Comments and Observations
As I meditated on these words, two pictures from my last church came to mind. I saw 50 fresh faced, neatly dressed girls, ranging in age from 8 to 13, sitting behind me in the choir loft as I preached from this text. This was on a Sunday that honored those girls. And I saw a lung cancer patient at the hospital a block away from my church, standing out in the cold smoking a cigarette even as she was hooked up to her portable oxygen tank. Those two pictures may give you some ideas about how to preach on this text.
Remember that the main issue in I John is assurance of salvation—not how we can be saved, but how we can know for sure that we are. I John 5:13 summarizes the point. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Note the frequency of the word “know” in our reading for today. I John gives us four tests to help us know with more certainty that we have eternal life. Verse 10 of this third chapter summarizes one of those tests and introduces another. “This is how we know who the children of God are and who are the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God, nor is anyone who does not love his brother.” Our reading today explains that first test; you can know you are a child of God if you do right.
Interestingly, even though this test focuses on what we must do, it is not full of imperatives. John does not say “get better, try harder, get rid of sin.” Rather he emphasizes what God’s love has done and will do for us and to us. He zeroes in on the indicative, specifically on our new identity. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God. And that is what we are!” “Now we are children of God, and what we shall be has not yet been made known to us. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him….” We should do right because God’s love in Christ has made us God’s children. A sermon that is true to this text will be an Easter sermon filled with the good news of new life in Christ.
That’s where those 50 young girls come in. When I preached on this text, I talked about how we struggle with our identity. A poem by Paul Dunbar captures that struggle. He was a black man writing in the racist society of post-Civil War America. The poem is entitled, “We Wear the Mask,” and it cries out with the hurt that comes from disrespect and humiliation. Most of God’s children, red and yellow, black and white can relate.
We wear the mask that grins and lies
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O Great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask.
I pointed out to the girls that if we wear the mask too long, we can get lost behind it and forget who we really are and lose our true self-identity. Sometimes, as with Paul Dunbar, it’s our place in society that makes us hide behind the mask.
Sometimes it’s our place in the universe that makes us feel like nothing. A local hero, astronaut Jack Lousma, expressed it this way after he walked in space while orbiting the earth. “There are enough galaxies in this whole universe for each of us on earth to own 10 or 15 of our own. Now, I tell you, that it big and it makes you feel really small.” Who are we in such an immense universe? And, of course, we can get confused about who we are for much smaller reasons—not cosmic, but cosmetic. Because we don’t look a certain way, we feel small and hide behind the masks.
Finally, there’s one more reason we hide behind masks and lose our identity—not the conditions of life, not the cosmic or cosmetic, but character. We have character flaws, or as John says in the verses that follow, we sin. We know it and we feel bad about it and we hide from God and each other. And we lose our true identity.
For all of these reasons and more, our text is wonderful news. “We are the children of God.” That is our true identity. The Bible is not just trying to cheer us up here by saying something that isn’t literally true, as when a parent tries to cheer up a child who has just struck out in baseball. “You took a great cut, buddy. You’re a great swinger.” God isn’t cheerleading here. God is telling us the absolute truth. You are not a miserable creation of your culture, not a meaningless cipher in the universe, not a misshapen creep in the mirror, not a moral cretin. You are a child of God.
That is true because your Father has lavished his love on you. That is, we are not children of God because we have been good little boys and girls, but because God’s love has been lavished on us. What a happy translation that is! The word “lavished” comes from a French word that means to wash. God has washed us in his love—not with a little drop of love, not with a feeble shower dribbling a few drops of love down from heaven, but with multiple showerheads, with buckets, gallons, barrels, rivers, waterfalls, gushing, flowing, overwhelming love that has swept away all our sin.
I said to the girls, “As a child of God, you have a fabulous future. You ‘shall be like him.’” Think of all the possible futures for the world, for our country, for our individual lives. Given all the trouble in the world and in our own lives, the future could look pretty dark. But our text assures us that no matter what happens around us or to us, we will become like Jesus. That will take time. It will be difficult, and it will hurt sometimes. We may wonder if it will ever happen and if it will be worth it. But John assures us of this truth. If you have believed in the name of the Son of God, you will see him someday and become just like him—full of life, life abundant and eternal, life filled with love and joy and peace, life forever secure and forever happy.
And right now, we have a purified present. “Everyone who has this hope in Jesus purifies herself, just as he (Jesus) is pure.” We all know how hope can drive a person. An excellent swimmer who has real hopes of getting into the Olympics will work harder than anyone else on the team to excel at what she already does well. A girl who sings like an angel will practice for hours in hope of becoming the next American Idol. If you don’t think there’s any hope, you won’t even try. “Everyone who has this hope in Jesus purifies herself….”
That all sounds lovely, but it runs smack dab into the reality of our ongoing sin. That brings me back to that other picture. Her name was Patty Praid and she was dying of emphysema and a rare lung disease. With her portable tank at her feet, she stood at the hospital door, taking a deep drag on her cigarette. She told a reporter, “The dumbest thing a person can do is have two lung diseases and keep smoking. But I cannot stop it. I’ve tried it all. I can’t do it. And these things are killing me.”
Patty Praid’s addiction to nicotine is a physical parable of a deeper spiritual problem. Before Jesus gets hold of us, all of us addicted, enslaved to something that will kill us. It’s called sin. Like Patty, we keep on doing it, because there’s no real hope of ever stopping. We’ve tried it all. We can’t do it. But along come John with startling news. You are new people. You are not just dying sinners anymore. You have been raised to new life as God’s children. And because you are God’s children, you will not continue to sin. “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or knows him.” (Verse 6)
John explains that in more depth by giving us three reasons the children of God do not continue in sin. First, says verse 5, it’s because Jesus came “so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin.” Jesus didn’t come merely to gain us the forgiveness of sins, but to “take them away.” Think of I John 1:9, where our faithful and just God promises not only to forgive our sin, but also to “cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Closely related to that first reason is this second. Verse 8 says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” The devil works on our desires (James 1) to lure us, trap us, imprison us, enslave us, addict us, and kill us. But Jesus came to destroy the devil’s work. All who are children of God are now free from the devil’s power. Third, says verse 9, we do not continue to sin, “because God’s seed remains in us; we cannot go on sinning, because we have been born of God.” God puts his seed (sperma in the Greek) in us, his life giving Spirit, who causes us to be born again. So we become new people on the inside, even if we look the same on the outside.
There is the great problem with this startling text. On the outside (and truth be told, even on the inside), I don’t look or feel like a newly born child of God. Our text says, “God’s children don’t continue to sin.” But I do. Does that mean that I’m not a child of God, not born again, not a real Christian? Do I fail this test designed to give me assurance of my salvation? Well, this is one of those places where we have to read very carefully and in context. The context to which I refer is I John 1:8 and 10 where John explicitly says, “If we claim to be without sin, if we claim that we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves and we make God out to be a liar….” And I John 2:1 says, “If anyone does sin,” thus allowing for the possibility, immediately after saying that we absolutely shouldn’t sin. These words of I John 3 cannot mean that Christians can stop sinning entirely and become perfect (with all apologies to my perfectionistic sisters and brothers).
Then what do these words mean? A careful reading of the Greek reveals a fascinating thing. In every one of these texts, the original Greek says, we will not continue to “do” sin. That made me think of a cleaning woman we interviewed in my last church. After we discussed our requirements, she said, ”Oh, by the way, I don’t do windows.” That’s the sense here. We don’t do sin. We don’t, as part of our normal routine, our standard operating procedure, our habitual lifestyle, do sin. We still commit it, but not as we did before.
Then how is a reborn child of God different from any other sinner? I’ll let an old confession speak here. The Heidelberg Catechism is defining repentance when it says that a child of God will be “genuinely sorry for sin, hate it more and more, and delight to do every kind of good as God wants.” A child of God has a different perspective on sin, a different attitude toward sin, a different intention toward sin. I don’t do sin; I do righteousness. That’s my life, my desire, my goal, my increasing pattern.
This text presents us with a wonderful opportunity to preach a message on Christian living that is full of Easter hope. We can be, no, we are different people because of Easter. We’ve been radically changed. The secret of continued change is to believe the Good News of what Christ has done for and to us, claim our new identity, and live out that new identity, even in the face of our lingering old identity as sinners.
John’s claims about God’s children not continuing to sin may sound a bit triumphalistic. This poem by Maya Angelou puts things in the right perspective.
When I say… “I am a Christian”
I’m not shouting, “I’m clean livin’.”
I’m whispering, “I was lost,
Now I’m found and forgiven.”
When I say… “I’m a Christian”
I don’t speak with pride.
I’m confessing that I stumble
And need Christ to be my guide.
When I say… “I’m a Christian”
I’m not holier than thou,
I’m just a simple sinner
Who received God’s good grace, somehow.
On a very different level, this whole business of identity was illustrated for me by a Time magazine review of the runaway bestseller, Gone Girl. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that you will have to be very careful using this illustration. Gone Girl is one of the most perverse books I’ve read in quite awhile. It is about a dysfunctional marriage and murder and betrayal and deceit. But for the right audience, this review of that book brilliantly illustrates our society’s struggle with identity, explaining why this dark book is so popular.
“Gone Girl gets at an essential truth about the limits of intimacy; however close you get, you can never know everything about your partner. There’s always that secret increment, a black box with God knows what inside it. What if there’s a whole secret life in there? A whole alternate personality? Gone Girl became a way to think and talk about relationships, but its resonance went beyond that. In an age of social media, we are all more than ever invested in creating and maintaining fictional persona for others to consume. That ongoing fraud is part of how we live right now.”
That’s why it is increasingly hard to answer the question. “Who am I?”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 19, 2015
1 John 3:1-7 Commentary