Monday, April 9, 2018

No Darkness At All

The scriptures referred to are Acts 4:32-35 and 1 John 1:1-2:2.

My wife and I love mysteries but they all have the same element of unreality. To surprise us the killer always has to be the least likely suspect. Even if the murder victim is a horrible person and everyone has a motive to kill him, the real culprit is someone we thought was innocent. The perpetrator is almost never someone who has a history of violent behavior or a criminal record as is typical in real life. So their motive has to be disguised. And often it is contrived. We are supposed to believe that a normal person suddenly was moved to wipe out their birdwatching club in increasingly grisly ways because they didn't receive credit for spotting a warbler. It's entertaining but not realistic.

A cop once told me that homicides are rarely mysteries. Half the time the murderer is still there, holding a gun, stunned at what he has done. Contrary to popular thought, most victims know their killers and most killers have a history of violence. When the murderer's identity is a mystery it is because he has no social connection with his victim. That's why serial killers are hard to catch, not because they have higher IQs. (The average serial killer has an IQ that is average.) More often what keeps a case open is a lack of indisputable evidence which would allow a suspect to be charged.

People's actions tend to stay consistent with their character. Even with those who hide their darker side, things leak out. People contemplating violence usually talk about it beforehand. The FBI had been warned that the young man who shot up the Parkland high school had talked of doing just that. While they may have come as a surprise to us, the fact that certain powerful men were sexual predators was an open secret in Hollywood or in whatever industry they operated. Only the most successful of psychopaths can hide their true nature for very long.

What does this have to do with Christianity? Of all people, Christians ought to be consistently good and just in our behavior. Yet we are, like everyone else, sinners. We all think, say and do things which harm our relationships with others, with ourselves and also with God. The difference with Christians is twofold.

First, we acknowledge it. Or we should. As 1 John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Anyone who denies they sin is not a Christian. To come to Jesus you usually have to realize that you are morally flawed and need divine help. Even if you come to Jesus because you simply like what he stands for, the more you get to know him, the stronger should be your recognition that you are not even close to living up to his standards. Self-examination should lead you to the conclusion that, as we frequently say in our confession of sin to God, “...we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.”

Secondly, Christians have help. 1 John goes on to say, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This says 2 things: that we can be forgiven and that we can be cleansed.

Forgiveness is important to reconciling a broken relationship. It is acceptance of the person; it is not acceptance of the sin. If a spouse strays, and their partner forgives them, that doesn't mean that the adultery was OK. It means that the person betrayed is graciously starting the relationship with their spouse over despite their sin. When God forgives us, he is graciously hitting the reset button on our relationship with him. He is not saying that our sin is acceptable. When Jesus is confronted with a woman grabbed in the act of adultery, a sin Jesus had denounced often, he says to her, after her accusers depart, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” (John 8:11)

But to restart our relationship, we need to be cleansed. The Greek word means “to remove any admixture; to purify.” When your kid comes into the house covered in mud or worse, you don't cast them out of the family but neither do you let them do anything, including hug you, until they have their mucky clothes removed and get a bath. And then you must decide whether to wash or burn their clothes. Afterward it will be as if they never were covered in filth.

This cleansing comes from God. Specifically from God within us, the Holy Spirit. As it says later in 1 John, “The one who keeps God's commands lives in him and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” (1 John 3:24) To reverse-engineer that: because God gave us his Spirit, we know he lives in us and we in him, and that is manifested by our keeping his commandments. The Spirit enables us to act in ways we normally wouldn't, that is, with unselfish love towards all. As Paul said, “God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5) Or as it says in 1 John, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” (1 John 4:16) Again as Paul says, all the commandments can be summarized in the command to love and loving others fulfills the law. (Romans 13:8-10)

I am listening to one of The Great Courses on audio, specifically a 48 lecture series called The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. In his lecture on “Being a Poor Roman,” Professor Robert Garland speaks of how throughout history the vast majority of human beings have lived in mass, structural poverty. He says, “But I'd bet my life that it never prompted anyone, and I mean anyone, to devote himself or herself to the service of the poor and oppressed. One thing that the ancient world did not invent was a social conscience.” He also says that women were and are “more likely to be impoverished than men, the elderly than the young, and the disabled and the infirm more than the fit and unimpaired.” Such people could expect no help except what they could beg and the occasional magnanimous gesture from a politician buying votes. Social Darwinism reigned millennia before the term was coined.

This surprises me, because I assume that this classical historian knows about the Jews and the Christians. They did try social reform. Jewish law had special provisions for the poor: edges of cropland were to go unharvested so that the poor could have access to that food (Leviticus 23:22); every 7th year entire fields were to left unworked so the poor could reap them (Exodus 23:10-11); judgments in court were not to be weighted against the poor (Exodus 23:6); debt slaves were to be freed every 7 years (Exodus 21:2-3); the disabled were not to be abused (Leviticus 19:14); widows and fatherless children were not to be oppressed or taken advantage of (Exodus 22:22); those who cannot support themselves, including foreigners, were to be helped (Leviticus 25:35); and resident aliens were to be treated as citizens and even loved as yourself (Leviticus 19:33-34). And as we said, these were enshrined in the written law of Israel. Were these provisions always observed? No, or the prophets would not have brought them up so often.

Nevertheless, these considerations carried over into Christianity. Jesus saw his mission as, in part, to preach good news to the poor (Luke 4:18; Matthew 11:5). Jesus taught that we should be generous to the poor and disabled (Luke 14:13-14). The first Christians took care of widows, a task that led to the creation of deacons. (Acts 6:1-6) Jesus' brother James saw looking after widows and orphans as a manifestation of true religion (James 1:27).

In our passage from Acts we see an early form of communism developing. Because they pooled their resources and distributed them to each person as the need arose, we are told that “there was not a needy person among them.” It says “those who believed were of one heart and soul.” You don't let those you love starve or go without basic necessities.

I was watching an interview of a psychologist on Book TV. Abigail Marsh specializes in studying psychopaths as well as people who are very altruistic; in other words, both ends of the empathy spectrum. And the weird thing is that people who, say, donate a kidney to a stranger who needs one, did not see themselves as heroic. They just saw it as something anyone should do if they have two healthy kidneys and someone else has none. To them what they did was logical and natural.

And this brings us back to my opening point. Just as you would expect a person with a history of violence to act violently, we should expect a Christian, a person who has the Spirit of the God who is love in them, to act lovingly. Of course, no Christian is perfect but if he or she consistently acts in an unloving way, you have to wonder if they are really a Christian. Jesus said that you can recognize what kind of person you are dealing with by their fruit (Matthew 7:16). A person who spews hate, who thinks of ways to harm others, who deliberately says things to hurt them, who does things to cause pain and/or damage to them, is not a person guided by God's Holy Spirit, regardless of what they say they are. After saying that God is love, 1 John says we are to be like Jesus in this world (1 John 4:17) We, as members of the body of Christ, are to be exemplars of God's love.

To put it another way, 1 John says, “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not know what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another...” He is talking about transparency. People hate the light because they don't want their dark deeds uncovered. That's why the very first amendment to the US Constitution is about freedom of speech and of the press. It's about light shining in the darkness, keeping society and the government honest. The same amendment is also about freedom of religion. By not being an arm of the government, we can be a light to the world. Just this week, China, which tightly controls its churches, banned selling Bibles online. 'Cause you can't have people worshiping a guy who was executed by the state for saying things those in power didn't like, can you?

If we want to walk with God, if we want fellowship with him, we need to be open and honest with him. We need to come clean. Relationships are built on trust. Lying violates trust.

Which is why 1 John follows up saying we need to be honest and trustworthy in our relationship with God to saying “...if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another...” If we get get in the habit of being open and honest with God, it should carry over into our relationships with our fellow human beings. In the Ten Commandments we are told not to give false testimony against our neighbor (Exodus 20:16). And lest you think that principle is confined to legal matters, Leviticus says simply, “Do not lie. Do not deceive one another.” (Leviticus 19:11)

Relationships built on lies cannot last. Groups that tolerate deception come apart. Paul says, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” (Ephesians 4:25) This is not to say we must be brutally honest with everyone we meet. Paul says, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (Ephesians 4:15) If we walk in the light we will become like Jesus.

If there is no darkness in Jesus, there should be none in those who follow him. As Paul says, “For you were once darkness, but you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light...” (Ephesians 5:8) Notice he doesn't say you were in darkness; he says you were darkness. We were the thing that hinders the light. But now, as Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14) But Jesus also says, “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12) We get our light from him.

I was thinking of comparing us to mirrors, reflecting the light of Christ, but then I realized that even mirrors have a dark side—their back. Rather we should be like prisms, translucent, channeling light, breaking it down into the rainbow, into the whole spectrum of God's love. And because light is visual, that means showing, not just speaking. We shine the light when we refuse to be silent about truth or injustice but we also shine it when we put the truth into practice and try to right injustices. People attribute to Francis of Assisi the saying, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary use words.” Though he didn't say that, the fact is that, as someone else put it, “when all is said and done, there's a lot more said than done.” Jesus didn't just preach and teach. He healed people. He fed the hungry. When appropriate, he overturned the tables of crooked moneychangers and drove those thieves out of God's temple. Jesus was not, as they say in Texas, “all hat and no cattle.” He practiced what he preached. And Christians have gotten into trouble whenever they have not practiced what Jesus preached.

We live in a world that loves darkness. Companies don't want us to know if their products harm people. Those in power do not want what they do and say to be scrutinized. We don't want people to know that we are not what we appear to be in public. Even the church harbors darkness at times, not wanting to confront its corporate sins, much less confess them. And when it does that, it obscures the light and drives people further into the darkness.

We are called to be the light of the world by the one who is the light of the world. And as there is no darkness in him, so there should be none in us. Let us walk in the light as children of the light and so draw all people to the brightness of God revealed in the life of Jesus Christ.

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