A sermon preached for Preston High Street Uniting Church for All Saints Day 2020 on 1 John 3:1-2
It’s hard for people in contemporary society to talk about Christian hope. It can feel like a primitive hangover from unspecified “olden days” when people didn’t know as much as us about natural processes. We tend to avoid talking about “pie in the sky after you die”, primed as we are with Marx’s criticism of religion as being the “opium of the masses”, by which he meant a tranquilizer applied by the powerful to use the promise of future happiness to prevent current political unrest.
Yet, there is a kind of folk memory of the promise of Christian hope. I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with a very educated, very sophisticated, well-travelled older woman, who had been brought up in the church but had long since left it. She was talking about her very aged mother, and said she sometimes wished she could “lift the curtain” and see what was on the other side.
I don’t think I handled it particularly well – I seem to remember that I said something to the effect that faith is supposed to be a working car, rather than a good insurance policy for when it breaks down – and then the conversation moved on.
So we are left with this tension. On the one hand a possible sense of embarrassment about what can feel like the manipulative hangover from a less scientific age. On the other hand, a folk memory of a more robustly supernatural faith, and our inexhaustible desire for assurance about our final fate.
And into this: today’s text. We are children of God, and what we will be will only be revealed when we see Jesus as he really is.
So: where do we go from here?
The reading is from the short First Letter of John. It was probably not written by the same John as who wrote the gospel, but it is very much inspired by the language and the concerns of that gospel. The context seems to be that the community has recently split, with people who denied that Jesus is the Christ and deny what the Father has done through him have stormed out in a huff, leaving those who remain shattered and miserable.
Perhaps their recently departed friends, the ones who claim “knowledge”, were part of the emerging gnostic movement – a group who claim a secret knowledge, not available to the ordinary people. To put it another way in the 2nd Century, “advanced”, “enlightened” people tended to find Christian belief a bit vulgar, cringe-makingly unspiritual, and a little downmarket, given that it seemed to appeal mainly to people with whom you wouldn’t be seen dead with at the theatre.
Surprisingly little has changed in the last two thousand years.
In this context, the passage is an encouragement to hold fast to the “faith once given.” See what love God has given us, says the writer, that we should be called the Children of God. Not the philosophers of God, not people who because of their superior education and special techniques have figured God out, but God’s children. Who are born, as John’s Gospel puts it, not of human desire and will, but from the will of God.
That’s why Christianity is always pretty unfashionable among the rich and powerful. We are not self-made people, who bring ourselves into being in the universe. We don’t figure God out, we can’t explain God, or explain God away, and we certainly can’t tell God what to do. We are completely dependent on God at all times. As St Paul said, quoting an unknown Greek poet or philosopher: in God we live and move and have our being. God holds the whole of existence in the palm of her hand, and if God somehow lost interest in the universe, it would blink into non-existence.
What seems ordinary and workaday, what seems so obvious as to hardly need remarking on – the mere fact of our existence – is the most extraordinary thing in the universe. We exist teetering on top of a vast chain of coincidences, chancy decisions, love and hate and politics and sheer bloodymindedness.
We are entirely dependent on God. We are entirely contingent.
And, of course, we die. I say “of course”, but as a society we in the west have done our absolute best to hide the inevitability of death. We “deny” death, by which I mean we do our best to push it away, out of our consciousness, to hide any sign of it. To almost imagine ourselves as immortal, invulnerable, completely independent of the world of flesh and blood, of birth and death and mess.
The ancient Gnostics, who had such an unfortunate effect on the Christian community which today’s reading was written to, had a similar feeling about the messy business of organic life. They found it an embarrassment and an inconvenience, and they thought that they had found a way to escape it altogether, to ascend as something like pure energy though, essentially their own efforts. Again, we aren’t as far away from the second century as we might like to think.
Our desire is to live forever – but only on our own terms. If we can prove to our satisfaction that there is some immortal principle of life within us – a soul, say, detachable from our body, which perhaps we could upload to the cloud like we might back up a document – then we might be OK with it.
But we have to prove it. It has to somehow come from us.
Any sense that it might come from God, that it might be something which we can’t discover and exploit for our own convenience, anything which might rely on God, is seen as an embarrassing, even barbaric remnant of an earlier time when people didn’t know as much as us.
The other objection which I began with, the Marxist claim that it’s all “pie in the sky after you die” as a way of avoiding challenging the status quo, can sometimes be on the money. It is entirely possible to retreat into a sort of Christian privatism which says, essentially, that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and the correct Christian response is to keep ourselves to ourselves and withdraw from this fallen and corrupt world.
However, this is to give up any claim to participating in the onrushing arrival of God’s Kingdom. It is very clear from the Gospels that Jesus was as interested in the blind seeing and the poor having good news preached to them and prisoners being set free as any contemporary revolutionary. More concerned if anything, given that he bore the cost of that commitment in his own body, not on the body of the counter-revolutionary “other”
For a counter-example, let me refer you to William Wilberforce’s life-long, costly, and ultimately successful commitment to eliminating the slave trade across the whole British Empire. He did it out of a strong Christian conviction, which was rooted in a strong personal holiness, which was a long way from normal in the louche times in which he lived.
Whatever Christian hope is, whatever God’s desire for the world is, it is both individual and corporate.
To begin with, Scripture doesn’t stop at the ‘resurrection of the dead.” Instead, this is placed in a truly cosmic horizon. All creation, St Paul says, waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God, when it will be “set free from its bondage to decay.”
When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, he has in mind a complete wholeness of life. He heals, as well as preaches. He brings people into fullness of life and relationship. Whatever he incarnates, it is not a selfish individualism.
But nor is it purely political. Like the Christian walk, it is personal and individual. Just as Jesus’ call is to us individually as well as corporately, so is the Christian hope of resurrection. Not as some sort of isolated monad, but in reconciliation with ourselves, each other, and God’s good creation, and in unbroken and enduring communion with God.
The key to all this is trust and hope. It isn’t something I can prove to you like I might prove a mathematical equation. But, then again, very little in life is something we can prove absolutely.
It is, however, not a baseless hope. It is not blind optimism that somehow, sometime, some unknown thing is going to happen to make it all OK. It is hope based on a solid grounding, which is the resurrection of Jesus. As St Paul put it “…in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.”
To put it in the terms of today’s passage: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” Jesus didn’t come to bring us a Lonely Planet guide to the afterlife. But he does bring hope to us – personally, corporately, and even environmentally.
The question then is: how do we live in the knowledge of this hope? How do we become people who are no longer in denial of death, who try to hush it up like a great scandal? By becoming people who trust God. There really is no other answer to life and death but to dig deeper and deeper into the utter trustworthiness of God. This, it seems to me, is a lifelong process, and harder for us because we are a culture which trusts so much in the strength of our right arm, in our ability to overcome all that limits us. But nonetheless, opportunities abound for us to trust ourselves to God, and God’s ultimate “yes” to us, and to the world.
So, Christian hope is not some barbaric reminder of a bygone age. It is not individualistic pie in the sky after you die preventing us from trying to change an unjust world. It is good news – gifting us a solid anchor to our lives, as we learn to walk with God and with one another, participating in God’s redemptive work on Earth, and trusting God for the final fulfilment of all things, which we cannot adequately imagine, for our society, for creation, and for us – corporately, and individually.
 1 John 2:18-25
 See for instance 1 John2:21 “I write to you not because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it.” We don’t know what they believed – possibly because later Christians suppressed them, or perhaps because the whole point of having esoteric knowledge only to be handed on to initiates is to keep it secret.
 John 1:13
 Acts 17:28
 Romans 8:18-25 My emphasis, obviously.
 Cf. Migliore Faith Seeking Understanding, pp.346.
 1 Corinthians 15:20
 1 John 3:2