Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
April 15, 2018 8:30 AM
Ἴδετε ποταπὴν ἀγάπην δέδωκεν ἡμῖν ὁ πατήρ, ἵνα τέκνα θεοῦ κληθῶμεν, καὶ ἐσμέν. διὰ τοῦτο ὁ κόσμος οὐ γινώσκει ἡμᾶς, ὅτι οὐκ ἔγνω αὐτόν. ἀγαπητοὶ νῦν τέκνα θεοῦ ἐσμεν, καὶ οὔπω ἐφανερώθη τί ἐσόμεθα.οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἐὰν φανερωθῇ, ὅμοιοι αὐτῷ ἐσόμεθα, ὅτι ὀψόμεθα αὐτόν, καθώς ἐστιν. καὶ πᾶς ὁ ἔχων τὴν ἐλπίδα ταύτην ἐπʼ αὐτῷ ἁγνίζει ἑαυτόν, καθὼς ἐκεῖνος ἁγνός ἐστιν.
See what kind of love the Father has given us that we might be called children of God. And that’s what we are. For this reason, the world does not know us because it did not know him. Beloved, we are now children of God, and it is not yet clear what we shall be. We know, [however], when it does become clear, that we shall be like him because we shall see him just as he is. Now everyone who has this hope in him becomes pure just as he is pure.
I still recall the young pastor’s energy and sincerity. He had invited me to his office to discuss singing in his choir during my last year in high school. He was in the middle of telling me about the history of his church, the engaging youth programs he thought would interest me, the dedication of the congregation to good music and all of the other “selling points” that might secure a new baritone voice for the chancel choir when he blew up my comfortable Christian world completely.
As part of his “sales pitch,” he began to describe the church’s neighborhood as a “changing neighborhood,” and I didn’t understand the code words he was using and asked him what he meant. He meant race. The neighborhood was becoming African American, though in 1960 white people didn’t use that designation yet. I still didn’t get it, wondering what racial demographics had to do with singing in his choir. Perhaps my perplexity showed on my face, and the pastor interpreted it as a challenge. His next words I can still almost quote from memory:
Now we know the Christian thing to do would be to go out and recruit these people for our church. But if we did that, then many of the white people in the church would leave.
If I had any innocence left when I stepped into the minister’s office that morning, I had none when I left it. The pastor couldn’t have made his meaning any clearer: As he saw it, Christian faith demanded the ministry of his church include its neighbors of color, but he wasn’t willing to do that because the white Christians in his church would then leave it. My 16-year-old mind paraphrased his words to mean. “Segregation in Jim Crow Virginia is more important than living for Jesus.” I believe I got his meaning right.
The unknown author of First John must have heard something similar from the Christians in Syria, who were very certain that being Jesus people in Syrian Antioch didn’t actually have to mean living like Jesus. The Christians John addressed had gotten themselves saved by believing in Jesus, and what seemed to them like the author’s moralisms didn’t count for much at all in comparison with the wonderful bliss of their superior piety. For them, being Christian meant believing. What they did was secondary. As a consequence, these liberated Christians did not need John sticking his nose into their business affairs, their political loyalties, or their family disputes. They belonged to Jesus. They were on heaven’s highway, thank you very much.
John’s opponents would have agreed with him about how much love God had shown by making them God’s children. Being saved meant that they were divine sons and daughters, not like the rabble on the streets of Roman cities. They had a special bond. They were special because believing in Jesus made them special. And if they made their money by the usual hook and crook of everyday Roman-era life, then so what? They were still God’s children. If they bought and sold slaves, refused to give to the poor, cheated on their mates, and oppressed their workers, what difference did it make? So long as they believed, so long as they rode salvation’s train, why did they have to love their neighbors or, for that matter, even treat them decently?
But what about the children part? That’s John’s question. Most of us call a household with children a family—in this case, God’s family. John wants his readers to know that God’s marvelous love for us consists in making us together with each other members of God’s own family, God’s own precious generation. And in a family, nobody gets a choice about having brothers and sisters with knobby knees or olive skin or a genius IQ or a monotone singing voice. We take what we get, and the Father that gave us life as his children loves each one equally, totally oblivious in that love to the human differences.
There’s something else about families, and this is true as well of God’s family. We never know the outcome. Or, as John writes, “it is not yet clear what we shall be.” In some sense, there is no “outcome” to family life other than the changes that happen as time passes. John’s opponents had things all figured out. They were the resounding heroes of their own cosmic passion play. Their self-assured salvation made them unique and special in their world. There was nothing messy about their religion. People didn’t sin and repent. Siblings in faith didn’t bicker and reconcile. The retrograde passions of this world like envy and bigotry had no effect on them, not really, because they were secure in their belief.
But living in a family isn’t secure like that, is it? We hurt each other. We look down on each other. We play for advantage and pout when we lose it. Family life is a work in progress. We must confess to each other, forgive each other, get off our selfish high horses and love people who differ from us, respect siblings who don’t seem to respect us, and pray for each other even when that’s the hardest thing in the world to do.
I wish I had possessed the words to argue with the earnest pastor about whether preserving a segregated white church in an African-American neighborhood was really the way of Jesus. Instead, I just left as quickly as I could with my shattered adolescent Christianity in tatters. I’ve imagined that God put that pastor in my way to convict me of my own unacknowledged racism, but it wasn’t a pretty lesson in faith. I’ve often wondered on trips back to Roanoke about what I might find if I stopped the car outside that church building again and walked in again; but I haven’t had the heart to do it. Painful as it was, however, I am grateful that God let me understand that the way of Jesus and the ways of justice and love comprise a single highway and that the wonder of God’s love creates one great temple in which all God’s people bow down to pray with a family that includes you and me as well as the undocumented Spanish-speaking immigrant from El Salvador that bigotry would have us fear and the Muslim family from Syria who believed so rashly in Americans’ compassion. See what kind of love the Father has given us in making us one family with the descendants of slaves and the offspring of their masters, in calling us into one household with hungry people and the well-fed, in creating a single generation of forgiven and forgiving sinners.