April 13, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
The end of Luke’s Gospel sums it all up pretty well. In swift strokes of Luke’s quill, we move from Easter Sunday evening directly to the Ascension of Jesus (just beyond the bounds of this lection). We learn from Luke’s other New Testament contribution, Acts, that Jesus lingered in physical form for a good forty days after Easter. But neither here in Luke—nor in the first half-dozen or so verses in Acts—do we glean a single idea of what was said or done across that nearly six-week stretch of time.
Jesus was right here, walking the earth as its resurrected Lord and King and yet Luke (a skilled narrator of gripping and crackingly good stories if ever there was one in the Bible) finds not a single tale worth telling. All we get instead is the revelation that the resurrected Jesus opened the disciples’ minds so they could finally connect the dots and discover that all of Scripture—the whole Bible as they then knew it—had found its Yes in Jesus. Jesus is the Rosetta Stone of Scripture (if not of all reality)—if you know who he really is, you see how within his own person and ministry and now resurrected presence every thread, every strand, every story, every promise, every prophecy winds and wends its way straight to him.
Apparently that is all they will need to know. All that remains is for them to receive the power that will not only solidify this all in their hearts and minds but will give them the boldness to proclaim the truth of Jesus to the whole world. That power (in the form, of course, of the Holy Spirit) would come eventually but in the meanwhile and up until then, what Jesus revealed to the hearts and minds of the disciples on that first Easter evening was apparently thee #1 thing that had to happen during those forty post-resurrection days. Once Luke conveys this to us, he’s finished with the forty days.
Everything that needed to be shown and told and taught had already taken place, apparently, in Jesus’ ministry as narrated in the whole Gospel up to this point. All that remained was for the disciples to understand how all that they had experienced in Jesus’ presence represented nothing short of cosmic history coming to a head. The meaning of the past, the hope for the present, and the content of the future was all inside the resurrected Lord. Once they understood that (no small thing to grasp, by the way!), there was really nothing more for Jesus to say or do.
Let’s be honest as preachers: this snippet of Luke seems a tidge short on drama and content. Yes, it’s wonderful and amazing to note that Jesus popped from out of thin air to be with the disciples that evening and yes, it’s curious to see Jesus pop a piece of broiled perch into his mouth to prove he was a physical being and not a ghostly apparition, but once you’ve pointed those things out to a congregation, the narrative is pretty well finished.
And yet . . . the import and impact of what happens in this short reading is stunning. Think of it: what this means is that we, too, as latter-day followers of Jesus are charged with grasping how all things come together in Jesus (cf. Colossians 1:15-23 to see Paul’s breathtaking summary of this outrageous truth). So often—especially in our soundbite era—we tend to reduce the Christian faith and our practice of it to slogans, to bumper stickers, to four spiritual laws or forty days of purpose or seven basic principles of this or that. But the story is so much bigger than this. Jesus isn’t just our chum, our mentor, our pal, or even just our own personal Master or instructor on life lessons.
Jesus is Lord. Jesus is King. And the reason he is King and Lord and is even now “seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” (as we casually say in reciting the creed each week in some churches) is because everything there is to know about the universe comes together in him. Yes, that is a big and outrageous claim. It was a big and outrageous claim when Jesus first made it on that first Easter evening as it is reported in Luke 24 and it is certainly a big and outrageous claim given what we now know about the size and age and complexity of the universe.
Easter, the resurrection, who Jesus is and what he means for the cosmos: these are not small, intramural matters that we can easily understand or wrap our minds around in an instant. These are properly jaw-dropping matters that elicit wonder but also a kind of enthusiasm to probe those Scriptures that all witness to Jesus. In some places within the church world it seems that serious sermons and the exposition of Scripture have been shoved aside—or at least downsized a bit—in favor of other things designed to engage and entertain congregations. But this brief passage from Luke 24 reminds us that there can finally be no substitute for the genuine article of reading, studying, pondering, and understanding the Scriptures and how they call come together in Christ Jesus the Lord and King.
This is all big, serious stuff.
Thanks be to God that this is so!
Questions to Ask / Issues to Address
“While they were still talking about this . . . Jesus himself stood among them.”
I wonder how often those of us who preach and teach in the church realize that far from being an isolated incident in Luke 24, this kind of thing happens all the time. Richard Mouw once reminded us that as children, we are often told by adults to watch our language when we are “in polite company.” But as Mouw also went on to note, a key reason why Christian people discipline themselves to guard their lips and monitor their speech is because of our Christian belief that when it comes right down to it, we are always in polite company. “The Lord is near,” as Paul put it in Philippians 4.
Yes, he is.
The truth is that every time we get together—whether excitedly or doggedly or with a hint of boredom in our voices—every time we get together to talk about Jesus, to debate a theological point, or to present some sermon we have worked on, Jesus always comes and stands in the midst of us (whether he is always minded to greet us with “Peace be with you” is another matter . . .). We can never merely talk about God or Christ or the Holy Spirit without being aware that we are speaking in their presence as well.
True, this can lead some people to all kinds of spooky “Big Brother” and other Kafka-esque scenarios of paranoia. But as Psalm 139 reminds us, God does indeed know us right well and from top to bottom and at every moment of our lives—in fact, the psalm claims that God knows us better than we know ourselves! But the good news is that God is the One who can be trusted with such comprehensive knowledge. This is a loving God, not a tyrannical despot who will use what we say against us.
Still, it’s startling to think that when we speak of Jesus, he is always standing right in the midst of us whether we notice him at first or not. And like the disciples, there may be times when, upon realizing this, we too are startled and frightened by his presence. But maybe remembering that we live all of life in the presence of Christ (through his Holy Spirit at least) will have a properly humbling effect on us in terms of what we say about Jesus. At the very least we are reminded that when we preach and when we teach and when we talk about theology or bandy about ideas about spirituality and the like, we can never finally engage in idle chit-chat. We are not talking about only ideas at the end of the day but about a Person, and about a very personal God.
That, after all, is a key teaching about Easter and about the resurrection story that consumes Luke 24: if we believe what we celebrate at the core of the Christian faith, then we do believe Jesus lives. And even if we don’t want to go as far in the direction of pop piety as the lyrics of those songs that claim that Jesus talks with us while the dew is still on the roses or that he walks with us along life’s narrow way, even so we do believe he is alive and is alive as a very real person and, through the Spirit, as a very real personal presence in our lives.
The Christian church made clear long ago that our faith is not first and finally about ideas and concepts only. We’re not Gnostics seeking to be saved through a word of knowledge. We’re not Eastern-like mystics who believe that the key to spirituality is to find ways to transcend this world’s physicalness so as to drift into realms of pure thought and consciousness. No, our faith is gritty and fleshy and tangible and involves nothing short of the renewal of all things: lakes, mountains, tadpoles, tangerines, real human bodies.
Two weeks after Easter, this lection reminds us that Jesus is always present in our midst when we talk about him and that at the end of the cosmic day, we would not want it any other way.
In Luke 24:44 we are told that Jesus’ instruction in the Scriptures included “the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.” That latter inclusion—and the Psalms—is unique in the New Testament. Although there is a time or two when a specific psalm gets mentioned (Jesus mentioned a psalm in Luke 20:42, for instance) this is the only place where the Scriptures are summarized as not just Law and Prophets but also the Psalms. Taken together, that is the traditional triplet that was used as shorthand for the entirety of Hebrew Scripture or what we often call the Old Testament. Jesus was indeed saying to the disciples on the eve of that first Easter day that his resurrection fulfills not just an individual passage or set of passages but the whole of all God’s revelation to humanity.
My friend and former Calvin Theological Seminary President Neal Plantinga tells a story of something he experienced while talking to a man on death row at the huge penitentiary of Angola in Louisiana. Neal talked to an African-American man wearing wire-rimmed glasses, spectacles that gave this convicted murderer what Neal called “a professorial air.” Neal asked him how he passed his days there in prison and in reply, the man picked up his NIV Bible from his bedside stand. “I read this, Our Book,” the man replied. “You know, sometimes I realize that on any given day or across any given time, most everything good that happens or is said in this world somehow comes from this, Our Book. The truth of the whole world and everything that happens in this world somehow is in here, and I get to have a copy of all that right here in my cell. Isn’t that something? I just know I will never get to the bottom of it.”
As Plantinga then observed, too often in the church, we have a far too low opinion of just what it is we have in that thing called The Holy Bible—Our Book.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Similar to what Jesus taught him and the other disciples at the end of Luke 24 (the Gospel lection for this same week in the Year B Lectionary), Peter in Acts 3 suggests that the healing of the crippled beggar—who was even then still hanging on Peter’s pant leg—is less a startling, previously unheard-of event and more a straightforward fulfillment of what the Bible had been talking about all along. The people in Solomon’s Colonnade were standing there slack-jawed in wonder, with eyes wide as saucers over the spectacle of this former invalid now appearing in a completely healed condition.
Maybe Peter was being a little ironic when he said it, but in essence his comments to the people of Israel there that day were along the lines of, “What are you all looking at? Isn’t this the kind of thing you would expect from the God of heaven and earth? The whole Bible has been pointing forward to a day like this right from the get-go! So what’s the big deal, people?”
Well of course it was a big deal, and Peter was surely not so full of the Pentecostal flame that he himself could not feel at least a little giddy over what he was now able to do in Jesus’ name and by Jesus’ power alone. But Peter was not wrong to suggest—indeed, to declare—that a healing like this, the restoration of (and to) community that such a healing represents, has been the goal of God’s Story all along.
God has all along been on the side of life. But humanity? Well, to invoke a traditional Latin phrase used to describe humanity in its fallen state, we have for too long been characterized by amor mortis, a love of death. Or to quote Proverbs 8:35-36, Wisdom declares, “Whoever finds me, finds life and obtains favor from the Lord; but those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death” (with thanks to Neal Plantinga for putting me onto this passage). We love death. In sin humanity—originally in an attempt to become like God—became anything but divine looking or divine-like. We began to disintegrate, to fall apart, to become not only not like God but not even like the very humanity made in the image of God that we were fashioned to be in the first place. Sin is often called “missing the mark,” and when it comes to missing the mark, the attempt of our first parents to “be like God” fits that bill with tragic accuracy.
Now (again to riff on Neal Plantinga) we hear about people doing terrible things—rapes, assaults, murders, acts of great vandalism and destruction—but when they are later asked what in the whole wide world could have motivated them to commit such acts, sometimes (and startlingly enough) they reply that they did it “just for the hell of it.”
Just for the hell of it. Indeed. That phrase, though profane, is more descriptive than we usually realize. God created this world to be a place of flourishing, of life, of verdant blossoming. But sin and evil keep causing hell to bust out all over, and hell is the polar opposite of life and flourishing. The realm of the devil seers and blears and leeches life.
Unsurprisingly, when the Prince of Life, the Word of God who created all life in the beginning, came to this planet in person, we killed him, too. That’s our problem, as Peter succinctly details it in Acts 3: people always kill.
But God always raises up to life! That’s just what God does and his goal is to keep on doing it until life is the be-all and end-all of the universe. God has been doing just this all along for those with eyes to see. And the Scriptures that both originate from God and witness to God likewise tell us all along that the aim of the whole divine project is life (and a restoration of life wherever death and sin and evil have messed things up and pointed people in the direction of amor mortis).
“Jesus Lives and So Do We” is the title of a traditional Easter hymn. Peter anticipated that hymn when he connected the restored life of the formerly crippled beggar with the new life that burst forth from Jesus at his resurrection. Jesus lives and so can we all (and for all who are in Christ, so do we all).
Two weeks after Easter it is easy—even in the Church—to go on as though nothing has changed. Yes, we decked out the church in flowers on April 5, but they have long since drooped, and the sounds of the brass quartet that accompanied our singing that morning have also long since faded off into distant echoes. It was nice to celebrate what happened to Jesus on Easter but then, well, come the next day, it’s back to work, back to school, back to the same-old, same-old.
How easy it is to miss Peter’s message, first delivered some months after that original Easter: because of what happened then, now we can and should anticipate a whole new world—a world where we should just expect life to bust out all over.
Some years ago I had a sabbatical in a place where Princeton New Testament Professor Beverly Gaventa was also taking a sabbatical to work on a commentary on Acts. One day she told me the thesis, the core contention, of her commentary. “The Book of Acts,” Dr. Gaventa simply said, “is about God.”
At first that almost sounded like a joke. But she wasn’t kidding. That was her thesis. The Book of Acts is about God. Period. What’s more, in the context of biblical commentaries in recent times, believe it or not, her statement, “It’s about God” is revolutionary! For so long scholars have scrutinized the literary design of Acts, pondered critical narrative, historical, redactional issues, questioned Luke’s accuracy, and just generally buried Acts under a mountain of side issues. But what we forget is that to Luke’s mind, this whole thing is first and foremost about God. It’s about the Christ of God whose power is unleashed through the church. It’s about how God’s power elicits healing for some, astonishment for others, and even anger for those who resist God (or who see God’s power as a threat to their own power in life). But above all, it’s about how accepting this God in Christ brings times of refreshing to needy, aching hearts.
Do we forget this singular truth? When Thomas Aquinas reportedly told the pope that the church had become incapable of saying either “Silver and gold have we none” or “In the name of Jesus, walk,” what he meant was that as the church amasses its own structures, money, possessions, and influence on the world, just maybe all of that tempts us to forget that the church, too, must finally and always be about God. But we do forget that.
A friend of mine often makes the observation that sometimes congregations seem a little like restaurants. All of a sudden, and for some unknown reason, certain restaurants get “hot.” Everybody talks about the food there, and soon the place is jammed. It’s the “in” place to be, the place to see and be seen. And then, for no discernible reason, the euphoria dies down and people start to hype a different, perhaps newer, restaurant and then it becomes the hot and in place to be.
Congregations can be like that, especially in this time of megachurches. All of a sudden one particular church is just the place to go for a time—great parking, great programs, stuff for the kids, video clips in the sermons, a latte bar, a relaxed atmosphere, a pastor with a great sense of humor. Churches get “hot” for such reasons but then, sometimes, after taking off like a rocket for a while, those same churches level off or even decline in favor of some other new place.
But when was the last time you heard someone say, “I went to Church X because there was just so much more of God there than anywhere else!” When was the last time you heard someone explain their move to a new congregation by saying they found more fruit of the Spirit, more Jesus, more God there? Aren’t the reasons folks give more often based on external things? Of course, some of those so-called “external” things may well help us to experience God’s presence and worship God’s glory better, and when that is the case, this is a legitimate point. Most congregations are different, and I think God’s Spirit uses that variety to incorporate into the larger Church the great variety of people in this world.
But the point of all this is to bring into focus that number one issue: the core notion that the church must finally and always be about God.
Author: Doug Bratt
We’ve all said, if not shouted it in one form or another: “Help!” It’s the cry of someone who’s in the kind of distress that plagues Psalm 4’s author. While all sorts of distress may prompt such a call, in this psalm’s case it’s lies and falsehood.
Some scholars suggest Psalm 4 is a believer’s prayer for help she desires God send in the form of rain. They point, for example, to verse 7’s profession, “You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound [italics added].” In verse 2 the poet scolds those who have turned in their desperation to “false gods” (2).
Shauna Hannon compares Psalm 4’s movement to that of someone who’s trying to formulate a response to some sort of accusation. One moment that person may talk to God, another to himself and still another to those who have accused him. After all, one of this psalm’s interesting dimensions is that over half of it is addressed not to God, but to “men” (2).
Clearly the psalmist longs for his accusers to be in a faithful relationship with Yahweh. “Know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself,” the poet says in verse 3. “In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent,” the poet adds in verse 4.
Perhaps such a plea for belief is particularly pertinent in the Easter season. After all, the church professes, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” But on Easter Sunday morning some in our churches said that without believing it or simply refrained from saying it at all. After all, while some people still receive Yahweh with joyful faith, others remain skeptical or fearful. Still others simply reject any kind of faithful relationship with the Lord.
Echoes of their voices can be heard in verse 6 where the psalmist notes, “Who can show us any good?” “Where does our help come from?” people want to know. Must I rely on my own cleverness and abilities? Can I rely on my family members or friends? Can the broader community be counted on for my help? “Who can show us any good?”
Yet Hannon suggests Psalm 4 is also a close companion for God’s peoples’ seasons of doubt. We can see it, after all, not just as an address to God and skeptical people around us. It’s also a kind of “pep talk” the poet delivers to herself. The poet recalls all she believes to be true about God. The Lord, she professes, sets apart the godly for himself (3). God, the poet continues, has filled her heart with great joy (7).
Perhaps that recitation of God’s great works fuels the poet’s confidence that God will hear and answer his prayers. “The Lord will hear when I call to him,” he asserts in verse 3. We sense the poet’s accusers may have weakened his trust that Yahweh will provide what he needs. Yet he refuses to share his critics’ skepticism. The psalmist ends his prayer for help by professing the Lord will hear him when he calls out to God.
Perhaps Psalm 4 can offer a model for the kind of prayer that’s offered out of the fires of crisis. Cynthia Rigby suggests it parallels John Calvin’s four rules of prayer for the faithful. First, Calvin argues for what he calls a “devout detachment,” a kind of willingness to “come apart” and commune with God in prayer. In verse 3 the psalmist recognizes God has set her “apart.” She also speaks to worshipers who are on their beds (4), who are, in other words, alone. The poet invites them to then “search their hearts.”
Second, Calvin calls us to pray with a “sincere sense of want, and with penitence.” The poet clearly wants God to vindicate him. He longs for God to turn his “glory into shame” (2). He also wishes to be able to “lie down and sleep in peace” (8). The poet’s penitence is reflected in his pleas for God not to rebuke or discipline him for what he has done (1).
Third, Calvin recommends God’s people “yield all confidence in ourselves and humbly plead for pardon.” The poet displays no confidence in her own ability to rescue herself from her distress. She completely relies on Yahweh for help.
What’s more, she begs not for her own pardon, but for her tormentors’
Finally, Calvin suggests God’s people “pray with confident hope.” The psalmist reflects that hope when he says God has filled his heart with even greater joy than when the harvest abounds. On top of that, the poet is able to lie down and sleep in peace because God has made him to “dwell in safety” (8).
Yet perhaps even more poignant is the psalmist’s attitude toward her adversaries, as Rigby also notes. She doesn’t excuse their sinful actions. The poet calls her accusers to turn away from their sin and toward a faithful relationship with the Lord.
Yet the poet’s pleas are full of what Rigby calls “yearning.” He doesn’t long for God to destroy his tormentors. He doesn’t even want his accusers just to be proven wrong. He longs for God to draw them into the community of God’s adopted sons and daughters. The poet may even include his tormentors in the “us” on whom he begs God to shine God’s face (6).
Those who read this psalm through the lens of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ may hear echoes of Jesus’ expectations for his followers relationships with our enemies. He, after all, calls us to love and pray for them. On the cross, Jesus models such love by asking his Father to forgive those who in their ignorance crucify him (Luke 23:24).
The theme of the unbelief the psalmist’s accusers show runs through the other passages the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. In the Acts 3:12-19 passage Peter speaks to those who like him believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But unlike him, they refused to believe in Jesus. Peter uses the healing of the lame man as an opportunity to invite its witnesses to join him in that community of the godly God has set “apart … for himself.”
I John 3:1-7 celebrates God’s great love God has lavished on those whom God has set apart for himself. He begs those within that community not to let anyone or anything, including perhaps the kind of unbelieving opposition the psalmist is enduring, to draw them away from that love.
In Luke 24:36b-48 the risen Jesus addresses the issue of unbelief within the circle of his own disciples. They fear he’s a ghost when he appears to them after his resurrection. But Jesus invites them to move back into the community God has set apart for himself. He invites them into a faithful relationship with himself.
“When you are on your beds,” the psalmist says to worshipers, “search your hearts and be silent” (4). She also speaks of lying down and sleeping in peace (8).
Winston Churchill was one of the 20th century’s greatest leaders. However, while he spent prodigious amounts of time in bed, he didn’t spend most of it either in silence or peacefully sleeping. He generally awoke around 7:30 a.m. Yet he remained in bed to eat a large breakfast, as well as read his mail and the national newspapers. For the next few hours Churchill remained in bed while he dictated to his secretaries.
He would even discuss matters of great state importance while lying in bed. Churchill would summon military leaders for bedside conversations. It’s rumored he even had a special breakfast table to fit his bed so that he could have important discussions while he ate breakfast in bed.
1 John 3:1-7
Author: Stan Mast
As I meditated on these words, two pictures from my last church came to mind. I saw 50 fresh faced, neatly dressed girls, ranging in age from 8 to 13, sitting behind me in the choir loft as I preached from this text. This was on a Sunday that honored those girls. And I saw a lung cancer patient at the hospital a block away from my church, standing out in the cold smoking a cigarette even as she was hooked up to her portable oxygen tank. Those two pictures may give you some ideas about how to preach on this text.
Remember that the main issue in I John is assurance of salvation—not how we can be saved, but how we can know for sure that we are. I John 5:13 summarizes the point. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Note the frequency of the word “know” in our reading for today. I John gives us four tests to help us know with more certainty that we have eternal life. Verse 10 of this third chapter summarizes one of those tests and introduces another. “This is how we know who the children of God are and who are the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God, nor is anyone who does not love his brother.” Our reading today explains that first test; you can know you are a child of God if you do right.
Interestingly, even though this test focuses on what we must do, it is not full of imperatives. John does not say “get better, try harder, get rid of sin.” Rather he emphasizes what God’s love has done and will do for us and to us. He zeroes in on the indicative, specifically on our new identity. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God. And that is what we are!” “Now we are children of God, and what we shall be has not yet been made known to us. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him….” We should do right because God’s love in Christ has made us God’s children. A sermon that is true to this text will be an Easter sermon filled with the good news of new life in Christ.
That’s where those 50 young girls come in. When I preached on this text, I talked about how we struggle with our identity. A poem by Paul Dunbar captures that struggle. He was a black man writing in the racist society of post-Civil War America. The poem is entitled, “We Wear the Mask,” and it cries out with the hurt that comes from disrespect and humiliation. Most of God’s children, red and yellow, black and white can relate.
We wear the mask that grins and lies
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O Great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask.
I pointed out to the girls that if we wear the mask too long, we can get lost behind it and forget who we really are and lose our true self-identity. Sometimes, as with Paul Dunbar, it’s our place in society that makes us hide behind the mask.
Sometimes it’s our place in the universe that makes us feel like nothing. A local hero, astronaut Jack Lousma, expressed it this way after he walked in space while orbiting the earth. “There are enough galaxies in this whole universe for each of us on earth to own 10 or 15 of our own. Now, I tell you, that it big and it makes you feel really small.” Who are we in such an immense universe? And, of course, we can get confused about who we are for much smaller reasons—not cosmic, but cosmetic. Because we don’t look a certain way, we feel small and hide behind the masks.
Finally, there’s one more reason we hide behind masks and lose our identity—not the conditions of life, not the cosmic or cosmetic, but character. We have character flaws, or as John says in the verses that follow, we sin. We know it and we feel bad about it and we hide from God and each other. And we lose our true identity.
For all of these reasons and more, our text is wonderful news. “We are the children of God.” That is our true identity. The Bible is not just trying to cheer us up here by saying something that isn’t literally true, as when a parent tries to cheer up a child who has just struck out in baseball. “You took a great cut, buddy. You’re a great swinger.” God isn’t cheerleading here. God is telling us the absolute truth. You are not a miserable creation of your culture, not a meaningless cipher in the universe, not a misshapen creep in the mirror, not a moral cretin. You are a child of God.
That is true because your Father has lavished his love on you. That is, we are not children of God because we have been good little boys and girls, but because God’s love has been lavished on us. What a happy translation that is! The word “lavished” comes from a French word that means to wash. God has washed us in his love—not with a little drop of love, not with a feeble shower dribbling a few drops of love down from heaven, but with multiple showerheads, with buckets, gallons, barrels, rivers, waterfalls, gushing, flowing, overwhelming love that has swept away all our sin.
I said to the girls, “As a child of God, you have a fabulous future. You ‘shall be like him.’” Think of all the possible futures for the world, for our country, for our individual lives. Given all the trouble in the world and in our own lives, the future could look pretty dark. But our text assures us that no matter what happens around us or to us, we will become like Jesus. That will take time. It will be difficult, and it will hurt sometimes. We may wonder if it will ever happen and if it will be worth it. But John assures us of this truth. If you have believed in the name of the Son of God, you will see him someday and become just like him—full of life, life abundant and eternal, life filled with love and joy and peace, life forever secure and forever happy.
And right now, we have a purified present. “Everyone who has this hope in Jesus purifies herself, just as he (Jesus) is pure.” We all know how hope can drive a person. An excellent swimmer who has real hopes of getting into the Olympics will work harder than anyone else on the team to excel at what she already does well. A girl who sings like an angel will practice for hours in hope of becoming the next American Idol. If you don’t think there’s any hope, you won’t even try. “Everyone who has this hope in Jesus purifies herself….”
That all sounds lovely, but it runs smack dab into the reality of our ongoing sin. That brings me back to that other picture. Her name was Patty Praid and she was dying of emphysema and a rare lung disease. With her portable tank at her feet, she stood at the hospital door, taking a deep drag on her cigarette. She told a reporter, “The dumbest thing a person can do is have two lung diseases and keep smoking. But I cannot stop it. I’ve tried it all. I can’t do it. And these things are killing me.”
Patty Praid’s addiction to nicotine is a physical parable of a deeper spiritual problem. Before Jesus gets hold of us, all of us addicted, enslaved to something that will kill us. It’s called sin. Like Patty, we keep on doing it, because there’s no real hope of ever stopping. We’ve tried it all. We can’t do it. But along come John with startling news. You are new people. You are not just dying sinners anymore. You have been raised to new life as God’s children. And because you are God’s children, you will not continue to sin. “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or knows him.” (Verse 6)
John explains that in more depth by giving us three reasons the children of God do not continue in sin. First, says verse 5, it’s because Jesus came “so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin.” Jesus didn’t come merely to gain us the forgiveness of sins, but to “take them away.” Think of I John 1:9, where our faithful and just God promises not only to forgive our sin, but also to “cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Closely related to that first reason is this second. Verse 8 says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” The devil works on our desires (James 1) to lure us, trap us, imprison us, enslave us, addict us, and kill us. But Jesus came to destroy the devil’s work. All who are children of God are now free from the devil’s power. Third, says verse 9, we do not continue to sin, “because God’s seed remains in us; we cannot go on sinning, because we have been born of God.” God puts his seed (sperma in the Greek) in us, his life giving Spirit, who causes us to be born again. So we become new people on the inside, even if we look the same on the outside.
There is the great problem with this startling text. On the outside (and truth be told, even on the inside), I don’t look or feel like a newly born child of God. Our text says, “God’s children don’t continue to sin.” But I do. Does that mean that I’m not a child of God, not born again, not a real Christian? Do I fail this test designed to give me assurance of my salvation? Well, this is one of those places where we have to read very carefully and in context. The context to which I refer is I John 1:8 and 10 where John explicitly says, “If we claim to be without sin, if we claim that we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves and we make God out to be a liar….” And I John 2:1 says, “If anyone does sin,” thus allowing for the possibility, immediately after saying that we absolutely shouldn’t sin. These words of I John 3 cannot mean that Christians can stop sinning entirely and become perfect (with all apologies to my perfectionistic sisters and brothers).
Then what do these words mean? A careful reading of the Greek reveals a fascinating thing. In every one of these texts, the original Greek says, we will not continue to “do” sin. That made me think of a cleaning woman we interviewed in my last church. After we discussed our requirements, she said, ”Oh, by the way, I don’t do windows.” That’s the sense here. We don’t do sin. We don’t, as part of our normal routine, our standard operating procedure, our habitual lifestyle, do sin. We still commit it, but not as we did before.
Then how is a reborn child of God different from any other sinner? I’ll let an old confession speak here. The Heidelberg Catechism is defining repentance when it says that a child of God will be “genuinely sorry for sin, hate it more and more, and delight to do every kind of good as God wants.” A child of God has a different perspective on sin, a different attitude toward sin, a different intention toward sin. I don’t do sin; I do righteousness. That’s my life, my desire, my goal, my increasing pattern.
This text presents us with a wonderful opportunity to preach a message on Christian living that is full of Easter hope. We can be, no, we are different people because of Easter. We’ve been radically changed. The secret of continued change is to believe the Good News of what Christ has done for and to us, claim our new identity, and live out that new identity, even in the face of our lingering old identity as sinners.
John’s claims about God’s children not continuing to sin may sound a bit triumphalistic. This poem by Carol Wimmer puts things in the right perspective.
When I say I am a Christian
I’m not shouting I’ve been saved,
I’m whispering I get lost at times
That’s why I chose this way.
When I say I am a Christian
I don’t speak with human pride.
I’m confessing that I stumble
Needing God to be my guide.
When I say I am a Christian
I’m not trying to be strong
I’m professing that I’m weak
And pray for strength to carry on.
On a very different level, this whole business of identity was illustrated for me by a Time magazine review of the runaway bestseller, Gone Girl. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that you will have to be very careful using this illustration. Gone Girl is one of the most perverse books I’ve read in quite awhile. It is about a dysfunctional marriage and murder and betrayal and deceit. But for the right audience, this review of that book brilliantly illustrates our society’s struggle with identity, explaining why this dark book is so popular.
“Gone Girl gets at an essential truth about the limits of intimacy; however close you get, you can never know everything about your partner. There’s always that secret increment, a black box with God knows what inside it. What if there’s a whole secret life in there? A whole alternate personality? Gone Girl became a way to think and talk about relationships, but its resonance went beyond that. In an age of social media, we are all more than ever invested in creating and maintaining fictional persona for others to consume. That ongoing fraud is part of how we live right now.”
That’s why it is increasingly hard to answer the question. “Who am I?”