Last week’s snow aside, it seems that “spring has sprung” in Eastern Oregon. Trees and yards are awash with blossoms; baby animals frolic in the fields. Warming weather and brighter skies invite us out and about in this season of refreshment.
It’s also a season of restlessness. Householders itch to clear out stagnant stuff —as our rummage sale testifies. Teachers and students alike start feeling “spring fever.”After Lent and Holy Week and Easter Sunday’s joy, Christians may also feel restless with urges for new religious experiences, at times wandering out and about from our core community and our core convictions. And our fast-paced, stimulation-overloaded age is all-too-ready to offer suggestions when we are restless with cravings for instant gratification, hunger for self-affirmation, or thirst for power and control.
Let’s be honest. In Eastertide we celebrate what we know to be true—Christ is Risen! Love wins!—but it’s just not simple to hold steady. Luke’s story is a case in point. The disciples who’ve heard about the empty tomb, or the Emmaus-road walkers’ encounter with Jesus, still have plenty of room for disbelief.
But even when they see for themselves the resurrected Jesus, even as he invites them to touch him, and eating, proves he’s no ghostly figment of their imagination, even that is not enough to eliminate their doubts! Luke’s awkward phrase brilliantly describes their feelings: “while in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…”
Doesn’t that capture what it’s like to abide in Christ after the Resurrection? Doubts just come with the territory. As David Lose notes, “…in light of all the death and trauma and disappointment and tragedy that colors every human life, if you don’t have at least some difficulty believing the promise that God not only raised one person, Jesus, from the dead, but also promises new life and second chances and forgiveness and grace to all, then you’re probably not paying attention.”*
We are paying attention. Like those disciples, we who gather here on Sundays receive Christ’s presence with joy even as persistent inner doubts and questions remain. We abide in a dynamic tension, leaning with confidence upon preposterous truths we can never prove but to which we can only testify as we “touch and see” resurrection life in our reality. And sometimes we show up here, not having seen, but persistently waiting in hope for a glimpse.
The “elder” who composed 1 John understood how vulnerable Christ’s disciples are to being distracted, and deceived in false directions. His church was experiencing dissension and division, when fellow believers bought into destructive ideologies. Gnosticism was a belief system
concurrent with early Christianity, which saw material reality as inherently evil, of lower order than the spirit. The elite few with secret spiritual knowledge would, after death, part from their despised bodies to a purely spiritual union with God. Some Gnostics thought that humans bodies simply fulfill their base nature; as long as you attained the secret knowledge, you could do whatever your flesh wills.
Of course this heresy invited all sorts of unethical and destructive behavior. And unfortunately, Gnosticism didn’t die in the second century. Many Christians today have in the name of the gospel been taught that souls are saved by a mere intellectual assent to certain beliefs; have been taught that our bodies—and the earth—mean nothing, since only our soul goes on after we die; have been taught that true believers will be “raptured” away to a better place when Jesus returns. At the very least, such ideas promote a fractured dualism of thought and action; at the worst, they allow people, in Christ’s name, to commit violence to themselves, others, and the Earth, God’s Creation, which the Bible tells us, God pronounced “good.”
Our thoughts and actions are like arrows aimed at the target of loving righteousness, and “sin” literally means “missing the mark.” This elder takes sin and our susceptibility to it seriously. 1 John says it comes from the devil, the enemy of God’s gracious intentions, and sin is always destructive. Christ was revealed to take away sins, so that those who abide in Christ do not sin.
The elder invites us to take a close look at where our thoughts and actions fall short of Christ’s righteousness—not because special knowledge or perfect actions save us—but because God, in gracious love, for the purposes of gracious love, has given us a different identity. We are God’s children, who make no compromises with sin.
Now, we may struggle with 1 John’s “all-or-nothing” language. But the author’s intent is not to shame us or exclude us when we sin. Earlier in the letter he writes, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Claiming Christians are impervious to sin is itself a deception.
To abide in Christ is not to cleanly adhere to a formula of approved ideas or behaviors; it is to inhabit an alternative worldview, daily dealing with the life’s messiness,seeking to privilege God’s love and compassion over other priorities. Some days we abide well, in clear skies all day,
but others, clouds and storms pass over, separating us from the sun’s light and warmth. In those darker moments, the target is so hard to see!
1 John tells us, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” We live between the “now and not yet.” In this very moment, we are nothing less than God’s own children Yet we do not always act or think according to that identity. We have been “irrevocably claimed for Christ’s own righteousness;”* but we are not yet grown into the full resemblance of our Lord Jesus.
My friends, we hold our doubt and faith together. Jesus has risen, God has triumphed, but sin is “annoyingly tenacious” within and without the church. We are called to confront sin in ourselves and the world—to face it and name it and hold it up to God’s mercy. Often we fail.
But let us not give up! Let us stand confident upon what we know in Christ Jesus, what we have been promised: When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. Even when it’s hard to see, we ask for grace to stay focused on the target, God’s love unfolding within and among us; we will be brought through all our doubts and dark clouds; and we are being transformed and purified, learning the ways of righteousness, growing into the identity which will, in grace, be completed.
It is that identity we touch and taste and see again in this place, in community and communion with Christ’s body, God’s children,
claimed by a grace which is always greater than sin.
William L. Self, “Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 419-421.
Eugene Petersen, introduction to 1,2, &3 John in The Message, 2222.
David L. Bartlett, “Exegetical Perspective on 1 John 3:1-7,” Feasting On The Word, Year B, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 423.