It keeps coming up like a bad burp. So much of 1 John is lyric. Few passages talk better about the meaning of love than ones you can find in John’s first epistle. The opening verses of this third chapter likewise are simply gorgeous, waxing eloquent on the love lavished on us by God our Father and how this makes us children of God. This is wonderful prose, almost poetic actually. And in so many ways it encapsulates the essence of what makes the Gospel the amazing Good News it is.
And yet . . . no sooner does John says this and he feels compelled to loop back to another sub-theme in this letter: sin. It’s pretty obvious that whatever was going on among the people to whom John addressed this letter, something had gone wrong in their attitudes toward sin. We got this message in also last week’s selection from the opening chapter and now here it is again, coming almost as a seemingly unwelcome intrusion to the lyric words about the lavish love of God and being children of God and all that.
“You are children of God! You live in him and so are pure! And, oh, by the way: if you keep sinning you are no friend of God!!” As in the opening chapter (and just into chapter 2) that we looked at last week, so here: John is no idealist. It’s not as though he expects anyone (himself included one would presume) to exist as blameless or sinless this side of glory or of the full in-breaking of God’s kingdom. But again and again here it is the “keeps on sinning” idea that bothers John the most and that we can surmise must have taken some kind of a foothold in the communities to whom John is writing.
Was it another version of what Paul encountered and so addressed now and again: let’s sin more so that grace may abound? Was it a mistaken view of Christian liberty that said we don’t even need to worry about sin anymore since Jesus took it all away? Or was it something darker still, something that stemmed not from naïve or mistaken views of grace and salvation but in fact actively taught that so long as you professed some kind of lip service to this Jesus fellow, you could get away with pretty much anything you wanted in your personal life? Was this not just some “Sunday Only” type of Christianity but in fact a direct attempt to undermine the faith by almost dismissing “sin” as a category of thought altogether?
It’s hard to say. It could even have been some early form of Gnosticism that claimed that so long as your spiritual thoughts and secret knowledge of God were pure, what you did with your body or how you behaved in this (very unimportant) material world did not matter or count. Whatever the origin of it all, John saw it as a clear undermining of the faith and as a fundamental misunderstanding of the effect God’s lavish love and grace were supposed to have on us.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that too often we think that what sanctification is all about is sort of like taking a horse and training it to run a little faster than it used to run. In actuality, Lewis noted, what happens to us as believers once we become engrafted onto Christ is not like taking a regular old horse and teaching it to run faster but more like taking a horse, outfitting it with a pair of wings, and teaching the creature to FLY! The saved life in Christ is not just any old life made a little bigger or brighter or some such thing. It is to take a human life and transform it into a whole new mode of existence.
Or as theologian Laura Smit once put it, too often we think that what it means to ponder something like “goodness” when it applies to God is that we look at human goodness and our definitions of goodness and then just make them bigger. We are good. God is GOOD! But in reality, Smit notes, “goodness” in God is not just human goodness magnified but is of a different quality altogether. Thus, if we are to share in God’s goodness—if we are to bear the Fruit of the Spirit of goodness a la Galatians 5—then it means having something quite new move into our lives from God’s side of things.
Lewis again: we think becoming a disciple after baptism is like God coming into the house of our hearts and putting up some new drapes and slapping on a few new coats of paint on the same old walls. In reality God comes in, knocks down most of the walls, and starts to build something brand new.
In this Eastertide, we encounter the apostle John here saying pretty much the same things. You cannot be casual about sin, you cannot willfully wallow in sin, you cannot just let things slide in your life and still think you are in Christ. To do so shows merely that you don’t “get it.” Actually, it’s worse than that. It’s one thing to get confused in math class. You just cannot see the relationships among the numbers to make sense of a certain proof or algorithm. You don’t get it. You might “get” other facets of math, but not this one.
But to keep on sinning, John says, is not just a little error. It’s not a side part of the faith you don’t get like just not seeing how one facet of mathematics functions. No, in this case you are missing the whole thing. You cannot be just a little bit wrong on this point and still be in Christ. It’s kind of all or nothing on this one.
Grace saves but if you really received it, grace transforms. Inevitably. So if you keep abusing people, keep hurting people, keep hating people, keep committing adultery or stealing or lying or any number of things and have no desire either to stop such activity much less confess it as wrong, well then, that’s not a mistake. It’s a different world altogether that has nothing to do with being children of the heavenly Father. The Lectionary cuts off this reading rather unnaturally at verse 7, probably to avoid all that scary (and unmodern) talk about the Devil and being children of the Devil. Oooh, that seems over the top.
But it’s not. It’s actually a logical follow-through and it was meant then—and is meant now—to shake us up to wonder whom we are really serving in how we live.
In short, you don’t get to enjoy the lyric and lovely truths in the first few verses of this reading if that does not result in an entirely new quality of life for you every day and in every way. This is not an easy message, and it probably will seem frightening mostly to people who have already been transformed and want nothing to do with such behavior. But you never know: John hopes he can still crack through to those who are still outside Christ (though they may try to fool themselves otherwise).
So you keep putting the gorgeous and lyric truths out there for all to see in the hope that the day will come when you will not have to follow that up all the time with warnings about all this other unhappy stuff!
I guess that’s what preaching is all about!
In one of his books, Tom Long mentions a friend who serves as a hospital chaplain somewhere. One Ash Wednesday he slipped away from the hospital long enough to attend a mid-day service and so he returned to work a bit alter with a cross-shaped smudge of ash on his forehead. At one point as he entered the room of an older woman who was a patient that day, she immediately grabbed a Kleenex and said, “Come over here, dear, you seem to have gotten into something” and was clearly getting ready to clean up his dirty forehead.
“No, no” the chaplain said. “You see, this smudge of ash is from an Ash Wednesday service where I was reminded that I am weak and frail, sinful and vulnerable and that soon enough my own life will return to the dust. But it also reminds me that on his cross, Jesus took all that away and has made me new and alive again.”
The old woman thought for a moment and then said “I think I want some of that too.” And so borrowing from his own smudge, the chaplain made the sign of the cross on also her forehead.
What we want in preaching is what John wanted in proclaiming the lavish love of the Father for us his children: we want to present the Good News in so lyric and compelling a way that others will want it, too.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 15, 2018
1 John 3:1-7 Commentary