First Sunday in Lent

Those of us who have spent a lot of time hanging out in or around churches have a tendency to know “the right church answers” to a lot of things. We have the idea that we should give this right church answer if the question or the topic comes up. 

There’s a story about this – some people might already know it, so if you do, please humor me – I don’t know whether it’s “a true story,” in the sense of being something that actually happened, but it seems like it could be – anyway, it’s a church story about right church answers, and it goes like this: it’s Sunday morning, in church, and it’s time for the children’s message; so all the little Jasons and Jennifers run up to the front of the sanctuary, and Mrs. Adams starts with a question: children, who can tell me the name of the little creature that lives in trees … it’s brown and gray and furry … it has a long bushy tail … it eats nuts … it runs up trees and along branches of trees and jumps from branch to branch … it moves really fast … (the children aren’t jumping in) … in the fall it scurries around and collects nuts for the winter … by now Mrs. Adams is starting to get a little desperate, ‘cause she’s about to run out of clues, when finally one brave little girl says, “I know the right answer is Jesus, but it sure does sound like a squirrel.”

In other words, sometimes the right answer we know from learning church talk is not quite the right answer.

With that in mind, here’s a question for you: should we want to be like God? People like us, that is, human beings, should we want to be like God?

I’m afraid this might sound like a trick question. Because as soon as we hear it, a lot of us probably think the right church answer is obviously “No …” we might even have been taught that’s the right church answer.

Another church story I’ve heard at least 20 times in the last ten years or so, that a friend of mine tells, is exactly about that: she tells of being in her church youth group meeting where she was asking, as usual, questions that were troubling her and that were getting harder and harder for her teacher to answer. [I suspect a lot of us know the kind of question she was probably asking, because they trouble us, too, from time to time when we come to think about our faith, questions like how can bad things happen to people in a world in which God loves them, or how can God be Father, Son and Holy Spirit and also Holy in One, or how could our loving God really send ordinary nice people who just never heard the gospel to hell forever and ever, questions like that, that are hard to get the right answers to …] Anyway, finally, Mrs. Faithful the youth group leader says to Curious Christina, “You know, your problem is that you want to know the answer to everything. And wanting to know the answer to everything is a sin. It is Eve’s sin – the sin of pride – the sin of wanting to be like God. We have to accept our human limits, that we don’t have all the answers, and not keep trying to go beyond them all the time.” Mrs. Faithful would say the right answer to “should we want to be like God?” is definitely No!

But Rev. David Kalas, who wrote a commentary on this week’s Sunday school lesson for the New International Lesson Annual, gives a very different answer to this question. Because he writes: “So when you ask the children of God what they want to be when they grow up, they should answer, ‘I want to be like God.’ It is both God’s desire and ours. And the essence of growing into that likeness is to grow up into perfect love.”1

So according to Kalas, the essence of growing into the image and likeness of God is to grow up into perfect love. God is love, and as we read in 1 John, “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”

So when we ask “should we want to be like God?” we could just as well be asking, “should we want to be loving? Should we want to really love one another?” And then I think most of us will know the right church answer to that one is Yes, right? Of course, we’re supposed to love everybody all the time! When wouldn’t we want to be loving? When would that ever be a bad thing? So of course, we should want to be loving … and we probably do want to be loving … even though we don’t always succeed at being loving …

But now we’re smack dab in the middle of the tough problem 1 John poses, and has been posing for Christian readers down through the centuries. Because it sure sounds like John is saying that the ones who love one another are the ones who really know God – the ones who have really received the love expressed in Christ’s work here on earth, who have received the Spirit of love, who have believed, all of that … it sure sounds like John is saying “if you love one another, you’re part of this God and God is in you, and if you don’t …” well, it sure sounds like he’s saying whoever doesn’t love doesn’t really know God …

But that can’t be the right answer, can it? Because that sounds like God’s love and our salvation have become conditional on how well we  do at actually loving one another … and we all know, we don’t always succeed at that … so that would make us feel pretty … insecure about our grade in Basic Christianity, in a manner of speaking. When we are always told that God loves us unconditionally, in fact, John says that, too, in this very passage, John says God loves us first, John says God loves us and sends Jesus Christ to save us and that sending is obviously not on the condition that we attain perfection in love … we are told over and over again that we can have confidence in God’s love, we can have boldness in the face of God’s judgment, we can trust God’s salvation … that is supposed to be the right answer, and those of us who have been hanging out in church for awhile, and especially in Protestant church, surely know this! We were just reviewing it last week!

So this question of whether we should – in fact, whether we need – to be like God seems to have gotten tricky. Surely it can’t be the right answer that there are two different right answers? One being that God loves us and saves us unconditionally, not having anything to do with our worthiness, and the other being that at the same time, whether we are people who love is the practical test of whether we are really getting the full value of our membership in the Body of Christ, you might say, by really abiding in God and having God abide in us, by having the anticipation of boldness on the day of judgment that comes from an actual absence of fear …

But when we put it that way, maybe it does clarify the logic of this address after all; maybe what John is saying to the members of this unnamed early Christian community – who precisely they were is still something of a mystery to us, in fact – is that the Christian life is more than a one-time, one-shot proposition. The salvation that evangelists talk about, the kind that does not “depend upon works,” does figures explicitly in John’s message: God loves us and sends his only begotten Son so that we will know God’s love for us, and accept it and benefit from it by receiving the eternal life that is God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ.

But the ongoing life of the Spirit also figures prominently and explicitly in this message. The full effects of the Christian life, so to speak, including the full effects of the salvation John talks about, are summed up in the reality of our loving one another, and in that loving one another, “exhibiting he kingdom of heaven to the world.” (According to Presbyterians, that is one of the great ends of the church.) Jesus Christ is the only begotten member of the family of God; the clearest, most perfect revelation of the God who is love that we have heard of – seen – known. The degree to which we look and act like the same loving person Jesus is, to that exact degree we ourselves really become identifiably full-grown members of that family of God; show that family resemblance that is sometimes referred to as creation in the image and likeness of God.

So, there really do seem to be two right church answers being given in 1 John: salvation through God’s unconditional love, and great expectations for growth into the pattern of Christ’s love being exhibited in our own lives. Because of that, the real temptation for us in reading 1 John may be to make of its teaching a kind of counsel of anxious self-criticism or shamed despair, because for all its gentle talk about love this author is rigorous and uncompromising when it comes to the attainment of spiritual completion. The temptation for us is to read 1 John in something like the imaginary voice of our passive-aggressive Aunt Picky-Pat, who talks all nice and sweet, but is always pointing out to us how much we fall short of her other niece, the really loving and considerate one, who for instance not only met her at the airport but brought along that nice snack for the ride back out to the house, who not only made up the guest room bed for her, but had that charming vase of fresh flowers on the dresser … you know what I’m talking about? Pointing out what’s missing in our performance in such a sweet way that we feel the cut without ever being able to say “hey, stop that!”

That’s the temptation, but we should probably resist that temptation, and that model of love, the kind of love that God is; we should probably read 1 John in the imaginary voice of someone like Mr. Miagi of the first Karate Kid, the world’s greatest coach, a person who was kindly and gentle not just on the surface but to the core, and whose kindness and gentleness was the fruit of the most tenacious discipline – observation – and training – a person who knows the difference between idle wishes and genuine attainment, and who calls out in us the discipline required by that genuine attainment – a coach who will never let us get away with doing less than our best, but will never try to get us there by shaming or belittling us. Instead, he’d get us to do our best by holding up a vision of what that best looks like, for us to contemplate, to come to desire, and to aim at.

If we think of this as what John is attempting in his address to the Christian community, his insistence on the necessity of loving as God loves us comes into focus, as something we will no doubt always be working on … but also as something we will actively be working on, because we will want it so keenly. It will not be for us an abstract ideal we pay lip-service to without actively desiring, and without training for in any way.

So this week, when the annoyances arise, when people’s deficiencies and limits hit us in the face, when we have the opportunity to toss out a dig or a cut or a wittily unkind remark, when we could do less and no one would stop us, when we could refuse to get involved, when we could wrap our leisure and convenience in cool indifference to the welfare of others … when all that happens, as it does every week of our lives … let’s remember what the right church answer is in a situation like that, and pray for the grace of the Spirit, to stretch in the direction of being a little more like the God who is love, and who it is more than OK for us to want to grow up to be like.

1 David Kalas, “The Source of All Love,” in Nan Duerling (ed) The New International Lesson Annual (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016) 289.

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