First John 3:1-7
I was walking through the grocery store the other day, and as I was looking through the dairy case for my half and half, I overheard the conversation of two men standing nearby. It was easy to see that one man was expressing his displeasure to another man of a woman he was close to, perhaps a wife or a daughter or a sister. And I did not hear the actual complaints of what she had supposedly done, but I did hear the punchline. He ended his agitated discourse with the final statement of his disdain, “And she thinks she is going to heaven!” To which they both kind of laughed and agreed no way.
That conversation, and ones like it, call to mind the statements that John seems to make in his letter of which we read a portion of this morning. John writes:
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.
This passage therefore touches upon one of the Great conundrums of Christianity: If I have Jesus inside me, working in me, the one with no sin and the power to take away sin, then why do I still sin, daily, if not hourly? You can therefore see why I/we tend to squirm when we read passages like this one in the First letter of John. I believe in God, and in his son Jesus, and his resurrection. I also believe that he died for our sins, and I further believe that the Holy Spirit, His Holy Spirit, lives within me. Yet I still struggle with sin every day. Does that mean that his spirit is not really in me after all? Does that mean my baptism did not work? When I struggle with a passage like this one, I therefore start by going back to the teachings of Jesus. Acouple of which I want you to remember.
First, is the story of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus admonishes her accusers, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And in humility they all leave. Jesus also said, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” We need to always remember these lessons when we become so certain of our salvation, and so certain of someone else’s condemnation.
And in that spirit I want to read you another translation of this little passage from 1 John. As many of you know, there are many translations of the Bible—some of you grew up on the New King James Version. We here in the Episcopal Church use the NRSV and the ESV. Generally the meaning and the message of the various translations agree. But sometimes word choice by a particular translation can make a difference. So for instance, my ESV translation of this passagefrom the First Letter of John says:
4 Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.
When I think of the teachings of Jesus, combined with His infinite capacity for mercy and grace, I believe that “practice” is perhaps a more complete meaning. When we are children, we live in a world of black and white, right and wrong. As we get older, we realize the world and the people in it are along more grey. We look at all humans as a mix of right and wrong. We finally learn the life lesson that there is no way we can rely upon our own righteousness to prove our faith and to prove our holiness. We come to the grown-up conclusion, that we will never be able to be perfect this side of heaven. We finally understand that the laws of God came to define sin for us, but they also came to convict us. Because it is only when we realize that we are sinful, that we can finally learn to repent and turn to the one who can do something about it, our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the ancient days, the Holy Spirit used to be painted with a pitchfork or gig in his hand. These paintings were of the Holy Spirit as our Great Encourager. As you know, encouragement can sometimes be through words of praise, hope, strength or comfort. But sometimes the Holy Spirit pricks our soul with that spear of encouragement, pricking our conscience, so that we recognize those little and not so little sins that we have done. Calling them to mind so that we can once again turn back to God's ways, repenting and starting again.
I believe, in the end, the best we can do is to practice holiness. It is like when we are learning to play the piano. We get better over time, but even professionals, still need to practice and still make mistakes. The same goes for us and sin. Hopefully we get better over time. In the meantime, we live in the now, but not yet. We are children of God, but we live in the place where imperfection is still being made into perfection. Practicing our faith. Practicing our life of holiness. We are not yet experts.
And so we live in the now and not yet. We are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. We are works in process. But what we do know is this: when Jesus is revealed, we will see him as he is, and we will be like him.
Quote from CS Lewis: “When we Christians behave badly, or fail to behave well, we are making Christianity unbelievable to the outside world.”
John knew this and so he preached a constant message to his flock to Abide in love, not in sin. Abide in love, not in judgment. Abide I love, not in condemenation. There is no fear in love. Fear has to do with punishment. Perfect love casts out fear and enables us to live boldly. Knowing we are loved by God, the one who loves us despite our imperfections. Abiding in this same love, allowing us to love our imperfect neighbors. Because in the end, we are not God, and we are certainly not yet perfect like our Lord. So we should not be so certain who is out of heaven and who is in. In the end, I believe there will be a lot of surprises in store for us when we get there, in which we will delight, leaving self-righteousness and judgment behind.
Pharisees, mad at Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath
I recently saw a quote from C.S. Lewis letter where he wrote:
At first I thought that was a bit highhanded, but when I considered it for awhile, I think I began to understand what he means. We do not practice the religion of the Pharisees. It was a very black and white religion, full of righteousness and indignation. You could tell who were the sinners and who were not. You could tell who were the righteous and who were not. And they were the judge of who was who. If you followed the law in their eyes and estimate, you were righteous. If you didn’t you were not.