Readings: Luke 24:36b-48, 1 John 3:1-7
Let us pray: O God, we pray that through your Spirit we may hear your word and encounter within it, the great width and length and height and depth of the love of Christ for us and in us. Amen.
At first glance the passage we heard read this morning from 1 John is challenging and somewhat contradictory. What do you do with, this statement, for instance: “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” It seems a bald provocative statement of right living to which few of us could possibly connect and against which all of us would experience failure. It also seems totally in contrast to the embracing concept that we are God’s children, loved and cared for and welcomed as we are. “Beloved, we are God’s children now.” What can we do with the tension between a total intolerance of any sin and a recognition of the grace of Jesus Christ that allows sinners to be the children of God? Various people have tried to find ways to explain this uncompromising statement on sin – asking if for instance we can make sense of it by imagining it is about habitual sinning versus the occasional lapse – but somehow achieving an 80% pass mark doesn’t quite fit with a God who wants us to strive for a transformed life in Christ. Or is the other way to suggest that it is only when we are not sinning that we are in relationship with God – ie stepping in and out of abiding in Christ. That too is against all we understand of a God from whom nothing, not even death, can separate us.
So what do we do with this passage? Well here is the thought I would like to explore – are we or can we become a people for whom sinning is increasingly an unreal option? Can we make more real the connection between who Christ is and who we need to be? And if so how might we do that, how might we live into the future promise that when Christ appears, we shall be like him?
Now in case that word sin is causing us any difficulty, can I define sin as that which does not come from love, that which does not have its origin in God? There is a much bigger discussion to come on sin at another time but for today let’s sit with that.
So basically what the author of 1 John is saying, I believe, is that we are to see living as the children of God as being a holistic, fully transformational change to our lives, not just a piecemeal picking up of some useful, pragmatic and seemingly fair rules for life. It’s the difference between intellectually knowing that you should not verbally abuse someone and caring deeply of the hurt you might cause them. It’s about the love flowing in every aspect of our lives because we have looked on the face of God in encountering the risen Christ, and we want to become what we have looked upon. In this sense the claim that no-one who abides in Christ can sin begins to make a little more sense, be more reachable for us because it suggests, not that we are going to cease all sinful behaviour but that we are going to always measure what we do, say and be always in this love and that makes it much harder for us, increasingly, to carry out unlovely actions in our lives.
An illustration: over the last week we have had here in the church hall about 20 odd children attending a volunteer Otago holiday programme. They were loud and lively and had a great time. But there were a few that found it fun to escape the activities from time to time and take refuge in the Minister’s office. Minister of Magic they dubbed me. And in one of the conversations several around 13 year old girls started talking about the latest happenings in Shortland St. I made a face, it seems, because they asked me why I didn’t like the programme. Because it’s a challengeable reality I said – except I probably said: “life’s not like that’. And then they said but, Minister of Magic, it gives all kinds of, I think it was ‘life instruction’ for us. They meant that it had moral teachings I think. And they started reeling them off:
You shouldn’t steal $25,000 to build a charity clinic cause you will get caught.
You shouldn’t lie to get people out of your flat – it doesn’t work
Don’t get pregnant – you might not be able to get the father to admit it
A somewhat twisted and limited understanding both of what is right living and why! Without the underpinning rationale of love and care for each other informing these girls’ concepts of right and wrong, they are always going to be struggling to get the difference between what we have called sinning and what we know as living in the new creation that is the risen Christ. I hope that when they are ready to acknowledge the failings of Shortland St as the source of right living, that they might think to ask a person of faith if they have an answer!
At the annual meeting of Synod that I attended for the first time this weekend, we were also challenged to live into this vision of a church that had looked on the face of God and wanted to become what it had looked upon. To find answers to the question: what kind of church is God calling us to be in Christ and by the power of the Spirit? How do we distinguish in the church those rules for Christian living that are anchored pretty much in social and historical understandings of right and wrong and can easily be conduits for abuse and exploitation, and, on the other hand, those understandings of church that are based in the love of Jesus made know in scripture and through the Spirit. If we can live in the second, then maybe we can become a church for whom living without love is an increasingly unreal option? We didn’t come up with any particular model of how church will look in 2020 in Aotearoa New Zealand – that was the challenge of the new Moderator – but there were inspiring words from Graham Redding as he summed up the discussion – do we, he said, have the heart to allow ourselves to re-evangelised by the gospel, to hold to what it means to live as a transformed body of Christ as church, through our worship, our mission and our love for one another, to live simply, prayerfully, grace-fully, hope-fully, joy-fully and generously.
Maybe in this church that has looked on the face of God in the life and death of the risen Christ, maybe in this church there will be no sin – for we have become what we have looked upon and can envisage no other life. That is Christ’s prayer for us, his beloved people. Amen.