Saturday, April 28, 2012

What We Are, What We Shall Be

1 John 3:1-7
Easter 4
April 29, 2012
William G. Carter

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. Beloved, 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. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

            Today’s sermon is in three parts. I am going to label them “before,” “after,” and “in between.” Or if you want to number them in sequence, part one, part three, and part two.

            We start with part one, the “Before.” In the history of First Presbyterian Church of Clarks Summit, this passage of scripture first became noticed at a baptism. The year was 1985. It was sometime in the fall. I don’t know whose baptism it was, but I do know who the presiding minister was. It was the Rev. Lynn Lampman, recently called to be the assistant pastor of the church. For the very first time in anybody’s remembrance, she took the baby that she had just baptized, his head still dripping wet, and she walked right down into the congregation, declaring the words, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” (1 John 3:1)

It was a daring thing to say. For one thing, at that point in local church history, there was a bit of confusion about whether or not little children should be baptized. The Presbyterian Church as a whole had experienced some confusion. In some corners, it was strongly felt that you had to know certain things in order to become a Christian, that you had to do certain things to prove that you belonged. Maybe you had to say all the right words about what you believed, and it had to be pretty much in line with what the church believes. Or maybe you had to learn about the history of the church, the spiritual practices of the church, the Bible of the church, the vocabulary of the church – and then, if you passed the examination, you could be baptized as a believer.

But then in fall 1985, the new baptizing minister spoke the words that we learned as classmates at Princeton Theological Seminary. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.” And it was clear to everybody, at least in that moment, that little baby was a child of God.

A lot of us are inclined to be this, anyway. Look into the bright eyes of a little baby. See the beauty. Admire the innocence. If that child is a sinner, it isn’t obvious to anybody. Not yet.

But John makes a careful distinction – we are not God’s children because of our birth. We are God’s children because of our adoption. There’s a difference. Everybody who is alive has been born; everybody who belongs to God has been adopted.

True enough, in both cases, it’s not something you choose. In a moment of adolescent anger, the thirteen-year-old yells at his parent, “Mom, I didn’t chose to be born.” True enough; but your birth is a gift, a gift from God. Life is respected, if only because you had no say in the matter. Every thought, every feeling, that last breath you took, those birds who sang to you – everything is a gift.

But the mere fact of our birth does not make us a Christian. It is God’s adoption, God’s decision to say, “You belong to me.” We do not ask for this, we do not seek it. It is announced by a great voice than our own: “you are mine.” Done deal. And one of the ways we can think of the sacrament of baptism is that it is God’s adoption ceremony.       

I watched the moment in the courthouse when Laura adopted Alex. She was a single woman, and he was a little boy with no other claim on his life. Laura took him in as an infant. She decided to take care of him, to raise him, to feed him, to love him. The day came when she could say to him, “You are mine.” There were papers to fill out, commitments to make official. The presiding judge said to Laura, “You realize that Alex will inherit whatever you leave for him, that you are bound together forever.” She said, “That is what I choose.”

With that, the judge signed the paper, pounded his gavel, and said, “You are now a family. Alex is your child.” Everybody applauded and pictures were taken.

It seems to me, this is what happens when we are baptized. It is the moment when God adopts a child, when God says, “You are mine forever, I choose you.” It’s not because we are beautiful or homely, it’s not because we are well-behaved or ornery, it’s not because we have reached a level of moral excellence or because God takes us on as a long-term project. It’s simply because we are loved. It’s because God wants us. There is nothing we have to do but show up.

And the preacher says, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” (1 John 3:1). This is part one.

            That points us way ahead to part three, the “after.” John affirms that, right now, we are the children of God, adopted by God’s good grace. And leaning forward, he peers ahead, “Look what we are going to be!” He looks back at us and says, “I can’t quite see the whole thing, but we’re all going to see it. Can you see ahead up there, what we’re going to be? You and I are going to be like Jesus!”

            That’s the astonishing claim of this text. John says, “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.” According to this writer, the working definition of a Christian is a child of God who is becoming like Jesus Christ. That’s the aim. That’s the intention. That’s the final result. Jesus comes, so that we can become like Jesus.

            I don’t know if you ever thought about the Christian life having a goal, but there it is. It’s to become like Christ. That is where every true Christian is headed. That’s what lies ahead of every child baptized in the holy name of God.

Think of every story about Jesus that anybody ever told you. Can you recall a story? Turn to the person next to you and share a story about Jesus that has always meant something to you . . . (I will wait).

What did Jesus do? What did Jesus say? He told stories about forgiveness, and forgave his own killers from the cross. He told stories about God’s rule in our life, and he was never anxious about anything. He fed those who were hungry for bread, and provided a feast for those who needed a purpose. He got indignant when the community excluded the lepers, then reached across the invisible divide to cure them. He was all about health care and healing.

Jesus spoke the truth about sin’s power to destroy, and he released people from that power. He had a complete connection with the Father whom John calls “Daddy, Abba.” He chased away demons and he lifted people out of the prison of hopelessness. He called people away from their greed and redirected them to their neighbors, particularly to those with the greatest needs.

Most of all, at the heart of it all, Jesus was the embodiment of love. Complete love. Sometimes when I watch some of those Christian preachers on TV, who love to mouth off about the issues of the day, I ask myself, “Where’s the love?” Not the bitterness, not the rejection, not divisiveness, not the arrogance, not the insistence on always being right – but the love. Where’s the love?” Because if we are going to be like Jesus, we will be on fire with love, complete and perfect love.

            As somebody says, “Jesus revealed to us what it means to be fully human, fully alive, fully empowered by God, fully conscious of the delusions of the Domination System . . . When humanity finally becomes what it is capable of becoming in God’s image, it will be like Jesus.” [1]

            In a twinkling of an eye, he will be revealed. At the end of time, all God’s children will be transformed like Christ. That’s where our faith journey is headed. That is the great destination for the faithful, the great “after” everything else.

Or in the structure of the sermon, that’s part three. Part one: we are the children of God. Part three: as Jesus Christ is finally revealed, we shall be like him. 

            So that brings us to the heart of the sermon, part two, the “in between.” If we are the children of God who shall be like Christ, what are we doing to move in that direction? How will the children of God grow up and become like Jesus?

            Maybe the place to start is with the story about Jesus that came to your mind a few minutes ago. There is something in it that you recollected. It bears some magnetic pull, some appealing invitation. I invite to spend a little time today reflecting on that. Perhaps there is a nugget of spiritual gold in that story.

            For instance, I recall Jesus pointing to the birds of the air and saying, “God provides for them.” He waves to the lilies and calls them “beautiful” just as they are. I want to believe in a God who provides for me in my needs, a Savior who thinks my warts are beautiful. There is compelling about that. I want to be like that – and it means I have to change the way I am, and move in his direction. I must trust as he trusts, love as he loves.

            That’s what our scripture lesson invites us to do. If we are the children of God who will become more like Christ, we have to move toward him, take on his habits, gain his mind, practice his speech. And it takes work and intentionality. We don’t automatically become more like Christ. We have to want that. We have to leave behind the habits that weigh us down. Swear off the opinions and judgments that make us snarl.

We can grow more Christ-like. John says, “If you have this hope, if you want this hope, you will purify yourself, just as he is pure.” You will stop yourself before you say the sarcastic word. You will push yourself to forgive even if you don’t feel like it. You will avoid the dark deed, the corrupt desire. When a conflict is settled, you will let it stay settled. And you will never lash back, because Jesus never lashed back. Revenge comes from the devil; mercy comes from God.

O children of God: give this some attention. God claims you in the baptismal water. God says, “You are my beloved daughter, you are my beloved son.” That is what we are. And God holds before us a vision of Jesus Christ, and says, “When he is completely revealed, my children will look just like him.” That’s what lies ahead.

But it could be a long way off. And in the meantime, we become our habits.

This month, the Pope issued a reprimand of a group of American nuns. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in yesterday’s New York Times, it was as if the Vatican “accused the nuns of worrying too much about the poor, and not enough about abortion and gay marriage.” Sister Joan Chittister, a well-known Benedictine nun from Erie, Pennsylvania, said she worried the nuns spent so much time that they would have no allies. But all of a sudden, the sisters have been flooded by local donations.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. You see generations of laypeople who know where the sisters are – in the streets, in the soup kitchens, anywhere where there’s pain. They’re with the dying, with the sick, and people know it.” Out in Erie, her order of 120 nuns runs a soup kitchen, a huge food pantry, an afterschool program, and one of the largest education programs for the unemployed in the state.

The Pope should know better than to mess with the nuns, says Kristof. “They were the first feminists, earning Ph.D’s or working as surgeons before it was fashionable for women to hold jobs. As managers of hospitals, schools, and complex bureaucracies, they were the first female C.E.O.’s . . . If you look at who has more closely emulated Jesus’ life, the Pope or your average nun, it’s the nun hands down.” [2]  
We are the beloved children of God. When Jesus is finally revealed, his children shall look just like him. In between, where all of us reside, as any nun will show you, we become our habits.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Walter Wink, “Chips off the old block,” The Christian Century, April 6, 1994. P. 349.
[2] Nicholas Kristof, “We Are All Nuns,” New York Times, April 28, 2012.

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