Walking in the Light

This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on October 31, 2021. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.

Opening Prayer

Please pray with me.

Lord God, as we consider this morning our relationships with you and with each other — as we consider who we are and how we live — and as we consider our understanding of you and Jesus and of the Holy Spirit, I pray that you would guide us by that Spirit into deeper understanding. I pray that you would guide us deeper into an understanding of what it is to love each other and an understanding of what it is to be saved, Lord — that we would be continually moving away from the idea of salvation as a title we receive or a box that we check and deeper into a salvation that is participatory and relational.

We want to be the kind of people who are active in our faith because of what we believe and because of the calling of love and not just because we believe there will be some kind of reward for us or because we were told to do so. We want to be a people transformed by our experiences of love and our desire for the world rooted in love. We want the God who is love to be glorified in all things, so be with us this morning and every morning, Lord, as we continue through life, as we continue through scripture and through your Word in our lives through your Spirit.

We love you, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Sermon

I’m in 1 John, this morning, and I’m going to try to keep saying 1 John and not John 1, so disclaimer up front: it is 1 John and not John 1. I’m not going to John 1, so if I say John 1, just know that I mean 1 John.

I want to talk this morning about walking in the light, because that’s a common phrase that got used a lot when I was growing up, and I have had to completely reimagine the phrase “walking in the light” as I’ve grown and as I’ve changed my understanding of who God is and what God does through Jesus. So I want to walk with you through some of that, this morning.

I think it’s critical, and I think it’s timely, probably in every context, but for me — for us, here, in the United States — I think it’s timely right now with everything that’s happening in a lot of places throughout the nation.

In 1 John, he opens with a general statement of what it is that we’ve received and what we proclaim. He says in 1 John, chapter 1, and verse 1,

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.

1 John 1:1-4, NIV

The writer calls Jesus the Word of life, and he claims that the things they proclaim to the audience, to the hearers, to the readers, is the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. This eternal life is not a thing; it’s not a reward or a goal. It’s a person. John attaches it, here, to the person of Jesus, the Christ, and he says our fellowship is with the Father and with his son, Jesus Christ, and this is what we write, and we write it to make our joy complete.

So that’s the first thing he opens with; he opens with a relational understanding of what the Word of life is. It’s a person in relation to us — one that they have seen, one that they have touched with their hands, one that they claim is the Word of life incarnate in creation from God. Then he continues in verse 5:

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you:

1 John 1:5a, NIV

So now he’s actually going to tell us what that message is. He says, “We have a message. The message that we proclaim is the one which we received from the Word of life, which was the person…” This message is, in verse 5,

God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.

1 John 1:5b, NIV

That’s the message, and it is the same message that we see in the gospel of John: in the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, the Word was God, all things came into being through the Word, what came into being was life, and that life was the light of all people. He’s saying the same things, here, but the message is: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.

And if you’ve grown up in Christian circles, that might sound familiar. There’s a certain call to purity, there, and there’s a certain understanding that we tend to take from this that the light of God, which cannot contain — which does not contain — any darkness at all therefore is not compatible with darkness. John says something similar in verse 6:

If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

1 John 1:6-7, NIV

But notice that John doesn’t say, “If you walk in the light but you have darkness…” He doesn’t say, “If you walk in the light but you are darkness…” He doesn’t say, “If you walk in the light but there is darkness in your life…” He says if you say you walk in the light but actually walk in the darkness, then you are not walking with God.

If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

1 John 1:6-7, NIV

John’s words, here, are not about impurity within us. It’s not about darkness within us. John’s position, here, is about allegiance. It’s about placement. It’s about where we walk and how we walk. If we claim to walk in the light but we actually walk in the darkness, then we’re not walking with God, because in God there is no darkness. God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.

He’s essentially saying, “Look, if you’re in the light, then you’re in the light, but if you’re standing in the darkness and you say you’re in the light, then you’re a liar, because you’re in the darkness.” This is an obvious fact to anybody who’s been in darkness and light. If you’re standing in a dark room, and you tell somebody the room is filled with light, you’re a liar! And if the room is filled with light, then it’s not filled with darkness, and everybody knows this. Even a room that’s filled with darkness that is partially illuminated by, say, a candle — if we stand with the candle, then we are in the light, and if we are standing away from the candle, then we are not in the light.

John has not made any claims about people, at all, and the only claim he’s made about God is that God is light. You walk in the light, or you walk in the darkness, but God is light, therefore God is in the light, therefore if you want to walk with God, you should be in the light. That’s the only claim he’s made so far.

And if we look down in chapter 2 and verse 1 — I’m going to make the jump. I’m going to go back in just a minute, but I make the jump, because this is the most common jump that I hear from people. Chapter 2 and verse 1:

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin.

1 John 2:1a, NIV

And here’s the jump people make: if you say you walk in the light but you walk in the darkness, then you’re a liar, because God is light, but if you walk in the light then you’re walking with God, and he purifies you. Therefore, don’t sin, because sin is walking in darkness and not walking in light. That’s the jump that people make, and yet, that’s not what John says.

He hasn’t made a claim about our sin, yet. He hasn’t made a claim about what it is to be in the darkness. He hasn’t made a claim about what it is to be in the light. He only said in chapter 1, so far, from what we’ve read, that if you walk in the light, you’re walking with God, and if you walk in the darkness, you’re not walking with God, so let’s back up a little bit to chapter 1 and verse 8.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

1 John 1:8-10, NIV

Sin, for John, is not darkness. Darkness is a place apart from God. That is, if God is light and we’re in the darkness, then we’re not walking with God. It’s an analogy. It’s a metaphor for whether or not we walk with God or don’t walk with God, but sin is not the determining factor for whether or not we walk with God. He says in verse 7,

If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

1 John 1:7, NIV

Not “you don’t have sin.” Not “you didn’t sin.” But “if you’re walking with God, then Jesus’s blood purifies us of sin.” And then in verse 9:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:9, NIV

Again, not that we don’t have sin. In fact, he says if we claim to be without sin (verse 8) and if we claim we have not sinned (verse 10), then in both cases we deceive ourselves and we make God out to be a liar.

Whether we have sin has nothing to do with whether we walk in the light or don’t walk in the light. Whether or not our sins are counted against us has to do with whether we walk in the light or not in the light. So the jump from verse 7 down to chapter 2 and verse 1 that leaps over these things — the jump that says the way you walk in the light is to be sinless and pure — that kind of purity culture twists what John is doing, here.

John is not concerned with whether or not we have sinned. John knows we have sinned, and more than that, John says we have to acknowledge that we have sin. Otherwise, we miss the whole point of everything that’s going on, here. We make God out to be a liar, we deceive ourselves, and then we are walking in the darkness. Instead, we admit that we have sinned, we accept that we have sinned, and we choose to walk with God anyway in the light, and God makes us righteous.

And this meshes with other things we read in the New Testament on how our righteousness and unrighteousness are based on a relationship with God and the way that we live, and Jesus says, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.” The Way is to walk with Jesus, to walk with God, to walk in the power of the Spirit, and by that, we share in the righteousness of Jesus. It has nothing to do with whether we sin or don’t sin. Or, as Paul says, everyone has sinned. Everyone sins and falls short of the glory of God.

We’re not God. We’re not supposed to be God. We were never asked to be God. We were only asked to walk in the light with God.

He continues in chapter 2. We read,

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 2:1-2, NIV

So he says it again: our sin has nothing to do with whether we walk in the light or don’t walk in the light. Our sin is a given reality of being human. Our sin is a given reality of being part of this creation as we attempt to make our way through this creation — this life, this existence. The reality of sin is there. The question is whether or not we are going to let that define us or whether we’re going to let God overcome that sin and death through righteousness.

Chapter 2 and verse 3:

We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.

1 John 2:3-6, NIV

If we come to this passage and we have accepted that to walk in the light with God is to be pure and sinless, then obeying the commands of God becomes a legalistic expectation. Do what he commands, and that’s how you know. How do you live like Jesus? You do what Jesus commanded. We go to other passages, like in the gospel of John where he says you call me your friend if you do what I command, and it becomes this list of legalistic expectations — of rules that we’re going to follow. Do this, don’t do this, do that, don’t do that, and if you do all these things and check all these boxes and follow all these rules then you can walk in the light with God.

But, if sinlessness is not what it means to walk in the light — if the idea of purity is not what it means to be in sin or to have sin or to walk in the light or to walk in the darkness — if we do away with that kind of legalism, then we do away with the legalism, here, in this passage, as well. In fact, he goes on in chapter 2 and verse 7:

Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.

1 John 2:7-11, NIV

What’s the command? The command we have to obey — the way in which we live as Jesus did — is by loving our brother and sister. Or, as Paul said, every command is summed up in this: love your neighbor as yourself. John echoes that same thing, here. It’s not about rules. It’s not about regulations. It’s not about a checklist of things that we do that make us pure so that we can be in the light with God. It’s not about purity of God that separates him from the “impure” darkness of the world. That’s not what John is talking about, here.

John says, “You have sin. I have sin. We all have sin, but if we walk with God, he erases all of that.” He makes us into righteous people, and how do we know that we’re with God? How do we know that we’re in him? How do we know that we live as Jesus did? We love our brother and sister. We love our neighbor. We love our enemy. We love God.

That’s the standard, and I say this is significant for our time and place, right now, here in the United States, because there is another standard that’s being put out as Christianity — that’s being put out as Gospel — that’s being put out as the Way, and it is the opposite of what John is arguing for, here. It’s a standard that says you don’t have to love people in order to walk with God, you just have to claim God and say that you love God, and John says if you do that — if you only make the claim, but you don’t actually walk with God — then you’re a liar, and you’ve deceived yourself. More than that, you make out God to be a liar, and the way that you overcome that is by loving your brother and sister, and those people who claim a Christian expression that doesn’t love brothers and sisters — those people are not walking in the light with God.

When we come to the world and we say we believe that Jesus was the Christ, John’s position is [that] that claim, right there, sets us up for one thing: love your neighbor as yourself — love your brother and sister. In fact, if we jump forward a little bit in 1 John… In 1 John chapter 4, in verse 7, he says,

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

1 John 4:7-21, NIV

We call 1 Corinthians 13 the love chapter, but I don’t think… I don’t think he mentions love nearly as often as 1 John does. Love, love, love… God is love, God is love, love your brother and sister, love your brother and sister, this is how you know you are like Jesus: you love your brother and sister… Over and over and over again. And the one who does not love does not know God, because God is love.

It really is that simple, and we can argue about what love is all day long, and I think we should. I think we should debate what love is — what love looks like — in any given time and place, in any context. What manifestations of love are appropriate for what communities? I think we should debate those things. I think we should discuss those things, because that’s how we learn to love each other appropriately in any given time and place. That’s how we learn to love each other most effectively in any given time and place, but that discussion should be rooted in the idea that it is important to begin with, because if we don’t love one another, then we don’t know God, and anyone who’s going to claim to be a disciple of Christ has to root themselves in some kind of love. If we don’t start there, then we lose out on everything else that Jesus is doing.

For John, in 1 John, the sin doesn’t matter. The sin is not what’s important. What’s important is the way that we love each other in Christ, because it is through that way of love that the sins are forgotten, forgiven, washed clean. If we want to be pure — if we want to walk in the light and be justified and be clothed in righteousness and be forgiven — then he says all you have to do is love each other. Your relationship with God is based on your love for your brother and sister, is based on your love for your neighbor, is based on your love for one another. All of this grasping and chasing after purity, after righteousness, through rules, through expectations, through conformity, is all for nothing, if it’s not rooted in love, and isn’t that what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13?

You want to give away everything you have? You want to speak in the tongues of men and of angels? You want to do anything that you want to do — you want to have all the spiritual gifts and all the power to move mountains — but if you don’t have love, it means nothing.

The claim to be a Christian means nothing, if we can’t live as Christ lived out of love. Our understanding of who Christ is means nothing, according to 1 John, if it doesn’t lead us into the kind of love that expresses itself in love for one another. In Jesus is revealed the love of God, and we love because he loved us enough to reveal that love to us. That’s the claim that we make as Christians, and if we get nothing else right in life — if we get literally everything else wrong about everything that we know, it won’t matter anywhere near as much as getting this one thing right.

If we live our lives out of love for each other, nobody’s going to look at our lives at the end and say, “But he was wrong about everything else,” because what else is there to be wrong about? If you live and you love your community and your neighbors and your brothers and sisters and even your enemies, what can anyone hold against you in the end? But if we claim to love and in reality we walk in the darkness, you can believe that they will turn and trample over our claims and tear us to pieces, and no one will remember your name.

The invitation, today and every day, is always an invitation to love, and it’s one of the reasons why I tell people that I don’t care if they call themselves Christians or they don’t call themselves Christians. I don’t believe if they… I don’t care if they believe in God the way that I talk about God or Christ the way that I talk about Christ or if they’re not sure what they believe — if they’re atheist or they’re agnostic or some other religious practice. It doesn’t matter to me. Yes, I would love for you to know Jesus the way that I know Jesus. I would love for you to see God the way that I see God, but what matters to me is whether we can express ourselves in love toward one another, day in and day out. What matters to me is whether people are willing to come together and walk in this way of love. I want to be part of communities that are filled with love — that pour themselves into love, that say, “Even if I get everything else wrong, I am determined to love you.”

That’s the invitation. I think that’s God’s invitation, as well. You don’t understand what God is doing in the world? You don’t understand what God is doing in your life? That’s fine. You don’t understand who Jesus is, like his disciples didn’t understand who he was? That’s fine. But come and love and be loved, anyway. We invite you to be loved, and we invite you to practice, with us, loving one another.

If that is something you’re interested in, then come and join us, and let us walk together in love.

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