“Light in Our Darkness”
By Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
2nd Sunday in Easter (April 8, 2018)
1 John 1:1-2:1
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, 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. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but 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. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
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; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
“God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true” (1 John 1:5b-6)
But alas, we have walked in great darkness. Last Wednesday was the 50th Anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s tragic assassination (April 4, 1968). He was killed by those who prefered the darkness to the light. Dr. King’s profound Christian witness lay with his brave willingness to speak the truth about the way things were. Even if it was unpopular, or if it put him and his family in danger, he shone the light of Christ on the darkest places in our society.
He and others in the movement shone a light on day-to-day discriminatory, segregationist, and often violent practices against black people around the US. They shone a light on economic and social policies like low wages and poor public education that kept people in generational poverty. And in the year before he was murdered, Dr. King shone a light on the USA’s aggressive war in Vietnam.
Most of us are comfortable with Dr. King’s work on civil rights, but it is hard to find bipartisan support for his campaigns against poverty or his anti-war positions among our politicians (let alone in our churches). Dr. King stands in a long tradition of Christian theologians and prophets who saw the moral connections between hate, poverty, and violence.
So as we know, the struggle against injustice is unfinished. It’s easy to exalt martyrs without changing how we live. It’s easy to place King on a pedestal and not look critically at the great sins we perpetuate as a nation against the poorest and most vulnerable among us. To paraphrase the Scriptures, it’s easy to “say we have fellowship with [King] while we are walking in darkness.” Today, the USA still must deal with its three greatest vices: poverty, racism, and war. These three intersect in many nefarious ways in our society, but perhaps none is more devastating than our broken criminal justice system.
I just started reading Michelle Alexander’s recent book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2011). She argues that the criminal justice system has become a new form of subjugating black and brown people in this country. The USA has the highest rate of incarceration of any democratic nation in the world, and this country legally strips rights and freedoms from convicted criminals once they re-enter society. And I would wager that all of us have a family member or friend who is locked up or is struggling to get by now that they’re out.
This is an example of systemic, societal sin that hurts our communities profoundly, and that emerged under all of our noses. It is a system that inflicts physical and social violence disproportionately on poor ethnic and racial minorities. It hits all three vices. We have all been complicit in upholding corrupted systems through silence and apathy in political engagement.
The church’s responsibility here is to shine light on the darkest, ugliest corners of our society. We are to educate and inform ourselves and others. We’re to speak with our elected officials about the moral issues that concern us as Christians. And we are to bring love and compassion into places that are full to the brim with hate, violence, and condemnation.
I say all this to offer an example of how sin is bigger than an individual problem. Sin is multifaceted and agile. It infects everything we say, do, or think, everywhere we go. And we cannot be prophetic witnesses without being ever mindful of our own sinfulness and our own need for God’s forgiveness. We can and should take active steps to remedy individual and social evils. Christ compels us to do so. But we can never lose sight of the truth that we’ll never fully overcome the struggle against sin and evil before Christ returns. There will always be a new challenge. But Christ will always be our hope.
We cannot “say that we have no sin” (1 John 1:8). But rather, we must trust in God’s faithfulness and justice; God will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness through the Blood and Victory of Jesus Christ (1 John 1:9).
Easter requires us to face the truth that we are not that good apart from God’s Spirit living within us. Resurrection only makes sense as a saving act if we are sinners. It takes humility to “acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness” (the traditional language from BCP, 331). It requires us to be honest with ourselves about who we are, what we do, and what we don’t do. It forces us to see how, even though God offers us fellowship in the Light, we so often walk in darkness.
And despite all of that, God loves us. We receive Jesus’ new life in spite of our failures. Christ died for us and God reconciles with us even while we are still sinners (Romans 5:8).
Now, if you looked at today’s bulletin, you may have noticed that we are not scheduled to say the “Confession of Sin.” In fact, our custom is to drop the Confession of Sin from our public worship throughout the Great 50 Days of Easter (also called Easter Season or Eastertide). Christ has been raised for us and has given us forgiveness of sin through his work. We stand with him and are truly reconciled to God. Notice the difference in the flow of our prayers when we go straight from our prayers for the world into peace with one another.
We aren’t denying that we are sinners. Our public worship does acknowledge our sinfulness even when we don’t say the part labeled “Confession of Sin” in The Book of Common Prayer. For instance, in the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (BCP, p. 364).
In Eucharistic Prayer D, we pray, “When our disobedience took us far from you, you did not abandon us to the power of death. In your mercy you came to our help, so that in seeking you we might find you” (BCP, p. 373).
The Resurrection of Jesus shows us that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). The darkness of death and hell could not overcome the power of God in the body of Jesus Christ. When Jesus came back from the dead, he conquered hell and death so that they no longer have power over us. This is what it means for our sins to be forgiven. That’s what it means for us to be reconciled to God.
Let us stand humbled and amazed by this gracious gift from God. Let us “walk in the light” of Jesus’ Resurrection be cleansed from our sins (1 John 1:7). And therefore, let us work together to shine this light of God’s truth on the evils we commit in our society, following the example of Dr. King and other prophets who speak up for the oppressed. Amen.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. 2nd edition. New York: The New Press, 2011.
Johnson, Francys. Untitled. Keynote Speech at the Commemorative Service for the 50th Anniversary of the Assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Savannah, GA, April 4, 2018.
Owen, Bryan. “To Confess or Not To Confess.” Creedal Christian. Blog. Published 29 December 2008. Accessed 6 April 2018. http://creedalchristian.blogspot.com/2008/12/to-confess-or-not-to-confess.html.
Image above courtesy of https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2018/01/26/aclu-reverses-prison-bans-new-jim-crow/