Called Children of God
In 2013, the empire of cooking queen, Paula Deen, collapsed amidst revelations of racism. One of the stories that emerged from the drama was of Dora Charles, a black woman who had worked alongside Paula Deen as a cook since before the food maven opened her first restaurant.
"If I lost Dora, I would have been devastated," Ms. Deen wrote in her 2007 memoir. Early on, Mrs. Charles claims, Ms. Deen made her a deal: "Stick with me, Dora, and I promise you one day if I get rich you'll get rich." Mrs. Charles now says, she wished she had gotten that in writing. The fact, however, is that while Paula Deen's earnings rose into the multi-millions, Mrs. Charles continued to be paid about $10 an hour. At the time, Dora was still an employee of one of the Deen's restaurants, struggling to make ends meet. Mrs. Charles, however, was not willing to join the crowd of those who are abandoning Paula Deen. "I still have to be her friend if I'm God's child," Dora said. "I might feed her with a long-handled spoon, but, yeah, I'm still her friend."
Dora Charles, in a very practical, down-to earth, tell-it-like-it-is way, gets to the heart of the point the Apostle John is exploring about being children of God. If we are God’s child it is going to make a difference in behaviour, it is going to be manifest in how we live. In the world’s self-understanding Paula Deen should be abandoned. Dora said no. As God’s child I am called to something different. “I’m still her friend,” Dora said. I loved her kitchen analogy; “I might feed her with a long-handled spoon.” This is to admit that forgiveness is never to pretend that no harm was done or that everything can go back to being the same. Still, she will not abandon Paula.
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God,” writes the Apostle John. When he speaks of seeing the love of the Father he means Jesus. In his Gospel John says of Jesus, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. … But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” (John 1:10, 12) The love of God revealed in Jesus Christ constrains the believer to live a life of following his lead.
1. The believer, according to the gospel, is freed from sin for service of God. The Apostle John expresses this point that the believer’s behaviour is normed and formed by Jesus Christ this way; “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.” (1 John 3:6-7) Believers don’t sin???? You may wonder how any of us have a shot? It is clear that John does not believe that believers never sin. In the first chapter of this letter John wrote, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8) So is John contradicting himself in this third chapter? Some have noted this the tense of the verb—no one sins—is the present tense indicating a pattern of life, so could be translated “no one goes on sinning.” This is a possible translation but the challenge is that the present tense isn’t always understood this way. What I suggest to you is that John is speaking about a trajectory of life. Jesus was revealed, John says, to take away sins and in him there is no sin. (1 John 3:5) If that is so then the clear trajectory of the Christian life is away from sin.
I invite you to step back for a moment and consider what sort of letter we are reading when we take up John’s first epistle. Note with me (vs 7) that John writes “Little children, let no one deceive you.’ John is writing a pastoral letter to a church of people young in the faith who are being dissuaded from the gospel by some false teachers. He doesn`t want them to be deceived by what is being taught. It is clear that this community of believers were schooled on the theology of John`s gospel because of the close links in language and theology; the letter is a further explication of the gospel as it pertained to their situation.
John’s gospel is aimed at striking fire in the hearts of those who hadn’t yet owned Jesus Christ in faith, John’s letter was written for people who were already part of the Christian fellowship. Some people in that fellowship were causing a major disruption. Who were they and what were they saying? In other words, what was the problem in church life that John had to address?
The congregation was fragmenting under the false teaching of a cult called “Gnostic”. The Gnostics regarded themselves as religious elitists. They alone were “in the know”. They had special illumination. Their extraordinary illumination gave them spiritual privilege. They possessed a knowledge of God that the “lower” types (so-called) didn’t have.
One feature of Gnosticism: it insisted that while God is good, the creation is bad, evil in fact. Therefore God couldn’t have created it. Matter is evil. History is evil. God couldn’t have fashioned it. Then who had? An inferior spiritual being had (inferior to God, that is); an inferior spiritual being that could afford to dirty itself with dirty matter and dirty history, since God was too pure to soil himself with the “stuff” of creation.
There were many implicates of the Gnostic perversion of Christian truth. Since the entire created order is evil, the human body is evil too; loathsome, in fact. The body should be shunned.
And since the human body is loathsome, Incarnation is impossible. God would never have polluted himself by incarnating himself in human flesh. You can tell that John is refuting this teaching in the opening sentence of this letter where he insists that Christian faith is rooted in the historic events of a man named Jesus; “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” (1 John 1:1) All very grounded and earthy.
It is clear from both the older testament and in God becoming human in Jesus Christ that—as far as the gospel is concerned—the human body is a fitting vehicle for the glory of God. But the Gnostics denied this. The human body is vile, they said. Not surprisingly, then, the Gnostics fell into two different patterns of behaviour, both of which are foreign to the gospel.
One was a rigid asceticism. Pleasure of any kind was to be shunned. The gospel would never consent to this. The book of Ecclesiastes tells us we are to take pleasure in food and drink and work. The psalmist reminds us, “At God’s right hand are pleasures for evermore” – and if at his right hand, then so at ours. (Psalm 16:1) Recall that Jesus was accused of being too fond of parties; Jesus noted that because he came eating and drinking, people say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34)
Another kind of behaviour rooted in the Gnostic contempt for the body was just the opposite. Since the body is bad, invariably bad, incurably bad, why not indulge it? Since God didn’t create our bodies, surely we can dishonour our bodies and glorify God at the same time, can’t we? These Gnostics fell into the most vulgar wantonness, the grossest degradation.
Now if you give people a choice between rigid, pleasureless asceticism and gross self-indulgence, 90% are going to choose the latter. It was this latter outlook that infected the churches to which John sent his letter.
So when you read John’s pronouncement that “no one who abides in him (Jesus) sins” it is important to understand the nature of his letter; to take into account the problem he is addressing. It is for this reason that I invite you to hear this text as a statement of the Christian trajectory of life. The Christian life is not a path of self-indulgence that says anything goes. The children of God are called to a life that is revealed in Jesus who came to take away sins.
2. I want to be clear here in noting that God’s forgiveness of our sin in complete. Some read texts like this and think that they are hopeless. Suffering from a scrupulous nature or a perfectionism that is never satisfied a person sees herself as beyond reach. If others really knew what is in my heart or what I have done they would agree that I am beyond help. And so the reasoning goes until they conclude that I mustn’t be a believer; my faith is insufficient. They conclude that they are beyond the reach of God’s mercy and suffer and ever downward spiraling in self-loathing.
I want to emphasize as forcefully as I can this point: whenever, in the course of his earthly ministry, Jesus speaks of sin, he always speaks of mercy and pardon in the next breath and he always magnifies the forgiveness of God. Wherever Jesus speaks severely, he speaks tenderly in the very next breath. Wherever Jesus goes in his earthly ministry he lavishes pardon on anyone at all who looks penitently to him. In fact, it’s his joyful welcome of notorious sinners, his large-hearted, open-handed acceptance of them, that lands him in so much trouble
Notorious sinners always knew themselves cherished by Jesus; they know it and relish it and glory in it. That’s why they respond so openly and generously themselves. Think of the woman who pours her perfume out over the feet of Jesus. She doesn’t care that tongues are wagging. She knows only that she’s received a pardon of incomparable worth. She knows that Christ’s embrace embraces everything about her, sin and all, before his embrace begins to squeeze her sin out of her.
There is no part of our being or personality that God’s pardon doesn’t reach. God’s mercy is like penetrating oil: it gets into cracks and crevices and recesses of all kinds, most of which, in fact, can’t be seen by even the sharpest-sighted. Yet his mercy unfailingly penetrates to the core, the same core that our sinnership taints. God’s pardon always outstrips our perversity.
3. “Let no one deceive you,” writes John. The Apostle is wanting to protect these believers from teaching that will destroy their faith. Friends, the world is constantly offering a cafeteria of ideologies that can easily damage faith and practice. As a pastor I note that it is always easier to steal a faith than it is to create one. When I read of ministers who purposely turn people away from Jesus, deny his existence, teaching their own concoction of spirituality claiming some position of spiritual superiority that speaks condescendingly of those who cling to Jesus Christ I bristle. I bristle because such things destroy faith. The Apostle John bristled as he saw what it was doing to these believers; he finally couldn’t take any more and wrote this letter.
We need also to be clear that when the gospel speak of children of God it means those who are possessed of faith. Sometimes people use this phrase to mean all human beings. The scriptures indeed say that every human is a creature of God made in his image. However, children of God are those related to God by faith.
4. The Apostle knows that as the believer apprehends the magnitude of God’s love in making us his own her desire will be to follow the Master in the way he lived and called us to live.
In his book The Gospel of Matthew: God With Us Matt Woodley tells this story.
“Eighteen years ago my friend Andy and his wife traveled to a South American country to complete their adoption of a little girl. At the time this country was gripped by corruption, violence, and political chaos. After Andy arrived, they kept upping the price for the adoption. When he finally threatened to take the matter to the U.S. consulate, a mysterious figure confronted Andy, warning him of vague but dreadful consequences.
But he refused to leave without the little girl. The odd thing was that Andy had never even met this girl. She was small and helpless. She hadn't won any awards or aced any tests. He didn't know that one day her smile would light up their living room, or that she'd love their cats and dogs, or that she'd play Mozart pieces on the family piano. For all practical purposes, she was simply an orphan condemned to a life of grinding poverty in a far-flung developing country. But for some crazy reason, Andy stayed there, negotiating with corrupt officials, spending oodles of money, squandering time, and even risking his life to find and win this little girl.
Now, eighteen years later, Andy was telling me about an intimate high school graduation party for Maria, his adopted daughter. At one point during the meal, Maria unexpectedly stood up and gave a beautiful speech thanking everyone who had helped her find a better life.
As Andy told me this story, he was trying to fight back the tears. I got the impression that he could have lived a hundred more years, or even a hundred lifetimes, and nothing would compare to hearing Maria's spontaneous thank-you. And it all started when Andy walked into that dangerous nightmare in an attempt to bring her home.
When he finished telling me this story, it struck me that Andy, my non-Christian friend, had discovered the heart of the gospel: God's loving, daring, persistent pursuit of people like you and me. Like Maria, there's nothing we can do to earn God's love, but he still loves us. And he doesn't want to leave us behind. Instead, in the presence of Jesus, God walked into the "dangerous nightmare" of human sin and pain in order to save us and bring us back home.”
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.