Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
April 15, 2018 – Third Sunday of Easter
“How plain, how full, and how deep a compendium of genuine Christianity!” That is how John Wesley described the First Letter of John.
There is a dreamlike quality to the language in this book. It goes beyond the bounds of mortal prose.
We read today from the third chapter this morning and our opening line is a good example of what I am talking about here: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”
That takes us right off the surface of the planet and we are set on a cosmic plane. The author is not telling us what he is seeing and hearing and smelling. It is a concept that bursts the bonds of birth and death. Children of God, indeed.
The scholars think there are many reasons to think that this is written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of John. We can’t be certain about it, but there are fragments of its grammar and syntax as early as 135 A.D., so it is a work that was reduced to writing not long after the fourth gospel, which most scholars believe was written by 70 A.D.
Its cosmic point of view is very like the Gospel of John which we all know begins with “In the beginning the Word was with God and the Word was God.
This is a person who has broken free from the tether of their own time and they can see a purpose in God that stretches beyond one lifetime, beyond one planet…or solar system or galaxy.
God is too big to imagine, to countenance, to even describe in words, but there he was in the person of Jesus Christ, and our writer is putting his thoughts down because he wants people to hear of the man from Galilee a thousand years after he has gone.
I can hear an echo from the Gospel of John in his opening line: “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.”
In the beginning was the Word, the Gospel tells us, and the word was the word of life. On the one hand he is very clear in his description of what he is talking about. On the other hand, he is talking about life and the meaning of existence in a way that is far removed from the ordinary scope of human understanding.
He speaks with confidence, not trying to persuade us…only trying to give us as clear an idea as he can of a truth that is too wonderful for words.
As I read through the book, I come to the conclusion that love is the greatest of human emotions. It gets us out of serving only ourselves and gets us into serving something far greater, far more powerful, far more beautiful than our own wishes and desires.
We become part of something that is timeless and limitless. We know the truth and the truth sets us free from the shackles of this mortal life we live together.
So how does someone come to that state of mind and strength of spirit where they are able to conceive of things on so vast a scale and…at once…such a personal scale? What must have happened to them to give them that kind of freedom… and I have to say…that kind of joy.
Believe it or not, that is up to you, but it gives me joy to share it with you, freely. I want to hang onto the wonder and power of that first moment I understood this fully, and perhaps if I give you my eyewitness account, you will have it, too, and I will have it again, like I did when I first saw the light in the darkness.
This person speaks from a position of privileged authority. He is always calling us ‘little children’ and he is telling us things that a wise and loving grandparent would want to share with his grandchildren so that they might have as blessed a life as he does.
Martin Luther said that it would be good for a believer to read Paul’s letter to the Romans every day because it is a complete understanding of the Good News from God in Jesus Christ. This First Letter of John is worthy of that high praise as well.
To get the rhythm and the truth of these few lines of writing into your bones…into your soul…prepares you for many things you just can’t prepare for. You are able to look into the mystery of life as it presents itself from day to day and moment to moment and find some clues.
It is also very much like the great little book that Thomas a Kempis produced, The Imitation of the Christ. I picked it up as I prepared for this morning and opened it at random.
Chapter XIV. Avoiding Rash Judgment. “Turn your attention upon yourself and avoid judging the deeds of other men, for in judging others a man labors vainly, often makes mistakes, and easily sins; whereas, in judging and taking stock of himself he does something that is always profitable.”
That is like the insight of Viktor Frankl that it is not up to us to judge life, to question the justness of things that happen to us, but rather it is life that is questioning us and judging us, and the way we respond to the challenges that confront us tell life who we are and what we are made of.
The Imitation of the Christ was a special book to Agatha Christie, too. In her mystery stories, Miss Marple has a copy of the book by her nightstand and reads a chapter of it every night before she goes to sleep.
It clears her mind. It gets her out of herself. It lets her see the world as a spectator. And it enables her to solve mysteries that confound everyone around her, which gives her at once a humility and a power that people who are tethered to this world will never achieve.
I have heard it said, and I think it is quite true, that the relationship between a writer and a reader is one of the most intimate relationships there is. You get into the writer’s mind…into their soul…and they let you in knowing that they are giving you more than you can ever repay.
Reading literature like this, the deep and vast literature that wraps us in the love of God, is like one of those talks with a good friend or a providential stranger that you are going to remember all your life.
It deepens you and changes you and releases you from the cares and worries of the hour. It fills you with the joy of life and love and hope and faith.
There is another way to come at this place of spiritual equilibrium…or there is another way that I have come to a place very much like it. Do you know when I think I make my best decisions…when I can step out of my self and watch me like a spectator in my own life…when I will not be driven by fear or pride but by hope and honesty?
It is when I am in a situation that is so unfavorable that there aren’t any good choices you can make. You are just trying to figure out what the decisions are and what the least bad course of action is.
Again I go back to Frankl and him telling us that it is not up to us to tell life what to do or to criticize God because we don’t like our choices. What are you going to do about it?
God gave us free will, and that enables us to do the worst things you can imagine…sometimes worse than anything you could have imagined. But that same free will gives a shot and doing good things, wonderful things, things that are better than anything we could have imagined.
You don’t have to make every bad situation worse. You don’t have to die on every hill. Jesus showed us the way to simply do the right thing and leave the rest to God…trust in God…rest in the arms of God.
And that is how we can become children of God. Jesus showed us the way. He did not bring the message of God’s love to us…he was the message of God’s love for us. Everyone who does what is right is righteous…just as he is righteous.
Maybe some people are born with this kind of inner compass, but I am not one of them. But when the chips are down and all around me seems to be falling apart, loving words like the ones we read in this letter or in John’s Gospel…or in The Imitation of the Christ…can steady us and fill us with a kind of peace and light that will bring us through with our soul intact, even if our body is not unscathed.
Anyone who can write like this has had a tremendous experience in life. Fyodor Dostoevsky, author of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, was arrested for saying things that were critical of the Czar. He was sentenced to death and he was led out to the place where he was told he would be shot.
Then, at the last minute, his sentence was commuted to a term in prison. He gained more than he lost in that little adventure in life. He was not able to write such powerful, timeless stories in spite of the adversity he had experienced… but because of it.
And I think that the person who wrote the First Letter of John would have gained the power to see and speak in this magnificent way because they had known Jesus, had followed Jesus…had seen him crucified, dead and buried…and then stood face to face with the risen Christ.
He too found power in the powerlessness of a terrible hardship, had come to understand justice in the midst of an incredible and unjust difficulty.
We can find ourselves in unfair situations each day, but we can be the light and the hope and the grace that makes it possible for everyone to get through the darkness without speaking a word in anger, leaning on faith and acting out of love.
Then we might be called children of God. Amen.