See What Love!
Grace & Fairview United Methodist Churches
April 22, 2012
1 John 3: 1-7 (CEB)
See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children, and that is what we are! Because the world didn’t recognize him, it doesn’t recognize us.
2Dear friends, now we are God’s children, and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. We know that when he appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is. 3And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself even as he is pure. 4Every person who practices sin commits an act of rebellion, and sin is rebellion. 5You know that he appeared to take away sins, and there is no sin in him. 6Every person who remains in relationship to him does not sin. Any person who sins has not seen him or known him.
7Little children, make sure no one deceives you. The person who practices righteousness is righteous, in the same way that Jesus is righteous.
Last weekend for my birthday, my parents gave me two throw pillows that were made out of the old band uniforms from my alma mater, Furman University. The band purchased new uniforms this year, and as a way to defer the cost, they cut up the old uniforms, the ones I wore when I was in the band there, and fashioned them into pillows. When I discovered the Furman band was having this fundraiser, I immediately told my parents that I would like one of those pillows because I knew it would be a great way to have a memento from a very fun and important part of my life. Two of the greatest mentors I have ever had taught me as I went through the music program at Furman, and I have many fond memories from that time in my life. I was proud of the Furman band when I was a part of it, and I put a lot of time and energy into the music department while I was there. And now I am proud to be an alumnus of that school; to say that I graduated from what has recently been recognized as one of the top ten college music programs in the country!
It’s nice to belong, isn’t it? To say that you are a part of a great household, or a great church, or a great regiment, or a great school is a matter of extreme pride and an inspiration to fine living. So, too, even more, to bear the name of the family of God! In our scripture reading for this morning, John reminds us of a wonderful privilege; God’s great love for us! In fact, so great is God’s love that we are called “children of God”! But, as John points out, we are not merely called the children of God; we are the children of God! By nature, we are all simply creatures of God, part of his great creation; but it is by grace and love that we become children of God. So today, we are going to consider what exactly that means because being a child of God is a far different matter from belonging to any human organization.
Jesus was misunderstood by nearly everyone around him, and as Christians, we must learn to expect the same. Indeed, we humans like to belong. We like to brag proudly about our fine affiliations because we all long to fit in and to be appreciated by everyone around us. But the Christian community and Christian identity functions differently in the world, and so it is not understood by the world. John is clear: if we are called the children of God, the world will not know us or understand us.
So today, with Christ’s death and resurrection reshaping our journey with God, we face a choice. Either we enjoy the love of the world and the respect of our contemporaries, or we let our lives be claimed by God. And the reality of the situation is; if we let God’s love make us into children of God, then we really should expect that many people today will have trouble understanding our values and our strange sense of identity.
Our culture values individual achievement. We lift up star athletes, forgetting the team of which they are a part. Actors and actresses makes millions, while behind the scenes work the forgotten but all important directors, producers, writers, set designers, make-up artists, and others. We all recognize names like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but forget that they stand at the helm of giant companies, with employees creating and perfecting their products all over the world.
In such a culture of individualism, we belong to a community, the body of Christ. And this community is different. We don’t value fame or fortune. In an age that seeks security through oppression and violence, we seek solidarity, forgiveness, and peace. In a society that finds personal identity through TV and internet, self-help blogs and social networking, we find our true name in our baptism and in following Christ. By the world’s standards, we are odd. And very often, we try to smooth over our oddities so that we better match the world, but that is to our own peril. When we feel right at home in this world, we should wonder whether we have perhaps traded the joy of divine love for the empty comfort of worldly acceptance.
We are God’s children. We are different. And we are different because of God’s love. Knowing that we are loved by such a love, accepting it and confessing it, we agree to be made different, to let ourselves enter a process of transformation that pulls us apart from the world and fundamentally reshapes our lives. Our birth certificate states our natural identity. Our baptism certificate declares our true identity. By God’s love, we are no longer strangers, wanderers lost without hope or direction. We are loved, claimed, and redefined as nothing less than God’s children. By pure love, we are adopted out of the social system of the world and into the family of God. We still live here, of course, usually in a home that looks ordinary. And like everyone else, we do our work, pay our taxes, support our community, and care for the common life. But unlike everyone else, our heart’s true home is in a different time and place. That is why we are so easily misunderstood.
The love of God, John tells us, makes us nothing less than the children of God. We do not always act that way or think that way. We do not look like God’s children—not yet, at least. But most often, the truth comes before the appearance. We are God’s children now, John tells us, because God has claimed us for that relationship. Never mind that we do not yet appear to be God’s children. Never mind that we certainly have more changes to undergo. As God’s children, our identity is not fully revealed until Jesus appears. When he returns, we become visible, radiating the truth that until that time is veiled. Only then are we fully, purely, and completely like him.
For now, we live in a social world characterized by anything but love. Our own lives are twisted and tangled by a combination of our own sin and the effects of the sins of others. We are broken and incomplete, yearning for a peace and a holiness we do not yet possess. The world does not understand us because we have been given a new identity. But in a deeper sense, we do not really understand ourselves, because we live with a double identity, old and new. We are being transformed, but as we still make our way in this world, the overlapping of old and new is often bewildering, confusing not only to others, but even to us!
As I pondered John’s text this week, I considered all the ways that we struggle with our old and new identities as we are transformed by God’s love. There’s one scenario in particular that came to mind that I think we can all relate to. You’re walking down the street in downtown Chattanooga, and you notice up ahead a homeless beggar. If you’re like me, as you approach the person, you’re having an internal dialogue with yourself. It goes something like this: “I really should help this guy. I bet he’s hungry. Who knows when he last ate? And the weather has been so awful lately. I suppose I should give him a few bucks. Of course, if I give him cash, he could just go buy some drugs or alcohol or cigarettes. And what a waste of money that would be! I really shouldn’t enable him to do that. I don’t really want to give him cash. I guess I could take him into the Panera and buy him some lunch, but he probably smells bad. People won’t like him being around. Besides, I’m running late, I don’t really have time to do that. I’m just going cross to the other side of the street. If I don’t look at him it’ll be better.”
Sound familiar? We all do this kind of thing. And then for the next several hours, or maybe even several days, we have this nagging sense of guilt. We know that we should have helped the man. We were wrong to make judgments about someone we don’t even know. Christ calls us to love and to serve, not to judge and condemn. We know that. We know that! We look at ourselves and we know that the old identity is too plain to ignore and too powerful to escape. The old and the new clash, we are still being transformed, and we are not living fully into our new identities, into the love that God showers upon us. The grip of the world pulls us down into apathy and despair. We think we are incapable of living fully in God’s love; perhaps we are ashamed because we know he loves us so much and our love pales in comparison. We think, “A child of God? Not me!” Indeed, that is a truth about us, a truth that John does not deny. We sin. We rebel.
But we are met with another truth, not grounded in the experience of our own brokenness, but resting in a promise, the promise of God’s love. It is a truth impossible to believe apart from the gift of faith. The truth is that love wins. God’s love has staked a claim on us that overwrites the truths we think we know from our experience in this world. We experience brokenness, but God’s truth declares us whole. We struggle in the lingering grip of sin, but God’s truth declares us holy. We mess things up, but God makes things right.
Unfortunately, like most of our peers, we trust experience more than we trust God. We believe the sorry facts of our broken lives more than we trust the saving promises of scripture, the promises made real in Christ’s resurrection. God’s truth is more true than any other “truths” because it is a deeper truth, a final truth, a truth not of what is, but of what is to come! It is the truth of grace greater than all our sin!
My friends, when we look into our hearts and ask, “Am I a child of God?” we have to learn to stop saying, “Not me,” and instead learn to utter the deeper truth: “Not yet complete, but Yes! By grace I am God’s very own.” Not yet complete, but already begun. And as we are transformed daily, we have to keep hope for all those around us who do not understand us, that by the witness of our love they too may come to say: “See what love God has, that we too are called children of God!”