A common theme for worship services on the Sundays after Easter is . . . well, now what? Where do we go from here? We’ve told our best story; we’ve celebrated our biggest event; we’ve talked about what it means. Now we turn around and look ahead and think about proceeding with everyday life as Christians and as churches, now that the big events are over. Where do we go from here, in light of the Easter message? Who are we, as a post-resurrection community? What do these events lead us to believe, and what do we do about it, now that we’ve seen again what God has done?
These Sundays-after-Easter questions aren’t new questions. The very earliest Christian churches, in the first century, asked themselves the same questions, as we shall hear shortly: what do we believe, how do we live out a Christian faith? And at key moments in our history, there have been profound changes in the church as Christians asked these questions. The answers have sometimes prompted the creation of new churches, or the dividing of churches, or the coming-together of churches.
One of those key moments was during the 16th century, in Western Europe. Going into the 16th century there was one Christian church in Western Europe, under the direction of the Pope. By the time the century ended, there were several Christian churches, all forming their own answers to the questions: What do we believe?/what do we do about it?/where do we go from here? There was a Roman Catholic Church, a Lutheran Church, a Church of England or Episcopal Church, a Baptist Church . . . and there was something called a Reformed Church, which was the parent of the Presbyterian church. If we want to look to history for input as to what we believe, we look at the Reformed Church.
And we see that there are things the Reformed Church emphasized that we still emphasize today, such as:
- Belief in a sovereign God. That God is Lord over all things; nothing is more powerful. Nothing is outside God’s jurisdiction. The Reformed Church has always reminded its members of God’s bigness, of the “unlimited-ness” of God.
- Centrality of Scripture. The Reformed Church has always been a Bible-centered church. We emphasize Bible reading, Bible study, Sunday School lessons focusing on the Bible, sermons preached from the Bible.
- The Trinitarian God. We try to keep in mind all three parts of the Trinity: God the Creator/Lawgiver/Shaper of Old Testament Israel’s history; God the son, Jesus Christ; God the Holy Spirit. You won’t hear just about Jesus, for example, and worship won’t focus just on the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
All these are characteristics of the Reformed, and subsequently, the Presbyterian Church.
There are other characteristics too, and as I read the Epistle lesson suggested for our consideration today, one of the first things I noticed about it was that it presents those other characteristics. As we look at I John chapter 3 verses 1 through 7, we can see laid out for us, almost as if intentional, a summary of some other central Reformed beliefs, a list of what we believe, in light of the Easter story. It is those we’ll concentrate on today – some good old Reformed theology.
Verse 1: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”
A fundamental concept of the Reformed Church is that God loves us. God has showed that love by creating us and giving us a world that was created good in which to live. By instructing us how to have the most abundant lives, with the Law and the guidance of the prophets. By providing a future for us, if we will accept it: a life here with God, and an eternal life with God.
Verse 2 goes on to talk about that future: we do not yet know exactly what we shall become in a future life, but we know it will be “like God,” and we know it will be good; it gives us hope. Perhaps most of all, God showed that love by taking the steps which allow us to have a future together. God accomplished that, by sending Jesus to live and die for us and to rise from death, conquering sin and death.
The writer of this letter, and the Christian community in which he lived, like many Christians since, identified Jesus’ death as the most important event of their lives. It was at the moment of his death, they believed, that they were made able to become God’s children. Before that, they were irretrievably separated from God by their ignorance or sin; after that, the potential existed for them to be with God. Jesus’ death, they would say, made us God’s children.
“See what love God has for us, that God has made us children of God.” The first feature of Reformed theology in this passage is: God loves us.
This love for us exists in spite of our sinfulness. Another emphasis of Reformed faith is that all people sin. None of us can lead perfect lives, or earn our way into a relationship with God. We all fall short; we all sin. John’s letter reminds us of this in verse 4: “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” Again, it echoes a passage from Paul: all people have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The love of God persists not because of our behavior but in spite of it; that’s how strong it is. It overcomes the fact that all of us, as mere creatures of God, are far from the perfection of our Creator. Verse 4 reminds us, as our Reformed theology repeatedly does, that all of us sin. .
The third feature of Reformed theology in this passage follows immediately, in verse 5, and dispels the gloom of that previous thought, saying: “You know that he appeared to take away sins.” We’ve just been through the events of Good Friday and Easter again, so we’ve heard again the story of how this happened. Jesus of Nazareth, the one person who has ever lived without sin, died on a cross so that we who have sinned would not have to suffer the consequences, to be forever separated from God.
There are several theories which explain the specifics of how Jesus’ death accomplishes our reconciliation with God. Some people see Jesus as a sacrifice, whose death replaces our deserved death; someone had to die to pay for the sins we’ve committed, and he took our place – he paid our debt. Some people concentrate on faith: with Jesus’ death, God created a new way for us to be saved; we can believe in him instead of having to live perfect lives. Some look at the death mostly as a necessary first step to the resurrection: Jesus had to die so he could break the power of death by rising on Easter morning. And there are other theories, and various combinations of the theories, as well.
The theories can make for interesting contemplation or discussion, but I John 3 verse 5 cuts through them all to the basic and most important idea behind them all, to the bottom line: He appeared to take away our sins. A simple statement, and one which expresses another fundamental component of Reformed theology: God takes away our sins and saves us; we do not do it ourselves. He appeared to take away our sins.
See what love God has given us, that we are children of God. We all sin. God takes our sin away.
And the fourth component of Reformed theology found in this passage follows: We are to respond to God’s love and God’s gifts by trying to live righteous lives. Responding : it is an idea that has often been lost in discussions of God’s love. We can get caught up in discussions of how Jesus saves us, or what shape our eternal life will take, or whether God is a God of love or wrath or both; and forget that after all those discussions about how things work, an important obligation remains: we’re supposed to respond to God’s work. The story, Reformed theology says, does not end with God’s having saved us, having taken away our sins. We are called to a response to that gift, and that response is an attempt to live good lives. Verses 3 and 7 describe that response in this passage: “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure . . . Everyone who does right is righteous.”
We are to give up wrong behaviors and nurture right ones.
People have forgotten about that response part throughout Christian history, like children so excited by a gift they’ve just received that they forget to say “thank you” to the giver. The people of John’s community were no exception: commentator Raymond Brown believes that John wrote this letter largely as a response to a group of Christians within the community who were teaching something he felt was dangerous. These other Christians, called “the Secessionists” by Brown, took their salvation very seriously: they firmly believed that Christ’s death had saved them and brought them close to God. So firmly did they believe in Christ’s power to save them, in fact, that they believed that nothing they could do now would affect their relationship with God; nothing they did, in effect, mattered at all one way or another. They could do whatever they wanted, regardless of whether it conformed to Scripture or Jesus’ teachings or not.
In a way, their faith was very strong: God has made me a promise, has made me an heir, and so I am one, no matter what I do. They believe what they’ve been taught about God’s love and God’s grace. And they’re right to do so.
But they’ve forgotten other lessons taught by the Old Testament and by Jesus and by the church – namely, that God wants us to live good lives, in response to that love. It’s true that good behavior won’t earn our salvation, but it’s also true that our salvation should prompt us to good behavior. Jesus said: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Paul said we should consider ourselves dead to sin and beginning a new life in the Spirit. And John, in this letter, expands on those ideas: “Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, ‘I have come to know him,’ but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.” Also: “This is the love of God, that we keep God’s commandments.”
Salvation is a gift from God; we haven’t earned it. But, John and our Reformed theology reminds us, we ought to respond by living a good life, by trying to keep God’s commandments.
So our passage from John this morning has reviewed for us four of the fundamentals of our Reformed theology:
- God loves us.
- We have sinned.
- God has taken away our sin.
- We respond by living good lives.
It must have been confusing to live in John’s Christian community. First of all, the Christian faith was still relatively new, and not all of its basics were established yet. Did Jesus mean to return soon after his ascension, any day now, or would some time pass first? No one knew. Should they establish a church, with its structures and its regulations, or stay in small, informal communities? Second, the Christian faith was undocumented; it had no textbook. There was no New Testament yet, no one collection of accepted writings about who Jesus was and what he did and what he meant. Such information had to come instead in bits and pieces, from different teachers. There was no New Testament to refer to. Third, Christianity was still very much a minority religion. . Most of the people around you would have different beliefs, different lifestyles, and wouldn’t even understand this new thing that you believed, let alone support you in it. And fourth, mostly as a result of its newness, there were different groups within the church saying different things about what Christianity was: Is one’s lifestyle important, as this group said, or did Jesus make it irrelevant by dying for all our sins once for all time, as this other group said?
The voices would be flying back and forth, and who knew which one to listen to? It must have been confusing to live in John’s Christian community.
Into that confusion, John tried to drop a simple, four-step formula to provide some clarity – a foundation, a secure starting point, a rock upon which to build one’s house. It is a foundation that Reformed theology rediscovered, and one which can provide some clarity and security in our confusing world today: God loves us. We have sinned. God has taken away our sin. We respond by living good lives. And now we pray:
God, thank you for the events we have just recounted in the services of Holy Week and Easter, and all you accomplished in them, and for how what we believe has been shaped by them. Guide us in our response, that we may lead faithful lives of discipleship, pleasing to you, as Easter people. Amen.