Scriptures: 1 John 3:1-10
Synopsis: When the apostle John wrote his first epistle, times had been tough for his audience of first-century Christians. He wrote the letter to give them assurance, encouragement, and warnings. Times are tough for us twenty-first century Christians as well. If John were alive today to write us a letter, what would it say?
Our scripture reading for today comes from First John. Now, John also wrote the Gospel of John, but our reading comes from the first of three letters he wrote. These letters, and others like them in the New Testament, are known as epistles.
Some epistles are written by other authors in the name of apostles. But first John is believed to have been written by John himself somewhere between 85-90 AD. John is known as “the disciple Jesus loved.” He was one of the sons of Zebedee. Jesus, during his crucifixion, asked John to take care of his mother, Mary. He, his brother James, and Peter were the Lord’s closest confidants.
John wrote this letter to several gentile congregations in order to reassure them in their faith. Times were tough. Both Christians and Jews had been suffering under heavy Roman persecution. The Romans had captured Jerusalem and destroyed the second Temple. By the time John wrote this letter, he was the only apostle left; the others, including the apostle Paul, had all been martyred.
As an elder statesman in the church, John addresses his audience as “dear children” and opens his letter with his credentials: He experienced Jesus for himself. He saw Jesus heal, heard him teach, watched him die, met him arisen, and saw him ascend. He witnessed Christ revealed through the man Jesus. You see, John also wrote this letter to counter a false teaching going around that Jesus was not the Christ.
What’s in this letter for us? Do we need assurance? Do we need encouragement? Do we need to be “set straight” on certain matters of belief? Times have certainly been tough for us nationally and globally. Nationally, we’ve experienced political and social strife. Globally, we’ve lost many lives due to the pandemic, and many are grief-stricken. And we’ve heard so much conflicting information that it’s hard to know what to think. If John were alive today, in 2021, to write us a letter, what would it say?
Christians often think that if God really loves us, life should be easy. But just as life wasn’t easy for John’s audience of first-century Christians, it’s not easy for us twenty-first century Christians. When we’re suffering so much, it’s tempting to doubt God’s love for us.
But just as John assured his audience, I believe he would assure us that God loves us because we are his children. That is who we are whether we know it or not, or whether we accept it or not. Our worth is firmly and forever established through our relationship with God. We don’t have to do anything to earn it. God’s Love has been given to us as freely.
Those of you who have children – would you make them earn your love? Of course not. You give it to them freely because they are your children. If you, as imperfect human beings, would love your children unconditionally, why do we doubt God’s love for us?
Christ is God’s Image – the face of God. Every human being is part of God’s Image, which he judged to be good. There is a wonderful story called “The Vessel” in the Talmud. The Talmud is the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish religious law and Jewish theology.
The story begins like this: Once Rabbi Elazar son of R. Shimon was coming from Migdal Gedor, from the house of his teacher. He rode along the riverside on his donkey, and was feeling happy and elated because he had studied much Torah.
There chanced to meet him an exceedingly ugly man, who greeted him, “Peace be upon you, my master!” R. Elazar did not return his salutation but instead said to him, “How ugly you are! Are all the people of your city as ugly as you?” “I do not know,” said the man. “But go to the craftsman who made me, and say to him: How ugly is the vessel which you have made!”
You see, we can’t reject any part of God’s Image without rejecting God. People who do not know or accept this truth do not know Christ. They believe worth is earned through the accumulation of wealth, power, or fame – or through belonging to the “superior” gender, race, religion, culture, or whatever.
No matter how much wealth, power, or fame they have, and no matter what “elite” group they belong to, they still don’t feel good about themselves. That’s because what they choose to believe doesn’t change the fact that our worth is established through our relationship with God only.
Anyone who considers himself or herself to be inferior or worthless does not know Christ. Anyone who considers another human being to be inferior or worthless does not know Christ. If we know who we are, then there is no doubt that we are worthy – no doubt that we are all are equally loved by God.
If we believe that all are worthy and equally loved by God, then we can accept that whatever happens in our lives is for our good. If we are all children of God, then God’s grace must be involved in our national and global lives as well as in our personal lives.
We know from the life of Our Lord that God may not deliver us from suffering; suffering is sometimes necessary for healing and new life.
Jesus suffered because he cared. He knew the reason why we suffer – because we sin. But he didn’t say, “Not my sin – not my problem.” He took on the sins of the world. His heart broke for the suffering of humanity ensnared in sin. Our hearts should be breaking too, but with compassion, not with judgment, or helplessness or hopelessness.
In John chapter 16:33, Jesus said, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” We can have courage and peace while our hearts are breaking because he who conquered the world lives within us.
John writes in verse 2, “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.” Similar to what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
What do these verses mean? I believe they mean that we will see Christ in all his glory when all of humanity has become like him. We will see him literally face-to-face – in our own face and in the faces of others – glowing out of the loving eyes of every brother and sister on this planet just as they see Christ glowing out of our loving eyes.
This should motivate us to purify ourselves. I believe these past few years have been like a crucible for humanity. When gold is purified, it is burned in a crucible over a very hot fire. We are purified in the same way. Through stress. And we’ve had lots of it.
And that brings us to a subject we don’t like to talk about: sin. I believe John would tell us the same thing he told his first-century Christian audience: Don’t fool yourself. We all struggle with sin. I love what James wrote in his letter in chapter 4, verse 8: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”
Here is the rest of that story “The Vessel.” Realizing that he had done wrong, R. Elazar dismounted from his donkey, prostrated himself before the man, and said to him, “You are right. Forgive me!” But the man replied, “I will not forgive you until you go to the craftsman who made me and say to him, ‘How ugly is the vessel which you have made.’”
R. Elazar kept on walking after him until he reached his city. The residents of the city came out to greet him, saying, “Peace be upon you, O Teacher! O Master!” Said the man to them, “Whom are you calling ‘Master’?” Said they, “The person walking behind you.
“Said he to them: “If this is a ‘Master,’ may there not be any more like him in Israel.” “Why?” asked the people. Said the man: Such-and-such he has done to me. “Nevertheless, forgive him,” said they, “for he is a man greatly learned in the Torah.” “For your sakes I will forgive him,” said the man, “but only if he does not act this way anymore.”
Soon after this, R. Elazar entered the study hall and taught: “A person should always be pliant as the reed, and let him never be hard as the cedar. And for this reason, the reed merited that of it should be made a pen for the writing of the Torah.”
R. Elazar was proud of himself for studying much Torah, just as there are many Christians today who are proud of their knowledge of the Bible. But what good is that knowledge if it doesn’t deepen our love of God or lead us to the knowledge of Christ?
The man R. Elazar called ugly didn’t let him off the hook with a simple “I’m sorry.” He needed to make a commitment to change. We must make that commitment also. We can’t have our cake and eat it too. We can’t love God and our sins. If we want the world to be a better place, we must start with ourselves.
If there were a false teaching for John to confront today, it would be the lie that some people’s lives don’t matter – whether it be women, people of color, incarcerated people, poor people, members of the LGBT community, immigrants, etc.
Every human life matters. No one’s life matters more than another’s. Every human being deserves to enjoy the gifts of Creation God gave us out of his love for us – for all of us. We all deserve equal opportunities and access to an enjoyable, fulfilling life. We should fight for it not only for ourselves, but for others because they deserve it too.
John writes, “Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.” In Judaism, righteousness refers specifically to helping others. A righteous person does whatever he or she can to help those who are in need.
In Matthew 7:15-20 Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, you will know them by their fruits.”
Anyone who ignores the needs of others or works to limit people’s access to life’s basic resources does not know Christ no matter what religious beliefs they claim.
John writes, “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.” What does John mean? I believe he means that if we are like Christ, we would never sin. However, most of us are still in the process of becoming like Christ.
We all struggle with areas where temptation is strong and habits that are hard to break. If we ignore these areas, we are choosing to keep our distance from God. But if we are trying our best to be more like Christ, we do not intentionally sin. We do not cherish certain sins and continue to commit them.
John calls sin “lawlessness.” As a Jew, John recognized the Torah as law. In Matthew chapter 22:36-40, we read that a Pharisee asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
John doesn’t mince words when he writes to his first-century audience, and I believe he would be just as straightforward today. There’s no wriggle room in verse 10 where he writes, “All who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.”
I believe that if John wrote us a letter today, he would in his own fatherly way reassure us of God’s love and wag his finger at us to beware of sin and of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Trust in God’s word, he would say, not in the word of human beings.
We usher in the Kingdom of Heaven and the end of suffering when we all learn to love one another. Christ’s seed has been planted within the fertile ground of our hearts. As it grows, we become more like him. The seed needs the light of God’s love, the water of our repentant tears, and plenty of support from our brothers and sisters around us.
Let’s pray together:
Father, we know we are your children, and we accept that you love us even though we have suffered a lot. We acknowledge that we suffer because of our lack of love for one another. We are willing to change so that we may become more like Christ, who was created in Your Image, the image of Love. Amen.
Life Application Study Bible. Zondervan, 2011.
“The Vessel (Talmud, Taanit 20a–b).” Chabad.org, www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/909930/jewish/The-Vessel.htm.