Easter Living: A Journey with the First Letter of John
1 John 3:1-7 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ April 15, 2018
Following last Friday’s tragedy in Saskatchewan, it seemed like everyone suddenly holds a piece of Humboldt’s heartbreak in their heart. To quote the sign at my son’s high school “We are all Humboldt”. While most had likely not heard of this rural community of just under 6,000 people, located 100 km East of Saskatoon, the eye and the hearts of so many have become deeply aware of this humble place set amidst God’s creation. On Friday, the pride of the city, Humboldt’s Junior A hockey team, the Humboldt Broncos, were travelling on the team bus enroute to game 5 of the semi-finals to face off against the Nipawin Hawks and the unthinkable happened. The bus was involved in a fatal crash with fatalities that have now risen to 16. Over the past week, there has been an outpouring of emotion ~ mourning, compassion, and generosity. People have placed hockey sticks out front of their homes, they have donned green and gold ribbons, they have said prayers, and the go-fund-me campaign has reached over $11 million dollars. Suddenly a little piece of Humboldt has begun to reside in each of us and indeed, in this time of tragedy “we are all Humboldt”.
The hashtag, which allows people to unite their sentiments within social media: #humboldtstrong has become alive and well as people have offered their thoughts and prayers and united in this common tragedy: as we consider our common belief in the sanctity of human life. As I was thinking about this tragedy and working with this morning’s text: 1 John 3:1-7, it became apparent that this unity we are now experiencing in Canada: #humboldtstong, bears some similarities to what the elder in this Easter community is trying to uphold ~ except there is a difference. In this tragedy, we have united as we share in this deep loss. And in our unity, we have found strength ~ we are #humboldtstrong. Yet there is something more at play in the text. As the earlier hymns we sung lifted up, there is a theology of our identity: we are all ‘children of God’. As we consider this identity it points us beyond the immediate hurts and needs that we know of. The text calls us not to be just #humboldtstrong. The text calls us to be #childrenofgodstrong. So, what does that mean? To be a ‘child of God’. Well…as we unpack this third chapter of the elder’s letter to the community of faith, I think there are three components to being a Child of God: There is a distinction… a uniqueness to our identity as being children of God. Secondly, there is a function to this unique identity as being children of God. And finally, there is a promise to our identity of being children of God.
Firstly, we begin with the distinct uniqueness of what it means to have this identity as a child of God. Being a “child of God” is an ‘other-worldly’ identity that we are given. Being a “child of God” is something that unites us over and against the world. It means that we are not a child of this world; we are a child of God’s world. It means that our first and foremost identity is linked with that of our very Creation ~ God ~ whom Jesus refers to with all fondness and reverence (in a profoundly radical sense in his day) as being like a “Father”. And today, it would be equally valid for Jesus to refer to God in the matriarchal sense ~ as “Mother” as well. To be clear, this is a profound shift from how we normally think because our identity is normally familial based. We are first and foremost part of our family of origin ~ our mother and father created us and that family is our primary place of commitment and loyalty. Yet, this letter is calling us to broaden our sense of how truly big our family is! To not just be a part of our biological family…we are not just children of the world…we are children of God. As the text argues, Jesus was not understood by the world because his way was not ‘of the world’. In a culture of individualism, Jesus lived a way of community and his followers created a community ~ the Body of Christ. In a culture that maintains security through violence, Jesus lived a way of solidarity, forgiveness and peace. And in a world where our very identity is established by social networking, wealth and status, Jesus offered an identity where our true identity is given in our baptism. That moment in a baptism where the person is ‘named’ is so very powerful because it is a reminder that are named as Christ’s own ~ or ‘Christened’. Your Christian name ~ Scott … for others… are our Christian names, the name that is an ongoing reminder that we are not children of the world, but rather children of God.
A tragedy like Humboldt has brought together a nation. I find myself curious; however, about this outpouring of emotion in this tragedy. I wonder why there is not an equal outpouring of emotion in other cases that are also happening in other, more distant parts, of the world. In the case of the Humboldt tragedy, our hearts break for these families at this tragic time of loss, and indeed…there are no words. Yet why does that raw emotion arise so deeply when there are so many other tragedies occurring in far off places across the globe? I wonder…is it because these are fellow Canadians? Is it because they look like us? Is it because they represent our national pastime? Why does this Humboldt tragedy strike such a cord in our country? CBC reported that the strikes against Syria earlier this week have allegedly killed 40 people. Will we see the same outpouring of pain, grief and sadness for the collateral damage caused in this tragedy? The shift this letter calls us to make is one away from viewing ourselves as children of the world to understanding ourselves as children of God. To achieve this requires the spiritual discipline of broadening the scope of our care, compassion and love. It is about developing a broader perspective. A ‘God’s-eye perspective’ where we see the pain and suffering of all of our brothers and sisters, and indeed the suffering of all Creation as needing our care and compassion. To be a child of God pulls us out of the immediate corner of the world we live in and gives us a broader, richer calling us to a perspective of compassionate care. The kind of caring way that Christ taught.
The second part of being a child of God is that it performs a specific function. There is a call in this section of the letter to undergo a transformation ~ a shift from being a Child of the world to being a Child of God. We evolve from being children of the world to being children of God once we have experienced this ancient and timeless love and grace of God through Jesus Christ. And once touched by that grace and love, we are called into living the life of being children of God ~ claimed from the world ~ to embody that grace and love for all. Jesus did not JUST come for a few people in an ancient land. Jesus came for all people; he came for all places; he came for all time; he came to redeem God’s world. And the function of this transformation is what is dealt with in the second half of the letter. While the language of being “purified from sin” might not speak to us today, I wonder if we looked at the roots of this phrase if that might shine a little more light. The previous chapter in 1 John, that you may have read through, had dealt extensively with the various false teachers that had sought to sway the Christian community away from the authentic teachings of Jesus ~ the letter referred to them as “the antichrists”. The function of one’s identity as a Child of God is that of letting all those bad influences, tempting ways, troubling teachings be removed from one’s realm of influence. While it might seem odd today, the theme of purification to the Jewish culture at the end of the 1st Century was quite common. It was about being cleansed of the environment of pollution that surrounds one’s spiritual being. The word the letter uses is ‘anomia’ ~ which translates literally as “to be without law”. To live in the world…to be a child that is immersed in the ways of the world…results in sin ~ which is that profound separation from God’s Way ~ God’s law ~ God’s grace as revealed in Jesus Christ. This letter is one of the places where the 16th Century Christian Reformer Martin Luther spoke about the challenge in living immersed in the ways of the world and simultaneously being purified as a child of God. Luther wrote: “We are at once sinner and justified”. This new identity of being a Child of God is a rebirthing process where our transformation uproots us from our natural identity that comes at our birth ~ a child of the world…it uproots us from the world we live in and gives us our true identity by connecting us with God’s love ~ our true identity as being a Child of God. God’s love transforms us; God’s love purifies us; God’s love changes us. We are no longer strangers passing one another; we are no longer orphans lost in the cosmos; we are no longer without hope or direction. We are loved, claimed and redefined as nothing less than God’s children. Being a child of God is our spiritual birthright!
And that leads us to the third dimension of our identity as a child of God. There is a deep promise that we find in this birthright. That while we will might seem odd to the world…misunderstood by the ways of the world…in the end, we will be clearly designated as God’s own. This letter offers the promise in a very subtle way, but it reminds us of an earlier letter written by Paul to the community in Corinth when he speaks quite strongly of the promise of the future. Most will recall Paul’s beautiful definition of love that couples use for their wedding ~ “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not jealous or envious or boastful or arrogant or rude…” however, what most forget is that that reading is not just about love shared between a couple. It is really about how love is properly shared in Jesus’ community. After the beautiful definition of love, Paul continues on to give a promise of the future as being God’s child saying: “for now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Cor 13:12). While it might not, entirely, make sense; while it might seem that we should keep to ourselves ~ maintain our self-interests ~ be children of the world; some day we will see “face to face” [with God]. It is that promise; it is that truth, not grounded in the experience of our own brokenness, but resting on the promise of God’s love for all time, for all peoples, for all places.
We opened our conversation this morning considering the Humboldt tragedy and how our nation has bonded together in this experience of our mutual loss and the enduring love we hold for one another… how we are all “#Humboldtstong”. And that is truly beautiful to behold this healing community forming among our nation. Yet, imagine an even greater connection…a connection that knows no borders or a community that knows no boundaries…but is ever-expansive and encompassing…mirroring the love God has for all creation…a love and grace that is even more profound ~ more powerful ~ uniting us as children of God. And when that vision is realized we become “#ChildrenofGodStrong”.