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Sun, May 03, 2020

The Children Of...

Our second reading for this morning comes from the First Letter of John, chapter 3, verses 1-10. Throughout the Easter Season with our morning devotions and prayers and our weekly Sunday sermons, we are reading and preaching our way through the First Letter of John in a series entitled, “Because God First Loved Us.” As we reach chapter three this morning, we begin with some of the most treasured words of scripture and yet I suspect we do not always continue reading to hear some of the more challenging ones. Today, let us read and seek to hear God’s word to us together in chapter 3, verses 1-10.

1 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, 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. 3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

4 Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. 8 Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 9 Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. 10 The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.

What a gift it was for Carol Cook to play “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes for our prelude this morning! We sang this hymn on Friday at the graveside service for Sissie Morris. We are singing it as our closing hymn today. Yes, “Amazing Grace” is a powerful hymn for the church as well as for our culture. It seems that everyone, from Elvis to Alan Jackson, from Aretha Franklin to U2, from Andreas Bochelli standing in front of a cathedral to Usher singing it before the first Los Angeles Lakers game after retired star Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash; yes, it seems that everyone has sung, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”

Who doesn’t love the hymn, “Amazing Grace”? Well, not everyone. Presbyterian pastor John Wilkinson remembers a fairly heated discussion when he was in seminary as they were planning a worship service. One of his classmates suggested that they sing “Amazing Grace.” Another vigorously objected. Wilkinson writes:

I remember being confused. The issue was not the beauty of the song or the overall impulse of the sentiments. … The issue was one word: wretch. “I’m not a wretch,” my seminary friend insisted. “We are not wretches.” [He continues] The discussion went on, as seminary discussions do, about sin and human nature and the nature of God. I can’t remember if we sang that hymn in that service, but I remember with some clarity the intensity of the discussion.

If I am honest, I will say that “wretch” is not my preferred term for myself either. Each year on the first Sunday of confirmation class we do an exercise in which our students and their parents each independently have to complete this sentence eight times. “I am …..” and they fill in the blank. Then they use what they have written to introduce themselves to the group. For example, I might say I am a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a pastor, a resident of Augusta, a writer, a middle school lunchroom volunteer. Now, I can say that in 20 years of teaching confirmation class, no one, including myself, has ever said, “I am a wretch.”

The exercise usually generates some good conversation about identity, who we are, and who we think we are. It leads nicely into the first lesson for the class on the first verse of our text for today: See what love the Father has given us, that we might be called children of God and that is what we are. Because, “I am a child of God” often fails to appear on the list of self-descriptions for our confirmation students and parents too.

So, who are you? What do you call yourself? How would you finish the sentence, “I am …”? My friend, Dr. Erin Kesterson Bowers, one of the pastors of First Presbyterian Church in High Point, NC recently wrote an article in The Presbyterian Outlook on this topic. She writes,

We think that really we are good people, if you don’t count the things that we have done.

Sure, we may have lied to our spouse or our parents or our children or our co-workers about a few things, but we’re not really the kind of people you could call liars.

Except we are. If we lie, we are liars.

Sure, we may have engaged in some tearing down of another’s reputation, but we generally don’t go in for that sort of thing, and we feel bad about it when we do it, so we’re not really gossips.

Except we are. If we spread gossip, we are gossips.

And, sure, we may have found a way to get around the rules to our own advantage on a test, in our business, on our taxes — some people would call it cheating. But we’re not really cheaters, per se.

Except we are. If we cheat, we are cheaters.

We tell ourselves the lie that behind our actions is our real self, a person who would not really do these things. However, there is no other person. We are nothing other than what we do. These acts that oppose God, that cause fractures in our relationships with God and with others, we have named sin in the Christian tradition.

And if we sin, we are sinners.

Ouch! It takes a good friend (or maybe a pastor) to talk to us like that. If we lie, we are liars. If we spread gossip, we are gossips. If we cheat, we are cheaters. If we sin, we are sinners. None of which are names I have seen on those lists we make to define ourselves at the beginning of confirmation class, either.

So, if we sin, we are sinners. If that is true, and I know that it is for me, then there are some hard verses in the scripture text for us today. Sure it begins: See what love the Father has given us, that we might be called children of God and that is what we are. But it does not take long for the author to get to: Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God.

So we are Children of God or Children of the Devil? Which is it? It does not sound like we can be both.

Over the last few weeks we have seen in this letter that John likes to create clear contrasts - light vs. darkness. Truth vs. lies. The fellowship vs. the world. In our text for today we find another - children of God vs. children of the devil. John is writing to a church that seems to be fracturing due to dangerous teaching. People are being drawn away from Christ. And so the contrasts serve as a warning. You are either in or you are out. A child of God or a child of the devil.

But how do we know which we are? Remember, we like to deceive ourselves. As the Confession of 1967 puts it, “No one is more subject to judgment than those who assume that they are guiltless before God or morally superior to others.” If we lie, we are liars. If we spread gossip, we are gossips. If we cheat, we are cheaters. If we sin, we are sinners. Yes, we sin and we are sinners. John knows that we all sin. In fact back in chapter 1 he writes, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Yes, we are sinners and the only remedy for that is the grace of God shown for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

But if we sin we are children of the devil? In our verses for today, with his community of faith in view, John must be talking about something else. He concludes our text for today in this way: The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters. John must be talking about the sins that fracture a church; that break a fellowship; that deny that we and our brothers and sisters are children of God; that do not love their brothers and sisters. Yes, the Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil - to destroy the sins of division and to gather all who believe into a new family, a new fellowship, as children of God.

So who are you? Who am I? A child of God or a child of the devil? It seems to depend on how we respond to God’s amazing grace. Naming who we are, honestly and openly, confessing our sin and sinfulness before God and one another - this is an essential part of our faith and our worship. Naming who we are, admitting that we are wretches in need of amazing grace, is the first step in realizing our need for Christ, the first step in recognizing that we are not God, the first step in reconciliation and redemption.

And yet, my friends do not let the first step be your last step. For as Erin Kesterson Bowers writes, “While … there is no “self” behind our acting self, this does not account for the Christ who is both behind us and goes before us. The Christ who surrounds us. So while we in ourselves may not be defined by anything beyond what we do, in Christ our acts do not define who we are.”

See what love the Father has given us, that we might be called children of God and that is what we are. Because God first loved us, God knows who you are: A sinner who is in Christ forgiven, freed, healed, and redeemed. A beloved child of God.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

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