Tag Archives: Children of God

25 August – God’s stillborn children

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Pentecost 11

Hosea 13:4-8, 13:12-14:1
Psalm 32
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 13:31-35

In a sentence:
We are called to ‘step up’ to be the children of God

Does God really send the cruel Assyrians as punishment for Israel’s sin, so that the people’s ‘little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open’?

The warning that God would do this appears often enough in the prophets, those champions of justice who fire our political imaginations and yet whom we would like to edit here, and more than just a little.

We hesitate at this point because this ancient terrorism continues as modern terrorists maim and kill for God’s sake. We hesitate because Hosea’s reading of history as a sign of God’s judgement also continues: AIDS or earthquakes or bushfires have been declared by some to be the response of God to this or that moral failure. We hesitate for our own sake: if something goes wrong in my life, did I deserve it? The plaintive cry, ‘Why has this happened to me?’, makes the connection Hosea seems to make: perhaps it happened because of sin.

And not least, we hesitate because we cannot reconcile the God of love with such brutality. Does God do such things? Does God pose to us this kind of threat?

The short answer is, No: AIDS, the earthquake, the bushfire and the Assyrians were coming anyway. And yet Hosea connects historical events and judgement; we cannot simply dismiss him and the other prophets here.

It helps to pose another question: Does God send Jesus to die on the cross? At first glance, this is not quite the same question, even if the idea is equally grating to modern sensibility. Yet we have already noticed the similarity between what happened to Jesus and what happened to Israel (Hosea 3.2). On this understanding, Jesus becomes the ‘little one’ dashed, the expectant mother under cruel steel.

But if there are similarities between the fates of Israel and Jesus, there is also an important difference: in Hosea, the oncoming storm is the terrifying Assyrian army; in the case of Jesus, the oncoming storm is Israel itself – Jerusalem, the only place where a prophet should be killed (Luke 13). The question about God being a threat to us in the form of an army or some other plague becomes one of whether we are a threat to God. These two scriptural threads portray, respectively, God and the people of God approaching each other with murderous intent.

And yet, there is an asymmetry here, and it is not that God always wins. The difference between these two conflicts becomes clearer through Hosea’s evocative mockery of Israel – in the guise of ‘Ephraim’ – in the middle of our reading this morning:

13 The pangs of childbirth come for [Israel],
   but he is an unwise son;
for at the proper time he does not present himself
   at the mouth of the womb. 

Hosea describes Israel as having refused to be born, and so as not being really alive. This makes no sense literally, of course. Clearly they were alive as most of us are. And this, to allow ourselves to be drawn into their story, was their problem: in their identity as the children of God (Hosea 11), they are not quite born. Israel is ‘unborn’ in the sense of Nicodemus, whom Jesus told, You must be born again (John 3).

God does not ‘send’ the Assyrians, in the sense of set the historical wheels in motion. Rather, their coming is cast as judgement, echoes the judgement. A child which will not be born is death to itself, and to its mother. Hosea proclaims the devastating effect of the Assyrians as proof of what is already the case: Israel is stillborn. God is the context of the Assyrian conquest, not its cause, and as the context God brings a particular reading of that disaster. The Assyrians are just doing what Assyrians do: conquest and pillage; Hosea overlays the disaster with meaning in order to reveal what is at stake between God and Israel.

And now we come to the asymmetry of what I called the murderous the approaches of God and Israel to each other. If Israel is a son who refuses to born, there was another son waiting to be born in our readings this morning, described by Paul:

But when the [proper time] had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman… (Galatians 4.4-7).

Jesus approaches Israel as one born ‘at the proper time’ (literally, ‘in the fullness of time’) and here is the contrast with Israel in Hosea. In Jesus is one born, in the fullness of that expression: he is one really alive. And so his death becomes a real death and different from that which Israel suffered at the hands of the Assyrians, or from what anyone else suffers. For, being truly born and truly alive, only Jesus really moves in the gospel story. Jerusalem is static, waiting for him. The same might be said of Israel and the Assyrians. Both these really only do what usually happens here: the weak is subject to the strong, and nothing new is seen, nothing really moves. It is only when God claims the Assyrians that movement happens, that meaning enters, that a new word is said and heard – even if it is a deathly word:

Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, [we heard last week]
   I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
   and my judgement goes forth as the light (6.5).

The crushing army becomes the occasion for the revealing of God’s justice and of the expectation that God’s justice shape the lives of God’s people.

The Assyrians, or the leaders in Jerusalem, or the earthquake, or the Russians, or the Chinese, or the Americans, or the ecological apocalypse are always coming. The world ticks over as Ecclesiastes describes: ‘for everything, a season’ (Ecclesiastes 3). But this is not truly an unfolding of history, not really a movement, not really the entry of a new thing under the sun; it is just the world turning, around and around, and our lives upon it a vain chasing of the wind.

Only God really moves, and God’s true children. The proof of this is that Jesus moves even when he is supposed to be dead. The question which Hosea puts – with the rest of the Scripture – is, When the time of the sword comes, which kind of children will we be?

God’s call, to shift to the similar metaphor in Paul, is to enter into our inheritance, to cease being ‘slaves’ buffeted by the whim of a master and to become true children – and so heirs – of God’s promise. To be less than this is really only to wait in fear and without understanding for whatever horror might be about to rise on our horizon, and to set ourselves for defence against it.

For if we are true children of this God, we know that God comes with every dawn, looking to see in our response to the joys and terror of the new day: whose children are we?

The children of God know that nothing can separate them from God in Christ Jesus the Son, our brother by adoption (Romans 8; Galatians 4).

Let us seek, then, to be children of the light (1 Thessalonians 5.5), that we might, in all things, see clearly our way in the ways of God, and that others might see with us.

17 May – Against the law

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Easter 7

1 John 5:9-13
Psalm 1
John 17:6-19

At a first glance there is a beautiful simplicity in this, the first of the psalms: Happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord … they are like trees planted by streams of water, [whose] leaves do not wither. Who would not want to be such a “tree” – nourished and strong?

But, with closer attention to the whole of the psalm, objections leap up. Is not the poet just a little naïve when he declares that, the wicked are not so [blessed], but are like chaff that the wind drives away? Certainly the psalmist speaks of the failure of the wicked “in the judgement”, but experience is that “sinners” often stand “in the congregation of the righteous”, and it often seems that the way of the wicked does not perish – or not quickly enough for our liking.

One way of dealing with this contradiction is to cast it all to some end-time judgement when all things are sorted out, but this seems to strain the language of the psalm rather a lot. More than that, an end-time resolution isn’t particularly comforting for those who do delight in God’s instruction and yet suffer greatly at the hands of others, and such comfort would seem to be the point of the psalm in the first place. The apparent simplicity of the thought of the psalm is in fact not simple at all, and our objections on the basis of our experience or that of others can make it say almost nothing helpful. We might well wonder: what is the blessedness or happiness of those who delight in the law of God? A satisfactory answer hinges on our understanding of “law” held in God’s creative tension with “gospel”.

We know of “law” in two main senses. The first is law as it is written down for us as a moral code. This includes such things as the Ten Commandments, as well as the laws which our parliaments continue to create and modify so as to maintain some kind of moral order in the complexity of our day-to-day dealings with each other. These are laws which, we know, can be “broken”. To “break the law” is to fail to observe a requirement which God or society has laid upon us.

The other kind of law we know about is that implied by the expression “the laws of nature”. An important characteristic of these laws, at least at the level of our usual engagement with the world (“classical physics”), is that they are entirely predictable. The offence we might take at the miracle stories in the Scriptures arises from our sense that nature is orderly, and things necessarily happen only according to predictable patterns: people can’t walk on water and waves cannot be stilled with a command. Natural laws cannot be broken. If we really suspected that they could, we could not trust the seat we go to sit in, or the brakes we apply to slow our car, or the aeroplane we climb onto. Planes crash not because the laws of nature have failed but because they are relentless: gravity always sucks, and everything on a flying machine has to work according to natural laws which are just as dependable in order to balance gravity’s unforgiving character.

So we know of the breakable moral law, and the unbreakable natural law. But the important thing is this: we tend to assume, or even to desire, that moral law works like natural law. We desire that, should I do the moral thing – the right thing – it shall have the right result. We seek predictability in the results of our actions. And so also vice-versa: when the moral law is broken, we desire a natural law consequence: that “the wicked” be blown away “like chaff”, as our poet puts it. This is the kind of thinking we hear in our psalm today: to delight in the law of God and to meditate upon it day and night is to create the necessary and sufficient conditions for blessed and happy life, implicitly free of the ravages of those who delight in other laws. Whether it is moral law or natural law, law is, it would seem for us, about cause and effect.

And this is where the problems begin: because too often it seems that the “effect” we see is one of “bad” people doing well. The cause of this effect is not that God’s law is obeyed, but that it is not. It seems, in fact, more the case that some of “the wicked” (to keep using that slightly archaic term from the psalm!) understand the way of things better than the good, and have discovered just which law it is which needs to be observed in order to get ahead. They know how to manipulate the moral and the natural laws in order to maximise the desired outcome.

But perhaps it is too easy here to focus on the “bad” people. It’s always more interesting to consider the “good” people that we are (of course!), and how we are ourselves caught up in just these problems. What are we to do when with heart and mind we do delight in the command of God, and yet in the living of our lives we see that we do not observe it? Are we really any better off than the “chaff” the psalmist waves off into the wind? If we do fall short of what God calls us to be, and if even the moral law is really about cause and effect, are we not already lost? Who could rightly imagine themselves to be among the blessed the psalmist speaks of, if we are honest with ourselves?

In fact it is only those who know a deeper “law” which does not have to do with cause and effect who find themselves beside a flowing stream which provides the living water they need. This deeper law is what we might characterise as the law of love, but not our love for each other or even our love for God. It is the waxing and waning of our which love creates our anxiety in the first place. The law of love begins with God’s love for us, a love which precedes anything we might do, and so which is not dependent upon our actions but upon God’s simple decision to love. St Paul declares that those who seek to stand only by the things they have done are under a curse (Galatians 3), implying that it is in fact impossible to live a life of such righteousness. Surprisingly, then, and in contrast to the natural sense of our psalm, the “wicked” for Paul become those who are sure that they have done the right thing.

No doubt there is much we have yet to learn about how it is that we should live in relation to each other, and so much benefit to be had from looking to the specifics of what God demands. But if it is possible to “believe in vain”, as we heard St Paul suggest on Easter Day, we can also “act” or “obey in vain”, and this must always colour what we make of our own actions. If wanting to obey God’s commands is itself not enough to set us right before God, then the blessed one and the wicked one of our Psalm are the same person, both oriented around the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.

The love, or the justifying action, of God, however, sets the law in its right place, and a simple reversal takes place: our obedience to God’s command is not the context within which God loves and blesses us; rather, God’s love and blessing is the context within which we might tend to God’s commands.

In our gospel reading this morning Jesus prays, Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me (John 17.11f). This “name” is “Father”, which is important here because it makes those “protected” by it “children” in the same way that Jesus is “Son”. The streams of water the psalmist speaks of is the freedom of the children of God, who know themselves to be safe and secure because they are God’s children, and so who have no need to transgress, to live selfishly and without concern for the needs of others. It is when we believe ourselves already to have all we really need before God (cf. Ps 23.1) that God’s law becomes the best way to live.

Faith is knowing ourselves as the children of God. Freedom begins with faith – not faith that God “exists”, but faith that faith is enough to stand justified before God and those around us.

May we pray then, that God’s people discover anew the life which is already theirs in the Christ who is both the psalmist’s tree and stream – the Christ who is the sign of a life lived in God and the nourishment of such a life. In this, may Christ’s blessedness may be ours, that we might find our rest in him. Amen.

19 April – “No one who abides in [Christ] sins”

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Easter 3

1 John 3:1-10
Psalm 4
Luke 24:36b-48

“No one who abides in [Christ] sins”. Let that rest for a moment on the surface of your mind: “No one who abides in [Christ] sins”. The Bible says it. Can we believe it?

Most of us are likely to feel a little uncomfortable about this, and all the more so when we discover that it is no mere slip on John’s part. Elsewhere in the epistle we hear similar things: “Those who have been born of God do not sin, because the seed of God abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God” (3.9).“We know that those who are born of God do not sin, but the one who was born of God protects them, and the evil one does not touch them” (5.18).

What makes us feel uncomfortable about this, in the first place, is that we know Christians – we know ourselves – and so we “know” John can’t be right. There are too many undeniable failures to ignore, and many Christians are more than happy to acknowledge the fact: “not perfect, just forgiven” (declares one of our less helpful bumper stickers).

But, if we weigh up the possibilities fully, there enters another reason why we might be uncomfortable about John’s confident declaration about sinless believers: if John is right, then we who purport to believe must wonder whether indeed we are those who “abide” in Christ. In fact, if we allow these words their scriptural status, the simplest way to make sense of what John says right here is to conclude that those we call “Christians” – ourselves or others – are not who John means when he speaks of those abiding in Christ.

John, then, seems to present to us two possibilities (or at least he does for those of us who imagine ourselves to be believers): either John is wrong about believers and sin, which perhaps presents us with problems about the authority of scripture on this matter, or he is right, which forces us out of the picture.

Yet this is too simplistic. If we are going to claim our status as Christians who somehow belong to God, we will object that surely John writes to someone, to some real, historical group of believers, and surely they are not that different from us. And in fact, just this is acknowledged in other parts of the epistle: 1.8 “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us… 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” 2.1“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous…” 5.16 “If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one…”

On the one hand, then, there are those who are “called the children of God” (3.1), in fact who are the children of God now (3.2), who “abide in him” and so cannot sin. On the other hand, these same ones have sinned, may sin, and indeed do continue to sin, As such, John calls them lawless and so “children of the devil”.

What are we to make of all this?

We might dismiss it all as religious doublespeak which says yes and no at the same time, pretending that this actually stands for something. Or we might call for “balance” – trying to say a little bit of a yes and a little bit of a no, although in fact we’ll end up saying more of one than the other. Both approaches make some sense of what is seemingly gobbledygook.

But if, instead of trying to transform what John says into something which makes sense for us, we allow him to transform how we think, we will discover something much more interesting than what we already know, something which breaks through the barriers of knowledge which limit us.

While Easter is now quite forgotten for another year by the wider world, for the church it is still here, and is ever with us. As we noted on Easter Sunday: either the proclamation of the resurrection is a game-changer or it is nothing. The word “resurrection” implies that the dead might no longer stay where we put them. But this is not for the New Testament a mere fact. Death is fundamental to human experience and our measure of ourselves. If death is upset, then everything is upset: a new world order is imaged, and faith is a re-imaging – a re-image-ining – of ourselves after that sign.

What John presents to us in our reading from the epistle this morning springs from just such a re-imagining. The resurrection of Jesus may seem to be nowhere in sight in this text, yet all of the New Testament is a description of life in the world from the point of view that Jesus has been raised. What really confronts us here is not the surface issue of doublespeak about sinless people who sin, or children of God who are also children of the devil. Though it is nowhere explicit in our reading, the “problem” John causes for us rests in his confidence that Jesus has been raised from the dead. This is a problem because of all those who might have been raised from the dead, Jesus was the least expected. We have noted before how this contradicts our inherited religious sensitivities after centuries of “Christian” moralistic conditioning. In the crucifixion Jesus is judged – named – as blasphemer. He is then, so far as any can see, a moral failure. His naming and bearing of himself was apparently wrong, and his persecutors were simply fulfilling their religious duty in demanding his execution.

The resurrection is the re-naming of Jesus, now by God. The resurrection declares, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased”. (These words, borrowed from the baptism and Transfiguration narratives, are – in those places – actually resurrection statements. This is because, if there is not resurrection, there is no ongoing interest in Jesus [who is “proven” blasphemer], and so no “recording” of the baptism of Jesus or the Transfiguration). A shift takes place from our naming of Jesus to God’s naming of him.

What has this to do with anything? We began by noting that we name ourselves as Christians, and yet John seems to say that such as we do not sin, and yet we do often seem to sin, so that John makes little sense. But who names us, and how, is at the heart of the confusion. In our naming of ourselves, we end up with a great complex of contradictory hyphenated names: Mr Christian-Sinner (whether the sexually abusive priest or the congregational gossip); Dr Religious-Atheist, who professes no belief in “god” but whose life is thoroughly determined by influences she scarcely recognizes, let alone acknowledges; Mrs Selfish-Giver, who gives time and money more for the recognition this gets her than for those in need; Miss Capitalist-Greenie, whose radical eco-Tweets are made from a phone built in a far-away place under slave-like conditions. Our attempts to name ourselves create a thoroughgoing moral confusion from which we cannot extract ourselves, such that hypocrisy – that sharpest of critiques which can be made of anyone who commits to any statement of themselves – is unavoidable.

At this level of our experience, the only recourse is self-justification. With this, if we are honest, comes anxiety. Am I more “Christian” than sinner, more socialist than capitalist, more generous than selfish, more what I publically profess than what I permit myself in private? This is not necessarily a religious anxiety about whether I’m “saved” or will inherit eternal life. It is a thoroughly and broadly human phenomenon: am I safe from what might threaten me, whether the dangerous thing which might over-run me or, more importantly here, that I might be discovered not to be who I’ve presented myself to be. These are the fruits of our naming of ourselves. We are more – and less – than we can say, and that difference between what we say and what we are creates anxiety.

But the good news which is the gospel is that God speaks to us our true name: God fundamentally “defines” us. “Children of God” is a name given us by God, and not by ourselves: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God” (3.1). This is a surprise for John. We are so familiar with it that it’s almost meaningless, just another self-designation. The surprise is in that what we have understood ourselves to be is enveloped within something which is not only more comprehensive but also healing and liberating: God renames us – and remakes us – according to the name he has for Jesus – Son, “child”.

While we might presume to call ourselves children of God, only God can make us his children, because to be a child of God is to be as Jesus is to the Father (cf. 5.1,18), and this is unknown to us until God makes it known by doing it (3.1b) – showing us what this relationship looks like, what it can overcome. To say that God “loves” us is to say that the Father does just this – makes his life our life by taking the name he has for the Son and letting it be the name he has for us: “children”.

This is both our present reality, and our future reality. In the experience of Jesus we learn that we are loved by the Father as children, and yet in the Spirit of Jesus we are still being loved into that reality. Thus we hear the strange but necessary call: become what you are. John says (paraphrase): We are God’s children now, and yet we do not know what that actually looks like. All we know is that we will be like Christ (3.2) This being “like Christ” is not a moral state – being without sin – but is the state of being a child of God, sharing in the life the Son enjoys with the Father. In this we are purified (3.3), because it does not depend upon what we do and our trying to make a claim on God through that. It depends on God’s claim on us.

In this way it is not so much that we do not occasionally – or very regularly – sin. It is rather that this sin does not define us, is not our completion. Sin, which looms so large in much Christian-speak, is now set to one side as a secondary thing: merely the sign that we are not yet become what we are. (This archaic English construction [still present in German, French] – “are not become” – seems somehow to capture something more than the more familiar “have not become”, marking the becoming as ever a present [“are”] process). Not our actions, our demonstrating of ourselves, our naming of ourselves, but God’s, is what matters: You are my son, my daughter, in whom I will be well pleased.

This is the gospel, and our calling is to begin to look like it is true.

By the power of God’s Holy Spirit, may this ever being re-shaped into the humanity of the Father’s Son become ever more manifest in us, to God’s greater glory and our greater life and freedom. Amen.