Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 26:15 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Reading the letters of St. John—or, for that matter, the Gospel according to John, or the Revelation of Jesus to John—it is easy to see that there is no in-between for John. Everything is black and white, here or there, this or that. It is the truth or the lie. It is the light or the darkness; the world or God: those who are born of God and those who are from the world, those who love God and those who love the world. There are the children of the devil and the children of God. In the Revelation, you belong to God in Jesus Christ, or to the devil. You have the mark of God traced on you, or you bear the mark of the beast. You are with God, or you’re with the devil, the false prophet, the beast. The lines are sharply drawn; everything is black and white.
And finally, of course, that’s the case. There are no undecideds, no independents. There are only those who find their life in Christ, and those who find their death in themselves. Jesus is the dividing line, the judgment by which people are divided. But there are a couple difficulties here for us.
One is that when we see this black and white, either or, we ourselves start to draw lines. And those lines are very often between ourselves and other people. They are, very often, the lines that put us on the side of righteousness and holiness and goodness, and others on the side of unrighteousness, unholiness, and evil. When we draw the lines, we don’t want them to be blurry. We want to be clear about where we stand, and then we want to clear about where everyone else stands. So we devise our tests and our questions and our categories. But we often smudge the lines just enough so we can make sure we end up on the side of good, or the “right side of history,” whatever that means.
How often we use God’s own words against God’s own people, not to bring them to repentance and faith, as God Himself does, but to put ourselves in the right and others in the wrong. If we draw a line and it is anything other than the line that puts all people, including us, in the same category before God, then it is a sinful line. Because that’s the line that God draws, and that’s the line that Peter draws when he preaches in Acts 3: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, would rather kill our God and deny the Holy and Righteous One than receive His life. And the reason God draws that line, which puts all people, without exception, on the opposite side of His line is so that God in Jesus Christ can have mercy on all people, without exception.
The other difficulty we have is that the line between the righteous and the unrighteous, between the lawless sinner and the sinless righteous, in a very real sense runs right down the middle of us. The old self, which can’t claim any good before God, is on one side of the line, and the new self, which is fully good in Jesus, is on the other side. They’re not equal sides; one is on its way out in death and one has eternal life. But we ourselves are divided.
As clearly as John shows us the either-or nature of people and the world, he is not ignorant of the mess that we are in, and how messy that makes our existence in this life and in this creation. Last week we heard him say that he is writing all of this so that we do not sin. And those who remain in Christ do not sin. But we also heard him say that if anyone does sin, that person has an Advocate with the Father, because Jesus Christ, the Righteous, is the propitiation—the all-sufficient sacrifice—for the sins of the entire world. We heard him say the opposite of what we might expect: that it is the one who has Jesus, the Truth, who confesses his sins. The one who does not have Jesus does not confess sins, because not having the Truth means it’s impossible to tell the truth about ourselves apart from God.
And that Jesus is faithful and just to forgive us our sins; and not only that, but by that very forgiveness, He will cleanse us from all unrighteousness. The line that God draws, finally, is not black or white, but red. He doesn’t draw it in sin, or in ink, or in judgment. He doesn’t draw it to condemn. (We have that covered.) He doesn’t draw it in such a way that He is the only one on the inside—as it would be right for Him to do. But Jesus puts Himself with all the sin and death on the side of the line where we belong, and puts us with all the life and righteousness, where He belongs. He draws this line so that He might draw us all to Himself, to His crucified Body. He draws the line with nails on wood, and you can trace that line from His hands to His side to His feet. You can trace that line because He has flesh and blood and bones; He is not a spirit.
And He draws the line to gather you to Himself, before His face, so that in repentance and faith, we will all find times of rest and refreshment and a respite from the sin and death drawing lines all around us. The world loves to draw lines; do not be drawn in. Here there is only one line, which our Lord draws, and this is something the world will never understand. It did not understand Him, and so it cannot understand us. The world draws its own lines and makes its own divisions. God draws the circle that is always widening—just as wide as the Body of Christ, not because He wants anyone to be outside Jesus, but because there is no other life than the one who is the Life. Because He raised this one from the dead, and will raise everyone from the dead who is in Christ. And that’s a line that He draws from the death and resurrection of Jesus straight through baptism, and on to resurrection.
Beloved, what we will be has not yet been revealed, but when He appears, we will—finally—be like Him, because we will see Him as He is. And then there will be no line running through the middle of our existence. There will be only the righteousness, the perfect love, the Life. Because we’re headed for what we believe, but can’t yet see, we practice now the righteousness of God’s love. Jesus simply does it and completes it, but it’s not complete for us yet, so we go on practicing it, doing it, working on it, for the sake of one another. And our hope in Christ raised from the dead, our hope tied to our own coming resurrection, will purify us until we are pure with His own human purity.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 4/17/21