A sermon delivered April 25, 2021 at New Creation Church (Anglican) on Good Shepherd Sunday.
Father, today we glory in our identity as your children and as siblings of our elder brother and Good Shepherd. May all who hear this Gospel know themselves to be within it. Amen.
Belonging to the Church of the Beloved
Who we are, how we live, how we think of ourselves, and how we act is shaped by who we belong to – and who we belong with. Medical professionals today speak of a loneliness epidemic in our society. You could also call it a “belongingness” epidemic. Many today, especially our youth, are being left with very little beyond themselves to identify with and belong to.
And the Christian hope speaks into that problem and longing. In his fist epistle, John identifies the church as “the Beloved” (vs.2). I want to belong there! Isn’t that a wonderful name for a church – “The Community of the Beloved”? I may have to steal it. We are place where people can confidently know themselves to be one of the Beloved. On this Good Shepherd Sunday, it’s that identity and hope that John writes to us about, while also showing us clearly that this is not an automatic, universal identity. Contrary to what we hear today, we are not all children of God. Many are, ultimately, children of another father. I wonder…how many churches would John be kicked out of today if he preached his epistle to them?
Let’s look first at our identity and hope as God’s children. And we have to linger here on verse 1 really feel its force.
SEE: Verse 1 begins with the exhortation to “see.” It’s the same word used in the Gospels for “Behold!” Contemplate, know deeply, understand this!
WHAT KIND OF LOVE: That is to say, that the agape, gracious, unmerited, totally divine love the Father has been poured out on your head and mine in Christ.
THE FATHER HAS GIVEN TO US: Reinforcing this agape love is the declaration the Father’s love is given to us. How different from what we hear today! Our culture is increasingly narcissistic and cannot stomach the idea that we should not be loved simply for who we are as we are. This is so damaging because it simply reinforces our barricades against the incredible love of God. God doesn’t love us because of who we are, he loves us in spite of who we are. He loves us out of his own goodness and faithfulness. As we prayed in our baptismal service just two weeks ago, it is out of his abundant mercy that he gives us “that which by nature we cannot have.” Lewis put it like this, “The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us; just as the roof of a sunhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it.”
THAT WE SHOULD BE CALLED CHILDREN OF GOD: But – alleluia! – in Jesus, what God calls us, we are! By faith in Christ and our baptism we are assured that we are his. And, no matter how young or old we are today, in Christ, we are first children of God.
If you are a grandparent, or simply aged, you me feel that you have lost much, you may feel that those who care for you are few, but know this: you are still and always will be his child! That’s your first identity!
For those of us who are parents and in thick of it, we need our identity now as much as ever. Before we are a father, we are a son! Before we are a mother, we are a daughter! And, if the agape love of our Father is ours, then we can love our spouse when they are unlovely and our kids when they are ungrateful. Moreover, in this we are called to remembrance that we are but stewards of our children. In Christ, they are his first. As Garrett recently reminded me, our daughters are sisters in Christ and our sons, brothers. They were his children first and will always remain so.
And for those of us who are children, never forget that God is, above all, your father. He has given you every good gift you have – your mother, your father, and above all, the love of your Savior. Practice gratefulness for these things! Serve the Lord as your Father in your home! Help your mother and father out of love for God your father. For you are his child first.
Already & Not Yet (vs. 2-3)
Vs. 2 and 3 show us that our lives as children have a particular quality:
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. 3 And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
So God calls us his own, born into his family, with a real family likeness to Jesus who is our elder brother, but we are not yet finished. If you like, as John Stott put it, “The Christian life is dialectical.” We are not what will we be, and the end, the goal, of every Christian’s life is to be made utterly like Christ in a way that is hard for us to fathom now.
Perhaps that why it’s so hard for us to appreciate each other for who we are. We look so ordinary and the reality that we are siblings under and of the Good Shepherd is so thickly veiled that we can forget what’s really happening in Christian community. Theologian Richard Lenski says this, “Not yet has God made a public display of the glory that belongs to his children, of the inheritance incorruptible, unstained, unfading, reserved for us in heaven (1 Peter 1:4). Not yet do we wear the white robes of heaven; not yet does the crown of glory sparkle on our brow. The robe of Christ’s righteousness, our crown of hope, the diamond of faith, the pearls of love, are invisible to physical eyes. … A child of God is here and now, like a diamond that is crystal white within but is still uncut and shows no brilliant flashes from reflecting facets.” (Richard Lenski, Epistles, pgs. 451-452)
So John couldn’t be clearer about the identity and the hope that is ours in Christ. But that raises the question – what do you do with the rest of the passage? The language is very stark and clear cut. No shades of grey here!
Well, here we need to understand a little bit of the background of 1 John. John is addressing the fact a group (or groups) of false teachers recently departed the church in Ephesus. You can see this in 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not of us.” So, there’s a nuance here we need to appreciate. John is not so much giving the church a checklist to use on themselves, as he is giving them a way to recognize falsehood from truth. Look at verse 7, “Little children, let no one deceive you…” He is trying to help them in their own discernment of these false teachers.
Bearing that in mind, John certainly is describing two patterns of life that are axiomatically opposed to one another. Look, for example, at verses 4 and 6.
Verse 4: Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. This idea of lawlessness carries with it a lifestyle that is willfully resolute & chronic in its turning away from God and his commandments – it’s a “I couldn’t care less” attitude.
On the other hand, verse 6 says, No one who abides in him keeps on sinning. Let me put that differently: only the person who is not in Christ can make peace with sin. The Holy Spirit is present and active in our lives in a way that draws us back to Christ. As I’ve said before, it’s not the person who is honest about their struggles that I’m concerned for. It’s the person who doesn’t know that struggle that I’m concerned for! From Luther: “We are all sinners and now and then we fall into sin; but if a true Christian falls, he soon comes back, turns about, and fights against sin, lest it burst forth into a stumbling block for his neighbor. Although it is difficult to avoid being wounded in a war, yet it is an honor to stand up. But it is a disgrace to yield.”
Let me end with verse 10: “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”
As John Stott says here, “our parentage is either divine or diabolical.” And, as the Apostle John evaluates these false teachers and encourages the faithful, isn’t it telling that at the last, he returns to the practice of righteousness and the agape love of Christians as the marks of true faith? Righteousness here is simply the same word we use for justification by faith. The practice of righteousness is loving and cherishing the given love we have from God the Father together. Love of the brother is simply giving to other Christians the love our elder brother Jesus has given to us as our Good Shepherd, abiding and remaining together as children of the living God – for so we are. Thanks be to God. Amen.