At Jesmond Parish Church we are in the middle of a programme called 40 Days of Purpose. We are thinking of the purposes of God that he has for each one of us as human beings. We believe there is a God and this world is not an accident. A Professor of Biology - Edward Carlstin at Princeton University - once said that "the probability of life originating from accident is comparable to the probability of an unabridged dictionary resulting from an explosion in a printing factory." Bertrand Russell, however, the atheistic philosopher would disagree. He said famously, "When I die, I rot." For him ultimately there was nothing.
But the resurrection of Jesus Christ that first Easter proves Russell was so wrong. Yes, "when I die, and when you die, we will rot" - however, that is not the end. One day Christ will return. There will be a general resurrection. There will then be a great judgment for the whole world. So this life is a preparation for the world to come. This life is like the warm up before the big match. And in this preparation period we need to be learning the lessons God is trying to teach us and then to be living according to his plan and purposes. And the first of these purposes is that we should "worship" God.
We thought about that last week. You are to "love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" (Mark 12.30). Jesus said, "this is the most important commandment." Tonight we are going to think about another of God's purposes for us - God's plan for us not to live in isolation but to live together. So his purpose is for us to be part of his family - the people of God. In a real sense we are to "belong to one another". We are made for "fellowship" - to use a word Christians often use. And for that to work we must love one another. Jesus said the second most important commandment is, "love your neighbour as yourself" (Mark 12.31).
Now most people consciously believe in God according to the opinion polls - or at least some supreme being. In the same way most people have a desire "to belong". It is not natural to want to on your own all the time. But more and more people are experiencing various forms of loneliness. There was a recent opinion poll on the values of young adults. The basic finding was that the majority were living aggressively for themselves. But when you do that you cut yourself off from others and you are more lonely. God has made us as social beings. The bible says that human beings are made in God's image. And that image of God is the image of a triune God - a God who is one God but in three persons - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Bible reveals God as a Trinity. Relationships are there in the fabric of existence, because God is a God of relationships.
It is not surprising then that as people drift away from God, so their relationships disintegrate - personal relationships in marriage and the family and social relationships in the State and Nation. Once you loose the Fatherhood of God, you soon loose the brotherhood of man. Being a Christian, then, is not just about believing; it is also about belonging and belonging in a number of ways. So tonight our subject is A PLACE TO BELONG as we think about Christian Fellowship. And to help us with our thinking I want you to turn in the Bibles in the pews to 1 John 1. And I want us to look at this chapter that deals with Christian fellowship under three headings: first, ITS BASIS; secondly, ITS NATURE; and, thirdly, ITS CONDITIONS.
First, ITS BASIS (vv1-3a)
So what is the Christian fellowship or community based on? Answer Jesus Christ. For he is the one who is being talked about here in 1 John chapter 1.
But by way of introduction let me say something about the context. This book - 1 John - was probably written in the earliest days of the Church's history by John the apostle, the author of John's Gospel, when, as an old man, he was living in Ephesus. The world of his day was very like the world of today. There was a lot of religion but it went hand in hand with much sexual immorality. So what is new? The Church of John's day also was very like the Church of today. There were heretical or false teachers denying the apostolic faith. One of these teachers went by the name of Cerinthus. He rejected parts of the bible - he picked and chose what he liked. He denied that God had created the universe and he denied that Jesus Christ was truly God and truly man. So when you hear or discover that some clergy or bishops or archbishops are denying parts of the Bible and pick and choose the bits they like, that too is nothing new. But you say, "Perhaps Cerinthus was right." Well, John wrote this epistle to argue that Cerinthus and others like him were wrong. And he begins by saying that the basis of everything - fellowship included - is Jesus Christ. Look at verses 1-3a:
"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."
The opening words are remarkable:
"That which was from the beginning ..."
These words are echoes of Genesis 1 (the first book in the Bible) and John's own Gospel - chapter 1. Genesis 1 says, in effect, "Go back as far as you can in your imagination before anything existed, and you will find God, the eternal God." John's Gospel chapter 1 says, in effect, "Go back to that same point and you will find Jesus Christ with God, because he was God, before anything was created." Here John is saying the Word (or the expression) of God that appeared and was made flesh in the womb of the virgin Mary was the same eternal Son of the Father who was before all time and was the agent of all creation. That Word - here called the Word of Life - didn't come into existence at Bethlehem. He already existed from the very beginning with the Father. So if this is true, Jesus Christ is truly divine and truly human. And he is the one - and the only one - the whole world has to come to terms with. There is no one else like him. No one else says "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" and "I and the Father are one". He claimed to be divine. He is not just another famous religious teacher. C.S.Lewis put it like this:
"If you had gone to Buddha and asked him, 'Are you the son of Bramah?' he would have said 'My son, you are in the vale of illusion.' If you had gone to Socrates and asked 'Are you the son of Zeus?' he would have laughed at you. If you had gone to Mohammed and asked 'Are you Allah?' he would first have rent his clothes."
But if Jesus Christ is so central to God's purposes, there are two questions. First, how can you know what he is really like; and, secondlyw can you be sure that what you are told is true?
Well, first, we know about Jesus through the teaching of Jesus' apostles. So John says in verse 1: "this we proclaim concerning the Word of life". And in verse 2: "we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us". That is why you must read the Bible - the apostolic book - without picking or choosing.
Secondly, we can be sure about the truth of this proclamation because the Apostles were speaking as eyewitnesses. In verse 1 John speaks of "that which ... we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched". And in verse 3 "We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard". Listen to Dorothy Sayers who was quite convinced of the "eyewitness" nature of John's Gospel. As a novelist herself and used to "fabricating" stories and knowing fact from fiction, she says this:
"It must be remembered that, of the four Evangelists, St John's is the only one that claims to be the direct report of an eyewitness. And to anyone accustomed to the imaginative handling of documents, the internal evidence bears out the claim."
So if you want to know about Jesus you must learn from the Apostles (and so study the Bible). For their message is reliable. And one goal of their message was to promote "fellowship" - verse 3a: "We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us."
That brings us to our second heading and the question, "what is the real nature of this fellowship?".
Secondly, ITS NATURE (vv3b-7)
Look at verses 3b-7:
"And our [the apostles'] fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete. This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by 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."
"Alright," you say, "this fellowship is based on Jesus Christ, but in what way?"
Well, here we are first told that fellowship is fundamentally a relationship with God, the Father and with God, the Son - Jesus Christ, (and we know from elsewhere that God, the Holy Spirit makes that a reality). So it is a divine relationship. Many of us are reading Rick Warren's book The Purpose Driven Life and a chapter a day over these 40 days. Today is day 15 and today's chapter is entitled "Formed for God's Family". Rick Warren puts it well:
"When we place our faith in Christ, God becomes our Father, we become his children, other believers become our brothers and sisters, and the church becomes our spiritual family. The family of God includes all believers in the past, the present and the future.
Every human being was created by God, but not everyone is a child of God. The only way to get into God's family is by being born again into it. You became part of the human family by your first birth, but you become a member of God's family by your second birth." It was Jesus who said, "No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." And you are born again by the work of the Holy Spirit giving you new Resurrection life. Have you been born again? Have you trusted Christ for that new life? That is the way into this relationship. For it is a divine relationship - "with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ."
But, secondly, it is a moral relationship. There were people in the Church - these false teachers - who were saying its OK to have sex outside marriage and get debauched in other ways and make money out of shady business dealing and so on. But John says, "rubbish". Look at verse 6:
"If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by 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. "
John is using metaphorical language. By "walking" he means living a lifestyle. John is not referring to doing wrong, repenting and seeking God's forgiveness. He is talking about people who say sin is fine. And the logic is that it breaks our fellowship with God and with one another. Why is this so important? Because of the nature of our God. Look at verse 5:
"This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all."
John has two great statements about God in this letter. Here is the first, "God is light". The second comes in chapter 4 verse 8, "God is love".
Light is a symbol for God's presence and guiding but especially for his truth and holiness. If God is like that, so must we be. But we are not and our relationship with God is broken. So what is the hope? The answer is there in those words: "the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin."
God is love as well as light. The proof is the Cross of Christ. And the Cross is at the heart of what Christ came to do. Why is there so much loneliness? Why do people not immediately see that going God's way and experiencing fellowship with him and with his people is not only sensible, it is more enjoyable? Look at verse 4: "we write this to make our joy complete." So why do people not immediately go God's way? Answer: because since Adam we are all infected with the spiritual disease of sin. It is an inbuilt refusal to do what God wants and what is for our best, and to go our way which is for our worst. If you ignore the maker's instructions, you end up in trouble.
But God cannot allow that, for God is light. As an Old Testament writer put it: "Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong" (Hab 1.13). Our God is an intolerant God. He hates evil. People find that hard in today's relativist culture, where all is right and nothing is wrong and where the modern understanding of "tolerance" seems so reasonable. Listen again to Dorothy Sayers:
"In the world it is called 'tolerance', but in hell it is called 'despair' ... the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, enjoys nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die."
But our God was willing for his Son to die for our sins. On the Cross he shed his blood. He paid the penalty for us. He bore our judgment in our place. The wages of sin is death. And Christ died his death for us. Do you think that you are too bad to be forgiven? John says here that "the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all [not some] sin." I must conclude. I do so with the question - what, then, are the conditions for getting into a right relationship with God and then with others in the Christian fellowship? That is my third heading.
Thirdly, ITS CONDITIONS (vv8-10)
Look at verses 8-10:
"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 has no place in our lives."
It is very simple. When the Holy Spirit begins to work in your life and he points you to Jesus Christ, you become more conscious of your sin. What looks clean under artificial light looks dirty under the light of the sun. Once you start to tidy up a room, you see there is more to do than you thought. So it is with sin under God's light. Then two things need to happen.
First, you have to stop deceiving yourself and face up to the truth - that you have been going your way in life and not God's. For some here tonight that has got you into big trouble. For others it is all much more respectable. Outwardly you are thought to be rather good. But God looks into your heart. He sees your motives and your thoughts. Under God's light we all sin. We all need forgiving. And you have to admit that.
Then, secondly, you need to confess your sins. You not only admit that you are in the wrong and have done wrong. You also admit responsibility. That is biblical repentance - identifying what is wrong (your sin); identifying who is responsible (you) and then asking God in his mercy to deal with both your sin and you yourself through the work of Christ and by his Holy Spirit. And look at that wonderful promise 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."
And then look at that warning in verse 10:
"If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives."
So there is a choice tonight. If you want fellowship with God and fellowship with other believers, there is this condition. It is not something you have to do. It is something you have to admit and then receive. You have to admit that you are a sinner. Then you have to receive God's forgiveness. It is so simple and so sensible. All that is needed is for the Holy Spirit to open your eyes to the truth.
I can only pass on the message that John passed on 2000 years ago. I can pray for the Holy Spirit to open your spiritual eyes. But you have to admit and then confess and receive. And once you have confessed for the first time, you need to anchor that confession. The Bible says that if you haven't been baptized you should be baptized. If you were baptized as a child and you have drifted away from Christ, you can reaffirm your baptismal vows.
And once you have confessed for the first time, you need to confess subsequently. But you then confess assured of fellowship with God and his people. It is a matter, simply, of keeping short accounts.