(a sermon by Mark Parent)
(delivered at the Pereaux Church)
(April 29, 2012 — I John 2:28-3:24)
As an adopted kid, I was always amused by how others tried to find physical similarities between my parents and myself. In particular, they were always stumped by the height difference between my mom and me as I am over six feet and she barely reaches 4 ft 7in. I knew as a kid that the more important comparisons were not the physical characteristics but other characteristics, my likes and dislikes, my attitude towards life which I shared with my parents.
Our Epistle lesson for this morning, taken from I John chapter three, does not focus on the physical marks of what it means to be a son or daughter or God. The biblical author, John, knew that far more important that any physical resemblance that the divine may have bequeathed to humanity is the way we act, what we value, how we behave, what goals and dreams we pursue.
According to John, then, there are four characteristics which are common to all God’s children. The first characteristic is this — children of God are confident.
Picking up on his theme of living in the last days, John writes these words, “abide in Him; that when He shall appear, we may have confidence.” The Greek word translated by the English word “confidence” is — parrasian. It comes from the root word — pan-resia — whose range of meanings includes: speaking openly rather than secretly; speaking courageously rather than keeping quiet out of fear; and speaking plainly rather than obscurely.
Confidence is the characteristic of those who feel that they can speak their mind about what they think and feel without being condemned or rejected. It is the characteristic of those who don’t have to hide behind masks, pretending to be what they are not. It is the characteristic of those who know that they are accepted and loved, not for what they have done, or for who they have become, but they are accepted for no other reason than that they are loved, loved by God and thus free to approach God honestly. They are free to say what’s on their mind, knowing that nothing they do or say can stop God from loving them and wanting the best for them.
One of the great features of democratic society is that we have taken this freedom that we have with the divine and extended it to society at large. In democratic societies, as opposed to autocratic ones, citizens are allowed to voice their opinions, to criticize their government officials, to speak freely and with confidence. Unfortunately, with the advent of politically correct thinking and with the rise of litigation this freedom to speak openly and freely, although still present, is severely curtailed.
Some Christmases ago now my parents gave me a small book for light reading. Entitled the Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations — LIAR for short — it provides a whole host of suggestions and examples of how to write a letter of recommendation which when read one way says one thing, when read another way, says something quite different.
For example, to describe someone with a drinking problem a suggested sentence goes like this — “the volume of work he preforms, while staggering, is still only a fraction of what he can do.” To describe a dishonest employee this sentence — “even though her work record was only average, her true ability was deceiving.” To describe a lazy person these words — “you will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you.”
Funny as this book is, though, the author’s reason for writing such a book is really quite sad. In the preface, Robert Thornton, explains that it is an increasingly common practice for employees to sue their employers when they have provided negative letters of recommendation. Consequently, many employers no longer consent to write such letters for fear that if they speak too plainly they will be open to legal action.
I know this type of silencing is really quite picayune. The more important thing is that matters of life and death, in the larger questions of the future, in our angers and our frustrations we as children of God have the characteristics of confidence before God. This privilege we have as God’s children to approach God confidently is a very dear one, indeed.
Notice, in second place, that characteristic of the children of God is that God’s children do not sin. John puts it this way “whoever abides in God sins not; whoever sins has not seen God, neither knows Him.”
I hope that your memories are sharp and you are even now mentally leafing back to the opening chapter of I John, because in chapter one John had this to write — “if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” And so the question arises. How can John state that if we claim not to sin we are liars, in chapter one, and yet, here in chapter three state that the one who abides in God, that is the child of God, does not sin?
The answer is simply this, the root Sin — Sin with a capital “S” — is not primarily the breaking of moral laws and regulations but the tearing apart of a relationship. It stems from that original breach in relationships, the broken relationship between God and Adam and Eve. Suddenly Adam and Eve felt themselves to be naked, wanting to hide from God. A broken relationship with God is the root Sin, and from this Sin all other sins proceed.
So you see, while the Christian continues to commit sins — with a small “s” — the Christian does not Sin — with a capital “S” — because he or she is back in relationship with God through the person of Jesus Christ. St. Ambrose, many years ago, put it this way: “I have nothing whereof I may glory in works; I will therefore glory in Christ. I will not glory because I am righteous, but because I am redeemed; not because I am clear of sin, but because my sins are forgiven.”
In C. S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce we find these words: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” The Christian no longer desires his or her will to be the guide and rule but God’s will. The self is dethroned and in its place is Christ. We continue to commit sins, yes, but we repent and turn to God in prayer again and again saying “Thy kingdom come (in my heart and life) . . . Thy will be done (not mine).”
And then consider, if you will, in third instance, that a characteristic of the children of God is that they are to do “what is righteous.” And then John goes on to define what is righteous by stating, “whosoever does not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loves not his brother. For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.”
Love is the great hallmark which suffuses the Christian faith. God is love. Love was the motive for Christ’s self-giving. Love is the mark of the true Church. Love is woven into the very fabric of Christian faith. And it is a shame that this wonderful word has been weakened and distorted by secular society. In a Charlie Brown cartoon, Charlie Brown confesses to Lucy that he wants to be a medical doctor when he becomes an adult. “That’s a big laugh,” Lucy responds. “You could never be a doctor. You know why? Because you don’t love mankind, that’s why!” And Charlie Brown protests, “I do love mankind . . . its people I can’t stand.”
This, you see, is what love has degenerated to — a vacuous, empty word which, in the end, really means nothing. You cannot love in abstraction, you can only love in the concrete. The Bible does not talk about abstract love, or sentimentalized love which is really just loving a projection of yourself. The Bible talks about agape love, self-giving love, concrete love. Love which does not mind getting its hand dirty in the muck and the grime of human life.
In Graham Greene’s haunting book, The Heart of the Matter, the protagonist, a police officer in a African colony, muses to himself:
Why [Major Scobie wondered] do I love this place so much? Is it because here human nature hasn’t had time to disguise itself? Nobody here could ever talk about a heaven on earth. Heaven remained rigidly in its proper place on the other side of death, and on this side flourished the injustices, the cruelties, the meanness that elsewhere people so cleverly hushed up. Here you could love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worst: you didn’t love a pose, a pretty dress, a sentiment artfully assumed.
Finally, in forth place, notice that the children of God have God’s Spirit within them. John writes, “We know that God abides in us, by the Spirit which He has given us.”
The presence of God’s Spirit abiding within us means two very important things, which I want to close with this morning.
It means that God knows us even better than we know ourselves. That of course can be a very scary thought. There are many times when we are quite glad that other people can see only our outward countenance and not the inner thoughts of our hearts. However, while frightening, it is also comforting, for if God knows us this intimately and accepts us totally, then it means, by extension, that we are not alone with our problems, our guilt, our heartaches, our fears, our hopes – always God is with us.
Armand Nicoholi, an American psychiatrist, writes in Christianity Today about the pain of loneliness, noting that “loneliness is an extremely painful and frightening experience — so painful that modern psychiatry has pretty much avoided the study of it. [Nicoholi continues] Today’s drug addicts, alcoholics, workaholics and even psychotics, may in large measure be attempting to avoid the pain of loneliness.”
And so perhaps the dearest characteristic of the children of God is that God’s Spirit is placed within us and no matter what happens to us, we are never, ever alone. Always God is with us, within us, comforting and befriending us, understanding and helping us. The Scottish Covenanter imprisoned for his faith in a dark, stony cold prison wrote these words, “Christ visited me in my cell last night and every stone flashed with colour.”
What is it that marks us off as the children of God? It is not the ability to reason, not our intellects, not any physical characteristic as such. Instead it is something much more important. It is a spirit of confidence, a new relationship with God, a life of love, and, dearest of all, God’s Spirit deep within assuring us that God is with us, that we are never alone, that we always have a friend, a good shepherd watching over us.
A circuit rider in Northern Ontario could only get to the isolated farmhouses of his charge on infrequent occasions. At one home where he visited he taught a young boy to say the Lord’s Prayer, matching the first five words of that prayer to the fingers of his left hand — the Lord is my Shepherd — and emphasizing the fourth finger of his hand — the word “my.” About a year later when he visited that farmhouse once again, the boy was gone. The boy’s mother told the circuit rider that her son had become ill and died one dark, cold winter night. She found him the next morning, she related, with his right hand firmly clasped around the fourth finger of his left hand — the Lord is my shepherd.
Yes, indeed, the Lord is my Shepherd and yours and, as children of God, we can live life boldly, joyfully, freely and fully, knowing that God is always with us and that in this life or in the life which is to come we are nestled safely in God’s loving hands.