God’s Children

Easter III, April 19, 2015

1 John 3:1-7

So this past week we had the first of our weekly Bible studies, looking at this Sunday’s readings. A hopeful start. I don’t know about the others, but for me the phrase I took away from our conversation, the phrase that seemed to speak to me most insistently, was that line from the epistle reading: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.” Like many epistle readings, 1 John can be dense and obscure and somewhat heavy reading. But there is a passion and an energy in this line, something that speaks to our identity and calling as Christians in a way that might repay a closer look. What does it mean that we are called children of God?

I wonder how many of you were brought up with the old catechism in the Book of Common Prayer – whether it is something any of you learned or read at your Confirmation. It begins:

Catechist. What is your Name? . . . Who gave you this Name?
Answer. My Godfathers and Godmothers in my Baptism; wherein I was made a member of
Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.

So there’s that phrase again: In my baptism I was made a child of God. Let us just sit with that phrase for a moment. Try it on for size. Repeat it to yourself: I am a child of God. What do these words do to you? How does it feel, to think, I am a child of God?

I imagine there are a number of possible reactions to this phrase. For me, I think the first reaction is almost that these words are too familiar, too much just an expression we use, almost meaningless. After all, isn’t everyone a child of God? It is easy to take the expression for granted.

And that’s probably why this verse in the epistle speaks so strongly to me. Because for John, this is clearly not something he takes for granted. There is an urgency, a tenderness, a sense of wonder in these words: See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God. There is nothing self-evident about being a child of God for John. It is a matter for astonishment, for wonder. And listening to these words, I find the familiar made strange again, and marvelous: I am a child of God. See what love the Father has for us!

But here a second reaction may arise: the fear of sounding smug. After all, it seems the world is full of people who claim to have a special relationship to God, who claim that they are closer to God than other people, and frankly they seem to do a lot of damage with this attitude. And so we may want to draw back a bit, to be more modest, to distrust the special claim to be children of God. Again, isn’t everyone a child of God? Who are we Christians to claim to be special?

Well, yes, our instinct not to want to lord it over others, to think we are better, is commendable. It is not our job to judge others’ relationship to God, to imply that we are better than Muslims or Jehovah Witnesses or atheists. Their relationship to God is something between them and God, and I am quite convinced that God has ways of relating to other people that I can’t begin to understand, and that God certainly doesn’t need my permission or approval. However, that is no reason to downplay our own experience of God. That we are children of God doesn’t say anything about others, but it does say something about us, something too important to neglect.

For John, being a children of God is not a special privilege that invites us to feel smug: it is a calling that challenges us to live up to higher standards. As children of God, we have to be like him, like the Son of God, like our older brother Jesus. We are called to purify ourselves: to put aside selfishness, and faint-heartedness, and indifference. We are called to overcome sin. We are called to be righteous: to be just and generous and compassionate and kind in all our doings. This is not a matter of feeling we are better than others. If we are comparing ourselves to others, we have already taken our eye off the ball, we have already let our concentration waver from what we ought to be thinking about: our own calling to live as God’s children.

At this point, there is a third reaction that might set in to thinking of ourselves as children of God: a feeling of inadequacy. A feeling that there must be some mistake, that the kind of Christian that John is talking about is not me, that I’m not this kind of superhero of the faith. Child of God – that must be someone else.

Again, the reaction is commendable. A bit of humility is supposed to be a good thing, right? And there is an honesty about this reaction. The preacher and writer Barbara Brown Taylor talks about the tendency of churches to put their mission statement on the church sign: you know, “a community of impassioned Christians serving Christ and others in the power of the Spirit”, or suchlike. The problem with these statements, she points out, are the problems with any kind of advertising: they call forth scepticism whether we will really deliver on what is promised. Will the casual visitor, dropping in, really experience “a community of impassioned Christians serving Christ and others in the power of the Spirit” – meh, probably not. How much she longs, writes Barbara Brown Taylor, for the honesty of a sign that says simply: “All Saints Anglican Church – we’re doing the best we can”.

Except that again we are selling ourselves short. Or rather we are selling God short. Because it is not so much about what we are doing, but about what God is doing with us. It is not a question of what we see when we look at our own accomplishments, but a matter of faith that God is at work in us. That is what it means to be a child of God. John’s insight here I find quite haunting:

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.

What we will be has not yet been revealed. We are still a work in progress. No matter how mired we seem to be in our human limitations, no matter how stuck with the same old anxieties and fears and selfish habits of the heart, God is not done with us yet. So yes, modesty and humility is all very well when we are talking about ourselves and our capabilities. But when we are talking about what God is doing with us, then it isn’t really the appropriate category. How about awe, or wonder, or hope, or celebration? How about something of that fresh astonishment we hear in John: beloved, see what love the Father has for us, that we are called children of God.

In the end, it is a missional question. In fact, I would suggest it is the missional question, at the centre of how we relate as a church to the community around us. Mission is not really a matter of preaching and teaching our doctrine to others. It is not only a matter of serving others, though that is part of it – but after all, all kinds of organizations serve others. It is certainly not a matter of effective techniques of communication: these can be useful tools, but they are not the core of mission.

There is a phrase that someone brought up at the Bible study, one I’m sure you have heard before: “you may be the only Bible that another person will read.” That is to say: the way we live our lives publically, the way we interact with others, is the primary means by which the gospel is communicated. I think it is true. Sure, some people are ideas people, they will come to faith through something they have read or heard. But most people are people people, it is the personal contacts, the witness of people who have impressed them in some way, that will bring them to a church and so to faith. So we are the signposts of this church in the community, signs that walk about the town and invite people here by what they read when they look at us.

I think we know this; this is not a new thought. But I want to bring it together with what John says about being children of God. That suggests to me that it is not just about being kind and generous and thoughtful and considerate of others that will show the gospel to others, though that is really important! It is also about showing others something of the astonishment and wonder that God is at work in our lives.

Think of that church sign: “We are doing the best we can.” That, I suspect, is the sign that our lives usually show the community. Now, I must admit, I have a lot of affection for that sign. I love its honesty, its unpretentiousness, its Anglican understatement. But I ask again: are we not selling God a bit short, here? Is this place only about doing the best we can? I hope it’s that too. But surely, in our heart of hearts, in that too secret place of our faith, it is about experiencing transformation. It is about knowing we are still a work in progress. And this work is not just the work we are doing on ourselves, but first of all the wonder that God is not finished with us yet, that he is transforming us – slowly, yes, but surely. The wonder that we have found a new and astounding identity here: we have learned we are children of God. It is this astonishment and wonder that will bring others to faith, perhaps even bring them here. How can we live that a little more publicly, how can we write that on our sign?