Weekly Preaching: April 15, 2018

April 11th, 2018

I always moan a little when I see the book of Acts under “Old Testament Reading.” Thirty-nine of the Bible's sixty-six books actually are Old Testament, with so much rich material never touched in the lectionary — and they go to Acts? Psalm 4 is a typically eloquent prayer… but I’ll focus this week on 1 John 3:1-7 (admitting that I find the tail end of Luke 24 the least charming, unique or profound of all the resurrection periscopes, although the prospect of baking a little fish for Jesus, and, according to a few old manuscripts, him eating some honeycomb, is alluring!).

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When I was young, I liked 1 John a bit; but when you’re young, you’re looking for information, applicables, something ready and quick. As I get older, I treasure, savor, and linger over 1 John more and more. I suspect preaching should way more often adopt as its goal making space for our people to treasure, savor and linger over a text more eloquent than any sermon could be. With 1 John, it’s the love, the wisdom, the perspective, the tenderness, the immense sense of belonging. You feel you’re in a small group in a small home, huddled around candlelight, pondering again the reality of Jesus, an overflow of love filling and warming the place. No wonder scholars guess the author was one long-steeped in the experience of Jesus and living it in a treacherous, rapidly changing world.

Our seven verses open up a window into not just the whole letter, but the whole world of this beloved community (and the preacher would do well to read the whole thing as personal preparation, and not in a rush!). It’s a marvel. Don’t overexplain. Trust the text.  Let your people see/hear you marveling over it.

In his classic Anchor Bible commentary, Raymond Brown suggests that the author, mid-argument, inserts 3:1-3 as "a type of exclamatory interruption... an emotional aside." Quite personally, he is amazed over what God has already given, more moved by what is to come. There's a psychological point here: if we can look back in gratitude, we will look forward with hope, whereas if we look back with regret, or guilt, or if we just never look back, then we look forward with anxiety or hollowness.

But Brown's odd notion piques my interest; I wonder if a sermon can capture this interruption and if the preacher might offer some personal emotion. OK, I was working on this sermon, and then I just felt entirely moved, downright flummoxed, by how unspeakably amazing God's love — all God has done for us, for me — really is. And I just couldn't write for a few minutes. Shake your head, nod... and then move back into the sermon. Too manipulative??

The opening verb, “See,” is strong, more like “Look!” or “Behold!” (ίδετε). Also, visibility must matter: the Father’s love must be tangible, viewable — in Christ and in the life of the Body. I suspect preachers need to underline this visibility often. Spirituality does not equal invisible! Spiritual things aren't unreal things; spiritual things are utterly real, visible things driven by God's spirit.

Reading slowly (always recommended), the second word is “what” (potapÄ“n), which, according again to Raymond Brown, expresses “both quality and quantity, thus, how much love, and what amazing love.” In volume (overwhelmingly endless) and quantity (the likes of which we only dream of), God’s love makes us God’s children. Jesus spoke of becoming like children; I think of the beautiful moment in 2 Kings 5 when the leprosy-stricken Naaman finally washed in the Jordan, and his flesh was restored “like that of a young child.”

A child. Brown, once again, offers a keen, preachable insight: "John has rephrased the covenant saying, 'I will be your God and you shall be my people' into 'I will be your God, and you shall be my children.'" The Bible insists that this regression, this spiritual reversal of the arrow of time, this becoming children, is the way to life.

“When he appears, we shall be like him.” Wow. Jesus doesn’t save me so I can keep being like me; our portrayals of heaven (playing golf, lavish meals, sunshine) are so vapid. We will be like him (and we can’t be sure, but most likely the writer means God, not just Jesus).  St. Athanasius and a holy host of theologians unblushingly spoke of deification: we will become glorious — or as C.S. Lewis put it in his astonishing sermon "The Weight of Glory":

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which you would be strongly tempted to worship…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal."

The Church fathers did not hesitate to speak of our deification! “We will be like him.” Maybe American churchgoers won’t fancy even deification, for they are rather attached to their own, independent selves. Surely God will help me be… me. I gotta be me… I did it my way… But no, we will be like him.

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This likeness is not a moral imperative. Our text doesn’t envision “the imitation of Christ” or “What would Jesus do?” as an ethic. It is more transformational, ontological and eschatological. Be patient now, even if you’re trying hard to be like Jesus. You get it right once in a blue moon, but you have light years to go. But it will come. We will be like him.

For now, our task isn’t to behave better, but to see clearly. Brown again: “Our seeing God as He is is the basis for our being like Him.” The preacher might rehearse the ways we recreate God in our own image; we see the deity we have a hankering for. The secret of the spiritual life is coming to see God as God truly is, which must require a lifetime of study, contemplation, direction, worship, discipline, unlearning so much, relearning what you thought you knew, looking long and carefully once more.

Our text does bear an unavoidable complication: It's as if you walk into a lovely foyer, which is well-decorated and full of those welcoming people, but then they lead you into a noisy, smelly back room where a gang of sweaty guys are making sausage. To his beautiful verbiage, 1 John adds that “sinners are lawless,” and that crushingly discouraging thought that “No one who abides in him sins, no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” Mind you, we’ve all known ultra-pious people who smugly nod and peer in judgment at others when they read such words. You may preach to a few of them… but the Word this Sunday is first for the others, and then you hope the vainly self-justifying might overhear and be saved.

I am unsure what to do, except to ask: What if verses 4-7 were all we had? Most Christians, with the exception of the doggedly naïve and most hardened pharisaical, would give up the ghost and see the church as absurdly impossible and maybe irrelevant. In short, 4-7 is a counsel of despair. But then, what if verses 1-3 were all we had? All peace, love and light — though after a while, an unchanged life wouldn’t be worth living either.

The order is divinely inspired. You don’t end your sinning and then get the love. God’s love overwhelms, and then the sanctification begins and continues. Remember sanctification? Not gritting your teeth and doing better, but what the powerful mercy of God does in you. I suspect this isn’t preached much. Thinking of 1 John's remark about purity, C. Clifton Black (New Interpreter’s Bible) calls this purity one of the “family traits” of God’s children. Purity isn't an alien behavior we can't get the hang of or something only special people's DNA enables. It's a family trait — in our family, God's family.

It isn’t just that after the abundance of mercy we then fix the sin; in a way, we aren’t really sinners, or we at least don’t get it, until we get the mercy. Weird, God’s way. The world has no comprehension of sin. President Trump, during his campaign, said he’d never asked God for forgiveness. That’s how it is in an unredeemed world. You don’t know sin until you’ve seen the grace. When we see God as God is, only then is our wobbly, flawed, even wretched state realized — and what perfect timing!

The gut reaction might be Oh no, gee, I’ve made a mess of things, I’d best start doing better. But then Jesus gently coaxes us into a new understanding. For me, it was a transfixing moment during seminary when my theology professor, Dean Robert Cushman, brilliant to excess, explained that we often strive to make Jesus our exemplar. Then, when that project fails so miserably, it dawns on us that he is our savior.

This article originally appeared on the James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission. Read more from Reverend Howell in Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership from Abingdon Press.

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