Saturday, January 4, 2020

Year A, Christmas 2, Ephesians 1:3-14, John 1:1-18, Children of God

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
I believe that there is an ongoing argument between God and the whole of humanity,
An argument that has continued since humanity first became conscious of God till the present day.
This argument has shaped the very scripture that we read and has formed our common faith, sometimes in good ways, often in bad ways.
At the core of the argument is a simple question:
                “Who are the children of God?”
Or to put the question in a different way:
                “When God sent Jesus into our world, when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, who did God intend on saving?”
From a theological perspective, it all comes down to the starting point.
Where do we begin when we answer that question about “Who are the children of God?”
                If we begin with Creation, we will come up with one answer.
                If we begin with Redemption, and our baptisms, we will come up with another answer.

Do we call God “Father” because he created us?
Or do we call God “Father” because we were adopted?  That is, out of all of humanity God chose a few to be adopted, and through our adoption as children of God we have been granted an inheritance in the Kingdom.
How inclusive is God’s love?
How exclusive is God’s grace?
This is not just a theoretical question.  I’ve had to preach at the funerals for a number of unbaptized infants – are they children of God, loved and redeemed by him – or not?  What do you say to their grieving parents?
One response to these questions is to rush to the statement “The Bible says” and then quote one verse or another.
To which I say, “Not so fast, the Bible is shaped by this question, and if we read the entirety of scripture it is clear that within the Bible, this question is consistently answered in a variety of ways.”
It’s not as clear as we would like it to be.
In the earliest scriptural passages, God was Israel’s God.
Israelites were the chosen people of God, and the rest of the world, the gentiles, were not.
God would fight on behalf of the Israel against all her enemies.
The Israelites alone, were the children of God.
It was their birthright.
So much so, that throughout the history of Israel, conversion was simply not part of the conversation.
You either were Gentiles – or Jews.
There was never any missionary movement within Judaism.  And to this day you will not see Jews going door to door in an attempt to convert the world to Judaism.  It just doesn’t happen.
One of the most interesting books of the Old Testament from this perspective is the book of Jonah.

When we think of the book of Jonah, we think of the large fish that swallowed Jonah, and often miss the whole point of that book.
The story begins with God calling Jonah to go and proclaim a message of warning to the city of Ninevah, Israel’s arch enemy.  Jonah refuses to prophesy to the Ninevites, and tries to flee from the presence of God, in Israel, heading in the opposite direction.  That’s when God steps in, brings on the storm, causes Jonah to be thrown overboard, recues him with the whale, and brings him back to Israel, where once again the call is issued for Jonah to go to Ninevah.
So Jonah goes.
When he gets there, his message is simple.
In forty days God is going to destroy you.
And then Jonah sits down to wait.  He wants only one thing, and that is to see the fire from heaven destroy his enemies, the Ninevites, one and all.
Only the Ninevites repent.
And God shows mercy.
And then Jonah is angry and wants to die.
Jonah says: “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
God says:  “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"
How inclusive is God’s love?
How exclusive is God’s grace?
Is God’s grace limited to the faithful few, the chosen ones?  That’s what Jonah wanted.
Or does God love all, even the Ninevites, Israel’s enemies, because they too are created by him and for him?
As Christians we too continue to struggle with this question.
One the one hand you have scriptural passages such as Matthew 22: 14 where it is written “many are called, but few are chosen.”
And then on the other hand you have passages such as Romans 3: 22-24 “For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,”
And the promise that is so near and dear to us from the end of chapter 8 that nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God.

John 3:16 sums up this question perfectly.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
How inclusive is God’s love?
                “God loves the whole world.”
How exclusive is God’s grace?
                “Everyone who believes in him”
In today’s Gospel lesson this same tension is present between the inclusiveness of God’s love and the exclusiveness of God’s grace.
1:3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being

1:4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
And then again in 1:16 “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
There is an incredible inclusiveness to that one little word “ALL”.
All things came into being through Christ.
We have ALL received, grace upon grace.
But then the exclusivity is there as well:
1:12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,
I have wrestled with this question throughout my life.
On the one hand you have passages such as our reading from Ephesians where Paul writes: “ He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.”
It’s hard not to hear in that the exclusive statement that “He destined US for adoption”, but not “THEM” whoever the “THEM” might be.
Often we cling to this exclusivity of God’s grace.
One of my parishioners once said “If God plans on saving everyone, what is the point of Christianity?”
But just when we get convinced that God’s love and grace are for the chosen few we hear the other side to the story,
“With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

The longer I struggle with these questions the more I am convinced that the inclusivity of God’s love and the lavish generosity of God’s grace will win the day.
I wish I could tell you that there is one scripture passage that answers this question conclusively for all time, but I cannot.
What I do know is this:
As a human Father I have four children.  And there is no way that I could love one more than the other.  And never, never, would I choose to condemn one, while embracing the other.

We all understand that.
Love is like that.
Even in all of our human imperfection we know at the very depth of our being that a parent’s love for their children is absolute, and does not depend on a child’s behaving in a certain way. 
I believe that God’s love and grace will be even more inclusive than a parent’s love for their children.
I believe that we will be surprised at the depth of God’s love, and the breadth of his grace.
I have become convinced that the love of God, shown to us at Christmas, as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, is in fact a love that embraces the whole world.
And I believe that it is God’s utmost desire to save and redeem the entirety of his creation.  Not just a part.

I think part of the reason I want to believe this is that if God only plans on redeeming a select few, I am tormented by the question if I am one of them.  Finally, the question gets very personal.
It’s not so much about whether God loves the world, or if God’s grace is sufficient to cover all –
                It’s about whether God loves me, and whether I can rest assured of his grace?
And the answer to that is “Yes”.  That is the bottom line.
Wondering if God loves the whole world is one thing.  But at the heart of the question is whether we can believe that God loves us.
And the answer to that question is simple.
It was for you, that God sent his Son,
It was for you that he was born,
It was for you that he died.

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