--Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams
We had a crisis in the church. A real crisis. We couldn't keep a Sunday school teacher in the third-grade classroom. We had resignation after resignation. "I"m sorry I can't do this anymore," the teachers would moan. They'd turn in their Sunday school books, shake their heads and just walk away. The next year we had trouble in the fourth grade and the next year the fifth. It was sort of like a virus that moved from grade to grade. Every teacher would say the same thing. "It's Henry. I can't do anything with him. He won't sit down and when he finally does, at his convenience, he's always pinching somebody or disrupting the whole class." One teacher said: "Why one Sunday he set the trash can on fire." Another teacher said: "I was a little late one Sunday morning and when I got there, there wasn't a single child in the room. Henry had forced them to climb out that second-story window and just sit on the roof. Why, they could have fell off and been killed." He went through teachers the way those South American fish could strip the bones clean in three minutes. Everybody shook their heads. "Why," they said, "He's either going to be a serial killer or in prison before he's sixteen."
When we left there Henry was in High School. Older, wiser, smarter--he was still chewing up teachers and spitting them out. And the poor Nominating Committee was still meeting, wringing their hands and saying: "What are we going to do?"
Now let’s turn to our Scripture for today. John wrote three letters at the end of the First century. We think these 3 letters were first a general letter, not written to a specific congregation as much as a word to all the little fragile churches in that part of the known world. John, hoped in writing to help them in a hard, hard time.
Scholars tell us that by the end of that first century the honeymoon was definitely over. Rome, the Judaizers, and just plain pagans made it increasingly difficult to be a Christian. Most of the eyewitnesses had died or been martyred. Apostasy--falling away--was in every church. They would begin with these stars in their eyes--but hard times came and you wouldn't see them as often on Sundays. And then one day, they stopped coming altogether.
Some believed that Jesus would come back in their lifetime. And when that did not happen many of them fell into a deep depression. And so, in a time when much of the church was in despair, John wrote these three letters. Mostly they were a challenge to deepen the spirituality of those fragile believers. They are as practical words as we will find anywhere in the Bible.
In reading John’s words I have discovered something in the third verse of the third chapter that I have seen before. This is what he said:” We have this hope” and this becomes the central theme of what he was trying to say to his troubled friends.
Listen to what he said in I John 3.2-3: "Beloved, we are God's children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every one who thus hopes in him purifies themselves as he is pure.”
What does it mean to give each other this hope? What does it mean for any of us to uncover this hope and put it down before the things of our lives? Three things shine out for me in these verses.
John says, first that we are God's children now. In that first verse he had already said: We have been called children of God. But here, in the very next verse he followed it up with: we are God's children now.
Linguists tell us that the Greek here is in the indicative case. What does that mean? Hope is found in what is. We are God's children right now. Moody Smith, a very fine New Testament scholar has said that Christianity has always suffered from an inadequate sense of the indicative. This is what God has done in the here and the now. This indicative tells us that right now, with whatever it is we carry around with us, good or bad, weak or strong: we are God's children right now. Or as we day in the deep South: “Right chere.” Not future. Not you will be some day. No. This is present tense. Indicative. You are God's children now. On April 14, 2013 on Augusta Road..
Most folk I know forget that when God called us his children right where we are--that he was, as the text says, lavishing his love on us. Wendell Berry once said that one of the characteristic diseases of the twenty-first century is the suspicion that they would be greatly improved if they were someplace else. It isn’t only a 21st century problem—John knew in that first century it was hard to believe that God works right where we are.
In the present tense of their lives they were touched by a love that changed them forever. When they realized whom they belonged to they lifted their heads up high and began to walk tall and straight. That story could be repeated a hundred times in the Bible. Start anywhere: Zaccheus, the lame man on a pallet, the woman taken in adultery, Saul murderer of Christians, or even the little children who would weave their way through the crowds and look up and tug at his robe to get his attention. "Jesus," they would say, "Jesus look down here. Look at me. Look at me." And when he looked they giggled and giggled, laughed and laughed. Why? Because their began to see that they were, even little six, seven and eight year olds--children of God. That’s why they loved him so much.
I love the story about the young black man that lived in the wrong part of town with his grandmother in a three-room white-frame house on a dirt road. Life had been hard. But he was given this gift. He could play football. He was the best player ever to play in that county. And as he moved on up to high school the scouts from all the schools began to take notice. By his Sophomore year the recruiters were making their way down to that tiny little house on a dirt road one by one by one. Finally, he graduated. The first person in his whole family to finish high school. He had already signed with one of the great Universities. On the day in late summer when he was to leave home for the first time and go off to school it was a time of pride and deep emotion for the whole family. His grandmother had invited all the relatives in for a big breakfast before he left. She got up early, started cooking on the wood stove. Grits, country ham, red eye gravy, biscuits as big as saucers, home-made syrup, eggs, lots and lots of eggs. When breakfast was over and it was time for the boy to leave, he went back to the room and got his little old battered suitcase that held his belongings. Members of his family surrounded him and hugged him and kissed him and slipped a dollar or two in his pocket. His grandmother waited until last. She followed him out on the porch. And then that little wiry woman reached up and grabbed that huge giant grandson in her arms and held him tight. And as she held him, someone heard her whisper: "Son, remember who you is. Always remember who you is." And she kissed him and he picked up the old suitcase, walked down the steps to begin a new life.
It is an old benediction. Remember who we is. It is the best hope I know. John said it years ago. Not only are we called children of God. We are God's children now. In the knowledge of that strong word we can walk into any future there is. For we remember who we is.
But John did not stop there. And I am grateful for this. For to a troubled, troubled church and to Christians surrounded by a world that tested their values everyday--he gave them a further word. And this is the second part of the hope we have. John said: "We are God's children now, but it does not yet appear what we shall be."
Along with the indicative: we are--John places an imperative word: we shall be. "It does not yet appear what we shall be..."Or another translation puts it: "What we will be has not yet been revealed."
We are all works in progress. And this is what it means to be children of God. That here where I am, with the little on-again-off-again commitment there comes this hopeful, hopeful word. So when Paul, from prison would write to his favorite congregation in Philippi, words of hope and thanksgiving and warning. Do you remember what he said there in the opening words: "And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion as the day of Jesus Christ.” And then he continued: "It is right for me to feel thus about you all...for you are all partakers with me in the grace...of the gospel." But he still expanded these words: "And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment..."(Phil. 1.6,7, 9)
Those little house-churches scattered all over the known world were afraid of the future. Doesn’t it all sound like the church today? Look at any denomination and you will find a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety. While we sit here, why down the road cars and streaming into that new thing—policeman everywhere directing traffic—you can’t find a place to sit. What’s wrong with us? Peter Steinke, who works with systems and the church, says that when people become anxious they become rigid and inflexible and seek certainties. This anxiety cuts off hope. They can't see anything but today’s headlines or somebody else’s jazzy church. They have no future. They live on dead-end streets. They are immobilized. They have forgotten the resurrection and its powerful, powerful implications. Why, Easter was just two Sundays ago.
Luther used to say when we got down in the mouth: “I have been baptized!” He would remember his baptism. But baptism, like birthing, is only the beginning. If you ever had a little one you know how wonderful it is. We call everybody we know. We run down to the gift shop and buy balloons that say: "It's a girl!" or "It's a boy"! We put them on the door in her hospital room. We buy twenty-two more balloons and ribbons and put them on the mailbox at home for all the neighbors to see. We order Pizza and have it delivered to the hospital room and we pig out in the afternoon. Your Mama takes off work and cleans your house from top to bottom. The house has been rearranged. The centerpiece, of course, is the baby's room that used to be your office. It has been freshly painted and there is a new baby bed and borders everywhere. It looks like some kind of a shrine. And you will take pictures and video every single moment the baby even twitches.
But none of this holds a candle to that moment, years later, when you sit in the darkness and listen to her or him sing a solo in that choir. Or that night, with a thousand people cheering, your son runs down the field with the ball. Or the day, after all the shuffling of money and priorities, he or she walks across the stage and gets that diploma. It was good back there--but nothing compares to having an adult child sit across the table and you learn from them and they tell you stories of what you don't know and places you will never go. It was wonderful back there--but it doesn't hold a candle to all the wonderful progressions along the way.
What is it that you still can't handle? What parts of you are as pagan as the day you were baptized at age ten? What temptations still trip you up even after all these years? What is it in this church that we have never, ever quite dealt with and left behind? And sometimes we say: "Well, that's just who we are."
But John says: Oh no. We have this hope. This incredible hope. Us—right here—in this place. "We are God's children now. But it does not yet appear what we shall be." And then John gives us a third word: "But we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is."
Do you see what he said? As we get a little older and we change, if you look closely you can see this resemblance forming like a Polaroid picture slowly coming to life. This is the hope that John holds out for all God's children. You may have seen the book with this title: O Lord, I Sound Just Like Mama. And, as we get older we begin to look more like Daddy. Act like him, too.
Back to the story we started this sermon with. Years after I had left that church with the desperate Nominating Committees. I was invited back. In the receiving line after church someone tapped me on the shoulder. "Do you know me?" he asked. I looked up at him. He looked vaguely familiar. He must have been six foot four. Great big man. Handsome. Standing there with this beautiful young woman. She was pregnant. And so you know what he said? This is what he said: "I'm Henry” And I said: "Henry?” And he nodded. "I asked him what he was doing. (Out on parole, I assumed.) And he said, "Well, I graduated from college with honors. Went to Law school and am a lawyer. Got a good job. This is Janie. We got married about two years ago. We're expecting our first baby." Henry and Janie moved on down the line and out the door. Other people filed by. But I couldn't get Henry off my mind. No serial killer. Never even seen the inside of a jail. Handsome. Contributing citizen. Had on a tie and shoes and looked like he was in his right mind. Acting as civilized as many of the other folk that came through that line.
This is our hope. A hopeful, hopeful word for us all. It reminds me of the prayer of the old slave: “Oh Lord, I ain’t what I should be, and I ain’t what I want to be, but thank you Jesus, I ain’t what I used to be.” "Beloved, we are God's children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." And friends, I am hanging on to these words for dear life. For this is the hope for us all.
(I preached this sermon in a church in Greenville, SC April 14, 2013)
(I preached this sermon in a church in Greenville, SC April 14, 2013)