Speak Now - Week 2: "What We Will Be"
So, Happy Easter, Resurrection people!
This is also the second installment of our sermon series on the New Testament book of 1 John entitled "Speak Now." Throughout this study, we'll be focusing on what it means to not only follow Jesus but also how to speak about our faith in life-giving ways.
You see, the problem that we have in our culture right now is that when someone says "I am a Christian," it's hard to tell exactly what that means. So many people in our culture have negative feelings about Christians and what they believe Christians stand for.
It would be easier to just have a way to figure all this out. Maybe we should all have cards that we can carry to identify us. I found this interesting magazine ad from many years ago that could solve all our problems:
Come on! How awesome would this be? You could just whip it out in those moments when you're stumped as to what to say to someone who asks you about your faith. It would contain your name, address, denomination and apparently... your social security number, too!!
I love how the description says that this card "could change your life." And then it doesn't really explain how it would do that. But you would be a card-carrying Christian!
Seriously, though... one of the biggest reasons why there are so many people with negative feelings about Christians right now is because the Christians who are speaking the loudest about their beliefs are the ones who don't appear to be following Jesus all that closely.
Let me unpack this a bit.
When you meet someone at a party, a social gathering, on the airplane... what is the first thing they usually ask you? "What do you do for a living?"
When I get asked that question (and if I answer honestly, which sometimes I am tempted not to do), and I tell them "a pastor," that answer generally guides the rest of our conversation. I can't escape what comes next.
But if somehow in your own conversation it comes up that you are a person of faith, what do you say? How does the rest of the conversation go after you inform the person you are a Christian? What qualifiers do you end up using?
If, like me, you find yourself saying things like, "But I'm not like those kinds of Christians... you know, the angry, judgmental kind." Or you might find yourself having to explain that there are, in fact, different kinds of Christians than the ones who always seem to find their way on to cable news.
Sadly, Christians are more divided than ever. Our differences are as stark as the divisions that exist within our current culture.
It was widely said and believed that Christians made the difference in the last presidential election by voting for one candidate over another. But there were almost as many Christians who voted against that candidate.
It's true that Christians are divided over gun control, abortion, same-sex marriage, war, the environment... the list goes on and on. We are divided over our interpretations of the Bible, our theology, our beliefs about heaven and hell, and who goes where.
But most of our differences are distractions. They keep us from focusing on what it really means to be a follower of Jesus. We don't live like Easter people. The light of Christ is obscured by our arguments, our petty disagreements and our lack of unity.
This series is meant to challenge us to do something that the Bible calls, "bearing witness." To "bear witness" means to share what you've experienced by any means necessary--but most importantly by speaking up. And it's time for Easter people to speak up. There need to be more voices lifting up the love of God through Jesus.
And what are we "bearing witness" to? Nothing less than the transforming power of the Resurrection of Jesus. As Easter people, we believe that when Jesus was raised from the dead, it changed everything for everyone. We don't have to live in fear of sin and death any longer. Evil doesn't get the last word.
Last week, Pastor Britta unpacked what it means to have true fellowship with one another and how that enables us to bear witness, to truly speak about our faith.
Today we're going to be learning something extremely important. As we seek to understand more about what it means to be a follower of Jesus and how to speak about our faith more clearly and powerfully, we need to know this important fact:
A Christian is someone whose ultimate goal is to become more like Jesus.
In fact, if someone claims to be a Christian and doesn't seem all that interested in becoming more like Jesus, maybe they have some wrong-headed notions about what being a Christian is all about.
Because being a Christian means that you want to become more and more like Jesus every day.
So what does that look like?
Our conversation partner through this series is the mysterious author of the New Testament book of 1 John, and in the passage that we are studying today, we are given a pretty big clue.
First of all, we need to say a couple of things about the book of 1 John. 1 John is a letter, what is commonly called an epistle.
It was written sometime in the late first century by a man who scholars have come to call the Elder. It's highly unlikely that the letter was written by John, the Beloved Disciple, but the man who wrote this letter was definitely a leader in the early church.
The group the Elder is addressing is struggling to define exactly what it means to be a Christian. It seems that there was disagreement among first century Christians about what it looked like to follow Jesus. To say you were a Christian could mean a lot of things.
So, the Elder is seeking to re-focus this particular group on the main thing: How because of God's great love for us, God became one of us in Jesus, suffered, died and was raised from the dead to give us all new life. This great love of Jesus is what we're all about. Being a Christian means that you live in the example of that love, stumbling after Jesus as best you can.
1 See what great love the Father has lavished on 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 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3 All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
4 Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. 5 But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. 6 No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
7 Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. 8 The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. 9 No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. 10 This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.
11 For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 12 Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15 Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?
It's hard to know exactly what the Elder was addressing because we only have one side of the conversation. But it appears there were people who were teaching that Jesus could not have been human, and could not have really suffered and died because to be human was a bad thing.
These teachers taught that since humans suffer from temptation, lust and all kinds of horrible things, and these are the things that Christians should avoid, none of that could have been part of Jesus. These teachers lost sight of divine love and began focusing on behavior modification.
The first century had no monopoly on false teachers. We struggle with the same kinds of teachers today--those that lose all capacity to speak of the love of God and focus almost entirely on what they perceive to be God's anger and judgment.
But what the Elder teaches here in 1 John 3 is that it all comes down to the love of God in Jesus. And this love that God shared with us through his Son is the kind of love that leads to eternal life both now and forever.
He exhorts his readers to step into the law of love---and there is an urgency to his exhortation. He believes that the time is short for these people to do this. And he was right. It would be the love of God in Christ that would sustain first century Christians through persecution and even martyrdom.
And here's something amazing. The Elder essentially states here that the faithful should be imperfectly imitating Jesus--embodying the love of Christ as best they can. He basically tells them, "Follow Jesus! Stumble after him if you have to."
What he was trying to teach them here was that their behaviors and belief were linked. If they just focused on loving like Jesus all of the behavior the false teachers were trying to tell them to control would fall into line. All they needed to do was return to the center of their faith--becoming more and more like Jesus every day, showing his love to the world more and more every day.
Because a Christian is someone whose ultimate goal is to become more and more like Jesus.
So what does it look like to be like Jesus actually?
Well, according to 1 John it doesn't look like perfection. In fact, the truth of becoming more like Jesus often comes before the appearance. In other words, we may not look exactly like Jesus, because we stumble and fall pretty often as we follow him, but if we desire to be more like him and let that guide us---it changes everything.
And then and only then will we begin to look like a Christian.
Far too many Christians have lost sight of this. We've become comfortable with the status quo--we've lost sight of what it looks like to follow Jesus.
You see, as Christians we are called to speak up, to bear witness to the transforming power of the love of God through the Resurrection of Jesus.
In a culture of individualism where even many Christians are more concerned about their own fate, their own desires, their own spiritual growth than they are about the love of God for the world... those who are becoming more like Jesus speak about the need for a community.
We speak about how we are better together. How when there are people being excluded from our tables of fellowship, we are all excluded.
When others find security through violence, people who are becoming more and more like Jesus speak about forgiveness and peace.
We speak about embracing our enemies, laying down our weapons, stopping the cycle of violence, protecting the innocent. We speak of sacrificial love rather than vengeance and retributive violence.
When society seems to increasingly find identity in social networking and places value on appearances and consumption, those who are becoming more and more like Jesus speak of baptism, of becoming less, dying to self and giving up what the world defines as success in order to find true life, true connections, and true identity.
When others turn away from the marginalized and the outcasts, those who find themselves on the outside looking in, people who are becoming more and more like Jesus speak of moving toward them, including them, expanding the circle so all find themselves inside of it.
In other words, we speak and act with love, the kind of love that God has for the world... the kind of love that changed the world.
In the second century, there was a plague that rocked much of the Roman Empire. Entire cities were wiped out. It got so bad that many cities were quarantined. No help was sent in, and no one who might have been well was let out.
Stories circulated about one particular group of people who chose to enter into one of those quarantined cities to care for the dying. These people went in and stayed despite the danger. Some of them lost their lives.
This group of Christians--descendants of some of the very people who read 1 John---believed in the love of God through Jesus. They didn't send their thoughts and prayers on Facebook. They didn't say that the reason the plague happened was that God was judging sinners and reprobates.
No, they believed in the Resurrection and the power of God's love through Jesus---a love they sought to imperfectly perfect by just showing it.
And this is what was said of them---"See, how they love..." See how they love.
It's time for us to bear witness to the love we have been shown. It's time for us to start speaking. And to let our words become acts of love. It's time for us to start imperfectly becoming more and more like Jesus.
Because a Christian is someone whose ultimate goal is to become more like Jesus every day.