Sermon: “We Are God’s Children Now”

“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.

[vi] Sayles

[vii] Sayles

Sermon: “Moving to Perfection”

Feb. 23, 2014
by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Matthew 5:38-48 and Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

What do you think of when you hear the word “perfect”?  I’ve been watching some of the Olympics, and marveling as the athletes strive for perfection in their sport.  The ice skaters amaze me.  How they simply stay upright on skates is mystifying enough, much less how they jump and spin and land gracefully without missing a beat, smiling the whole time.  The commentators are skaters themselves so they know what to look for, and while I am saying “wow!” about a triple jump, they are critiquing – “Oh, did you see that?  Her shoulders and hips aren’t exactly parallel!”  “Uh oh! He landed on the outside edge of his skate blade, there will be points taken off for that!”  And I’m thinking, “Good grief, give them a break!”

Well, with today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel, I kind of want to say the same thing to Jesus.  He says “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect,” and I want to say, “Good grief, Jesus, give me a break!  I’m not God! I’m only human!  That’s overwhelming; it makes me feel helpless and hopeless!”

But certainly that wasn’t Jesus’ intent – to make us feel helpless or hopeless, to make us fret that because of our human nature we feel caught in the middle: less than we ought to be and unable to be more than we are.[i]   And yet, when we hear the word “perfect,” much less “perfect” in relationship to God, we’re not at all sure we’re up to the task.

So what’s Jesus getting at here with this statement about being perfect as God is perfect? Certainly it is not a recommendation for perfectionism, some kind of rigid concern for the rules, where the means become confused with the ends.  He’s already said that the righteousness of his followers must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, two groups that were so diligently focused on the means, they had lost sight of the ends.  And since we’re ARE human beings whose nature it is to change and to grow from infancy to adulthood, to old age, and finally to die, and whose nature God called “good” at creation, perfection certainly can’t mean stasis or that we can reach a place where there is no room for improvement, or can point to a time when we are totally “finished.”

Maybe it makes more sense to think of “perfection” a purpose, so that there is a sense of movement, of becoming what God intends, of accomplishing our God-given purpose in the same way that God reflects God’s own nature and purpose.[ii]  In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates this command to be perfect, this way: “In a word, what I’m saying is ‘Grow up.’ You’re made in the image of God, now live like it.  Live out your God-created identity.”

It is God’s nature to love all that God has created.  Jesus says, God “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  God’s love is impartial and for all, even for our enemies, even for God’s enemies! And so our goal in living out our God-created identity is to love from that same place that God loves – not out of desire for personal gain, not out of desire for reward, or to be liked by those who like us, but because, having been created in God’s image, it is what we were made to do.

Because it is difficult to envision what this kind of Godly love looks like in action, especially in action in us, Jesus gives some concrete examples to think about.  In the reading from last week, Jesus taught that in personal relationships anger has the potential to be a deadly as murder, that time spent thinking about unworthy things carries with it the risk that we will diminish ourselves; that selfishness and impatience can undermine our fidelity to our most cherished relationships; and that truthfulness and integrity are not to be saved for special occasions, but values and behaviors that should consistently characterize every word we speak, every action we undertake.  The loving person controls his or her anger; spends time in pursuits that improve and perfect himself or herself and others, and is consistently faithful, loving, and honest in all relationships.

In today’s reading he moves from personal relationships to the larger community arena and offers several scenarios, that take us beyond the ancient law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” to show what God’s love looks like when we’re on the receiving end of less than perfect love – the victim and not the perpetrator.  Although a proportional response to a violent act is better than an overwhelming violent response, it is still violence, not love.  And so He commands, if someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other; if someone sues you for your coat, give your cloak as well; if someone forces you to go one mile, go a second.  He isn’t recommending that we become victims or objects of abuse, but instead suggests that we have a opportunity for a free and conscious choice to act in ways that are generous, peaceful, and loving rather than violent.

He suggests as well that if we are to love as God loves, then we must extend our love, compassion, affection or concern to our enemies, and not keep it only for those who are just like us – family or friends who agree with us, who hold the same values or viewpoints  that we do, who speak the same language or share the same religion, ethnicity or nationality or come from the same economic class.  Our love must extend to those most unlike us – the stranger, the outsider, those with whom we disagree and have nothing in common, even to our enemies who truly hate us. We are to love them as God loves them – to hold positive, life-affirming thoughts about them – and we are to pray for them, not that God will smite them dead or convince them of how wrong they are and how right we are, but that God will bless them and care for them as God blesses and cares for us.  If we are children of God, the only way to realize the full potential of that identity, is to grow in love, to love as God loves.

Yesterday at our confirmation retreat, Sharon, Joel, and Meg led our group discussions about growing in love, growing in our God-given identity.  First we listed positive qualities that people in our lives – parents, teachers, friends — had shared with us and which had had influenced us.  Some of the qualities we named were: encouragement, affirmation, unconditional love, respect, encouragement, hope, joy, laughter, motivation, walking the walk, not just talking the talk.  Everyone was able to recall times when parents offered a needed push, or a friend said something that restored feelings of ability and worth. These qualities have meant all the difference in so many situations.  You might want to try this exercise too, and reflect on what persons in your life have contributed in a positive way to making you the person you are today.

We then reflected on the ways in which Jesus modeled these behaviors to his disciples in his own life.  He was all of those things we’d named – a loving, forgiving friend, an encourager, someone who respected those with whom he associated, someone who gave hope and joy, and modeled loving behavior, someone whose words and actions never contradicted each other.

And then we realized that those qualities that we see in Jesus, are also examples of things we know about God.  Jesus incarnated these qualities, so that we could see them operating under human conditions, which means, if he can do it, we can do it because being human was not a limitation for Jesus’ ability to love, and so it shouldn’t be for us either.

Finally we reflected on what it means to be confirmed in the faith.  It means in large part pledging our constant effort to be a model of God’s love now. So that we can pass on to others the love of God we saw in the role models in our own lives.  We did not read it, but I was reminded at the time of the poem written by Teresa of Avilla, a 16th century mystic – a poem that you might have heard before:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours.

We are offered the challenge every day to grow into our God given identity through the choices and opportunities that present themselves.   We can choose to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and love the unloveable, or we can choose to fight fire with fire, draw lines in the sand, hate and distrust those unlike ourselves whom we perceive to be our enemies.  And what do those actions say about us? Do they say that we, to use John Wesley’s words, are “moving on to perfection, or Paul’s words that “it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us?  Or do they say that we’ve given up the journey, unwilling to do the growing and stretching it takes to live out our God-identity?  The choice is ours – to be perfect as our father in heaven is perfect – to love as God loves . . .  or not.

[i] Roberta Bondi, To Love as God Loves, 1987, 24.

[ii] David Lose, “Perfect,” Craft of Preaching,, February 13, 2011.