Sunday, February 19, 2017

You Are Loved!

The theme of God’s love is one of our favourite themes. “You are loved!” It’s an incredible truth that God loves us without reservation or precondition. God loves you! God loves me!

This morning I want to explore one of the reasons that this love is so amazing and transformative. We’ll look briefly through the passage together and then consider the effect of God’s love in our lives.

The Text
28-30: In the verses before our passage, John states that God’s enemy (“the anti-Christs”) is the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ, that Jesus is the anointed One from God who brings us God’s salvation. Our passage, then, begins with an encouragement to persevere in the Christian walk so that we may be “confident and unashamed” when Jesus appears. This note of confidence is one I have missed in previous readings of this text. God loves us, so we are valued and esteemed—a thought we develop further below. Our position in God results in right living.

1-3: God’s love for us shows up when we have no right to expect it. People around us say we’re no good, but God loves us and cares for us. As we look at Jesus, we become more like him.

4-10: People who do what’s right get their ability to live rightly by living in Christ (another way of seeing “Look at Jesus; be like him.” People who do what’s wrong (“lawless people”—that is, people in whom God’s Law and God’s Spirit do not live) live “in the devil”. We struggle a bit with this idea, because we are not sure who or what the devil is. It is enough for us this morning to say that the devil is the enemy of God. Those who belong to God live rightly. Those who belong to the devil live wrongly. The final verse equates loving God with loving the brothers and sisters, which is a theme that John develops in verses 11 to 24.

One could develop the thought in verses 4 to 10 and ask what it means to avoid sin and lawlessness. John develops an interesting and helpful circular movement: God’s grace at work in our lives leads to right living, which leads to God’s presence more fully in our lives, which in turn results in greater righteousness. The experience of God’s presence and living the way God wants us to are intimately related in this cycle. Similarly, living outside of God’s righteousness draws us closer to God’s enemy, which leads to greater lawlessness, which in turn draws us closer to God’s enemy. The experience of rebelling against God and living badly also reinforce each other. These verses teach that “lawless” means to be without God’s Law, and thus without God’s Spirit.

But I want to go back to the beginning idea: God’s love expressed for us, making us God’s Children, and especially to this idea that God’s love makes us “confident and unashamed”. This idea about shame uses language we do not often use. We are more likely to think about how “breaking God’s Law” makes us guilty before God, so that we need God’s forgiveness in order to become “not guilty” before God.

This innocence-guilt paradigm gives an important truth, but it does not get to the deeper aspect of how we feel about ourselves. Although we do not often use the language of shame and honour as much as some other cultures do, the shame-honour paradigm digs deep into personal issues that often control the way we behave.

I have been reading Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials, by Jayson Georges and Mark Baker. Baker teaches at the Mennonite Brethren Seminary in Fresno, and Georges has worked for many years in Central Asia. They describe the way that the Bible uses honour and shame to describe our relationship with each other and with God, and the way that this understanding is worked out in ministry. Although they are writing especially for those cultures [most often within the Majority World] that operate on this basis, their insights apply also within our context.

Consider the way that shame works in our lives. A young mother is shopping at Superstore when her son throws a tantrum. She responds as calmly as she can, but inwardly she is fuming because of the way that passing shoppers look at her and her son. That is the effect of shame. His tantrum may be the result of a bad earache that she doesn’t know about. When she realizes what’s wrong, she takes steps to make it better, but the shame remains. You see that shame does not necessarily involve guilt, but has more to do with what others think of us. Our response sometimes is to say, “Ignore what others think.” But that response destroys community. What we think of each other is important.

A second example: A group of friends is talking about a controversial idea. All of them except one agree on one side of the issue. Those who agree don’t say anything out loud, but with a brief glance at each other they take action against the one who disagrees and “send him to Coventry.” Do you know that expression? Here’s a definition I found online: “To send someone to Coventry is an English idiom meaning to deliberately ostracise someone. Typically, this is done by not talking to them, avoiding someone's company, and generally pretending that they no longer exist. Victims are treated as though they are completely invisible and inaudible.” I have been sent to Coventry, although only briefly. It hurts, a lot. The hurt comes from shame, from a sense that one does not matter. You keep your head down and try to get out of the way.

I could multiply examples. This is stuff that many of us have experienced. The person who is shamed feels worthless. Being publicly shamed is probably one of our greatest fears. It’s one of the basic elements in the kind of bullying that occurs in our schools and workplaces. You may not see any physical violence, so you don’t realize how badly someone has been hurt. Georges and Baker suggest that shame normally involves sin—whether our sin in response to being shamed, or the sin of the one doing the shaming.

People in the Early Church came from the ostracized people of society. You remember Paul’s description of the Corinthians:
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

In a similar way John is writing to people who were used to being shamed in society, and he says to them: “When Jesus appears we stand before him confident and unashamed!” One translation renders “unashamed” as “not shrinking in shame”. When you feel worthless, you shrink away from the people around you and keep your head down. John says, when God loves you, you lift up your head with the kind of pride that God’s children feel in being God’s children.

Another way of saying this is that we shine with God’s glory. Glory is another word that we don’t use much in ordinary speech. We might say of a well-scored goal in hockey, “Oh that was glorious!” But such use of glory is a weak reflection of the meaning of God’s glory. Again, majority world cultures know more about this than we do in Canada. We blush at compliments or turn them aside, but John was writing to people who understood this language. His thought is that we glorify God by receiving God’s glory.

In a sermon on “The Weight of Glory”, C.S. Lewis writes:
The promises of Scripture may very roughly be reduced to five heads. It is promised (i) that we shall be with Christ; (2) that we shall be like Him; (3) with an enormous wealth of imagery, that we shall have “glory”; (4) that we shall, in some sense, be fed or feasted or entertained; and (5) that we shall have some sort of official position in the universe—ruling cities, judging angels, being pillars of God's temple.
Lewis then wonders why God promises anything beyond the first. Especially, why the emphasis on glory? He continues:
There is no getting away from the fact that [the idea of glory] is very prominent in the New Testament and in early Christian writings. Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendour like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all, and in that respect I fancy I am a typical modern. Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous. Either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity. As for the first, since to be famous means to be better known than other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefore of hell rather than heaven. As for the second, who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?

But, in fact, the promise of glory is more along the lines of what John says here: “How great the Father’s love for us, that we should be called the Children of God. And that is what we are!” This is our glory—that we are God’s Children. This is what brings glory to God—that God loves us!

It’s all very strange, because the way that God loves us is by dying on a cross, which was the most shameful way to die possible. Status-conscious Roman citizens would not even discuss crucifixion, so great was its shame. Yet on the cross God reaches into our lives and finds us where we feel most alone and cut off and says, “I love you!” God is present when we experience the shame of failure or rejection or appearance and says, “I love you! You are my child. You share my glory.” God repeats to us over and over: “You are worth everything to me!”

I have observed in the past that self-esteem can be taught in a way that is harmful. When we teach our children that what they do doesn’t matter because we love them, we can make them into people who have no shame—where shame is the proper response to doing what is wrong. But this passage shows what it means to have real self-esteem, the honour that is available to every one of us. God loves you and God loves me. We are God’s Children. We are valuable, so valuable that Jesus died so that we can belong to God again. This is good news for every one of us.
Has someone hurt you in an argument, so that you feel disrespected and hurt? God loves you and takes your shame, so that you don’t have to carry it.
Have you hurt someone else, so that now you feel ashamed to show your face? God loves you and takes your shame, so that you can reconcile with your friend and love that person again. You and I cannot heal our own shame. God can and does heal us, so that we can love and honour each other.

The basic point of all of this is that shame leads us into sin—living with God’s Law in our lives. The cure for shame is God’s love: “You are loved!” God’s love then becomes the basis on which we live “confident and unashamed” in God’s presence, which shows itself most clearly (verses 10ff) in the way that we love each other.

This final thought is reinforced in a study that Jeff Banman did at Providence last year. He went through the letters in the New Testament reading all of the commands from Romans to Revelation. Then he grouped the commands into categories and looked at what kinds of commands are given most often. There were 39 commands about “living out your faith”, and 26 commands about “marriage and family”. There were 41 commands about not sinning, and 15 commands about having a good character. But more than any other category by far was this one: 96 commands about “how to treat fellow Christians.” Amazing: Love each other (in one form or another) is by far the most often stated command from Romans to Revelation. No wonder John says it here: “Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.”

Properly understood, God takes away our shame and makes us able to love each other in practical and straightforward ways. The reverse is also true. Often it is our shame that stops us from loving each other and keeps us apart. And the cure for our shame is God’s love.

A Final Application
Paul Dyck used to give us homework at the end of the sermon. Well here is John’s homework for us.
Is there someone who has shamed you? (We would say, “He/She dissed me.”) Treat that person with honour and respect, asking nothing in return. God’s love makes you God’s child, and makes the other God’s child also. Treat them as God’s child with God’s love.
Is there someone you have shamed or disrespected? Apologize—not formally without sincerity, but deeply, from the heart. Then honour them. Treat them also with the deepest respect.

“How great the Father’s love for us, that we should be called the Children of God. And that is what we are!”

Closing Prayer
Our Lord,
Thank you for your grace and love.
Thank you for the honour you have shown us, making us your children.
Turn our hearts to you and to each other, today and always.

In the name of Jesus, Amen.

19 February 2017
Steinbach Mennonite Church
1 John 2:28-3:10
God’s Children and Sin
28 And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming. 29 If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him.
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. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. 10 This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.

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