1 John 3:1-7
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.
We are in the season of Easter, the time in the gospels when Jesus appeared post-resurrection many times to his disciples and others who followed him. Most of the time they were afraid, but each time Jesus showed them how what was happening was what they had predicted. Even though they had heard about it, though, their brains couldn’t comprehend. Most of the time, when someone goes around telling people they will die and rise again, we hospitalize them. These folks were witness to this amazing event and were given the great privilege of telling others about what had happened. Jesus had turned everything upside down. But as people, we are generally uncomfortable with upside down. We like things right side up. Some of us more than others. Many of us have clear views of how things should be, how they work best, how they should be done.
Not 50 years after the resurrection, an institution began to crop up around the teachings of Jesus. Soon, there were factions who said people had to become Jews before they could be Christians. No, others said, there is special knowledge that comes from God and only WE have it, not you. There was Paul v. Peter in the ministry wars. Paul v. Barnabas in the compassion wars. Paul v. a lot of people because he was a tough guy to get along with. But things became very controlled and contained as time passed and people began to control the message of the gospel
Susan Russell, an Episcopal priest in Pasadena, quoted Verna Dozier from her book “The Dream of God”:
“The people of the resurrection made the incomprehensible gift of grace into a structure. [Rejecting] the frighteningly free gift of God to go be a new thing in the world – a witness that all of life could be different for everybody – this gift was harnessed by an institution that established a hierarchy of those who “know” above the great mass of those who must be told.” [pg. 4]
Susan went on to say:
“And so — for generations – those of us who “must be told”
were told all kinds of things about what Jesus’ life and death and resurrection meant.
And a great many of them bore little or no resemblance to the actual life and witness of the one the church claims to follow –of the Jesus …
· who put table fellowship at the center of his life,
· who ate with outcasts,
· who welcomed sinners,
· who proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor,
· who was so centered in God’s abundant love that he was willing to speak truth to power from that first sermon that almost got him thrown off the cliff by his irate Nazarene homies to his last cross-examination by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.
Instead we were given
Doctrines we were supposed to digest and not delve into,
Creeds we were supposed to recite and not question,
Scriptures we were supposed to memorize and not contextualize.
It’s no wonder that the church is considered irrelevant.”
Last night I was caught up in a Wikipedia wormhole and I discovered an article on a list of the world’s largest shopping malls. Naturally, I was intrigued. At the top of the list was the New South China Mall in the south eastern part of China. The mall is about 7.1 million square feet. That is ridiculous. It has space for more than 2,300 stores, and has seven zones modeled on different international cities and locations – Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, Venice, Egypt, the Caribbean and California. We made the list! It has an 82 foot replica of the Arc de Triomphe, a replica of St. Mark’s Bell Tower in Venice, a 1.3 mile canal with gondolas, and an indoor roller coaster. Take a guess at what percent of the mall is occupied. WIth all that going on, it’s got to be a pretty hoppin’ place, no?
No. The mall has 47 stores. 47. Why? There are many flaws to the mall’s location. The mall is located in the suburbs of Dongguan, where it is practically accessible only by car or bus, rendering it unreachable to a large percentage of the public. Dongguan does not have an airport, nor are there highways adjacent to the mall’s location. It was conceived and designed by someone who was so excited about the possibility of an enticing and imposing structure that he didn’t take into account the community it was supposed to service. What’s more, the building of this monstrosity took away the livelihoods of many of the local people because it was built on what used to be farm land.
I feel like this is what happened with the church. Not long after the joy of Easter and the empowerment of Pentecost that the ways of the world started to leak back into the infant church. It wasn’t very long before others stepped in where Pilate and the chief priests had left off and began to “spin the story” to preserve the power of a developing institutional church rather than to empower the propagation of incarnational love.
Jesus’ ministry had everything to do with wholeness, with restoring creation to the fullness of the peace and justice; the truth and love that God intended –with challenging those who followed him to the high calling of loving their neighbors as themselves.
The challenge to follow Jesus is a challenge that required turning virtually everything the world says about life and death –about power and control – upside down. And it’s an even bigger challenge to stay “upside down” when the world around you is pointing in the opposite direction.
I bring all of this up to remind us that when we invite people into our community, we’re inviting them into something that’s inherently broken. We didn’t break it, necessarily, but it was somewhat doomed from the start. But God uses us and our broken institutions anyway. God says in Isaiah 43:
16 This is what the LORD says—
he who made a way through the sea,
a path through the mighty waters,
17 who drew out the chariots and horses,
the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
18 “Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
In order for us to live into the reality of Easter, this upside-down reality where death is defeated by life and love, we must be able to recognize when God wants to do a new thing and be willing to throw out the old things that make us feel comfortable and in control. We have to listen to the wiser voices when they tell us there’s no way that people will be able to get to that mall. We have to follow the example of the One who lived out God’s perfect love when he spent time with the people who matter most to God.
There’s a phrase in the passage from 1 John 3 that just stopped me when I was reading and I have hung on to it: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” What we will be has not yet been revealed. Think about that phrase for a moment and tell me what it feels to you to know that what you and I and our community will be has not yet been revealed. I am from the desert of Arizona and one of the things I miss about living there is how big the sky is. If you’ve ever been to Southern Arizona, New Mexico or west Texas, you’ve seen that huge sky where there’s nothing blocking your view and you feel like you could see forever. That’s what I think of when I hear the phrase “what we will be has not yet been revealed.”
While we don’t yet know what we will be, the life of Christ shows us what we can be, up to and including the miracle of resurrection. Let’s become those people. Let’s not blindly accept structure, doctrine and pattern. Let’s not be lulled into a place where we feel we have all the answers. Let’s be people of the upside down reality of the love of God that brings healing, justice and compassion to the world.