Who are we in this world? Where do we fit on this tiny, round chunk of rock, that is spiraling its way through God’s massive universe? These are not bad questions to ask, because the answers can be as varied as the number of people here this morning. And that’s because that while we are all created in the singular image of God, we are also created as unique individuals, who reflect the absolute broadness of the entire nature of God. And because there is no one else in this world who is exactly like us, we often have very different ways in which we identify ourselves. Some of us identify ourselves in terms of what we do for a living. When I meet strangers, I am often asked, “what do you do?” And of course that is a terrible question, because all of us have lots of things that we “do”, that don’t have a thing to do with our jobs.
Unfortunately we live in a world that values us more by what we do than by who we are. If you’d really like to flummox someone someday, and you’d like to kill a conversation in a hurry, tell them that you are a Baptist minister. Now don’t worry that that’s not the truth, because it is. You are a Baptist, and you are a minister of the good news of Jesus Christ. You just don’t happen to earn your living as a pastor.
Some of us put a whole lot of stock in our heritage or in our history, or in our social status, or in our economic status, or in our marital status. All of these things, and many, many more, add up to, or combine into the way that we name our place in this world. But like the world, all of these things that give us significance and identity, are passing away. They are only temporary, and even now, they are subject to sudden change. Tomorrow, everything about us could be radically different. None of us wish that for any of us, of course, but it could happen. A sudden alteration in worldly identity is almost always frightening and traumatic.
Our passage this morning opens with a different, far more permanent, eternal way in which to define our identity. It is often used as a test of true faith, and it is exactly that, but it is much, much more than just a test of faith. It is a matter of ultimate assurance and peace. It goes far and beyond the usual ways in which we identify ourselves, and it will eternally outlast all of them. John says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God…” Yup, that sure is a test of true faith. If we are to be the followers of Jesus Christ, if we are to have our sins forgiven, and if we are to have eternal life, we must believe that Jesus is the Christ. “Christ” means messiah, it means savior, it means that we believe that Jesus came into this world, out of the heavenly realms, to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
And having believed that, having put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ, we gain a whole new identity. John says that we are born of God. That simply means that we have become the children of God. And that will never, ever change. It is permanent. It is eternal. Everything else about us can change, but that never will. This world can crash and burn, and it will someday, but we will always be the children of God. Everything else about us is fading and passing away already. In the prologue of his gospel, John says this: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” That is powerful hope, sisters and brothers. We may think that we are many things, but we can know that we are the children of God.
Above all of this wonderful hope, however, is love. It is, after all, a loving God who made it possible for us to become his children. It was God’s absolute, unmitigated love for us, that existed long before we even knew the definition of true love, that gave us this new birth, this new identity.
The Apostle John is absolutely overwhelmed by love. He is awed by it, stunned by it and humbled by it. And he tells us that “…everyone who loves the parent loves the child.” But true to form, for the Scriptures, he’s very unspecific about that. Who is the child? Well, the parent could be God, and the child could be Jesus. That makes sense, it stands to reason that if we love God we will also love Jesus. But in John’s mind, love is always flowing in multiple directions. It was actually through Jesus and his teachings that we came to understand just how much God loves us in the first place. We might even say that Jesus was the one who introduced us to God’s love. So, for many of us, Jesus came first.
But maybe, just maybe, we are the child. And that makes perfect sense. John has been arguing that all along. We are the children of God, God is our parent. And so if God is our parent, we are also going to love all of the other children of God. We all now share a parent, who loves us completely and equally. And so in imitation of our parent, we do our best to love our siblings as equally and as completely as God loves us. But we are not God, and never have been, and so we must work diligently on this day in and day out, forgiving one another as God has forgiven us. Think of it this way: as the old world is passing away, and our old selves and identities with it, our new selves as children of God are steadily and more visibly emerging. And so is our love for one another. It is, after all, only our old, dying selves that stand in the way of increasing our love for one another. I’m not sure that we should allow things that are merely temporary, to adversely affect those things that we know to be eternal.
And here is where obedience comes joyfully into the picture. And I say joyfully because obedience is never drudgery. We have made it to be drudgery, because our bent is to pervert all of God’s good gifts to us. I grew up in a very strict religious environment, where obedience and drudgery were found on the same page in the Manual of Forbidden Behaviors and Activities. This was a well-known supplement to the Bible. And it always carried more authority than the Bible did. The life of faith was defined by adhering to a set of rules and regulations that rivaled even the rigorous traditions of the scribes and the pharisees. Obedience meant that we didn’t do this, and we didn’t do that and we didn’t go to places where people might be seen doing this or doing that. Movie theaters, and restaurants that served alcohol were particular dens of iniquity. Card playing was the devil’s pastime, not to mention the gateway to a life of loss and deprivation! This is a perversion of God’s love for us.
So then, what then is un-perverted obedience? Apparently it is not burdensome at all! How can this be? Obedience must be burdensome. It has to be drudgery, or it isn’t obedience! Obedience is loving one another. Obedience is caring for one another. Obedience is offering grace in the same measure that we have received it. John says, “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. What is the greatest commandment of all? It is to love God and to love our neighbor. There is no drudgery in that command. It is challenging and exciting, and difficult, but it is not burdensome.
Finally, John says that faith is the victory that overcomes the world. And that, unfortunately, is not in our hymn book. And really, John has come full circle. He is back to our identity as the children of God. Everything, except for our status as the children of God is passing away. Our old selves are fading away. The world itself is passing away, but more importantly, the world that dwells within us is passing away. I think that it is interesting and instructive that all of this “passing away” language that I have been using this morning, is one of the euphemisms that we use for death. And that’s OK, I think, because as our love for God begins to emerge more and more, and our love for one another grows and blossoms and matures, there is less and less room in our lives for the things of the world within us. When those things are not nurtured, they weaken and die, and good thing, too, because those things are prevalent enough in this broken old world already. We don’t need any more of them around here, especially among the children of God. Those things are not limited to, but include egocentricity, self-righteousness, greed, hate, and murder. When these things fade away and pass out of our lives, they are replaced simply by love for God and love for one another and love for those who are caught up in the evil and deadly systems of this world.
When the world within us is defeated, we have the resources, given to us by our Lord, to share the good news of the Gospel, to share the wonder and the glory of a transformed and changed life, and to share the hope that all does not have to end in death and destruction and hopelessness. Faith in Jesus Christ has the power to conquer the things of the world in everybody. Love conquers all.