Jesus comforts saints who still sin
In his old age, the apostle John reflects back upon the first Easter. He remembers hearing Mary Magdalene say, “They have taken the Lord away!” He remembers the confusion of looking into an empty tomb and seeing with his own eyes the burial clothes neatly wrapped up and placed where once a cold, dead body lay. He remembers eyes bugging out as Jesus comes through a locked-door to stand in their presence. And he remembers the risen Lord saying, “Touch me. Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” And then he remembers touching Jesus and whispering to Peter and James and the others, “It’s really Him! He’s really here! He’s really alive!”
John remembers the comfort of that day. Each detail etched into his mind he pours onto the parchment upon which he writes to fellow Christians. He pours it out because he knows those things weren’t just for him or the eleven or some small, select group. He remembers Jesus saying, “What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.” So he gets out his pen and proclaims: about what he heard; about what he saw; about what he looked at; about what he touched: the Word of life, the eternal life that was with the Father and appeared to him, about Jesus.
Why? Because the comfort John felt he wants to share: “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.” John wants to share what he has with others. So he writes. He writes to bring comfort to saints who still sin.
John’s first letter repeatedly says something very difficult to understand. More than once he says in some way, shape, or form: “Christians, God’s saints, don’t sin.” And yet we look around every day and see that the very opposite is true. We see Christians, including ourselves, sinning. Christians pray on a weekly, if not daily basis, “Forgive us our trespasses.” “Saints ask for the forgiveness of sins,” one of our Lutheran confessions, says, the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, which means “even the saints have sins.” We know how God feels about sin. He hates those who do wrong. He “remains hostile to sin eternally,” in the words of another of our confessions. That’s not very comforting. That’s not Easter comfort and joy, that’s damnation! Until we listen to what John heard, saw, looked at, and touched: Jesus, risen from the dead!
“Peace be with you,” Christ said. “Howdy! How are you? Have a blessed day!” He says. He does not curse at them, swear at them, chew them out, or fire them from their apostolic offices, though each would admit they earned that, especially Peter. He wishes them peace and says, “Why are you troubled and why do doubts rise in your minds?” What a friend we have in Jesus! He goes out of His way to comfort these terrified men, to comfort us. Even in His exalted state, even in His resurrection body, He comes peacefully, so as not to drive us crazy with fear or strike us dead with heart failure. Even in His exalted state He masks Himself in pleasing forms for you: words that bring joy to your ears, water that cools and cleanses your conscience, bread and wine that slackens your soul’s thirst and appeases its hunger. In His Word and Sacraments Jesus says, “Peace be with YOU.”
Through His Word and Sacraments, Jesus makes His joy complete by bringing you into His fellowship. Even though you’re a sinner. Because in that locked room, in this unlocked church, Jesus says, “This is what I told you while I was still with you…. The Christ will suffer” for you and your sins, “and rise from the dead” for you and your sins “and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations,” including you! And so John, writing years later says, “This is what I’m writing to you, about Jesus, about His resurrection, about the forgiveness he won and the eternal life that He is and gives!”
Why? “So that you will not sin.” Because people for whom Jesus died, people who cling to the forgiveness won at the cross just don’t do that anymore. It’s not who you are. God is light, and He brings that light into your life through faith in Christ. Light banishes darkness. What fellowship does light have with darkness, Paul asks the Corinthians? Hence John’s warnings: “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth….If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us…. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.”
Notice what John condemns. Not sin itself; rather the denial of sin. Although John doesn’t want any believer to sin ever again, he knows as well as you do that this side of heaven that’s just not going to happen. So he doesn’t bang against the conscience of the weary and heavy-laden believer who crawls to Christ begging and pleading for grace. He rather goes to those who would confess Christ on Sunday and walk with Satan the rest of the week. Because you can’t do that.
If you say one thing on Sunday and do something else on Monday, then you’re the Monday thing, not the Sunday thing. The evil changes you, the darkness rules. Bad company corrupts good character. The good, sadly, does not “corrupt” the bad. And that leads to a redefinition of sin. In order to justify your Monday-Saturday life, you’ll have to say either you have no sin in you, or those things you do aren’t sinful. But, as John says, that only fools you. Everyone around you can and will contradict you. Worse, you’re calling God a liar who clearly defines what is light and what is dark. Then you aren’t of Christ anymore, no matter how faithfully you may be in church.
The solution is simple: Christ. We have this holy, perfect righteous One whom John heard, saw, looked at, and touched, alive. Death didn’t corrupt Him, because that flesh, real, true human flesh, was also divine flesh. Which means the blood that dripped from that flesh, that gushed out upon the cross, real, true, human blood, was also divine blood, purifying blood, cathartic blood. All the tension of sin that binds us, that clutches us, that suffocates us, Christ washes away with the blood that flowed from His side. And He gives that blood to you as often as you need it, “Drink it,” He says through your pastor’s lips, cleansing you. “Bathe in it,” He says through your pastor’s lips, as He cleanses you in Baptism. And John says only: “Confess.” “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Don’t deny sin, embrace sin, because God forgives without stopping, so we are not lost!
Again, John does not want you to sin. Jesus does not want you to sin. He told the woman caught in adultery and forgiven, “Go and sin no more.” He says the same to you: “Keep on walking in the light as you have done so well and for so long through the power of the Holy Spirit!” But the weakness and defect of sin still clings to the body of the saints this side of heaven. And maybe we doubt. Maybe we’re afraid. “Sure, I believe in the blood of Christ that cleanses me from sins, but what if God still isn’t satisfied? What if I have to do this and that and thus and so?” John once more: “But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—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.” Now John adds to the cleansing and catharsis of Jesus’ blood the truth that Jesus’ sacrifice satisfied God. In every possible way, because of Christ and faith in Him, we are clean and pure and holy and righteous.
Faith in the blood of Christ cleanses us and the sacrifice of Christ pleases and satisfies God’s wrath and anger over sin. He has not juggled justice. He has remained pure, holy, just and perfect Himself, pouring out all the wrath and anger He has over sin upon His sinless Son, making Him who had no sin to be sin for us. Regard that as sure and “certain that for Christ’s sake, according to the promise of the immovable Word of the Holy Gospel, [you] have a gracious God.”
What’s more, Christ did this not only for a select few, but for the world. God wants all men in this fellowship, this close communion, this close bond and sharing John describes and shares. I say this so that you may have fellowship with me and fellowship with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. I say this because through John we’ve heard, seen, looked at, and touched Christ, risen from the dead! Amen.