Dear Fathers, Friends in Christ,
1 S. John 3. 1
In the Epistle for today, St. John speaks to us of the glory of divine sonship:
‘Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God; and so we are.”
As we read the Scriptures, such an assertion as this can pass our lips (and our minds, too, I’m afraid) with a certain deceptive fluency. It is nothing new or surprising to us that we should think and speak of ourselves as God’s children, for so we are. It’s quite obvious. After all, the religious mind has always known that the whole world, and we ourselves, somehow derive our reality from a source which is eternal and unchanging, the source and true end of all temporal change and motion. Thus the whole of existence is a sort of divine household, with God as the Father, and his creatures as children. So, of course we are Sons of God.
is sometimes claimed that what is really essential in Christianity, when one gets behind all the trappings, is the great doctrine of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. And no doubt this is marvelous doctrine; but there is certainly not anything peculiarly Christian about it. It is rather the common insight of our whole religious tradition, whether Biblical or pagan. We are not surprised, therefore, to be called sons of God, nor do we sense any special privilege in speaking of God as our Father: He is the father of all his creatures.
Yet, St. John speaks of our sonship with a kind of awestruck gratitude: “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God.” He speaks of a very special, peculiar, incredible grace and favour of God: “behold, what manner of love.
He is not talking about the general relation of creatures to the Creator, but of the grace of a particular divine act, establishing a new relation of man to God, in the Incarnation of the Son of God in Jesus Christ. That is the theme with which his whole epistle opens:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life…declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly, our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1.1,3)
He bears witness to the Incarnation, the coming of God in the flesh: the “word of life,” which “we have heard and seen and handled.” That is the basis of his whole message, and he declares it to be the whole basis of Christian faith: “Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God.” (1 John 4.2-3)
In Jesus Christ, the divine and the human are brought together: we are made partakers of his divinity who emptied himself to share our humanity. In him, we are taken into that relation of the Son the Father which is the very inner life of God himself. This is the relation of the Son to the Father in the unity of the Spirit. “Truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.” The limitations of the purely natural creature are overcome, and in this new relation to God in the Incarnate Lord, we see a destiny of unimaginable glory:
Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.
It is this liberation from the shackles of our nature, this opening up for us of an eternal destiny in the life of God himself - not just in fantasy, but in the fact of the Incarnation - it is this which underlies the awestruck gratitude of St. John. “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us that we should be called the sons of God.” It is a destiny which is to be fulfilled in likeness to God himself: “we shall be like him.”
And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.” St. John goes on to draw out the implications of our divine Sonship in Christ: “Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him neither known him. . . he that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning.”
Now, these seem to be very hard and uncompromising words, and so they are; but what precisely do they mean? We commonly think of sin in terms of sins, in terms of vices of one kind and another. But St. John here is not thinking of vices. He is thinking of the very root of sin in us: the denial of the divine destiny which is ours in Christ. “Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God; and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.” (1 John 4.3)
“Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law, for sin is the transgression of the law.” Sin expresses itself in sins, in particular vices contrary to the law of God. It shows itself outwardly in that way. “Let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous.” That is how sin is defined and recognized. But if you look at sin just on that level, as transgression of the law, it seems so often such a very trivial matter, and the law appears as a narrow-minded kill-joy, an arbitrary limitation of our freedom.
But sin is so much deeper than that. Fundamentally, sin is the spirit of antichrist, the denial of our eternal life as sons of God. It is the denial of that vision and hope.
“Every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself even as he is pure.” “Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not.” Fundamentally, sin is a turning away from the vision and hope of glory. It is a kind of diabolical despair, which destroys the very basis of spiritual life. “Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not”; that is to say, so long as we hold on to the vision and hope of our calling as sons and daughters, so long as our love is focused in that end, our life is a purification. It is an increasing clarity of vision and simplicity of love: “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
The whole message of the Epistle is beautifully summed up in the Collect for today:
O God, whose blessed Son was manifested that he might destroy the works of the devil, and make us the sons of God, and heirs of eternal life: Grant us, we beseech thee, that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves, even as he is pure; that, when he shall appear again with power and great glory, we may be made like unto him in his eternal and glorious kingdom…
Father Ed Bakker
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne