By Paul Koch –
The life of an individual Christian is a life that is lived in tension. I know, this isn’t new to you, but it is worth our focus today. The life of a Christian it is not a perfectly stable existence. It is organic. It shifts and moves. It flows from highs to lows as experiences and outside forces come crashing into our beliefs. There is a temptation to paint the faithful with a broad and even brush. We want to say that the Christian life is filled with confidence and stability, that those who go to church and receive the gifts of Christ will all experience similar things, have similar convictions and be set on similar paths throughout their journey. But that simply isn’t true. On any given Sunday morning there are a wide variety of emotions and fears and worries that grip the people of God. There is a tension between the promises you all share in the gifts of Christ and the varied life experiences you have. Sometimes, that tension can be pretty brutal.
It has become a common thing to say that seeing is believing. Before we willingly believe something to be true we want to see some proof that it is true. We like this notion because is it means what we believe is going to be confirmed by what we see or experience in our life. This relieves us of that uncomfortable tension that plagues our lives. We think this is an important rule because belief is one of the few things that doesn’t actually require sight. We may want to see, but that doesn’t mean that we will see. People believe all sorts of things without ever seeing proof of its substance before they believe. That is how faith works. Gathering together in church, we are saturated in confessing a faith that goes far beyond what we can see. We see a baby get a little wet at a baptism and we believe in a new birth. We see bread and wine and we believe that this is the very body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ given and shed for the forgiveness of sins.
Here we are left with this uncomfortable tension. See, the Word of God declares certain things, makes certain promises about His church. God’s Word says things about you, about who you are and what you mean to him. But often what we see is not what He says. As a pastor, I often struggle with this tension. I am called to preach and teach the Word of God to His church, His beloved saints, His brothers and sisters – that is after all, who He says you are. But there are times when I wonder if that is right when I learn how you can treat each other with suspicion and distrust. I wonder when you would rather punish by the law than forgive. I wonder if you are what He says you are. When you give your time and energy and support to all sorts of activities and leave the church with the leftovers, when our Lord’s gifts become a matter of convenience rather than a priority, I begin to doubt what our Lord has said.
I have my moments, trust me I do. Moments where I doubt the power of the Word to do what He promises to do. Moments where I doubt my ability to be what he has called me to be. Every Sunday as I get ready in my study, I pray the same prayer. It is an old prayer written by Martin Luther, and its weight is felt just as much today as it did the first time I came across it. The opening line goes like this, “O Lord God, dear Father in heaven, I am indeed unworthy of the office and ministry in which I am to make known Thy glory and to nurture and to serve this congregation. But since Thou hast appointed me to be a pastor and teacher, and the people are in need of the teachings and the instructions, O be Thou my helper and let Thy holy angels attend me.” I know that I am not worthy of this task, but I pray over and again. I pray that His Word will continue to do what He has promised despite the tension in my own life.
St. John seems to be writing directly about these tensions in our lives in 1 John 3. He begins, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” You are what he says you are. You are the children of God, this is the measure of his love. For you, yes you, with all your fears and worries and disappointments, you are the children of God, heirs of eternal life in the gifts of Christ alone. But John continues, he says, “The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” And now we see the tension. You may be the children of God but what the world sees is something different. What the world then shows you will be something different. The world sees something other than God’s children. The world sees sinners and they will be quick to point that out to you. You are nothing more than another group of people just trying to make it through each day the best you can. You are no different, no more special than anyone else.
If the world can point out the tension of your life of faith, if your pastor struggles with the tension, then I’m sure you all experience it each and every day. You know and feel the war that seems to wage within your own bodies. Between the good that you want to do but never do and the evil you know you should avoid, but that is exactly what you keep on doing. And there doesn’t seem to be any progress. There is no meaningful measure that you’ve become more holy, more worthy, of being called a child of God. Even your best efforts are tainted by your selfish desires.
This is fertile ground for doubt, for thinking that perhaps God is wrong, perhaps you are not his child. If seeing is believing, then how can we believe that we are really the beloved and faithful children of God? And John seems to know this struggle. He seems to anticipate the power of our doubts. So, he says this, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared.” You are God’s children now, right now. But there is a “not yet” to this gift. You are his children now but what you will be has not yet appeared. The fullness of what you are in Christ is not yet visible, not yet fully experienced in this life.
What John does here is set the tension of the Christian life in the tension of living in a world where salvation has already been won but sin and death has yet to be destroyed. The key to living this life of the “now” and “not yet” is Christ himself. It is not your performance as His children. It’s not your worthiness or your effort that establishes you as being what He has declared you to be. No, it is abiding in Christ that does it; his life, death and resurrection continue to be the key for faithful living.
John says, “You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning…” To try and become God’s child on your own, to do it yourself, to rely on your actions is not to abide in Christ. To listen to the words of the world, the let the corruption of this age to have the last say is not to abide in Christ. This is the way of good intentions and turning away from what God has already declared you to be. Salvation rests in Christ alone. Salvation is found by being found in him. This is how righteousness is practiced, this is how it goes forth, it is to be found in the gifts of Christ. Gifts that declare that you are God’s children right now.
What you are given in the “now” so that you might endure to the appearing of the “not yet” are the living gifts of Christ. They are eternal gifts stretching back to the cross of Calvary and forward into all eternity. They are gifts that will carry you through this shadow land to the new heavens and new earth. Water and Word, bread and wine, confession and absolution these deliver to you the living voice of the Gospel. These speak boldly about who you are. You are the baptized, the saints of God. You are the loved, the died for, the heirs of eternal life. You are guests at the heavenly wedding feast. You are the healed and the bound up, the restored and the loved. You are the forgiven. And what you will be, I can’t wait to see.