Child/ren of God in the Cult of the Individual

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April 20, 2015 by jmw

In the name of the God who is community – Creator, Christ and Companion. Amen. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and we are,” (1 John 3:1). I want to focus on this one verse from John’s letter and I want to do that for a couple of reasons. First, it is the kind of verse that we might be tempted to pass over quickly because it sounds to sweet and simple. But when we read passed things quickly it is often because we think we know what it means, which usually means that we simply fit what we read into the assumptions or presuppositions that we bring to the text. So I want to sit with this verse a bit more intentionally because I think that what John is saying goes deeper than what we might read on the surface. The second reason for focusing on this one verse is that I think that it has significant implications for a community like The Jeremiah Community. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and we are.” “You are a child of God.” I’m sure you’ve probably heard that before. And you’ve probably thought that about yourself. But here’s a thought that maybe you haven’t considered before: it’s a heresy! Perhaps heresy is a bit too strong, but humor me for moment. What I mean is that this idea of a singular child of God slightly misses the mark. It may surprise you to know that this idea of a singular child of God is actually nowhere to be found in the New Testament. I did a pretty exhaustive search and the only place we find the singular word “child” in reference to relationship to God is in Galatians 4 when Paul is making a comparison between a slave and an heir – and even then Paul says in Galatians 4:6 “And because you (plural) are children (plural), God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” Nowhere in the New Testament do we come across the phrase “child of God” in reference to the early Christians. But, on the contrary, we do come across countless occasions of the phrase “children of God,” just like we have heard in this reading from 1 John chapter three: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and we are.” This may seem like a small and insignificant detail, but I’m not so sure. I can so easily imagine someone saying, “I am a child of God” or “You are a child of God” or even “Every person is a child of God.” But I have a harder time imagining someone speaking collectively and saying, “We are children of God.” Do you see the difference? The difference may be subtle but I think it matters. After all, we think in language, which shapes the way we inhabit the world. It therefore matters what we say about God, what we say about love, what we say about ourselves and one another. This is, I believe, precisely what John was doing when he wrote these words: he was offering a way to understand God’s love in relation to who we are. And I think that what John says here challenges the cultural assumptions in both his day and in ours. [I think John challenges what could rightly be called a Gnostic impulse in our view of God’s love.] Ours is a very interesting time. It is a time when the inherent value of each individual human being is held in high regard (and rightfully so). Perhaps more than any society in history we champion the human and civil rights of individuals. It is within this society that the phrase “child of God” resonates so well because it fits into the dominant paradigm of individualism. Therefore, when it comes to thinking about God’s love, we are so well trained to think of it in terms of the individual. But not only this, we also live in an interesting time when our belief in the inherent value of each individual has somehow become confused with the idea that each individual is automatically a good person. In his last book before his death in 2013 philosopher Dallas Willard observed, “We today live in a curious period when almost no one is willing to discuss the question of how one becomes a truly good person. There is now a widespread tendency in [our] culture to think that everyone is already good.” Indeed, this is an interesting anthropological cocktail we Western societies are drinking. Our highest societal value is the individual; and individuals are valued because they are good. And so we may hear John’s words when he says, “See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God,” but we are well conditioned to interpret those words as though John was simply affirming the inherent value and goodness of each individual human being. We are tempted to think that John is simply affirming what we already know about ourselves. We are enticed to think that this “children of God” language is just another way of saying what all good social progressives already know: every person is of infinite worth and therefore a child of God. And don’t get me wrong: I don’t think this is a bad thing per se. In so many ways it is a good thing. The point I wish to make here is that it isn’t what John is saying his letter. John is up to something very different. And I think what John is up to actually challenges our cultural assumptions and pushes us toward a deeper understanding of what it means to be human together. So what is John is actually saying? What John is saying is that God’s love makes us children of God. It’s like what Martin Luther once said: “Sinners are not loved because they are beautiful, they are beautiful because they are loved.” God’s love precedes our identity as children of God. This is because God’s love is what invites each of us into the proper state of existence as children of God. Practically speaking, it means that being children of God is not something inherent to each of us as individuals but rather something that we become when the love of God creates community. This is what I’m getting at when I say it’s heretical to say that every person is a child of God. You’re not a child of God until you’re part of the community of God. And if you’re part of the community of God, then you’re not a single child anymore. There is no such thing as a child of God; there are only children of God. There is no such thing as an individual Christian. As Lenonardo Boff put it, “We never simply live, we always live together.” This is the truth revealed in the love of God that invites individuals out of the pseudo-reality of pseudo-community and into true reality of community rooted in the love of God. Sometimes we need to be reminded, as one Orthodox priest has put it, that “Christianity entered history as a new social order… From the very beginning Christianity was not primarily a ‘doctrine’, but … a ‘community’… a New Community, distinct and peculiar … to which members were called and recruited … Christians felt themselves to be closely knit together… in a unity which radically transcended all human boundaries – of race, of culture, of social rank, and indeed the whole dimension of ‘this world.’” (G. Florovsky, Another City, 21-22) This is what John’s whole letter is about (I would encourage you all to read it; it’s very short). He states at the very outset of the letter that the gospel of Jesus is about fellowship together in the joy of God’s love (see 1:1-4). This is why I think this is such a profound verse for The Jeremiah Community. We have the word “community” in our very name. But what does that mean? In his book on community called The Different Drum psychiatrist M. Scott Peck notes that,

“In our culture of rugged individualism… we bandy around the word community. We apply it to almost any collection of individuals – a town, a church, a synagogue, a fraternal organization, an apartment complex, a professional association – regardless of how poorly those individuals communicate with each other. It is a false use of the word. If we are going to use the word meaningfully we must restrict it to a group of individuals who have learned how to communicate honestly with each other, whose relationships go deeper than their masks of composure, and who have developed some significant commitments to ‘rejoice together, mourn together,’ and to ‘ delight in each other. But what, then, does such a rare group look like? How does it function? What is a true definition of community?”

In many ways those are our questions as well. This is why I think this little verse is so significant for The Jeremiah Community. John is actually offering us wisdom about how to live in community. John’s wisdom is that our community is rooted in nothing more and nothing less than the love of God. It is the same love of the same God that has invited us into this community. We are not held together by agreeing on doctine, thinking the same, or liking the same things; we’re held together by the Love that holds us all. We must never forget this. If we try to build community around anything else we will fail. But how can we keep from forgetting this wisdom? How can we inhabit this wisdom as a way of life together? Allow me to suggest three ways. First: prayer. John reminds us that community is made possible by the love of God, and that love is given not taken. The way that we remain open to God’s love is through a rhythm of prayer. Prayer is a posture of openness and gratitude that enables us to receive the mystery of divine love. Secondly, by reminding one another. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has written, the goal of Christian community is to “meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.” (Life Together, 23) We must remind one another of the love of God holds us together. Is this not what John himself was doing in this letter? He was writing to his beloved community to remind them that their fellowship was rooted in nothing else but the love of God revealed in Jesus. Lastly, we remember this foundation of community in the Eucharist. When we gather for Eucharist every Sunday we are acting out the foundational Event of Christian community. We come together because God invites us: God calls us each out of that pseudo-community of individualism and gives us our true identity as children in the family of God. As we gather around the Lord’s table today, may we experience John’s words: “See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God.” But not only this; may we also know those additional three words that John added – perhaps for this very moment when we gather together around the table: “and we are.” Amen.


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