(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
1 John 3:1-7
1 John 3:1-7
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.
Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.
I’ve had this song stuck in my head all week and I’ve heard that the best way to get a song out of your head is to get it stuck in somebody else’s, so I want to do that from the pulpit this morning. It’s a song called “Murder in the City” and I first heard it covered by Brandi Carlile but it is originally by the Avett Brothers, and incidentally those are both bands you should know. Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers says that he wrote it because he gets paranoid when he travels, and he’s been known to leave notes with instructions in case he doesn’t make it home. I’m not quite that bad, but I get the instinct. I’m a pretty nervous traveler. Every time I travel, before I get on the airplane, I make sure my affairs are in order, that the bills are paid, that sort of thing. Stacey laughs at me because I have airplane shoes, which are comfortable, reliable shoes I know I can run in in case I need to get away from the plane quickly, as if that would make any difference from 10,000 feet in the air.
At any rate, I get the sentiment. And maybe that’s an unusual premise for a song, but it’s a sweet song, really. The final verse goes like this: “If I get murdered in the city, go read the letter in my desk. Don’t bother with all my belongings. Pay attention to the list. Make sure my sister knows I loved her. Make sure my mother knows the same. Always remember there is nothing worth sharing like the love that let us share our name.”
I think that’s a pretty profound statement, that there’s nothing worth sharing like the love that lets us share our name. Why, it reminds me of this morning’s scripture passage, the kind of love the writer of 1 John tells us we have been given by the God who claims you as God’s own child.
I have to tell you, I find it to be one of the most striking things about the Christian religion that we are all adopted as children of God. No matter who you are, no matter what you have done, no matter where you have been, you are God’s beloved child. Black, white, rich, poor, young, old, gay, straight, Republican, Democrat, prostitute, politician, screaming baby, sullen teenager, hipster, brony, sinner, saint: you are welcomed in God’s name.
I will tell you, this is not just a church growth strategy. We don’t take all people just because it makes the church grow. We welcome all people in God’s name because the Bible tells us to do this! And because being reminded that each of us is God’s beloved child is increasingly important in a world that constantly tries to divide us. I have quite a view up here as the pastor, and I can tell you that when we celebrate Holy Communion, when we participate in the Lord’s Supper--we’ll do this next week in fact—when I break the bread and raise the cup, and I say the bit about the fact that this is not the United Methodist Table, but that it is God’s table, and that if you are here, you are invited to participate, because you are God’s beloved child . . . you can hear a pin drop. It’s probably the most profound moment we experience together. It is not unusual for me to look out and see people crying. You can sort of feel the emotion in the room rise, because, my God, everybody wants to be loved, and here it is, on display, this love so powerful that it claims you as God’s own child.
The same thing happens at a baptism. I have said this before but I love that we baptize infants in our tradition. Each time it happens, it is a reminder that even before we can speak God’s name, even before we can accept God’s grace for ourselves, it is offered to us. It is given to us. We are claimed by God as part of God’s family, and it is an incredibly moving thing to watch a community of faith respond to that claiming with a claiming of their own, so that it is not just that God claims each of us as God’s child and that’s all there is to it. There are no only children in the kingdom of God! If we are all children of God, we are all connected, we are all responsible for one another. It as the hymn says, I am the church, you are the church, we are the church, together.
But it is not enough to revel in that connection to God and to one another and to leave it there. Yes, we are children of God, yes, we are members of God’s family together, but if it matters that we are God’s children—and I think we agree that it does—then surely we can agree that there are expectations of being’s God’s child. Surely we can agree that if it means something to be a part of God’s family, we ought to respond somehow to this great gift.
This is where I think 1 John is particularly helpful, where untangling the scripture that Hannah read this morning can help us understand how we ought to respond to this gift. Some of it is obvious, I guess, when you think about it. Whether or not the whole “God as parent” image is helpful to you, whether or not you were fortunate enough to have loving parents, everybody has people in their lives they’ve looked up to, who have shown them love along the way, and so the obvious thing is to mirror that love, to share it with others. Of course, it’s easier said than done, mirroring that love, for in our relationship with God we encounter a love so powerful that it will knock you on your rear and make you reprioritize everything. It’s a love so powerful that it is liable to mess you up. And so it’s not as easy as just mirroring it, because I’ll be honest. I’m just not yet at a place in my own spiritual life where I can share that kind of love without working at it, without being intentional to respond to it. And this is where 1 John is helpful, because it tells us how to respond to that love.
What it says is this: purify yourself. Purify yourself. Maybe that sounds a little unusual, purifying yourself, but it just means that we ought to move away from sin, that we ought to try to become better vessels of love. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we all probably realize we have a ways to go in this department.
After all, sin is just what happens when we do things that don’t honor that great love that comes from being claimed as God’s child. It’s what happens when we do not do God’s will, when we rebel against God’s love, when we do not love our neighbors, when we do not hear the cry of the needy. And to honor that calling as a child of God is to move past sin, to say, I am not perfect, I am not capable of saving myself, but just as we all agreed to do this morning, with God’s help, I will so order my life after the example of Christ that I can move in the direction of love. That’s not to say you’re ever going to have it all together, or that the process of working through your sin is going to be easy. But it is to say that to honor God, we can’t pretend nothing is different. We can’t live as if that love doesn’t exist.
This is why, as a pastor, I never shy away from telling people who want to join the church that there are some expectations! Everybody’s welcome here, sinner and saint alike, but if you want to be a Christian, if you want to be a member of God’s church, there are some expectations, and I think that’s fair. I think it is fair to expect that if you want to be a member of God’s church—and I hope you do!—that you do your best to honor this passage of scripture, to say, “I am God’s beloved child. I best act like it!”
I mean, this isn’t some club you’re joining. It’s the Body of Christ. We ask everybody who joins the church to be loyal to Jesus Christ through this church and uphold the church with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness for Jesus Christ! I think these are all fair expectations! They aren’t easy, but they seem to me to be fair responses to being claimed by love! I think it is fair to expect people to pray: to pray for yourself, for your family, for the world and for this church, that it would thrive, that it would reach out and show new heights and depths of love to the North Decatur Community. I hope you’re praying that prayer—if not, now’s a great time to start! I think it’s fair to expect people to uphold the church with their presence, to be here when they are in town because the church is stronger when you are here! I think it’s fair to expect that you’ll serve others and share your witness, that you’ll share the love of God out in the world in word and deed, for these are essential parts of what it means to respond to God’s love, essential parts of what it means to be a Christian.
And I think it’s fair to expect you to respond to your calling as a child of God by sharing the talents you have been given and the resources God has entrusted you with. So when I have this conversation with people about what it means to be a Christian, what it means to follow Jesus, I try to be really clear. To respond to God’s love is to offer all of yourself to God, and that includes your money! We certainly don’t require people to tithe, which is the Biblical standard of giving 10% of your income to the church, but we do say that we expect that you move in that direction. Start with 1% if that’s what you’re ready to give, and then next year, bump it up to 2, because responding to God’s love means growing in faith. And it’s not about paying some sort of dues, or a pay-to-play kind of thing. It’s about being generous. It’s about having the kind of generosity that allows the church to do what it is supposed to do, which is reach out in love to brand new people, to share with them the good news that they beloved by God, that whether they knew it or not they are part of the family, too! That whether or not “family” is a dirty word to them, no matter their experience searching for love, there is a love even greater than what they hope for, and it is found in this place, among these people, from the God who claims each of us as children.
I know, I know these expectations are not easy. I struggle with them, too. I also know how to daydream about how I could have spent that 10% of my paycheck every time it’s drafted from my bank account. I know that following Jesus is not easy. But I also know you’re not here this morning for lack of better things to do. I am aware of the great Sunday brunch specials in Downtown Decatur. I know you don’t have to be here. But here you are. And maybe I’m way off base, but I have a sneaking suspicion you know there are expectations, that you like that there are expectations, because anything meaningful has them. Anything worth doing is worth doing on purpose. And if we are to be called children of God, if we are to wear that name, we ought to act like it.
I will end with this. A friend of mine was telling me the other day what it was like to grow up learning from his father, who was the kind of person who would give a stranger the shirt off his back but who had high expectations for his own children. And when my friend would complain about having a hungry neighbor over for dinner, or about the inconvenience of helping a stranger, his father would sit him down, sort of lower his glasses a little bit, and say, “Son, we are Johnsons. This is what we do.”
So it is with the children of God, with those of us who call ourselves Christians, who literally take our name from the person of Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is to recognize that the great love that claims you as God’s own child is a love worth responding to. It is to always remember there is nothing worth sharing like the love that lets us share our name. Thanks be to God. Amen.