“We Are God’s Children Now”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
1 John 3:1-7
April 19, 2015
Audio for this sermon unavailable.
Last week Jodie made an interesting observation. She said that in all the years prior to joining the United Methodist Church and in the nine years since, she does not recall ever hearing mentioned John Wesley’s doctrine of entire sanctification, or perfection. There could be quite a few reasons for that. The best possible scenario is that there has been an amazing coincidence – a Guinness Book of World Records coincidence – between Jodi’s vacations and the times when this topic was presented in church. Or perhaps it has been inserted from time to time under other names, and in various disguises – “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’! But I think Jodie would have caught on to that pretty fast. Or maybe it’s been hidden, pureed and softened disguised in something sweeter and more palatable, like the way moms sometimes put baby spinach in brownie mix to make the brownies a little bit healthier.
But on the other hand, as I think about the world today, the world as it has always been really, I wonder if it isn’t very, very difficult, and thus rather rare, to find the words, the courage, the right time to attempt to explain or to convince or to convert individuals to the belief and consequent behavior that both asserts and demonstrates our primary purpose in life is to grow in love of God and love of neighbor to the point at which we can say about ourselves, as Paul said of himself, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Frankly, that is a hard sell. People have too many other things to do, too many other issues. They don’t want to hear that right now! How many of the people who call themselves Christians, ourselves included, can say in all honesty that becoming Christlike is our primary goal? And how many people when sharing their opinion about us, first recall our Christlikeness before they remember anything else?
Some years back, David Gushee , a professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, wrote about the failure of Christians and of the Church to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. He noted the genocide in Rwanda, a country that claimed to be 90% Christian, where “all that Christianity did not prevent genocide” and in which “a large number of Christians participated.”[i] He also noted in that article that from the time of the Crusades, where Christian soldiers killed thousands of Muslims and Jews in the name of Christ, to the present time our actions have not reflected our words. He cited Christian Germany which was responsible for the Holocaust, South African Christians who were the architects of apartheid, and American slaveholders most of whom were professing Christians. In our own time, we can add our Christian elected leaders and many others who found nothing wrong with torture, and who seem to find warfare the preferred action over diplomacy almost every time.
And that of course does not even include all of the individual failures of people who self-identify as Christians – the things that make the news – like priests abusing children or demonstrators waving signs that blaspheme a God of love by proclaiming that God hates – and the things that don’t make the news – family violence, greed, infidelity, pride, selfishness.
Gushee wrote, “The presence of churches in a country guarantees nothing. The self-identification of people with the Christian faith guarantees nothing. All of the clerical garb and regalia, all of the structure of religious accountability, all of the Christian vocabulary and books, all of the schools and seminaries and parish houses and Bible studies, all of the religious titles and educational degrees – they guarantee nothing.” And why is that? Pretty simple really.
Because not everyone who claims to be a Christian is actually following Jesus, has actually made “going on to perfection,” as Wesley called it, their primary goal in life. There are many powerful influences in our world often at odds with the gospel – social, economic, political influences – that move us more readily to action than does the influence of Christ, and which receive greater loyalty from us when the chips are down. I remember the comment of Clarence Jordan’s brother – Clarence was the founder of Koinonia Farms – and his brother was an attorney and would be politician. He said something to the effect that he didn’t mind following Jesus, but he wasn’t going to climb up on the cross with him. That’s the kind of conflict of loyalties that we all face at some time or another.
It’s pretty obvious, though, from what we’ve read in today’s epistle reading that God wants us to move on to perfection; wants us to become like Christ; wants us to be “entirely sanctified” in this lifetime. That is God’s will for us and for the world. The author of 1John is realistic about the ways of the world, about the presence of sin or rebellion, but he does not despair. Instead he offers the hope that “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.” It is clearly God’s desire then “to work in us, with us, and on us until we fully reflect the spirit and character of Jesus”[ii] not just when it’s easy and when it won’t be embarrassing, not just when it isn’t in conflict with our other loyalties and priorities, not just when nobody is looking. But all day, every day, rain or shine, hard times, easy times, when we feel like it, and even when we don’t. Maybe especially then.
And that sure doesn’t happen overnight, does it! We may be God’s children now, but it takes all of our lives to grow into that family relationship. One of the reasons I am a United Methodist is our recognition that coming to faith is not an event, but a progression. Wesley’s own experience, as well as what he understood from Scripture, led him to believe that faith is a constantly growing and evolving understanding of and trust in God, not a one-time thing, not a “get out of jail free” card, or a trophy for display on the mantel. He knew that doubt was to be expected, that there were “degrees of faith,” and that sometimes we could experience what he called a “wilderness state.” Moving on to perfection, “becoming habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor,” and “having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked,” is a kind of spiritual pilgrimage where we struggle to understand God and ourselves; where we move from birth to death, from new birth to eternal life, from fear to joy, from doubt to confidence.[iii]
Wesley’s idea of perfection is nothing like our neurotic obsession with perfectionism, of never making a mistake, and of beating ourselves up when we do. Interestingly, Wesley had conflict with those within the early Methodist movement who thought that’s exactly what it was. Some went so far as to believe they would persist in an “angelic-like state” and they began to imagine that they would not die and that they were immune from temptation. Perfection or Sanctification consequently was a regular topic at early annual conferences. And Wesley finally had to write a letter in 1762 to one enthusiast to whom he said, “I like your doctrine of perfection or pure love; . . . but I dislike your supposing man may be perfect as an angel.” “I like your confidence in God and your zeal for the salvation of souls. But I dislike something which has the appearance of pride, of over-valuing yourselves and undervaluing others, particularly the preachers!”[iv] (And now you know another reason why I love John Wesley!)
Those individuals, needless to say, left the Methodist movement shortly thereafter! And Wesley continued to preach that perfection, or holiness of life, was a matter of day in and day out concern and growth in grace, growth which was most likely to develop through fellowship and worship because its essence is relationship – to self, to others, and to God. Eugene Peterson puts it this way, “We are here to be formed over our lifetimes into a community of the beloved — God’s beloved, who are being formed into a people who love God and one another in the way and on the terms in which God loves us. It is slow work. We are slow learners. . . . Love is the ocean in which we swim. So what if many of us can only wade in the shallows and others of us can barely dog paddle for short distances? We are learning and we see the possibility of one day taking long, relaxed, easy strokes into the deep.”[v]
Growing into the likeness of Christ does not mean that we will all be just alike, but there will be a distinct family resemblance. However, just as there is a resemblance within families, so also each member of a family is distinctive and unique. Thus, as we become more like Jesus, we also become more of our truest selves. As God’s children now, we are freed to explore possibilities even with our admitted flaws and limitations; we can say “yes” rather than “no” or “maybe” or “who, me?” and we can give ourselves permission to color outside the lines, to be who we really are – that unique and unrepeatable miracle of God that I’m always reminding you about.
It is always easy to find examples of failure, on a large scale or small. David Gushee had no end of examples in his article. We all know that bad news travels faster than good. And criticism is more frequent than praise.
However, in our own unique and unrepeatable ways, we are meant to have and to express the good news in our lives, and big ways and in small. We do that every time we acknowledge and recognize our faith in God, our trust in God’s grace, our wonder and amazement at the beauty of God’s creation and the mystery of life, our hope that endures through hard times, times of death, loss and sorrow, so that we can trust that that is not all there is, but that joy comes in the morning, and wholeness and laughter are also part of life; our confidence that our world, despite evidence to the contrary, is not headed towards extinction, but towards heaven on earth; and finally, our mindfulness, our awareness that deep in the heart of things is always unconditional and compassionate love.”[vi]
Perfection, Sanctification, Christlikeness doesn’t happen overnight. We don’t just get up in the morning and say, “I think I’ll be like Christ today.” It requires patience and perseverance, growth over time in self-understanding and the understanding of others. It requires accountability when we stumble and fall short, and continual forgiveness of ourselves and others during those inevitable times. Moving on to perfection has been described as the slow process of “human becoming,”[vii] of being shaped into the image of Christ, and of finding ourselves one day to be at last like him! May it be so for you and for me as well. Amen.
[i] David P. Gushee, “Church Failure, Remembering Rwanda,” The Christian Century, April 20, 2004, 28.
[ii] Rev. Dr. Guy Sayles, “We Will Be Like Jesus,” Day-1, April 30, 2006.
[iii] Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodist, 1995, 321.
[iv] Heitzenrater, 210.
[v] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 2005, 322.