A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on April 19, 2015 (Third Sunday of Easter)
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
4Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. 7Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. – 1 John 3:1-7
To be human is to be part of a family. We all have parents – even if we don’t know exactly who they are. It is impossible for a child to grow without some kind of family system, even if they aren’t blood relatives. We all need care and nurture and love in order to grow. Families come in many different forms: two-parent, single-parent, or multi-parent; parents who are different sex or same sex or ambiguous sex. There are nuclear families, extended families, blended families, adopted families and foster families. There are grandparents raising grandchildren, and children caring for parents. The bewildering array of different family forms may seem like a modern phenomenon, but it is not. It has always been this way, even if TV may have once only featured one kind of family. When it comes to families, there is no such thing as “normal.”
Families are usually messy. All families have conflicts and drama. If you see a family that seems to have no problems, they are probably just good at hiding them. One of the things I like about the families described in the Bible is that they are all messed up or unusual. Adam and Eve refused to accept responsibility for their misdeeds; Cain killed his brother Abel; Noah was a drunk; Abraham kicked one son and his mother out of the house and almost killed another son; Jacob cheated his brother and his mother helped him deceive his father; Joseph’s brothers sold him to some merchants and told their father he had been killed by a wild animal. God’s people were never the well-behaved and respectable folks that we might think religious people are supposed to be. That is wonderful good news for us!
And it is also good news that even messed-up families can be settings for nurture and support. A few months ago our Movie Night group watched the film “Little Miss Sunshine,” a funny but apoignant story about a family in which everyone had issues, but yet they were able to love and support one another in spite of their shortcomings.
We are indeed blessed if we can grow up in a family that is able to love and nurture us in spite of their problems – and ours. Fortunately, the majority of families are like that – imperfect, but still loving. But that is not always the case. Some people have known so little love growing up that they are not capable of loving others in a healthy way. A large percentage of homeless youth on the streets have been kicked out of their homes because they have come out as being gay. Human love is imperfect, and sometimes very hard to find.
And so, what a gift it is that the author of John reminds us of – that God loves us so much that we are called Children of God. We have been adopted into God’s family. This is not because we have earned that honor in any way, but because of the grace of God in Christ. So no matter what kind of goofy, messed up, ineffective, or even harmful human family situation you might come from, there is One who truly loves you, wants you to be healthy, and wants you to mature into a person who can love in healthy ways. That is the God made known to us in Christ.
And the church is supposed to be at least one branch of God’s family – where we live and grow in the sunshine of God’s love.
Not everyone sees that. A lot of people these days believe the church is judgmental, exclusive, and even abusive. There is no denying it can be. The church is made up of people, and each of us lives in a daily struggle with sin. We may be forgiven through our faith in Christ, but it is hard to get rid of our human tendencies toward selfishness, self-preservation, and rebellion.
The family of God’s children is, in many ways, like any other human family. It is very human, and imperfect. But the big difference is that the Head of God’s family is able to love perfectly. That love was demonstrated in human form in Jesus. And that has the potential to transform us. We, too, can learn to love that way by allowing Christ to dwell in us more and more.
But another reason that people may not see the church as being a place of God’s love is that they don’t really understand what love is. They think that if you love someone, you will let them do whatever they want. So any attempt to call people to repentance is seen as judgmental and unaccepting.
But that isn’t the way God loves. I recently saw a description of God’s love that went like this: God loves you just as you are. But God loves you too much to let you stay that way. In other words, God is always willing and eager to enter into relationship with us. But just as parents do not let children remain as infants all their lives, God wants us to grow in faith and love.
On Friday evening several of us watched the film “Shadowlands” – a film about the great 20th century British writer and Christian theologian C. S. Lewis, and his wife Joy. They were something of an odd couple – a life-long bachelor and professor and a much younger Jewish-American divorcee’. During their brief marriage – cut short by her tragic death from cancer – Joy helped Lewis, who was regarded as one of the wisest and most faithful Christians in the world, to grow in his faith and his ability to love. She introduced him to new experiences. Even the great teacher could learn!
Love never leaves us unchanged.
The author of 1 John wrote, “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him (God in Christ).” So many do not know what life-giving love is.
The author of 1 John begins this text with the joy and privilege of being God’s children. But then he goes on to write about the responsibilities that come with that gift. Do not sin. We can’t grow in love with God if we continue to sin. The two are mutually exclusive.
This is a brilliant insight. The challenge for us is to discern what is sin and what is not. “Sin” is a simple word with a complex meaning. It has been difficult to define precisely over the course of Christian history. It is a loaded word for many people.
The Greek word used in the New Testament that is usually translated as “sin” (hamartia) is a word that means “to miss the mark (and so not share in the prize) – like an archer missing a target. Or it can mean to veer off of a path. It can mean “to err”, or “offend”, or “trespass.”
The author of 1 John says that sin is “lawlessness.” For the early Christians to whom this text was written, that probably meant to not recognize or follow the commandments given through Moses.
The church has sometimes defined sin in unhelpful ways. We have sometimes upheld our social and cultural norms by in defining sin. But the ministry of Jesus seemed to challenge many of those traditional ideas of his time. And Christ still challenges them today.
But maybe a good way to think of sin is when we live as if we were not God’s children, and other people are not God’s children. I think of the great commandment that Jesus gave to us: “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” As children of God, we are encouraged to grow in our love of God, in our love of ourselves, and in the love of our neighbors. That is a life-long process.
Once – two thousand years ago – we saw love in human flesh, living among us. Many did not recognize it, and considered it a threat to the status quo. And so they tried to kill him. But love is eternal! Christ is alive again among us. And we, who are witnesses – who have seen and experienced gracious love in our lives – are charged with proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name, beginning right here where we are. Not, “Have no fun.” But, “Turn from the far-too-common ways of worshiping false gods and using people, in order to experience love and learn how to love more deeply.” Become a child of God. And welcome to the family!
Robert J. von Trebra