“Faith, Fellowship, and Forgiveness” (John 20:19-31; 1 John 1:1 – 2:2; Acts 4:32-35)
Did you get any gifts for Easter? Maybe an Easter basket, filled with chocolate bunnies and jelly beans and Easter eggs that you open up and there’s a coin inside? Well, I can think of some Easter gifts that are even better than that. And today I want to tell you about them. They’re right there in our readings for today, and they are these Easter gifts, three of them: “Faith, Fellowship, and Forgiveness.”
Faith, fellowship, and forgiveness: three Easter gifts that we have because of the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And our readings today from John, 1 John, and the Book of Acts tell us about these gifts.
Let’s start with the gift of faith. Alright, so Jesus has been crucified and now has been raised from the dead. That is a fact. But that historical reality wouldn’t do you any good unless you hear about it and, more than that, believe that it really did happen and that Christ’s death and resurrection mean salvation for you–in other words, that you are trusting in this risen Lord Jesus Christ. And that calls for faith.
Because, think about it, you have never seen this Jesus risen from the dead. You only have the word of others to go on. But because that word of others–starting with the apostles and coming down to this day, through your pastors and preachers–because that word that they have preached to you is indeed the word of God, and that word of God is alive and active and creates the very faith it calls for, that is why you believe in a Savior you have never seen. The Holy Spirit works through the word of the gospel to give you the faith you need to trust in Christ and receive the benefits he won for you by his cross and empty tomb.
You have not seen Jesus risen from the dead, yet you believe in him. You trust in him for your life, your eternal life that will overcome death. And you are not alone in this. Millions and millions of Christians down through the centuries, and millions and millions of Christians around the world today, share this same faith that you have. They have not seen Jesus, either. But they too are blessed like you are with the gift of faith. This shows the power of the word.
Very few people, relatively speaking, actually saw the risen Christ. The apostles, of course, and then several hundred others, during the forty days between Easter and Christ’s ascension. But that’s it. Since then, the news of Christ’s resurrection has gone out strictly through the preaching of God’s word, starting with those eyewitnesses and then passed on in the apostolic Scriptures and in Christian preaching throughout church history. But look at the fruit it has borne! The church has gone around the world, millions of believers on every continent! People whose lives have borne the fruit of faith in their lives of love and good works. People whose faith in Christ enabled them to endure suffering and even martyrdom for the sake of the gospel. What a powerful thing this gift of faith is!
And where would we be without it? Lost, still lost in our sins. Still lost in our unbelief. But God has broken through our darkness with the light of the gospel. We hear this good news of Christ our Savior, and the Holy Spirit takes this word and works faith in our heart, faith to believe in a Savior we have never seen. Faith to stake our lives on him, to build our lives and our hope for eternity upon this rock of our salvation.
St. John the Apostle testifies to the power of the gospel to create this saving faith. In John chapter 20 we read the story of Thomas, who would not believe unless he saw Jesus with his own eyes and touched the nail prints in Jesus’ hands. But then when Jesus does appear to Thomas, our Lord says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” And that would be you, dear Christian. You have not seen and yet you have believed. And therefore Jesus pronounces you blessed. That’s pretty good, when Jesus calls you blessed!
And then right after that, what does St. John say? He says that these things he has written in his book, these accounts, “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” And that’s exactly what has happened! The Scriptures tell us about Jesus, who he is and what he has done for us, and through that mighty word of God, we believe in Jesus–that he is the very Son of God, that he died and rose for me, for my salvation, and that through this faith, we have life in his name.
John says the same thing in the opening of his epistle. He testifies to the risen Christ and the life that he gives, and then John proclaims this message to us, that we too might believe and share in that life. John writes: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us–that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
And so this faith, then, leads to the second Easter gift I want to tell you about today, and that is fellowship. First faith, then fellowship. This is that Greek word you may have heard me talk about before, koinonia. Koinonia, fellowship, sharing in the same things together, what we have in common that binds us into a community. And John here says that our koinonia, our fellowship, is with him, that is, the apostles and the believers of old. And more than that, our fellowship is with God himself: “indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” Of course, the Holy Spirit is in there too, since the Spirit is the one working through the word to give us saving faith and to bring us into this fellowship.
Fellowship, koinonia, community. The communion of saints, the holy Christian church. When you come to faith in Christ, you are brought into the life of the church. This is God’s family, God’s household. There is no such thing as being a Christian apart from the life of the church. That is a contradiction in terms. No, the Spirit will always lead you into the church, Christ’s church, where Jesus is present with his people, where we hear his voice and follow him, in lives of love and service and witness.
And so I find it very ironic that so many people today describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” Biblically speaking, that is impossible. The Spirit, the Holy Spirit, will always lead you into Christ’s church, the gathering of God’s people around Word and Sacrament. For a Christian to stay away from church, to choose not to go to church, is impossible. No, a Christian led by the Spirit will be spiritual and therefore religious, that is, active and regular in the life of the church. That is God’s will for his people. Every time.
Fellowship. Koinonia. Life together, in the fellowship of the church. We see an example of the benefits of that shared life, that fellowship, in our reading from the Book of Acts. There it says: “The full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
You see, there is a beautiful unity that exists in the church, in our life together. “They were of one heart and soul,” it says. Beautiful! “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity,” Psalm 133. And what that means is, we support one another. We build one another up. We care for one another, whenever one of us has a need. This is why God places us in his family, the church. For our benefit. It is one of his Easter gifts, this fellowship.
And that brings us then to the third Easter gift we want to celebrate today, and that is, forgiveness. We need forgiveness. Yes, even after we have come to faith and are Christians, even after we are in this community called the church–you and I need this gift of forgiveness, for as long as we live on this side of glory. Because you and I are still sinners. We sin, we stumble and fall and stray from God’s path. We do things we ought not to do, and we fail to do the things we should do. That is sin. And the only answer to sin is forgiveness.
St. John writes about this gift, too, in his epistle: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” That is God’s promise to you, dear friends! Are you troubled by your sins? Do you wonder if God can forgive you, even after you have messed up, time and time again? And be honest, you know you have. Well, here is the sure promise of God you can count on: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
On what basis will God forgive you? Not because of how sorry you are. Not because you have tried really hard. Not because of anything in you. No, you can be sure God will forgive you because of what Christ has done. John says: “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” And again: “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
And so we always come back to the cross and what Jesus, God’s Son, did for us there, shedding his holy blood for the sins of the whole world, making the propitiation, the atoning sacrifice for our sins. The blood of Jesus cleanses us from our sins, so that now we stand forgiven before God. By faith this gift is yours, free of charge.
Faith, fellowship, and forgiveness. Three Easter gifts that God puts in your Easter basket. Much better than chocolate bunnies and jelly beans. Much more valuable than all the coins in all the Easter eggs in the world. And you don’t even have to hunt for them. God gives you these gifts right here, right now. God gives you the gift of faith in Christ through the preaching of the gospel. God gives you the gift of fellowship in his church, where you have brothers and sisters who will support you and build you up and care for you in your times of need. And guess what? There are times when you get called to be the one doing the helping and loving. Faith, fellowship, and then the third gift, forgiveness, for all the times you and I mess up. God forgives you your sins for the sake of Christ your Savior. So dig into your Easter basket this joyous Easter season and open these gifts God gives you: faith, fellowship, and forgiveness.