A sermon for the Second Sunday of the Easter Season
One of the things I loved to do as a kid was to help my grandpap do chores around the little farmette he and my nana had out there in rural western Pennsylvania. I loved driving the tractor to mow the yard or to haul seed to the garden, watering the hot beds, and picking corn in the summer. Those are some of my best memories.
But there was one place on the farm that I always dreaded going to and that was the basement of the barn. Every once in awhile, Pap would send me there to grab some tool or implement that was needed for the work and every time I tried to think of some way to get out of going in there. For one thing, the basement of the barn was a dark, creaky, and terrifying place. It had no windows, so it was dark all the time. Spider webs were everywhere; just about everything hanging from the ceiling was rusty and had some kind of wicked blade on it. It was the kind of place that a serial killer from a horror movie would hang out.
But the worst moment of going into the barn basement was turning on the old light switch on the wall. The moment you flipped that switch and the bare bulb hanging from the ceiling bathed the place in light you instantly heard scurrying sounds all around you. The mice, rats, squirrels, bats snakes, and spiders who occupied the place most of the time suddenly scrambled to find a dark corner. As far as I knew, Bigfoot was hiding in there as well, and I was sure that one day when I went in there I wasn’t going to come out alive. It scared the bejeezus out of me every time, and I would grab whatever it was that Pap needed as fast as I could, turn out the light, and slam the door shut on my way out. Of course, I knew that I would need to eventually put the thing I took back in there—hopefully before the things in the shadows came out again.
I think about that every time I read this passage from I John. The lectionary, which we’re following during the season of Eastertide, puts this reading right after the Sunday in which we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. It’s as if the resurrection of Jesus has flipped on a light switch for the world that exposes the things that normally live in darkness all the time.
“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you,” says John about the risen Christ, “that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (v. 5). Wherever God shows up, a switch is thrown that bathes the world in light and pushes evil to the shadows.
Scholars are not certain whether or not the writer of I John is the same as the writer of the Gospel of John, but the similarities are striking. Both use the theme of darkness and light to describe what God has done in the world in sending Jesus. In chapter one of the Gospel of John, we read the great theological affirmation of Jesus as “the Word become flesh” and in verse 3 we read that what came into being in Jesus was “life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (v. 4-5). For both the writer of the Gospel and the Epistle, the coming of Christ has been an illuminating moment—the door opened, the light switch flipped on the darkness and sinfulness of the world.
When we look out at the darkness, however, we tend to be most concerned about what external forces lurk in the shadows that can harm us—those things that sometimes don’t scurry away but that are really out to get us. Every day the news warn us of some other danger that’s bound to get us, whether it’s terrorism or crime, or even what might be in the food you eat that can kill you. We tend to want to throw more light on those things so that we can avoid them if at all possible.
But while there is plenty of danger lurking in the darkness in a sinful world where evil is still at work, what John really seems to want to warn us about is the darkness that lurks within each of us—the darkness that can only be exposed when Christ is present and switches on the light of his love and grace. In fact, John tells us that until the darkness in us is really exposed, then we cannot really see beyond the darkness that grips a world in rebellion against God. The light has to shine on us, in other words, before it can illumine our way in the world.
So, what is it in us that needs to be exposed, pushed to the shadows, or better yet, eliminated altogether? Our Scriptures today shed some light on the subject (pun intended). In fact, I would argue that there are two primary dark places in our lives that need to be brought to light if we’re going to be people who “walk in the light as Christ is in the light.” When we identify and expose the truth about these areas of our lives, it’s then that God can begin live in the light without fearing the shadows.
The first of these areas that needs to be exposed is our doubt. It’s in vogue these days to hold up doubt as a badge of honor—that doubt somehow proves that you’re a more thinking Christian than those who focus on absolute truth. We live in a culture where seeing things in black and white is considered to be backward, old fashioned, and out of style. The lines between what is true and what is not, what is right and what is not, seem to get fuzzier every day. This is, after all, a culture in which a song titled “Blurred Lines” makes the charts and “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a popular movie. It seems that many in our culture, and indeed many in the church, have taken Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” and have turned it into a theology.
But the writers of the New Testament don’t think this way at all and, indeed, they warn us against it. In John’s Gospel, as in I John, the specter of doubt is what keeps people from seeing the truth that’s right in front of them.
Take Thomas, for example. When the post-resurrection story opens, we find the other disciples (minus Thomas) cowering in a house “for fear of the Jews” (v. 19). If Thomas is the one who often gets branded as the doubter, we must remember that the other disciples were equally guilty of doubt after they heard Mary Magdalene’s announcement, “I have seen the Lord!” (v. 18). It’s not until the risen Jesus actually shows up that they believe and understand. Thomas isn’t any different than his colleagues, it’s just that he’s behind in assessing the situation.
John tells us that there was a whole week between when the disciples saw the resurrected Jesus and when Thomas finally met him. I imagine them telling him for a whole week that they had seen the Lord but Thomas insisting on empirical evidence for himself rather than relying on the testimony of witnesses. “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the marks of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas’ first inclination is skepticism and suspicion.
But then he encounters the risen Christ who invites him to put his fingers in the nail prints and in his side. It’s interesting, however, that the text doesn’t tell us that Thomas does so. The evidence he was looking for was trumped by the very presence and peace of Jesus himself. The light came on and exposed his lack of faith, lack of trust, and lack of hope. Resurrection was no longer a concept to be debated but a reality that is based in experience. In response to the presence of Jesus, Thomas can only confess, “My Lord and my God!” To which Jesus replies, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Darkness brings doubt. Isolation breeds it. I would have been a lot more bold to enter the barn basement if I had had someone with me to bolster my courage. Thomas wasn’t with the disciples when they saw Jesus. He was by himself, and when we’re by ourselves it’s then that doubt has a way of clouding our vision. We need the testimony of others who have seen the risen Lord at work in their lives, the Lord who has touched their wounded hearts and made them whole.
This is one of the reasons why we can never be true Christians on our own. We need each other and this is why Jesus forms the church around himself. It’s in this community that we can shed light on our doubts and test them against the evidence of others who have encountered the grace and love of the risen Christ. Too many churches have become breeding grounds for religious skeptics rather than communities of faith centered on the resurrected Lord. Yes, we can bring our doubts here, but not so that we can wallow in them. We gather to seek the truth together, knowing that the truth is not a concept to be verified but a person to be followed and a life to be experienced.
“We declare to you what was from the beginning,” says the writer of I John, “what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—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—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.” John declares not a concept, but his eyewitness account—a truth that he has experienced himself.
Do you doubt? Are there dark places where your mind wanders because you are not sure that Christ is alive, active, and at work in the world and in your life? Then, my friends, the best place for you is in this body of believers. And if you have encountered the risen Christ, don’t keep your testimony a secret. Your faith may be the answer to someone else’s doubt! Christianity is a group project that requires us all to share and to shed abroad the light by which we live in Christ!
Which brings us to the other area in which the light of Christ and his resurrection needs to shine, and that is on the dark corners of our sin. As I said earlier, the writer of I John sees the coming of Christ as the equivalent of God flipping a light switch on the world and on our hearts. There are things in each of our lives that we would much rather keep hidden, sins that scurry into the dark corners when we are exposed to the light of truth. We will do much to hide them, even pretending that they don’t exist. We put on a smiling face at church, we put on the mask of everything being ok with us. But with God there is no place for our sin to hide—we are either in the light or in the darkness; no shades of gray. “If we say that we have fellowship with [God] while we are walking in darkness,” says John, “we lie and do not do what is true.” Like doubt, sin is isolating; it keeps us from being in true fellowship with others and from true fellowship with God.
In fact, isolation is the breeding ground of sin. Look at the list of the Ten Commandments or the so-called Seven Deadly Sins and one of the things you notice is that nearly all of those sins are done best in the shadows and by ourselves—things that we would not rather have come to light. They are things that we will go to great lengths to hide from others. The more bound by sin we are, the more isolated and dark our lives become.
A friend of mine calls this the HALT principle: that we are most likely to sin when we are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired—all things that turn us inward. When we are in any of these places, we are most vulnerable to slipping into the dark.
On the other hand, “if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” We cannot continue to pretend that we have no sin, otherwise John says “we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” We need to step into the light, and the way we do that is through confession.
Confessing our sins is the equivalent of turning the light on them, exposing them to God and to the fellowship of believers. God already knows that we have sinned. As John says earlier, “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” We cannot hide our sin from God. But when we expose our sins by confessing them to God and to trusted Christian friends it is then that God can begin to deal with those sins in us through his grace and through the ministry of others. When we pull our sins out of the dark corners of our lives and expose them to the light, they become less powerful and less frightening. It’s not easy, nor is it painless, but the hard truth is that confession is the only way that we can ever begin to change. And when we confess our sins, God is waiting to deal with them. “If we confess our sins,” says John, “ he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
This is why we do the prayer of confession in worship each week. It’s a time for both corporate and private confession before we come to the table where we receive the signs of grace and love offered to us in Christ. But confession once a week is not enough. Jesus taught us to make it a regular part of our prayer life—“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” If you really want to begin to see how this works, pray that prayer every day but get specific. What are the inward thoughts, desires, and motives in the darkness of our life that need to be brought to light?
And not only should we confess them to God, we need to confess them to someone we trust and who will help us overcome the darkness. Again, we cannot be truly Christian in isolation. Having spiritual friendships, being in a small group, meeting with an accountability partner—these are all places were we can safely put our sins on the table and experience the grace of forgiveness as well as support for change. The early Methodist movement was built on such practices—kind of an AA for sinners—it’s a key practice in making disciples of Jesus Christ who walk in the light as he is in the light.
After all, we do not have a Savior who condemns us, but who wants to make us people of light. “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin,” writes John. “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” God does not view our confession with disdain, but through the eyes of the one who spilled his own blood on our behalf and who rose again victorious over sin and death. Fear only works when we stay in the dark. In the light, everything is put in its proper place!
That old barn is gone now, and Bigfoot never did emerge from the shadows. The fear that I had constructed and associated with the place is gone. I have dealt with scarier dark places since those days, however. But thanks be to God that he keeps turning on the light, offering me his forgiveness, his love, and his grace.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
“If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Let us walk in the light of our risen Lord! Amen.