"Reversing Damage with a New Look"

Date Sunday November 05, 2017
Service All Saints’ Sunday
Text 1 John 3:1-3
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Previous Sermon "Do We Give God what is God’s?"
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     I was recently involved in a conversation about why fewer and fewer people are identifying themselves as Christians, and, also are not identifying with a particular faith community. When surveys are done of those who are staying away, a common reason given is that Christians do not live like (or act like) Christians should.

     This response strikes me as odd if the person giving it has spent little time considering matters of faith or in a graced-focused faith community. How do they know what Christians should do?  But, that’s a defensive response, and not all that helpful. Instead, let me say that this is a valid concern, and a worthy topic on All Saints’ Day.

     The fact is that history of full of examples of Christians not acting like Christians. Baptist Pastor Dr. Guy Sayles lists some of them: nearly 25 years ago the most Christian country in Africa, Rwanda, became the site of a genocide in which 850,000 people were killed in just a few months. It was a tragedy that church officials did little to resist and in which large number of “Christians” participated. Or, if we go backward in time, it’s clear that Germany was a pervasively Christian nation, and yet the vast majority of German Christians were either loyal to, or silent in the face of, Adolf Hitler and Nazism. South African Christians were the creators of apartheid. Most American slaveholders were Christians and, if we really go back in time, during the Crusades, Christian soldiers killed thousands of Muslims and Jews while marching behind the banner of the cross.

     It happens that these examples given by Dr. Sayles, while significant, are rather far removed from us. But he doesn’t stop there; this time I’ll quote him: “Who knows how much damage has been done by Christians who have failed to live by the ways of Jesus? Priests abusing children committed to their care; ministers committing adultery with their parishioners, church officials pocketing money they pilfered from the offering plate; and angry demonstrators waving placards that blaspheme a God of love by claiming that God hates. And what of the damage we do to our own hearts and minds when we are driven by greed more than gratitude, by pride more than humility, by competition more than mutuality by selfishness more than service.” (1) .

     It’s a sad truth that much damage has been done by Christians who were not acting like Christians. While we are relieved if most of these descriptions do not apply to us, the reality is that we all are influenced by ideas, loyalties and priorities that are at odds with being followers of Jesus. I guess we cannot assume that that’s what Christians are doing – following Jesus – which is why today’s passage from 1 John, while brief, is so important.

     The message it offers is that there is hope because God intends to transform us to be like Jesus. The good news, according to commentator Brian Peterson, is not that Jesus helps us to be more loving, or forgiving, or caring, or just, but that Jesus himself – being like him - is the goal and the gift. (2)

     Oh, we say, that’s great, but it’s a promise for the future, for eternity. After all, the passage says: “What we do know is this: when Jesus is revealed, we will be like him….” It’s for some day, not today. That’s true, but we also know this: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” While it’s the case that what happens at the end of this life is not fully revealed to us now, and that being like Jesus is a future gift, what we do know today is that God has given us astonishing love – love that makes us God’s own children. And, to be adopted by God is a transformative process.

     Perhaps what the writer of 1 John had in mind was the Roman concept of adoption, which often involved young adults or adults. It was about inheritance and name. Often a man was adopted to carry on the name of a childless family. The adopted son would sever ties to the old family and this would include relief of any debt he owed under that name. He would become a whole new person.

      Spiritual adoption in Jesus is like that, writes commentator Nijay Gupta. It’s not just about forgiving the past, or looking forward to eternity in a distant future, but also involves the present and progress. (3)

     So, for each of us, becoming like Jesus has already started, or at least that’s what God has in mind. And, if we have it in mind too, people will notice. I was drawn to this quote by Dr. Sayles: “It is urgent, for the sake of the church and of the whole world, that we become people who are unswervingly committed to the will and way of Jesus. People who are bending every energy of their lives to become more and more like him will be agents of reconciliation and understanding, of healing and hope, of love and mercy. To put it simply, ‘Jesus people’ will make the world a different place.” (4)

     We are becoming like Jesus. If someone asks what your goals are, both short-term and long-term, that would be a good response. I am growing into the image of Jesus.

     In her autobiography, Gertrude Stein described an exchange she had with Pablo Picasso. Even though he had painted a portrait of her, he did not immediately recognize her when they met again. Stein wrote: ‘I murmured to Picasso that I liked his portrait of Gertrude Stein. Yes, he said, somebody said that she does not look like it, but that doesn’t make any difference, she will.’” (5) So it is for us, we may not look much like Jesus now, but someday we will.

     It’s true that in the here and now, transforming into the image of Jesus is a challenge. We need the Holy Spirit’s help, that’s obvious. Also, humility and healing are required. That’s one reason I picked the hymn “Healer of Our Every Ill”, which we’ll soon be singing. I like verse 4 particularly: “You who know each thought and feeling, teach us all your way of healing (or it could be “being”); Spirit of compassion fill each heart.” Of course, to be like Jesus we must have familiarity with the Gospels, in order to know what he said and did, and the support of a grace-focused faith community to learn, grow in faith and serve together is vital.

     If we are willing and intentional, then we will more and more be transformed into our true selves, until the day we see Jesus face to face and are who God intended us to be. In the meantime, there is no better model for our lives than Jesus, and as we imitate him, there is no better advertisement for the Christian faith. AMEN


(1)   “We Will Be Like Jesus” by the Rev. Dr. Guy Sayles, First Baptist Church, Asheville, NC, 1 1 John 3:1-7, April 30, 2006, www.day1.org

(2)   “Commentary on 1 John 3:1-7 by Brian Peterson, www.workingpreacher.com

(3)   “Commentary on 1 John 3:1-7 by Nijay Gupta, www.workingpreacher.com

(4)   Same as #1

(5)   Same as #1