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How Will They Know We Are Christians? Part II

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
April 22, 2012

The Third Sunday of Easter

1 John 3:1-7

Some of you will remember Keith Parks, who was Executive Director of the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention for several years and, during that time, a member of this church. I once heard Dr. Parks say that Christianity is the only religion that has an effective way of dealing with sin, which suggests that there are other ways of dealing with it that are not effective. I tried to imagine what those might be. For example: let’s say that you are a recent college graduate and you’ve gotten a job house-sitting for a wealthy couple while they go on vacation. Sometime during that two-week period you accidentally bump into a vase that falls to the floor and breaks into a dozen pieces. Let’s say that’s the sin. Now, what’s the solution?

1. You could deny it. You could leave the vase lying right where it fell, in pieces on the floor, and when the couple came home and asked you what happened, you could say, “I don’t know.” And when they asked again, “No, really. What happened?” you could say again, “Really. I don’t know.” You could just keep on denying it until they let the matter drop, but it wouldn’t really solve anything, would it?

2. You could blame it on someone else. You could say, “The cat must have knocked it over.” When they said, “We don’t have a cat,” you could say, “Then it must have been the dog.” When they said, “Um, we don’t have a dog, either,” you could say, “Then it must have been an earthquake.” When they said, “No, probably not,” you could say, “Tsunami?” But again, it wouldn’t really solve the problem, would it?

3. You could try to fix it! You could get some glue and try to put all the pieces back together again, and if there weren’t too many of them, and if the breaks were clean, you might be able to get away with it. It might be a long time before anyone looked at the vase closely enough to see the cracks. But you would know that you hadn’t really solved the problem, and that one day you would get a call asking, “What happened to the vase?”

4. You could confess. You could say, “Hey, I accidentally knocked your vase over. I’m really, really sorry. I would be happy to replace it if I can.” And then they would turn pale and say, “There’s no way you can replace it. It’s a rare, under glaze, copper-red vase from the Ming Dynasty. Its value is estimated at just over 10 million dollars. That’s why it was up on that pedestal with the spotlight on it.”

And that’s when Keith Parks might say, “You see? That’s just how it is with your sin. There’s no way to pay the price, but thanks be to God someone has already paid it for you!”

I think the author of 1 John would agree with Dr. Parks. Last Sunday I read for you the last part of chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2, where he says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us…. [But if we confess our sins] we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 1:8-2:2, NIV).

These verses were written because some people in John’s church had come up with a whole new way of dealing with sin. Buying into the Gnostic idea of dualism—that is, that the flesh is essentially evil while the spirit is essentially good—they began to say that it wasn’t really them who sinned, it was their flesh. For example: let’s say that someone in John’s church was seen visiting a prostitute, and when he was confronted about it he said, “Well, of course, I myself would never visit a prostitute! But my flesh is another matter altogether. Every time I start to walk by her house he wants to go in. And since he’s the one who has the feet he takes me there. And since he’s the one who has the knuckles he knocks on her door. And since he’s the one who has the lips he gives her a great big kiss. And the next thing you know there’s no turning back. But it’s not me, you see—it’s my flesh!” If you can imagine someone making that kind of argument, then maybe you can understand the second part of today’s epistle reading. Listen to these words from 1 John 3:4-7:

Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

There is a real danger in these verses, especially if you read them out of context. You could come away thinking they’re about us. But they’re not about us; they’re about them. Do you remember how I told you last week that 1 John was written in the context of a church split, and that there was a lot of “us” and “them” language in the letter? Well, this is a good example. The author is talking about those people who have left the church, the ones who believe that the flesh is essentially evil while the spirit is essentially good. Because of that they can’t believe that the divine Son of God came in the flesh; they say it must have only “appeared” that way. But for the author of this letter that is a non-negotiable. In chapter 2 he says, “Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ (in other words, whoever denies that the human Jesus and the divine Christ were one and the same). Such a person,” he says, “is the antichrist.”

Wow.

Have you ever been in a church fight like that, where one side was calling the other side the Antichrist? That’s who the author is talking about in passage that I just read for you: those who are, literally, “against Christ.” It’s not the person who sins from time to time, by accident, and then confesses his sin, and asks for forgiveness; it’s the person who sins all the time, on purpose, and then blames it on the flesh, and says it wasn’t really him. Listen again to verse 4: “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.” That sounds so different from what we heard last week, that “if anyone does sin we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1). But remember it’s not us the author is talking about; it’s them—those people who say they have no sin. Their sin is a kind of lawlessness. They behave as if the law doesn’t exist, or as if it doesn’t apply to them. They sin all the time. And if anyone calls them on it they say, “Hey, it was my flesh!” But not us. The author of 1 John says, “But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. [And] no one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him” (vss. 5-7).

As I said, these can be dangerous verses if you read them out of context. You can assume that the author is talking about us. You can live your Christian life so fearful of sin that you’re afraid to take a breath. But he’s not talking about us; he’s talking about them—the ones who have left the church, the ones who sin as if it were a recreational activity, the ones who claim it isn’t sin at all. That’s the way they have tried to deal with their sin—by dividing themselves into flesh and spirit, blaming their sin on the flesh, and pretending the spirit is perfect and pure. But we don’t have to deal with sin that way. We have another way of dealing with it. We try our hardest not to sin but when we do (and we will), “we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ the Righteous One” (2:1). “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world: (2:2). “If we confess our sins he is faithful and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1:9). Now, that’s an effective way of dealing with sin, and just look what it does for us. In the first three verses of today’s reading John says:

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. 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. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure (1 John 3:1-3, NIV).

What a wonderful gift! To be called the children of God! But these verses are dangerous, too, or at least the last one is. “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure,” it says, and you could get the idea that this is how the world will know we are God’s children: because of our purity. And you could start being careful about what you say, and how you look, and what you do, and who you’re with, and before you know it…you would turn into a Pharisee. I don’t think that’s what the author of 1 John means at all. He says that when Jesus comes we will be like him, and Jesus was not a Pharisee. In fact, the people he had the most trouble with were Pharisees. So, he can’t really mean that we will purify ourselves as they tried to purify themselves, by avoiding anyone or anything who might sully our reputations. Jesus didn’t do that. He spent time with sinners and tax collectors. We ought to be able to do the same. In fact, we should probably do more of it than we do. But we don’t have to become sinners and tax collectors.

The author of 1 John says we are the children of God. Those others, the ones who kept on sinning and blaming it on their flesh? Well, you don’t even want to know what he calls them. The lectionary tries to protect us by cutting off our reading at verse 7, but down in verse 8 the author of 1 John calls them the children of the Devil. They wallow in their sin. They blame it on the flesh. They say, “We’re only human!” But not us. We say, “We are ‘only’ the children of God!” And it’s not because we’re so good; it’s because he is. “See what love the Father has lavished on us,” John says, “that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are! …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. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (3:1-3, NIV). And how do we purify ourselves? Well, he’s already told us: we don’t deny our sin, we don’t blame it on someone else, we don’t try to cover it up, we confess it, and when we do, “He is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1:9).

I had an experience like that yesterday.

I was driving home from spending the week with my mom and dad up in Frederick, Maryland. I had made a recording of this section of 1 John, and I was listening to it over and over again in the car. Somewhere south of Washington, all the talk about sin and confession and forgiveness got to me, and I made a telephone call I have been putting off for 30 years. It was to my old college roommate, Smitty. He answered the phone and we talked for a while and then I said, “Hey, do you remember that ski retreat we went on with the College Christian Council? I was in the college van,” I said, “and you were following along behind in your car. We stopped for gas somewhere and I was in a good mood. I jumped out of the van, came running back to your car, and hopped up on the hood, but when I did the hood bent under my weight and a flake of paint about the size of a quarter popped off. I remember looking at the bare metal underneath and thinking, ‘Uh oh. That’s going to be a problem.’

“Well, it was a problem. You had just traded for that car—a nearly new Datsun 280Z. You were proud of it, and now it had this bare spot on the hood. Not only that, but to keep it from rusting you had to spray it with primer, so there was this big, gray dot right there where everybody could see it. That was thirty-some years ago,” I said, “but every once in a while I think of that and feel like I should have offered to pay for the damage.” And then I took a deep breath. “So, that’s what I want to do. Whatever it cost you in 1979 dollars I’d like to pay you in 2012 dollars.” I braced myself for the verdict. I knew it was going to be a lot. But Smitty just laughed. He said, “I can’t believe you remember something like that.” He said, “I don’t think I remember it, and if I ever did hold a grudge against you it’s long forgotten. So, relax,” he said. “All is forgiven.” And I’ve got to tell you, there’s something to this stuff, because when he said that I felt about ten pounds lighter. I didn’t even know I’d been carrying all that guilt, but I must have, and when he said that it was gone. Before we hung up I said, “Smitty, 30 years later, I still love you, man.” And he said the same.

Now, that was a little thing. I’ve been guilty of some big things. There may be some of you in this room who are wondering, “Where’s my apology?” and if so, I hope you will ask for it. Because this is how we purify ourselves. We don’t deny our sins, we don’t blame somebody else, we don’t try to hide them—we confess them, we come clean. That’s what makes it possible for God to forgive us and for us to forgive each other. And maybe that’s how the world will know we are the children of God: not because we are Puritans, but because we have been purified.

—Jim Somerville, 2012

 
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