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Utilizing the lectionary, the prescribed passages of Scripture for each Sunday, can be challenging.
Sometimes we end up focusing on a scriptural text that perhaps we would not have chosen on our own.
Today’s text is no doubt a problematic passage from I John, one that calls attention to key elements
of biblical interpretation, including interpreting scripture by scripture,
and interpreting one passage in light of the whole of scripture.
If we were to take a few verses from this passage and base our entire understanding
of sin and righteousness on them alone,
we would have a limited and skewed understanding of what it means to be human.
Nevertheless, this Easter season passage is edifying in that it reminds that, through Jesus Christ,
we are children of God. That is who we are. That is our primary identity.
We are children of God who are called to turn away from sin and lawlessness,
and turn toward love and righteousness. Turning toward the light, toward love and righteousness,
involves imitating God by intentionally love our neighbor.
Hear the Word of God from I John 3:1-11
See what love the Father has given 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. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters. For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.
The Apostle Paul claims in Romans 7,
“I can will what is right but I cannot do it, for I do not do the good that I want
but the evil I do not want is what I do. Even when I want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”
One of the basic doctrines of Presbyterian faith, of biblical faith, is Calvin’s emphasis on total depravity.
Total depravity means that there is no one who is righteous, not even one.
We cannot help but sin. Though we are all children of God, we are all also sinners in the sight of God.
So why does this passage claim that everyone who is close to God does not sin and cannot sin?
According to some biblical scholars, the Greek word for “sin” in this passage
does not necessarily mean “one time”, but “habitual and constant”.
In other words, the text does not say that anyone who ever commits a sin in their life is not born of God.
What it does say is that anyone who habitually, constantly rebels against God
and continues to do things that are sinful while knowing that they are sinful
has drifted away from God, is not close to God, and is not of God.
Habitual, constant sin is a pulling away, a rebellion, from the pure and righteous One
whom we are supposed to imitate. It is a rejection of the name “child of God”.
Interpreters of this passage also point out that the author of I John
is seeking to expose false teachers in no uncertain terms.
He is writing clearly against any who might claim that they are righteous
while continuing to do what is wrong.
In the course of Christian history, far too many have claimed by their words and deeds
that their sinful acts do not interfere with their spiritual state.
(Charles Eerdman, The General Epistles, p. 131)
Think Catholic priests who have abused children while continuing in roles of spiritual leadership,
or Protestant pastors who have mishandled funds or had multiple affairs
while continuing to preach against sin.
I John makes clear that sin in any form is not to be taken lightly.
One who places his or her life in the hands of Jesus Christ will seek to be pure, even as Jesus is pure.
The one who does not seek purity, but continues to sin while claiming to be righteous, is not born of God.
In short, sin in any form signals that something is not as it should be.
The most commonly used Hebrew word for sin in the Bible means “to go astray.”
One of the many Greek words translated as “sin” in the Bible means “missing the mark.”
(Craigo-Snell and Doucot, No Innocent Bystanders, 2017, WJKP, p. 58)
Melanie and I spent last Sunday afternoon in the Center for Civil and Human Rights.
The Center is in downtown Atlanta, next to the Coca-Cola Museum and the Olympic Park.
I highly recommend it if you have not yet visited.
There are three floors with separate exhibitions, with plenty to see and hear and read.
The website says that the average stay is about an hour and fifteen minutes…
we were there two and a half hours.
If nothing else was clear from that experience, it is that, as humans beings, we so often “miss the mark”.
We go astray as a people, as a nation, particularly when it comes to civil and human rights.
We so often fail to love God and love our neighbor, both as individuals and as a society.
Part of my daily routine is to sit down in the morning with a cup of coffee and read the daily news.
Reading the news reminds me every day in stark relief of both of human possibility and of human sin.
Shootings and stabbings, corruption in local governments, children abused and neglected,
lawsuits and courtroom drama…many things are not as they should be.
Have you been keeping up with the news from the border of the Gaza strip?
There is no doubt that Hamas, the Palestinian party organizing the protests, has a violent history.
Much unrighteous terror has been directed by Hamas at Israeli citizens,
but the political situation in Gaza has become untenable, increasingly horrific and miserable.
Anything to do with politics in Israel is complicated. There are no simple answers and no innocent parties. But the situation on the ground in Gaza must change.
With a ten year blockade still in place, there is nearly 50% unemployment.
Electricity is only available 5 hours a day; the health care system is in shambles.
There is no freedom of trade, no opportunity to improve conditions.
Millions of people are basically living in a geographic prison,
with the Mediterranean on one side and a heavily guarded border on the other.
Over the past two weeks, 28 Palestinians protestors have been killed by gunfire from Israeli soldiers
and over 1500 have been wounded. Many of the wounded are women and children.
Israeli soldiers have been being encouraged to use lethal force, even when protestors are unarmed.
Snipers have been directed to choose targets to kill, based on who seems to be instigating protests.
Friends, something is not as it should be.
Not so far away from Gaza, there has been another use of chemical weapons in Syria.
The civil war in Syria is greatly complicated, especially by the involvement of Russia, Iran,
and the United States, but the actions of Assad’s regime are clearly inhumane.
How can anyone justify the use of chemical weapons, especially against their own people?
Something is not as it should be.
In Christian understanding, sin is missing the mark in relationship with God and neighbor,
and in Jesus’ teachings, neighbors include enemies.
Our ideal, the target toward which we reach, is a future in which human beings live in love for God,
live in love for the neighbors who are easy to love, and live in love even for enemies.
Our goal is not merely the survival of our group or our nation; that would be un-Christian.
Our aim in life is not simply individual happiness.
Our objective as followers of Jesus is not simply the financial success of our family
or the economic stability of our state. Those things may be prudent, but they are not Christian.
The direction toward which God calls us involves a higher and far more difficult purpose.
As the teachings of Jesus make clear, we cannot say we love God if we do not love our neighbor,
which means that we cannot love God if we do not love our enemy.
Loving God and loving enemy are intimately intertwined.
So, as a wise person once said, no one will fully be at peace until all are finally at peace.
And, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said,
the presence of injustice anywhere will always be a threat to justice everywhere.
Peace in our world, peace in our neighborhood, peace in our homes…
all depend upon human beings not simply seeking self-interest,
but seeking to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
This past Monday and Tuesday, I participated in the spring board of trustees meeting
of Columbia Theological Seminary.
As requested by President Van Dyk, we are reading a book together
and spending time in small group discussions.
The book, co-written by a Presbyterian professor of theology and a Catholic social worker,
is entitled No Innocent Bystanders: Becoming an Ally in the Struggle for Justice.
The book argues that, in order for Christians to love their neighbor,
we must acknowledge that the direction we are currently heading as a people, as a nation,
even as a church, is off the mark. Something is not as it should be.
Particularly, when it comes to the sin of racism, we are still moving in the wrong direction.
Many people seem to be less prejudiced than they were 50 years ago,
and we have made many gains in terms of individual attitudes toward race and in legal decisions.
But individual attitudes, prejudiced attitudes, are not the same thing as racism.
Racism refers to long term, systemic injustices that are the result of prejudice.
Even if we have come a long way in reducing individual prejudices and changing certain laws,
many of us still benefit from social structures and systems which have been unfair and oppressive
There are no simple, clear cut answers regarding how to “fix racism”,
but without a doubt the “fix” begins with loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
The problem of generational, systemic racism in the United States seems intractable at times.
The problem of immigration policy, including how to deal with the Dreamers,
those brought to the United States as children, may seem intractable to many.
The problems of civil war in Syria and economic violence in Gaza certainly seem intractable.
But if we claim the title Christian, if we claim the designation “child of God”,
then we are compelled to work for solutions, even when problems seem intractable.
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.
… And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
All who do not do what is right are not from God,
nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.
For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.
This challenge of loving neighbor is as broad as negotiations over chemical and nuclear weapons
and as narrow as holiday negotiations between extended family members.
One reason I enjoy the television show “Madame Secretary” is that the writers are globally minded
and yet locally grounded. The show highlights both the longed-for possibility of world peace
as well as the daily challenges of family life at home.
The primary character, who happens to be the Secretary of State as well as the married mother of three,
often finds it more challenging to keep peace in her home than to make peace with Iran or China.
Vernon Gramling keeps reminding us that the first task of a Christian is not to feel guilt or shame
over what we have been unable to do.
We know that we have been unable to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.
We know that we have been unable to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
So the first task of every Christian, of every child of God,
is to receive God’s undeserved grace and love.
When we open ourselves to receiving love and mercy from God and from other children of God,
we begin to have the resources to return that love, to love God as we begin to love neighbor as self.
Chances are you are struggling to love someone today –
whether that person be someone you read about in the daily news
or some group you have been struggling to understand
or someone with whom you work or live…
As I John 4 claims: Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another…
if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us…
We love (those of a different background, those of a different ethnicity,
those of different political persuasion, those of a different religion)
because God first loved us…the commandment we have from God is this:
those who love God must also love their brothers and sisters.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
April 15, 2018
The prayer below was written by Rev. Allysen Schaaf for worship at Decatur Presbyterian
Church on April 15, 2018. Portions of the prayer were inspired by the prayer written by
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in 2015 in the wake of the Syrian Refugee crisis.
God of mercy,
As we worship you today, we entered as hopeful, weary, or feeling the same-ole- same-
ole….. yet your lavish love has met us where we are. We have heard the words- you are
children of God…and we are in awe.
As your children,
we are grateful for the beautiful creation you have given us to live in, for the flowers the
bloom in springtime and the rain that renews the earth and washes the pollen away. We
give you thanks for the diversity of your creation, which stretches from Decatur to
Damascus. We are thankful for the different cultures, languages and experiences that
enrich our lives and pray for an openness to the lives of others who seem so different yet
are just like us- children created and loved by God.
As your children, we are connected to all of your people and so we cannot pretend to be
distant from the heartbreak and afflictions that our neighbors face. Today we lift in
prayer those in our community who grieve the loss of a loved one- for those in our
greater Decatur community who have lost a child, a parent or friend. We pray for
comfort and support for those here at DPC who grieve the lost of many friends and
family these past few months. Oh God, grant us your peace and remind us of the good
news of your resurrection, so that may sustain us in times of loss or struggle.
God as your children, We can no longer pretend to be distant
from the heartbreak afflicting your children across the world.
This morning we pray for those
searching for shelter, education and food who meet with broken systems and road blocks,
for victims of warfare in Myanmar and throughout the world,
for those struggling for their livelihood and fair elections in Madagascar,
for victims of bombings in Syria and those who have fled for their lives,
huddled in basements, stopped at borders, crowded in camps,
living as neighbors among us and learning at GVP,
We know the truth: all of these children are our sons and daughters; and their parents are
our brothers and sisters, and they deserve a room in the inn, a place of safety, a chance to
live and thrive.
We are grateful for those who are on the ground, working for peace and reconciliation
We pray for the safety of our global missionaries and progress in their work
We ask your forgiveness for our limited imaginations that doubt is possible in our world
and for all the times we pray for concerns and fail to act.
God we pray that you will help us to do better, as a church, as a denomination, and as a
May we be a friend to the refugee among us,
a listening ear to those in need,
a shoulder to cry on for the grieving,
a voice for justice in the midst of oppression
extenders of hospitality, unity and friendship
and a giver of extravagant grace and resources – that models after You.
Wake us up to our identity as children of God, send us out to be your disciples in our
daily lives, and strengthen and support our communities and our families to be
accountable and generous to all of God’s children.
Hear us as we pray and unite our voices with brothers and sisters around the world…
Allysen Schaaf graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia with a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Christian Education. Prior to that she received a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Rev. Dr. Todd Speed has served Decatur Presbyterian Church since August, 2007 and has been an integral part of the Decatur community ever since. As a part of his personal calling and service, Dr. Speed regularly serves on local non-profit or education-related boards, has led or co-led over 20 mission trips in various cultural contexts, and has participated in learning seminars on five continents.
Rev. Alexandra Rodgers was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. She grew up in a large Presbyterian church where she and her family were very involved. Alex has a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and a master of divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.
Join us for worship on Sunday mornings at 10:30 a.m.
Worship is the heartbeat of Decatur Presbyterian Church, the most important hour of the week. In worship, we offer praise, receive forgiveness, listen to God's Word, pray for the needs of the world, and offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God.
The mission of DPC is to share Jesus Christ's love for the world.
Founded in 1825, Decatur Presbyterian Church has contributed in numerous ways to the cultural development of Decatur over nearly two centuries, transforming Decatur from a tiny frontier settlement to building the foundations of the city we live in today.
205 Sycamore Street, Decatur, GA 30030