Sermon, April 15, 2018 – Third Sunday of Easter, Year B
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
One of the more troubling aspects of contemporary American culture is our decline into political tribalism, which many commentators believe has been accelerated by social media. Individuals choose an identity – often a partisan identity – and then allow that chosen identity to define who they are, how they are perceived by others, and what opinions they might be expected to hold on a variety of issues. In the past we had to interact with others, who were real, breathing and complex human beings. Most people were shades of grey instead of being black and white. Today many of us interact via social media where we can carefully hone our identities, choose our friends and shield ourselves from any points of view that might challenge us, and make social media posts to reassure our tribe that we hold all the proper stances on the important issues of the day. We choose an identity and then let that identity tell us how we ought to live our lives and what opinions we ought to hold.
We are rightfully troubled by this development, but I think it points to an underlying truth about identity. We all long for a distinct identify, a place to call home. I think that this is a need that comes from deep within us. Some scientists might suggest that this is how we developed in an evolutionary sense, in that those of us who could securely identify with a group were more likely to survive.
It is very important for each of us to have an identity. This need, however, like so many things in life, can take a very dark turn and become a sinful idol. We see this in the vitriol in social media or in political discourse these days. Even worse, group identity can become the bitter root of racism or warmongering nationalism. Making an idol out of a wrong identity can lead to much evil. Properly understood, however, knowing our identity can be a very good thing, being of great comfort and a source of grace, which enables us to be what God is calling us to be.
Today’s reading from the first letter of John is all about our identity and what that means for us in our daily lives. As Christians, who we are effects how we live. And so, hearing what John is saying to us is very important for us today. We need to set aside what the world is telling us about our identities and, instead, listen to what God is telling us.
John writes “See what great love the Father has lavished on 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. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
God loves us so much that he has made us his children. We are God’s children. As John emphatically declares “And that is what we are!” This is great news. But you need to realize that this doesn’t mean that the world will recognize or approve of our true identity. John tells us that the world does not know us because it does not know God. What does this mean? Think about it this way. Suppose visitors from a far off land came to visit you. Imagine that they have never before been to the United States, nor watched American television, read American newspapers, or had any access to the internet. What do you think their reaction would be if you took them to a Sacramento Kings basketball game? What if you met a Kings player outside dressed in his jersey and ready to sign autographs? Your visitor would have no idea who this person was, or why he was dressed like that.
John tells us that the world does not know God, and so it will not know us, given that our primary identities are as children of God. We ourselves don’t fully understand what it means to be God’s children, but we do know that our one clue to what it means is Jesus Christ. John gives us some more clues in the second part of our passage, where he writes about what being a child of God means in our lives today.
John writes “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.”
Let me clarify one thing for you about this passage. It is something that initially had me scratching my head about this passage. It has to do with John’s comments about sinning when he writes “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.” At first blush, this sounds like John is suggesting that once we become a Christian, we will no longer sin. Or put another way, if you sin, you cannot be a Christian. And yet, we know that this is not true. So what does John mean?
To understand, we can look to something that John wrote earlier in this letter. John wrote “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8-10). So I think we can safely say that John knows that we are sinners, and that even though we follow Jesus, we still need to ask Jesus for forgiveness. Also, John knows that it is Jesus who will purify us from unrighteousness, and not our own actions.
So what is John saying in our passage then? Well, John is telling us that if we are children of God, and if that is our true identity, then we will be different. We will start to live as children of God. And children of God live their lives focused on God and his kingdom, and not on our selfish interests. This new life comes about after we are transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ.
One commentator writes “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.”
Being children of God means that we know what sin is, and that we re-orient our lives away from it. This requires the grace of God, and it comes from a renewal and transformation of our minds. We can not claim to be children of God and still wallow in our old lives of sin. The two are not compatible with each other. We can be one or the other, but not both. And our identities will be seen in our actions. Our actions don’t determine our identities, but rather they flow from our identities. If we return to our sports analogy, if you are truly a dyed in the wool Sacramento Kings fan, and you go to the arena to watch them play, you won’t dress up in the other team’s jersey and cheer when the Kings get scored against. A true Kings fan will cheer the Kings. It can be no other way for a true fan. And so it is with us as children of God. If we are God’s children, we will act like his children.
God gives us our identities as being his children. This identity should inform and govern everything that we do in this life, including our attitudes towards others, our values, and how we spend our time. Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians some things that will flow from having the identity of children of God. He wrote “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” These things will point to God’s power within us, and they will help further the kingdom of God in the world.
And so, when people look on you, what will they see? What will they see as your identity? And what clues will you give them?
Let us pray.
Almighty Father, you have given your only Son to die for our sins and to rise again for our justification: grant us so to put away the any identity that is not rooted in you; that we may always serve you in pureness of living and truth; Amen.