The Third Sunday of Easter
Reading: 1 John 3:1-7
In my podcasts during this Easter season, I have been talking about the death of Jesus. I have wanted to communicate just how central our Lord’s death is to the New Testament writers’ understanding of what Jesus came to do, and how important it is for us and for our faith today. St Paul tells the believers in Corinth:
‘For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures …’ (1 Corinthians 15:3)
This understanding of Jesus’ death is to be seen in all three of our readings for this week. St Luke, in the Gospel reading for this week (Luke 24:36-48), describes how our Lord appears to the disciples on the day of the resurrection. Our Lord explains to them that his suffering and death were in fulfilment of the Scriptures. Our Lord says:
‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’ (Luke 24:46-47)
The disciples got it. In our first reading (Acts 3:12-19), St Peter and St John have just healed in the name of Jesus a lame man who was begging at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. St Peter is speaking to the people who gather to see what is going on. He tells them:
‘Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.’ (Acts 3:19)
And, then, in our second reading, which is the focus of my podcast for this week, St John writes:
‘You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.’ (1 John 3:5)
This emphasis on the ‘death of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins’, so central to the New Testament, is not popular today. We can understand it not being popular in society in general. After all, Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin goes against people’s desire to believe in themselves and to believe only good about themselves. The tragedy, however, is that it is also rejected or ignored in the Church.
I have spoken at some length in previous podcasts about how the Church today understands the death of Jesus. But how do people in the Church, and especially leaders in the Church, respond to the New Testament emphasis on the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for our sins. For whether you like it or not, believe in it or not, it is something that is there!
There are two main approaches to the New Testament emphasis amongst those who adopt the popular understanding.
Those who take the first approach simply dismiss any suggestion that Jesus died as a sacrifice for sin, and see it as an understanding belonging to an earlier, more primitive time, when people thought like this. Of course, they argue, this is not how we think today. Those who take this attitude basically filter out all references to Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin. They accept that the references are there, but they don’t think they are of any relevance to us today. We know better.
Apart from being incredibly arrogant, this attitude fails to face up to the reality of evil in both society and in the lives of individuals. Evil is real, and we are all affected by it. We all do things that are not simply undesirable, but which are wrong. Evil and wrongdoing in our lives can’t just be explained away by talk of systemic and institutional evil in society in general.
Systemic and institutional evil does exist; it is intrinsic to what the New Testament describes as the ‘world’, a world that St John describes in our reading this morning as ‘not knowing him’. Evil, however, doesn’t just exist in our world; it exists in us, that is, in each one of us. No exceptions. Not only are the structures of society sinful, I personally am a sinner. Jesus died to deal with that sin: my sin and your sin. As St John writes:
‘In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.’ (1 John 4:10)
Secondly, while those who take the first approach simply dismiss what the New Testament says about Jesus’ death for our sins, those who take the second just take little notice of it. The first approach is at least honest about what it is doing. Those who take the second approach choose instead to emphasize other aspects of the New Testament teaching that are more congenial to people today and quietly to ignore those parts they don’t like. Those who take this approach focus instead on God’s love for us and on his revelation of that love in Christ. They direct our attention to Jesus’ life as a living embodiment and example of God’s love. They concentrate on Jesus’ inclusivity and acceptance of people; on his teaching and on his courage in challenging the rich and powerful; on his resurrection, ascension, and rule over all things.
All these things are true and vitally important. St John himself stresses the love of God, but, as St John writes, God’s love is to be seen in that God sent his Son to be a sacrifice for our sin. St Paul says the same. He writes:
‘But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8)
Many in the Church today want to separate the love of God from the death of Jesus for our sins. It can’t be done. It is in the death of Jesus on the Cross for our sin that we see God’s love. Again, when many in the Church today talk about individual and personal sin at all, it is more about sin as something that happens to people rather than what they themselves do. We see ourselves primarily as the victims of sin rather than as its perpetrators.
St John will have none of this. He bluntly tells those he is writing to:
‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.’ (1 John 1:8)
We may not be as bold as to say openly that we have no sin, but we think and act as though that is indeed the case. We behave as if sin is no big deal. St John wants us to face up to the reality and seriousness of our sin. This is not so we lose hope and end up in despair, but so we will confess our sin and find forgiveness through the blood of Jesus, who is the ‘atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 1:9; 2:2). The blood of Jesus not only brings forgiveness of sins, it ‘cleanses us from all sin’ (1 John 1:7).
This is important. I remember when I first heard the Gospel. Those who brought it to me told me that God didn’t just want to forgive me my sins, he wanted to cleanse me from them. He wanted me to stop sinning. They pointed out that God had been forgiving sins for centuries; in the death of Jesus, however, God wanted to deal with sin once and for all.
God now wants, not only to forgive us our sins, he wants us not to continue to sin. This at first sounds shocking. However, having told those he is writing to that Jesus was revealed to take away sin, St John then writes:
‘No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you.’ (1 John 3:6-7)
These words have caused problems, not to say anxiety, for believers in the past. Having told us that we must not let anyone deceive us into believing that we are without sin, St John now tells us that, if we abide in Christ, we won’t sin. And, for good measure, he tells us that we are not to deceive ourselves about this either. This is not something that is only to be found in this letter. St Paul writes to the Roman believers:
‘What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?’ (Romans 6:1-2)
Does this then mean that once we have come to Christ and have confessed our sins, we are to stop sinning? Well, the simple answer is, ‘Yes’!
The reason, of course, that this causes so much anxiety for anyone who abides in Christ is that rather than becoming less conscious of our sin, by abiding in Christ we become more conscious of it. A true believer knows themself to be a sinner and hates the fact. Some believers have concluded that there must be something wrong with them if, having come to Christ, they continue to sin. Others have tried to convince themselves that they have, in fact, stopped sinning, even when all the evidence is that they haven’t!
St Paul and St John both want us to see that our relationship with sin must change once we come to know God in Christ. Having seen what our sin did to Jesus, having been forgiven our sin, having been baptized into his death, our attitude to sin is to change. Whereas we were casual about it, and even consciously and deliberately did things knowing them to be wrong, siding with sin against God, now instead we will side with God against sin. We will reject sin. We will no longer want to sin, and will do what we can to avoid it.
But how are we weak mortals to resist the power of sin? The answer that both St Paul and St John give is that we can’t, not on our own. We have consciously to ‘abide in Christ’. For those ‘in Christ’, the Holy Spirit – that is, the ‘anointing we are given’, to use St John’s words - is to take over as the controlling power in our lives. As St Paul writes:
‘Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.’ (Galatians 5:16)
St Paul, in particular, uses the word ‘flesh’ to describe us as we are: it is us our-Self. Frequently, you hear it being said that you cannot love God, unless you love yourself. Jesus, however, said that to love God, you have to stop loving yourself. We have actively to die to self and let the Holy Spirit take over and lead and direct us.
This is about every aspect of our life: our priorities, values, and attitudes. It is about our lifestyle and outlook. It doesn’t mean we will always get it right. There will be times when we will fall and fail. Nevertheless, our orientation and worldview will be different; we will be viewing life, not from the viewpoint of sin and the Self, but from the viewpoint of the Spirit and Christ.
There are two sides to this: there is what God does and what we must do. St Paul writes to the Philippian believers:
We are to work out our salvation for God is at work within us. It is God himself who enables us to work out our salvation. But notice that we are to do so with ‘fear and trembling’. This is not a drill. It is not a rehearsal. Our life depends on it. Our eternal life that is.
St John writes that there is still much that we do not know. We don’t fully know what we will be or what God’s plans are for us, but, St John writes, we do know that when Christ is revealed, we will be like him. God’s goal for us is that we might become like Christ and the purpose of our lives now in this world is to make us more like him. St John writes:
‘And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.’ (1 John 3:3)
May our aim in this life be to abide in Christ and may our hope for the next be to be like him.