I want to look at how in his first letter John shows how the Christian community helps us enjoy God. In a future post I’ll look at how Trinitarian love is made complete in the Christian community.
I want to suggest the Christian community is the main place where you can experience divine joy. When you think of your church you might not find that prospect look very promising! But I want to suggest that, if we have the eyes of faith, we will see in our brothers sand sisters a hundred ways in which the divine joy and divine love are made complete.
Trinitarian joy is made complete in the Christian community
In 1 John 2 John describes how people have left the church (2:19). It’s not hard to imagine how that might would have caused confusion. It seems these people were claiming a deeper knowledge of God, a higher level of holiness, a greater anointing of the Spirit, a more victorious life.
If you’re just an ‘ordinary’ Christian, that’s pretty intimidating! In fact it’s joy-sapping. You’re going to live with a sense of fear or inferiority. But John writes to show that the people who’ve left are not all they seem.
This explains the strange opening of the letter. There’s no greeting. There’s no, ‘I hope you’re well.’ He jumps straight in. And three times in this opening paragraph John says we proclaim what we have seen:
verse 1: ‘that which … we have heard … seen … and … touched – this we proclaim’
verse 2: ‘[what] we have seen … we proclaim to you’
verse 3: ‘we proclaim to you what we have seen and heard’
What is it that we have seen and proclaim? The word of life, the Lord Jesus (1:1). These verses echo the language of John 20:27 where the Risen Jesus appears to his disciples. Jesus said, ‘See my hands’ and now John says, ‘We have seen.’ Jesus said, ‘Reach out your hand’ and now John says, ‘Our hands have touched.’ John saw and heard and touched the Risen Jesus. That’s why the word is the word of eternal life.
But the question is, Who are the ‘we’ John keeps talking about? In these first four verses he refers to ‘we’ or ‘our’ or ‘us’ sixteen times. And he’s not talking about ‘we Christians’. After all, you and I didn’t see or hear or touch the Risen Jesus. And John talks about ‘we’ in contrast to ‘you’, his readers. No, the ‘we’ here are the people who heard and saw the Risen Christ – the first Apostles.
God revealed himself in Jesus, but you and I weren’t around to witness that for ourselves. So how can we encounter God’s revelation in Jesus? The answer is we have the testimony of the Apostles. We have eye-witnesses who heard and saw and touched Jesus.
And how do we encounter the testimony of the Apostles? They wrote it down. In verse 4 John says, ‘We write this to make our joy complete.’ Here it is in our Bibles.
Jesus appeared and John writes so that Christians might have fellowship or community. This community is with the Apostles – ‘so that you also may have fellowship with us.’ (1:3a). But this community is also with God – ‘Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.’(1:3b). Together Christians participate in the life of the Trinity.
We’re just ordinary Christians. But there is nothing ordinary about ordinary Christianity! We have fellowship with the Father and the Son. At the end of the letter John writes, ‘We are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ.’ (5:20) We’re connected to Christ by faith and so we’re connected into the triune God. Because we’re in the Son, we experience what the Son experiences. The joy the Father has in his Son is the joy that he has in you. The love the Father has for his Son is the love that he has for you. You’re future is as secure as the future of Jesus.
Here’s the key thing for our purposes: we experience this joy as we participate in a word-proclaiming community. It’s as we read what the Apostles (and Prophets) have written and as we proclaim what the Apostles proclaimed that we experience joy together. In other words, we experience joy as the Bible is read and proclaimed in the Christian community.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, ‘The Christ in [our] own hearts is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians.’
Here’s what he means. Later in this letter John speaks about moments when our hearts condemn us (3:19-22). Perhaps we’ve fallen into sin. Perhaps we’re plagued by doubt. And our thinking gets all in a stew. Our hearts are muddled. And then a Christian speaks. It might be the preaching on a Sunday morning. It might a conversation with a friend. But for you the words of that preacher or your friend are the words of Christ. They come to you from outside. This is not your internal monologue with all its confusions. These words come as an objective reality, speaking good news to your heart.
This is our experience, isn’t it? Most of the moments in which we’ve felt God speaking to us to comfort us or challenge us have come through other Christians. Of course, it can happen while you’re reading the Bible on your own, but more often it happens through others.
Bonhoeffer links this to what the Reformers called our ‘alien righteousness’. We’re not made right with God because of anything within us. It’s not that we get ourselves good enough for God. Instead what makes us right with God is the righteousness of Jesus. We are righteous in him and through him. It comes to us from outside of ourselves. So we need a word from outside. Bonhoeffer said:
Christians encounter both death and life only in the Word that comes to them from outside, in God’s Word … In themselves they are destitute and dead. Help must come from the outside; and it has come and comes daily and anew in the Word of Jesus Christ … But God put his Word into the mouth of human beings so that it may be passed on to others … Therefore, Christians need other Christians who speak God’s Word to them. They need them again and again when they become uncertain and disheartened because, living by their own resources, they cannot help themselves.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Psalms: Prayerbook of the Bible, Fortress, 2005, 32.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Psalms: Prayerbook of the Bible, Fortress, 2005, 31-32.