In our era there is something special about getting a handwritten letter. We have so many different ways to communicate that the task of crafting a note with pen and paper seems to have become a dying art. Recently, as a part of the Letters from Dad program, James McGuire wrote me a note of encouragement and affirmation. It arrived at my desk in the middle of a confusing week so was swept away with some other documents for a season, but when I found it and read it, it made me pause and smile. It meant that James had taken the time to think about me and to share his heart with me. (Thank you, James.) You know the power of that smile. It is the same one you probably find on your face when you receive a card, or a letter, or a note from people that care for you.
Sometimes we become so accustomed to thinking about the Bible (lift Bible) as a book; we can forget that many of the books within it were originally letters to God’s people or a person who needed a word from God. This morning we come to a passage in one of the three epistles of John where its history as a letter could not be clearer. We are accustomed to reading and hearing teaching and preaching from the letters of Paul. But these letters from John were prized by the early church because they could envision the aged man, John, the last of the twelve disciples of Jesus, stooped over and penning these paternal words of counsel for them.[i] Imagine getting a letter from a father or mother, grandfather or grandmother, or valued mentor with words of life and hope for you. This is how the three letters felt to those who heard them.
This morning we hear words from the first of the three epistles. It is where John writes them to encourage them. He writes to challenge them. He writes to bless them. He writes to give them a fresh word on the God’s love for them and God’s great hope for them. John’s words are not just for the early church. They are also for us.
If you look at John’s words just before our focal passage it appears clear that he write because he wants every believer to understand that they need each other. He wants them to understand that each brings something significant to God’s work in the world. I draw our attention to this passage not because of some perceived concern over our unity, but rather to encourage us to intentionally work side by side as we seek to be God’s people in this place in ministry together in the coming year.
As you listened to our text being read earlier in our service you may have notice it is written in two sets of affirmations to three different audiences. To help us hear what he has to say more clearly I want to pull together the words he brings to each group. The first group he writes is the “dear children.” In the first set we hear: 12 I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name. The second set offers: I write to you, dear children, because you have known the Father. When John calls them children he is not demeaning them. He is expressing great love for them. This term “dear children” is a term of intimate affection. It is born in his love for those in these early churches and for his heart of compassion he has for them because of dear price they are paying for being a follower Jesus. John writes like a spiritual father addressing the children of faith, those that have come to be a part of the body of Christ. We hear this letter laced with similar language. Chapter 2 opens: My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. Over and over again John reminds them that their sins have been forgiven. They are not just people of faith they have a distinctive relationship with God because they have been forgiven by God’s grand act of grace. They are not just his spiritual children, he begins Chapter 3 by telling them; See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. John wants all of the believers to know not only that he loves them and claims them, but more importantly through their faith God loves them and claims them as his own. Their sins have been forgiven and their lives have been forever changed. They are the beloved. They are the children of God. Our sins have been forgiven. We are the beloved. We are the children of God.
John now turns his attention to a second group. This group is the called “fathers” in the more traditional translations. Be careful how you hear this because he is writing to much more than men with children. He is writing to those who have longer and more mature faith. In our context we would speak of the fathers and mothers of the faith. In both the first and second set he uses the exact same phrase to speak to them. It reads; I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning. Next week we will acknowledge and celebrate those that have been a member of this church family for fifty years or more. When I asked Sabrina to pull a report on those that fit in that category I anticipated a handful. I was shocked to learn that there are more than 55 people in our active membership that fit that category. What an incredible legacy of faith walks with us and sits beside us. John saw those who had claimed their faith from the beginning of the movement. Their spiritual strengthen and maturity would be essential for the church. That was true then and it is true now. To those who have lived long lives of faith, hear our appreciation for you. But also hear the challenge. You are vital to the life and ministry of this church. We need you to stand strong. We need you to encourage us. We need you to support us. We need you to live your lives of faith out boldly before us. We need you.
The third and final group we hear in the more traditional translations as “young men.” But again, do not let the masculine language confuse you. He is addressing those who are young in their faith. He writes; I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. Then in the second set he takes it further; I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one. Just as those who have long stories of faith are essential, so are those that are newer to the faith. If the fire of faith burns within you; if this whole church thing is new to you; if you are still early in your walk with Jesus, hear that John – and that I – am speaking to you. He speaks to those that have been willing to confront and overcome evils. He writes that God lives in them. Did you hear that? For those of you who are younger in your faith, the very presence and power of God lives in you! We need the burning passion of your faith. We need your unbridled and unjaded belief that God is alive and at work in your life and in the life of this church. We need your willingness to live lives of witness that you have overcome the evil one, and the bounty of bad decisions and brokenness that defines evil, through faith. We need you to live your lives of faith out boldly before us. We need you.
As John’s letter continues we hear these words midway through what we call the third chapter. John writes; 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. John wrote to the whole of the body that each of them had value and a purpose. He called them to a way of faith that is defined not by what we say but by what we do as the people of faith. Words are nice, but it has to be more than words. He wanted them, and us, to understand that the authenticity of our faith will be display when we live bold lives of faith in God and before God. If we are obedient to God’s way and do what pleases God then God will do remarkable things – all that we could ask – in our lives and through our witness.
Be encouraged. We have 10,000 reasons to bless the Lord. You are the children of God because your sins have been forgiven. Be strong. You who have lived long lives of faith will model what it looks like to live lives of faithfulness. Be bold. You who are young in your faith; God lives in you and will use your heart and passion to touch the world. We must learn from one another. We must lean on one another. We must reach out to one another and discover the common heart and faith we share. We need each other to be fully the body of Christ. If we serve together with heart and an authentic faith there is no boundary to what God will do in and through us. I can hardly wait for the coming year and to see what God has in store for us. I can hardly wait for the coming year to see what God will do in our midst. Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. Let’s move forward together.