Since 1 John is so repetitive, I’m starting to feel like I’m saying the same thing over and over again. I don’t think it’s really a bad thing, though. If you’re going to start off a ministry, why not emphasize what ministry’s all about – loving God and loving others? I think once we get those two things figured out, our churches will be bursting at the seams!
I’m going to try to convert this sermon into a podcast this week. The difficulty I’m having is that it’s recorded in analog and I currently don’t have the proper equipment to convert it to digital format. Some changes happen over time, but this one shouldn’t take too long. If I remember correctly, it’s just one little cord that I’m missing. I think once the podcasts begin, I’ll probably continue posting the manuscripts. What do you think? Would you continue reading it if you could hear it? After all, sermons are meant to be experienced, not just read. Of course, if the manuscripts do go away, I won’t be able to post pictures that illustrate some of the points. And we’re a long, long way from vodcasting!
For the time-being, here’s week #3 in our series, A Letter From an Old Friend.
I heard it a lot growing up. I looked like my Dad did when he was 11 years old. We were both the same age when our families visited Niagara Falls. Although they were more than twenty years apart, there are two sets of pictures that look like carbon copies of each other. Our haircuts were the same. The expressions were the same. Aside from the different clothes and the picture quality, you’d think the two different kids were actually the same person if you didn’t know any better. Without even knowing it, I had become a spitting image of my Dad. “I can tell you’re related,” people would tell me time and time again.
When I was in college at Milligan, my brother, Kevin, came down to Tennesseeto visit me. I think he was a Senior in high school and I was a Junior there at Milligan. I took him to Chapel and introduced him to many of my friends. Since he had a goatee at the time, we looked very similar. But it didn’t stop there. After I introduced him to my friends, both of us waved at them, turned around, and sat down. We did it at the same time and in the same manner. I promise, we did not plan it that way. “Oh my goodness,” one person said, “He’s a little Matt!” Many other people came up to me while he was there and said, “Is that your brother? I can tell you’re related.” And they said it like we were supposed to be surprised by the revelation. Unfortunately, we’d heard it so much when we were in high school together that we were sick of it. But there was no escaping it. Even though we were hundreds of miles apart, we looked and acted in very similar ways. There’s something in our DNA, our genetic code, that has given us very similar physical characteristics. And whether we like it or not, it’s pretty obvious from our appearances that my Dad, my brother, and I are related.
And this is not an unusual phenomenon. We try to find characteristics of family members in each other. We say that a child has mom’s eyes or dad’s nose, or infamous family allergies. And family traits have been handed down throughout time. As we continue to look at 1 John, a letter from an old friend, we see that the author, John, understands what it means to have people say, “I can tell you’re related.”
Turn with me to 1 John 2:28. If you don’t have a Bible, you’re welcome to use the one in the pew in front of you. 1 John is at the end of the Bible, just a few pages in front of the book of Revelation. In the pew Bibles, today’s verses start on page 1066. Remember, we talked last week about how the sacrifice of Jesus Christ gives us a new ability to walk in the light of God’s love. Without this redeeming act, the sin in our us would continue to stain every part of our lives and leave everything we touch ruined by sin – just like a set of muddy shoes makes a mess of everything it touches. But Jesus gives us new walking shoes that give us the freedom not to sin. By walking with these new shoes, we can walk in God’s light and live holy lives. Which leads us to today’s passage.
Let’s assume this morning that the author of the letters, 1, 2, 3, John is the apostle John named in the Gospels. I mentioned earlier that I see no reason to believe that he is not the author. The apostle John, his brother James, and Peter were part of Jesus’ inner circle. They were the closest of Jesus’ closest friends. James and John, however, had a reputation of having a strong passion with a fiery temper. There was a time when Jesus and his friends visited a town where they were not welcome. The two brothers asked Jesus if he wanted them to call down fire from heaven and destroy the city. Another time, John saw a person who was not one of the 12 casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Rather than celebrating that Jesus was being glorified, he tried to force him to stop because he was not one of the 12. And in another instance, James, John, and their mother, asked Jesus to give them a special place in the new kingdom he was ushering in…the brothers wanted to be second in command. Of course, Jesus corrected James and John in their misconceptions of both the kingdom and who is part of the kingdom. Their reputation for having passionate reactions grew and they became known as Sons of Thunder.
It was John, the Son of Thunder, who outran Peter to the empty tomb. His experience with the resurrected Jesus Christ changed him. Now, many years after Jesus had returned to heaven, John has taken on a new family likeness. He is no longer a Son of Thunder, but he is a Son of God. And he calls all followers of Christ children of the Father. The old life, the old characteristics and the old reputation gets put away and we take on new characteristics as children of God. Our DNA changes and we are adopted into the family of God.
Look at verse 3:2 again. – “Dear friends, now we are children of God…when he appears we shall be like him.” If you have your own Bible, circle that word ‘now.’ Being part of the family of God is not something we wait until the afterlife to attain. If you are a Christ-follower, you have been adopted by the King of the Universe, our Heavenly Father. It’s not something you have to wait until later to receive. We are, literally, the ‘born-ones’ of the Father. Adoption was common in the Roman world. Unlike today, where the majority of adoptions are infants or very young children, a family who wanted a male as an heir was adopted as a teenager or young adult. He could no longer inherit from his natural father and was no longer liable for old debts. As far as his family was concerned, he was dead.
In the book Knowing God, theologian J. I. Packer says this about our adoption as children of God: “God adopts us out of free love, not because our character and record show us worthy to bear his name, but despite the fact that they show the very opposite. We are not fit for a place in God’s family; the idea of his loving and exalting us sinners as he loves and has exalted the Lord Jesus sounds ludicrous and wild – yet that, and nothing less than that, is what our adoption means” (p. 215)
There isn’t a physical distinction between the born-ones of God and those who are not children of God. The defining characteristics of a child of God, however, are very plain and should be visible to all.
First, children of God do right. They don’t sin. If and when we do sin, we can be forgiven of those sins. We can keep our new walking shoes on that we discussed last week. Children of God also 2) Love one another.
It is natural to want to put up a fight. You know the story of Cain. The two brothers offered sacrifices. God was pleased with Abel’s sacrifice and not happy with Cain’s. The book of Genesis doesn’t explicitly say why God was happy with Abel’s offering and He wasn’t satisfied with Cain’s. It probably had to do with the attitudes of their hearts. Instead of seeking to change himself, Cain chose to lash out with hate and anger. He murdered his brother because of God’s favor. Without Christ, our default position becomes the same as Cain – revenge. (Gen 4:3-8) This default position still creeps up every once in a while. Think about it. When someone cuts you off on the road, what’s your first reaction? If you’re like me, you want to slam on the horn and get up on that person’s bumper. Or you want to speed up and cut them off. Somehow, you think that makes everything right. You’ve evened the score. And as long as the score is tied, everything is somehow OK.
Think back to September 11, 2001. When you saw the people in the Middle East dancing in the streets in celebration of the collapse of the Twin Towers, what was your reaction? I’m embarrassed to admit that my first instinct was not love. Neither was my second. In fact, I don’t think love was even part of the equation until several hours – maybe even days – later. My reaction was similar to that of John and James: “God, why don’t’ you send fire down from heaven and burn them all up?” Nevermind that these images were very real reminders that there are millions of people around the world who do not know Jesus Christ, and it is our calling as followers of Christ to proclaim the life-changing message of the good news of Christ to all nations…even those who hate us. I definitely do not have this love thing all figured out. I’d imagine you don’t, either.
As children of God, our new reaction – our new default position – should be love. Not just with our mouths but with our actions. It’s not some kind of lovey-dovey, mushy, emotional reaction that we associate with romantic movies, Valentine’s Day, and teenage puppy love. No, it’s the same kind of radical, self-sacrificing love that Jesus Christ showed for us. That means more than just looking at someone and saying, “I love you, brother,” or “I love you, sister.” It means getting to know each other and getting into each other’s lives. Sometimes it can be messy. And sometimes it’s uncomfortable. But it is when we love each other and our community around us that we shine our light like a city on a hill.
In The Big Idea: Focus the Message, Multiply the Impact, a book by Dave Ferguson, he shares the story of Juan Carlos Ortiz, pastor of one of the largest churches in Argentina:
The voices of the people rang (in the Sunday worship service) with the enthusiastic vigor that is so characteristic of Pentecostal churches. The prayers were issued with a tone of charismatic fervor. And the people felt sure the Spirit of God was there as Pastor Ortiz came to deliver the teaching. The text for the week was right out of the lectionary passage. During the week Ortiz had prepared a message to remind the congregation of the importance of loving one another. He had spent a great deal of time praying over the message, studying, and carefully recording his thoughts. He believed that God had truly guided him as he prepared each point and selected each illustration, and thus he approached the pulpit with boldness. But then something happened about halfway between his seat and the pulpit. He heard a voice.
“How many times have you preached on this passage in this church?”
“I don’t know – maybe a dozen.”
As he was about to step into the pulpit and speak, he heard the same voice ask, “Did any of those sermons do any good?”
Maybe you can sympathize with Ortiz’s dilemma: a minister stands before the congregation and suddenly realizes that he or she has the wrong message. In that moment the minister knows that the words that seemed inspired on Tuesday are going to sound like clanging gongs on Sunday.
Ortiz stood still, frozen in time. All thoughts evaporated from his mind. He looked over the congregation and saw the people he had led to Christ. He saw people he had counseled during times of emotional turmoil, as well as people he had visited in the hospital at 2:00 a.m. as their loved ones clung to life. He saw people who had heard the Christian message taught over and over again, in Sunday school lessons, small group Bible studies, and his own sermons: they knew the words but still struggled to live out the message. Finally, he said, “Love one another.” Then he walked back to his seat and sat down.
The people sat in motionless silence. This Pentecostal congregation that could handle fiery preaching and passionate praise didn’t know what to do with utter stillness. Then Pastor Ortiz stood up, walked to the pulpit again, and said, “Love one another.” As he returned to his seat once more, heads began to turn from side to side. People looked at one another with questioning eyes, silently asking, “What should we do now?” Eyebrows rose. Shoulders shrugged. Bewilderment settled on everyone’s face. After waiting a few minutes, Ortiz walked to the pulpit one more time. He positioned himself and then very deliberately said, “Love one another.” Then returned to his seat once again.
After a few moments a man stood up and said, “Brothers and sisters, I think I understand what Pastor Ortiz is talking about. He is asking me to love you.” Then he pointed to a family seated next to him and asked, “But how can I love you when I do not even know your name?” The man proceeded to introduce himself to the family and ask them questions in the hope of discovering ways in which he could express his love.
Another man stood up and said, “I also understand what Pastor Ortiz is saying. He wants me to love Carlos (a man sitting three pews in front of him), but how can I love Carlos when I still hold a grudge against him?” The man left his pew and approached Carlos to apologize, and the two were reconciled. With this, the floodgates were opened. People stood up and began to circulate, asking what they could do for one another.
That Sunday amazing things happened. A husband and wife had come to the city seeking medical treatment for their little girl, and they didn’t have enough money to return home; someone purchased bus tickets for them. Another young man who was looking for a job was introduced to a man who owned a business and needed an extra worker; the young man got a job. While all of these displays of love were taking place, Ortiz remained seated, praying and watching one of the most powerful sermons ever delivered in that church. The congregation was never the same after that worship service. (p. 48-50)
There are many examples of loving one another that I have already seen at Cowan Christian Church:
The ministry to the homebound is extremely important. There are many members of our congregation who cannot worship with us on Sunday mornings on a regular basis. The Caring and Sharing Ministry is a great way for us to continue to serve our brothers and sisters on a regular basis. We can always use more people participating in this ministry.
Cowan Christian Church is also a generous people. You have practically overwhelmed me and my family with your love and generosity as we have begun to get to know you and the area. As I have met other ministers in the area, the reputation of Cowan Christian Church’s hospitality and sense of community has preceded you. Without exception, I have been told that the people of Cowan Christian Church are a loving group. That’s a good reputation to have!
And there’s the overall spirit of wanting to see children and young people fill this place again. Not because it will bring glory to this building or build up a name for ourselves, but because we will be impacting this current generation and the generations to come with the life-changing message of the gospel of Jesus Christ!
Very soon, we are going to be beginning the process of ramping up the Children’s Ministry and we need help. We need people who are willing to teach the children during the service approximately one Sunday a month. We need other volunteers who will help with preparation by providing supplies and prayer support. We need other volunteers who will go down with the children and serve as helpers. No teaching is necessary. Just a love for Jesus and a love for kids are required. This is an exciting time in the life of Cowan Christian Church and supporting the Children’s Ministry is a great way for you to begin sharing God’s love to a new generation of world-changers.
It’s easy to love those you get along with. But what about those whose personalities clash with yours? What about those who have hurt you and refuse to accept responsibility? What about those people who just plain rub you the wrong way? Do you hope that God will send down fire and destroy them, like the Sons of Thunder did? Or do you find opportunities to show them love, the love you have experienced as a Child of God?
Maybe showing love to others is difficult for you. You know you’re supposed to do it, but it just doesn’t come out as naturally as you know it should. Remember – John struggled with his default position, too. He naturally wanted to put up a fight and release some holy anger on those who wronged him. After spending three years walking in the footsteps of Jesus and watching him show love time after time to those who didn’t deserve it, his default position still was not love. That doesn’t mean he gave up. And God didn’t give up on him. As John continued to walk in the light, his default reaction began to change. At the end of his life, he was known as a lover, not a fighter. And we can be known as lovers instead of fighters, too. It starts by loving God and showing that love to each other. As Christ-followers, we have the presence of the Holy Spirit within us. He guides us. He convicts us when we don’t react in love. He is our conscience. With the guidance of God through the Holy Spirit, we can take our rightful places as sons and daughters of the King. With that in mind, brothers and sisters, love one another in everything you do. And when others look at you and they look at God, they’ll be able to say, “I can see you’re related.”
I had hesitated using such a long direct quote from someone else when telling the story of Pastor Ortiz. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t capture the power of the story the way Ferguson does. Longer quotes like that are not something I plan on making a habit of.