April 19, 2015 Easter 3B
How many of us ever tried to talk our parents into letting us do something just because “everyone else is doing it”? If your parents were like mine, the answer sounded something like this: “’Everyone Else’ isn’t my child. You are. Now act like it.”
Did any of you grow up as a “PK” – a preacher’s kid? Or maybe you knew a preacher’s kid when you were growing up? I was a PK. I never thought that it was fair, being expected to behave better than other kids my age. Sometimes my friends would tease me, calling me “goody two-shoes” – and I didn’t even know what that meant. Go ahead, Google it.
Most of the PKs I knew found ways to rebel at some point. It was no fun living up to a standard of behavior that made sure we wouldn’t embarrass our parents, or get them into trouble with their churches. Sometimes the pressure was too much, and one of us – never me, you understand – would do something just to be ornery, just to prove that PKs could be human, too.
That’s when The Parent/Pastor would sit us down and give us “The Speech.” It went something like this: I know it doesn’t seem fair to you, and it probably isn’t, but the way you behave matters. People are watching, and when they see you behave badly, it reflects badly on their Pastor, and that reflects badly on the church. You represent our family, but even more, you represent our church. Whether you like it or not, you have to be good.
You’re a preacher’s kid. Now act like it.”
A highlight of the Covenant annual meeting I attended this week was listening to the personal faith stories of candidates for ordination. One young man described what it was like to grow up in an adoptive home. He told of a time when, as a young boy, he had rebelled against bedtime, the way most children do at some point. He was angry at his mom and he said, “I don’t have to do what you tell me. You aren’t my real mom.” His mom didn’t miss a beat. She said, “I may not be the mother who gave birth to you, but I am the mother God intended for you. Now go to sleep.”
She might as well have said, “You’re my child; now act like it.”
We know that John loved the intended readers of his letters, because he tells them so throughout his writing. His letters to these people are reminders not only that they are loved, but that John claims them as his own “little children.” More importantly, they are God’s children. And John wants them to start acting like it.
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. – 1 John 3:1-7
I always associate this first verse with baptism, the sacrament that signifies our adoption into God’s family. Baptism is a tangible sign of God’s lavish love for us, and I love repeating this verse whenever we baptize an infant or a new believer. The water in the font not only symbolizes how our sins have been washed away, it also represents the way we are made a new creation through faith in Christ Jesus. Our spiritual DNA is changed. The old sinful self is made into a new being. We become children of God.
I like the New International Version of verse one – it says, “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!” John always refers to Jesus as God’s Son, but he also always refers to believers as God’s children. We have a new status, a new identity. We aren’t step-children or foster children. We are lavishly beloved children of God.
You may have noticed that I like to say this a lot. I like to remind each one of you that you are God’s own beloved child. I say it often because I know how hard it is to believe, sometimes. When I look in the mirror, I don’t always see someone that looks lovable. I know that, if I need to be constantly reminded of how deeply God loves me, chances are good some of you could use a reminder, and John apparently thought the same thing about his church, too.
John assures us that, even though we are already God’s beloved children, with a totally new identity, we aren’t finished yet. John writes, “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” (v. 2). We many not know what we are going to be like when God’s work is completed in us, but we do know this: we are going to be like Jesus, and that is cause for great hope!
Holding onto that hope, John encourages his readers to be pure, just as Christ is pure. John uses the word “purify” only once in this letter, and it refers to the spotlessness associated with preparation for worship. John is talking about the moral purity required to enter into worship free from sin.
Sin is a big deal for John. Last week, we heard John’s warning: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9). Sin is evidence of our old nature still at work in us, and every one of us needs forgiveness. But what is sin, exactly?
John calls it “lawlessness” but he doesn’t mention Law anywhere else in this writing, and this is the only time he uses the word “lawlessness” as a definition for sin. John isn’t talking about breaking rules here. He isn’t referring to the Law of Moses or the Old Testament. This word is the same one Paul uses to identify Satan as “the man of lawlessness” who will challenge Christ at the end of the age, when he wrote in 2 Thessalonians:
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. … The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. – 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3, 9-10
John, like Paul, describes sin as rebellion against God, pure and simple. It’s placing oneself in opposition to Christ, and siding with evil. And it’s an easy thing to do, because Satan does use “every kind of wicked deception” to lull us into thinking our actions don’t matter. As long as nobody gets hurt, we can do whatever we want to satisfy our own desires, we tell ourselves. Lying is okay, if you’re doing it to save face or protect another person from painful information. Stealing is okay, if you’re only taking from some impersonal corporation, or finding some way to take advantage of “the system.” Sexual sin isn’t really sin – it’s just satisfying a natural urge that’s part of the human condition. Sin isn’t really sin, our culture tells us – it’s just being myself, doing what comes naturally. Everyone else is getting away with it, so why can’t I?
John reminds us that “everyone else” isn’t who we are. We are children of God, and our Father, who lavishes his love on us, expects us to act like it. God expects us to behave counter-culturally, because we have been changed. We are no longer slaves to sin, but beloved children of God. And as long as we abide in Christ, we have the power to stop sinning.
How can this be? How can John have insisted, back in chapter one, that “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8), and now be telling us that “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him” (3:6)?
Many New Testament scholars have struggled with this apparent contradiction. Come on, John, they insist. You can’t have it both ways. Either we sin or we don’t, and experience teaches us the all too painful reality: of course we still sin, even when we profess to believe in Christ, even when we claim him as our Savior and Lord. We thank God for his grace, and the love he showed to all of us in the death and resurrection of Jesus that takes away the sins of the world, but we know we are still contributing to that sin pool. No matter how hard we try, we find ourselves slipping into old patterns of behavior. We still sin. So what on earth does John mean here, when he says, “No one who abides in him sins”?
The key to understanding this unsettling sentence lies between the subject and the verb. Instead of focusing our attention on the part that says “No one sins,” we need to be looking at the part that says “who abides in him.”
John uses the word “abide” thirteen times in this letter. In the last few verses of chapter two, he writes, “If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father” (2:24). And again, a few verses later, “But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him. And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming.” – 1 John 2:27-28
Whenever we are abiding in Christ, we take on his character. Whenever we abide in Christ, we live into our identity as children of God. As often and as long as we abide in Christ, we do not sin – not because we are working hard to avoid sinning, but because the by-product of abiding in Christ is sinlessness.
Think about it. When you are reading the Bible, and the scripture is speaking into your heart, do you not sense that you are a different kind of person? As you soak up God’s Word, and your mind is awakened to deep truths revealed to you there, do you ever, ever, find yourself thinking mean or jealous thoughts about someone else? When you are immersed in God’s Word, does foul language ever, ever, enter your head?
When you are deep in prayer, praising God with your whole being, seeking God’s guidance for your life, asking forgiveness and receiving God’s mercy, do you ever, ever, find yourself calculating how to cheat on your taxes or plan your next deception? It seems silly, doesn’t it?
When we abide in Christ, we live into our identity as God’s own beloved children. We take on the character of the One who loves us so much, he died for our sakes. We may, from time to time, fall into old patterns of sin. We may fail, many times each day, to stay connected to Christ. Just as abiding in Christ keeps us from sinning, so sinning keeps us from abiding in Christ. But John gives us this assurance: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
The more we abide in Christ, the more we take on his righteousness. The more righteous we become by abiding in Christ, the more things we do rightly, instead of wrongly. And the more right things we do, the more we show the world what it means to be a beloved child of God.
The message of John’s letter to his church is simple: “Become what you already are.” You may not always feel like it. You may not always find it easy. None of us is perfect – yet. “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.” You are God’s own beloved child. Become what you already are. Live into your new identity.
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God! And that is what we are!
Now, act like it! Amen.
 I. Howard Marshall, NICNT: The Epistles of John, 183.