Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Children of God

January 3, 2017
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

One day during high school, a friend walked up to me and said, "Hey, your dad is here looking for you." "Thanks," I said and started to walk away before turning around and saying, "Wait, how do you know my dad?" My friend paused and smiled and said, "I don't, but there's this man standing outside the office who looks just like you, and I knew he must be your father." Actually, we don't look that much alike. I'm a pretty good mix of both of my parents, but the resemblance between me and my father is pretty clear.
People seem to enjoy telling me whom each of my children looks like. Everyone gets into the game when a child is little. When a baby comes into the world, even before her body has taken its post-partum shape, parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles delight in saying that she has her mother's eyes or her cheeks are just like her great-grandfather's. I read somewhere that, as a biological remnant of our genetic ancestors, all newborns look like their father so that the father won't eat them when they're born. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that sinful pride that comes from seeing how children have inherited qualities from me and my family.
I bet the author of 1 John had a big family because he seems to understand at a deep level that children look and act like their parents. Like a receding hairline or a pronounced paunch, he takes for granted the fact that children will turn out just like their parents in almost unavoidable ways. His epistle is mostly about love, and, in the third chapter, he exhorts his readers to be loving children of their loving, heavenly father. In a way that is so simple as to escape our understanding, John reminds us that, as children of God, we are children of love.
At Christmas time, we celebrate God's adoption of the human race through the incarnation. Yesterday, Steve Pankey reminded us of what Athanasius wrote: "God became man so that man might become God." John believes this deeply. His faith is built on it. John writes, "Beloved, we are God's children now...Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning...Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God." Don't overthink it, John seems to say: "Let no one deceive you." It really is that simple: "The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters." The implication, of course, is that those who do what is right and who love their brothers and sisters are children of God.
Can it be that simple? Those who have been born of God do not sin? News flash: we're all sinners. Does John really mean that anyone who sins isn't born of God and is a child of the Devil? Not quite. I think John has an understanding of sin and what it means to belong to God that twenty-first-century Christianity could really use. Instead of reversing his words and applying after-the-fact logic to John's description of life in Christ, let's use his approach--his belonging-first, behavior-second model--for describing the life of God's children.
"Beloved, we are children of God." John knows this is true. It's a part of who he is. In the same way that I know that I am my parents' child, John knows that he and the Christians to whom he writes belong to God as God's children. Sure, this community has its ups and downs. John hints at some false teachers and conflict within the community. He wouldn't stress the importance of loving one another if he wasn't concerned that they might have forgotten what love like that looks like. But John doesn't say, "If you want to be children of God, then you'd better love one another," the way that so many contemporary law-peddling, false-gospel preachers say. John starts with the most important premise: you are a child of God. Because of that, you are a child of righteousness and love--not the other way around.
Even in my worst, most frustrated moments, I never say to my children, "If you want to be my child and belong to this family, you must..." Instead, I say things like, "Because you are my child and because you are a part of this family, you must..." To an exasperated six-year-old that may not sound like a big difference, but, theologically speaking, I believe that they are worlds apart. Why do my children do chores? Why are they respectful to adults? Why are they nice to others? Why do they share with those who do not have anything? For the same reason that they will someday have the same mannerisms and characteristic quirks that their parents do: because they are our children. That's how we behave because it's who we are--not the other way around.
We are children of God. That means we look like our heavenly father and act like our heavenly father. We haven't always been this way. The seed of divinity has been planted within our nature through the incarnation of the Son of God. We still have some growing up to do. But we shouldn't undermine the power of God's redemption by making it conditional on our behavior. Instead, as John writes, our behavior is conditional on our identity as God's children. You are God's beloved child. Because God has claimed you, called you, and adopted you as God's own, you are shaped by that divine parenthood. The invitation is to know your identity as a child of God so fully that you and everyone around you knows it. May the world take one look at us and know who our father is.

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