain in the background. But when hardship comes; when pain comes; when we or those around us suffer in some way - then we lean away from God, because He just doesn’t understand.
But Jesus is God and Jesus is man. He is not just a good teacher; not just a good example. Nor is He is a distant deity. He was made man; he lived on this earth. Breathed the same air. He felt everything we feel. He was tired; he was angry; he was lonely; he suffered bereavement; he cried; he was tortured and he died. He faced every temptation that we face, but did not sin. He is a God who understands truly what it is to be human. When we suffer, we can lean into him, not away, because he understands us. He loves us. He wants to live in fellowship with us through every circumstance.
And he died for our sins, and rose again so that we could have that eternal life - not through our own merit, but through his; and that life is found in relationship with him - he in us, we in him and he in the Father. That is the gospel that he proclaimed to His disciples, that his disciples proclaimed to the early church, and which I proclaim to you today.