See what love the Father has given 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. 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. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 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 3:1-7
Deeper into 1 John, maybe you’ve gotten a feel for the funky, spiralling way that the he communicates. There are constantly-repeated themes that are brought up, lead to something else, and come back again, round and round. It can be hard to handle, but over and over the writer gets back to God as love, Jesus as real and alive, and Resurrection as an “already” but also “not yet” reality. That last one we deal with more today. It’s the idea again that since Jesus has already died and been raised, sin is rendered powerless in the present. His blood shed spells out victory, right now. But still we sin, even those who reckon ourselves by his blood, we sin terribly; and still we die. So we know there is more to come.
Just like Charlton Hest…I mean, Moses…and the Hebrews leaving Egypt, being Passed Over was a moment of instant and utter freedom, but the next moment saw regular reality still at work when Pharaoh recanted his decision and jumped in his chariots to come and kill’em all. In the early church, right after the Resurrection that worldly reality sunk in right away as it came under the two-pronged attack of physical extermination from one direction and heresy (false teaching) from the other. With Jesus-followers being arrested, fired from work, having homes confiscated, being tortured and killed, they also had to deal with challenges to Jesus’ true teachings and the authentic gospel. They had no authorized body of Scripture to rely because it was largely still being written and was ridiculously expensive to reproduce; there were a handful of apostles/missionaries spread over thousands of miles trying to teach and maintain the true faith by word of mouth, traveling on foot (or by ship or camel, etc.). There was plenty of room for error, and it was a tireless task to keep checking in and holding one another accountable.
Not unlike today, the self-proclaimed ultra-spiritual, or super-wise, would pop up and insist that they, in their painstaking life/work, had discovered the reality behind the Gospel, and God’s real intentions for Christianity. From Gnostics to Thomas Jefferson’s Bible to Andrew Sullivan in Newsweek, there’s nothing new or unique about people claiming to have the only new, unique, and/or true version of Jesus’ life. So it seems that John was dealing with the same trend in his own group, as he mentions false teachers and what sounds like some of their own leaving to follow a new teaching. And I think his writing here in 3:1-7 tackles two of the lies that circulated back then, but that persist in a potent way today. They are interesting little twists on the “already and not yet” nature of resurrection. Check it out.
The first lie is that God doesn’t actually care how people specifically live. Now, people had sense enough not to say it out loud like that. And the people would claim that it wasn’t because God doesn’t care about us, it’s because God just knows us that well. See, there was a core belief in those days that the universe had two ingredients: matter and spirit. So a human being is part physical body (matter) and part soul (spirit). The next step in the idea was that matter is inherently bad. For instance, our bodies produce all sorts of desires and sensual temptations, from greed to lust to pride, that are the source of our sinfulness. On the other hand, spirit is all good…it lasts forever and is of light and God. So these folks heard about the Resurrection and said, “Of course! Jesus had to shed his evil body to come back as a spirit-man. And we can too! One day in death we can leave sin behind and be similar ghost-people in heaven forever!” Sounds like it almost makes sense, until you take it even another step further. The people concluded, “If my body is naturally bad, and I’m waiting for good eternal life one day, then what I do at present doesn’t matter to God because God knows I just can’t help myself.” Blame it all on evil matter.
Most of us see the poor logic; what a slack way out of trying to live obediently or be pure as John says. Cop out. But it’s absolutely appealing, too. What if we had such an all-covering, ultimate excuse for all our faults, all our mistakes and foul deeds? What if we could actively embrace any and every behavior on earth, totally uninhibited, because we could call it just “natural”? This is the lie that pops up when you find yourself faced with sin, especially habitual or addictive, and you’re whispered something like, “…you can’t live without me, don’t you know it? you and me, we’re made for each other. i’m in your blood, in your genes, your family history, we’re one and the same. i’m part of who you are, get used to it, and quit feeling so guilty all the time.” If you’ve ever gotten tired of trying so hard to resist temptation, even after failing over and over, that it’s just eventually easier to give in, then you know this lie. It struck out at the young church around two thousand years ago, and it’s still here.
But John’s letter, and the Gospel, and really Jesus himself say otherwise. There is another version of the story to hear. It’s the truth. Your body isn’t just bad; it was made in God’s own image. And not everything that is spiritual is just good (i.e., Satan & company). And Jesus proves that resurrection isn’t just about our spirits leaving our bad bodies behind – he was more than just a ghost man, or an Obiwan Kenobi Jedi spirit dude. He was something new and different, eating and drinking, touchable, bearing his wounds, but also more than that. John says we’re going to be like him. Being “passed over” says that Christ’s blood spilled for us means we are no longer dominated by sin; it is not our fate or our master, because we are set free. And all of that means that we CAN do differently. We can be pure and holy. We can do better here and now, as well as later.
Unfortunately, the second lie follows up quickly on that very point. It asks, “Just because you claim you CAN do better, does that mean you even NEED to?” This falsehood asserts that since, like we just established, everything a person has ever done wrong or will ever do wrong has been rendered powerless by Jesus’ sacrifice, then it doesn’t matter what we do from here on out. We’re the people that get to be free and careless and if we screw up, hell, it’s gonna be all good anyway. This is the lie that speaks up about doing whatever you want with yourself all week, as long as you’re present, prayerful and penitent on Sunday morning. It’s the lie that shows up in that moment when you’re choosing between good and notsogood paths. You’re SUPPOSED to be a good little boy or girl, but you just WANT to try or feel or enjoy the alternative. The lie whispers, “…you’ve done good so far, what’s one little experiment? or, you’ve been down that road before and i know you want it again…why not? after all, you didn’t die the last time; God didn’t smite you. in fact, at that next holy communion you were told it was all okay anyway. go for it one time, and you can repent later.”
In a way, the lie makes perfect rational sense, because a VAST MAJORITY of our lives, we don’t feel any direct consequence for so much of our wrongdoing. I mean, sometimes you get caught in a lie, or you drink too much and get physically sick and promise to never do it again, or your addictive behavior tears apart relationships. It certainly happens. But I still say an overwhelming part of what we do wrong is unseen by any but us and God. And does God spend all day every day thumping us on the noggin when we screw up? No. And any behavioral specialist or dog-trainer will tell you that a disconnect between actions and consequences makes for a repeat offender. What does our sin actually hurt sometimes? We don’t always feel it ourselves. But we should know that reality is this: when we link up with Sin for whatever reason, and we harm ourselves, or others, or Creation, or dishonor God’s heart, there are always absolutely just repercussions. Every time, total justice. But where does it go? You might picture it that while you and Sin laugh it up, or whatever else, Sin is reaching behind your back to Jesus who is standing close by at your side. And while you and Sin are arm-in-arm, Sin is using the other arm to pummel and beat, stab and scar, and ultimately crucify Jesus. That disconnect fuels the second lie, “Why do you even NEED to live differently, or seek purity and holiness?” Because if once you glance to your other side, and see what you and Sin are doing to him, it might give you some pause.
Now, once again I don’t think we make this point to be guilt-ridden this week going forward, or beat down and shamed by our sinfulness. We take a look at these two lies because they assailed John and the first generations of Christians. False teachers popped up and said, “Look at me! I do whatever I like and still claim to know the true, secret, wisdom of the Gospel! Follow me!” Or they said, “Why be bound to such rigorous rules and ascetic behaviors? Resurrection means total freedom, so cut loose!” John felt that Jesus represented the very opposite, and that Jesus was still alive, and one to love and adore.
We handle these two lies so that today, yes today, when Sin comes to visit, each of us has something to stand on in opposition. Sin says, “…you can’t help yourself, it’s just you, come and join me. God understands who you are.” In the authority of Jesus’ blood shed for you, you can respond: “I don’t have to choose YOU. You are no master of me. I CAN do differently.” Sin says, “…what will it even harm? why try when it’s all going to be forgotten and forgiven anyway?” And you can respond, by the same authority: “I trust in forgiveness. But I also know Jesus. I love him. And I see what YOU and I have been doing to him. And I hate you for it. So get gone from here.”
Today, remember that you have been passed over, and what that means right now as well as in the life to come. But also remember that it certainly isn’t game over yet.