The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

FAMILY RESEMBLANCE

Delivered 4/13/97
Text: I John 3:1-7 (Luke 24:36-48)
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

I ran across some interesting material the other day with the answers to science test questions as rendered by 5th and 6th graders.(1) For example, one described the law of gravity as saying, "no fair jumping up without coming back down." Pretty good. Another said, "You can listen to thunder and tell how close you came to getting hit. If you don't hear it, you got hit, so never mind." A couple of them responded to questions about clouds. One said, "I'm not sure how clouds are formed, but clouds know how to do it, and that's the important thing." OK. Another said, "Water vapor gets together in a cloud. When it is big enough to be called a drop, it does." Uh huh. One defined a monsoon as a French gentlemen.

A couple more. One youngster said, "When planets run around and around in circles, we say they are orbiting. When people do it, we say they are crazy." True. One defined the spinal column as "a long bunch of bones. The head sits on the top, and you sit on the bottom." OK.

None of those have anything to do with the sermon, but this one jumped out at me because it surely does. One youngster wrote, "Genetics explains why you look like your father, and if you don't, why you should." In the context of our lesson, this one really hits home: "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are..." Is there any family resemblance? There SHOULD be.

I wonder how those Christians who were the first recipients of this letter felt about that. They had had some difficult times, some severe conflict in their fellowship.(2) There was apparently some dissension about the relationship between faith and action. For what it is worth, that controversy would not have been a surprise, because the surrounding culture fought the same battle. For those who came from a Jewish background, a life that divorced faith from practice was unthinkable, but in the larger world, the one nurtured in the culture of Greece and Rome, religion largely had to do with paying homage to the gods so that the gods would protect and enhance one's life. Morality was a matter for the philosophers... Many early converts probably saw Christianity as yet another way of approaching the gods, of securing safety and prosperity for themselves..."(3) Sort of a celestial good-luck charm. A divine rabbit's foot.

No different these days. Several years ago, Stephen Carter's book, The Culture of Disbelief,(4) looked at how our society wishes us to treat God as a hobby. Our culture sees faith as something that we should not bring with us into the public square when making decisions about life and how life might be lived. Our society's message is clear: Practice your faith on your day of devotion in your four walls and leave it there.(5)

I John says no. I John tells us that what we believe will determine how we behave.

Our text begins with a reminder of the high privilege we have in being in God's family. It is a privilege to be named as the children of God. John Chrysostom, the great preacher of the middle ages, in his sermon on how to bring up children, advises parents to give their youngster some great scriptural name, to teach over and over the story of the original bearer of the name, and thus to give a standard to live up to, and an inspiration for living, when reaching adulthood. So the Christian has the privilege of being called the child of God. Just as belonging to a great school, a great regiment, a great Church, a great household is an inspiration to fine living, so, even more, to bear the name of the family of God is something to keep a person's feet on the right way, and to set us climbing.(6)

Something to note here. Some will want to raise the question, "Are we not ALL children of God?" The answer is Yes and No. One commentator explains it this way:

There are two English words which are closely connected, but whose meanings are widely different. There is the word paternity and the word fatherhood. Paternity describes a relationship in which a father is responsible for the physical existence of a [child]; but, as far as paternity goes, it can be, and it not infrequently happens, that the father has never even set eyes on the [child], and would not even recognize him [or her], if in later years [they] met. Fatherhood describes an intimate, loving, continuous relationship in which father and [child] grow closer to each other every day. In the sense of paternity all [people] are children of God; but in the sense of fatherhood [we] are only children of God, when God makes [that] gracious approach to [us], and when [we] respond.(7)

I love what follows: "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." God is not done with us yet. And amazingly, what lies in store is so wonderful it is beyond our comprehension.

Now, what is this audacious statement: "No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him?" Wait a minute. That sounds impossible. "No one who abides in him SINS?" That lets ME out. How about you? Not to mention everyone you know? Or perhaps there is more to this.

Bingo. This is one of those rare times when all those hours in seminary Greek pays off. You see, the Greek verb "sins" here is not to be understood as a one time thing, but rather something that is ongoing. A more helpful translation would be, "No one who abides in him sins and keeps on sinning." For that matter, even our author knows that sin is going to come in our lives. Not many paragraphs prior to these words, we find,

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.(8)

The point of John's "no sin" declaration is to make sure that our profession and practice...our beliefs and behavior...match. In other words, do not just "talk the walk," but "walk the talk." The phrase refers to people who can be trusted. It is about the wholeness of life. It is Tiger Woods who talks confidently about his ability and then goes to Augusta and laps the Masters field. It is the person who has kicked a drug habit and can effectively share his or her experience with others. It is the person who professes to be a follower of Christ, and then actually LIVES a Christian life.(9)

Dr. Robert Coles, professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, in his class lectures has told students about why he is unwilling, as a Harvard intellectual, to dismiss religious faith as a matter of little consequence.

As a young psychiatrist in 1958...he was drafted and sent down South. While living in New Orleans three years later, he encountered 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, who was among the first black children to integrate the city's schools. Everyday, Ruby was picked up by Federal marshals and walked past crowds who shouted, "You don't deserve to live;" "You're worse than an animal." And yet, each day she went to school.

One day, he heard that Ruby had been talking to the crowd heckling her. "Ruby," he said to her, "your teacher told me you were talking to the people in the mob. I wondered what you were saying to them."

"I wasn't talking to them," she replied. "I was praying for them. They need praying for."

"They do?" Dr. Coles asked incredulously.

"Yes," Ruby answered. "That's what God would want me to do."

The point of the story, says Dr. Coles, is not to make Ruby a saint, or to put down the angry, white crowd...but to put to rest the simple minded notion of religion as the "opiate of the people."(10)

The words are not just words. The talk is not just talk. The talk goes with the walk, and the walk goes with the talk. And when those two match, it makes all the difference.

A Civil War chaplain approached a wounded soldier on the battlefield and asked if he'd like to hear a few verses from the Bible. The wounded man said, "No, I'm so thirsty, I'd rather have some water." The chaplain gave him a drink, then repeated his question. "No sir, not now -- but could you put something under my head?" The chaplain did so, and again repeated his question. "No," said the soldier, "I'm cold. Could you cover me up?" The chaplain took off his inside coat and wrapped the soldier. Afraid to ask, he did not repeat his question. He made to go away, but the soldier called him back. "Look, Chaplain, if there's anything in that book of yours that makes a person do for another what you've done for me, then I want to hear it."(11) Walking the talk.

John's letter takes this concept of walking the talk and pushes it. What we believe will determine how we behave.

It made all the difference in the lives of the earliest disciples. You remember what happened. They were locked in a Jerusalem room, scared to death that the same fate that had befallen their Master might come on them. Suddenly, their risen Lord appears in their midst. Is it a ghost? No. Jesus says, "Yo, check out the hands and feet. Ghosts don't have flesh and bone. And, by the way, have y'all got anything to eat?"

To say the least, the disciples are blown away by what they have encountered. They hear again (for who knows the how-manieth time) what the scriptures have all-along said about the Messiah, then Jesus says, "You are witnesses of these things." And, sure enough, the fact that they witnessed made them become witnesses. Suddenly, they believed...and it made all the difference in how they behaved. These children of God turned the world upside down.

"See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are..." And, yes, we WILL be different because of the family relationship, because with privilege always comes responsibility. Are you ready for it?

One night about a week and a half ago, my family was shopping at Wal-Mart on Wendover when the announcement came over the PA system telling everyone to evacuate the building NOW. RIGHT NOW! Apparently, a bomb threat. No bomb, as it turned out, but, better safe than sorry. These things happen with more regularity than I care to think about, and they are strangely indiscriminate. There was even a bomb threat at a meeting of the South Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church. 1,800 United Methodists were gathered in an Ordination service. Then a telephoned bomb threat came through. The auditorium at Indiana University quickly emptied.

The people left in hasty and not too orderly fashion. Outside they discovered it was raining, but there was little complaining because they realized how much the rain was needed because of a drought. Forty-five minutes later the crowd heard the announcement that the building has been searched and nothing was found. They could reenter.

As the wet Methodists started to enter through the door, security people kept repeating, "Please enter at your own risk!"(12) Strange counsel for people entering a religious service. Or is it?

Imagine entering our church's narthex and your eyes falling upon a sign that reads, "Please enter at your own risk, because after the service, your life may never be the same again!" Hmm.

"See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are..." What a compliment awaits you! You? A child of God? Oh yes, I should have known. I can see the FAMILY RESEMBLANCE.

Amen!


1. Carl Horton via PresbyNet, "Bottom Drawer," #3156, 4/9/97

2. See 2:19

3. David Brandfass, via Ecunet, "Epistle Notes for Next Sunday, " #235, 4/8/97

4. New York: Basic Books, 1993

5. Brandfass, ibid.

6. William Barclay, The Letters of John and Jude, Daily Study Bible Series, (Philadelphia, Westminster, 1960), p. 86

7. ibid., p. 87

8. 1 John 1:8-2:2

9. Richard Bolin, via PresbyNet, "Sermonshop 04 17 1994," #46, 4/16/94

10. Fran Schumer, NY Times Magazine, 4/15/84, quoted by Richard Bolin, ibid.

11. Carlos Wilton, via PresbyNet, "Sermonshop 04 17 1994," #5, 4/12/94

12. Lori Carey, via Ecunet, "Illustrations for This Week," #280, 4/12/97

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