Are you ever haunted by the question, “Who am I?” It is a human question, and it is a question of practical theology. Who are we, really? As Christians we make a lot of claims for our faith – for the effectiveness of God’s salvation – for the qualitative difference that occurs in our lives once we say “yes” to Jesus. We often talk and sing and pray as though we know exactly who we are, who we are called to be, and who God through infinite grace has made us to be.
But then there are those painful, lonely, anxious times when in our heart of hearts – in our most honest moments – we wonder how much of all this is true. Once we move beyond the language and the vocabulary of our faith and focus on what is within us, how much of what we claim is based on reality? Is there any qualitative difference between those who profess a faith in Christ and those who do not? In the schools, in the workplace, in our homes, in our dealings with others, is there enough difference to affirm in practical terms the claims of our faith? And more personally, when I look in the mirror or when the silent questioning of the night forces me to honest evaluation, do I know who I am? Do I know who I am in reference to God, to my past, present and future, and to the overall scheme of my life?
Sometimes we are tempted to pessimism if not downright despair when we ask these questions. We look at ourselves and we wonder what kind of lie we are telling to others, to God, and to ourselves. I wonder sometimes whether some of the lack of committed discipleship we see in the church today is not related to this pessimism and despair. It’s not that some people don’t care; it’s that they see no use in even trying anymore because deep down they are shattered by the truth about themselves. Now why am I so sure this is the experience of most of us? 1) It has been my own experience, and I do not believe I am that different from other Christians. 2) In the forty-three years of my teaching and pastoring I have had students and parishioners share these same questions and doubts with me once they feel safe in removing their masks and baring their souls.
Our passage speaks pastorally, encouragingly, and boldly to this problem. John gently reminds us that we so often make two errors in determining our identities. First, we are prone to answer who we are now (in the present) with no awareness of who God has said we are in Christ. John says, “Love has been bestowed upon us.” Grammatically, the verb used is a perfect – the tense which indicates a given fact, a state of completion. John never tires of telling us that we are loved by God–that we were given that love not because we deserved it, not because we earned it, and not because we’re just as cute as buttons and puppy dogs in the eyes of heaven. We were given that love because God is love. It is our Maker’s nature to embrace us and give us our identities–not because of who we are but because of who God is. So John says, not once but twice in these three verses, “we are now, at this very moment, whether we feel like it or not, children of God.”
Now that can be very hard for us to accept. We think we must do something or be something for God to love us. We are forever in our theology trying to put the cart before the horse, and when we do, of course we go nowhere and are doomed to feelings of failure and defeat. The gospel is that God has loved us and that we are God’s children – not sometime off in the future when we’ve earned that privilege, but right now we are sons and daughters of God. Why? Because God says so and has sealed that identity with the life of Christ. And nothing can ever change that love which is so freely and universally given. The most liberating part of the Gospel is the discovery that our identity foundationally and ultimately does not depend on who we are, but on who God is.
The second error we make in answering the question of who we are is overlooking the future – a future shaped by the will and goals of God. Most of the time when we seek to determine our identities, we look to the past and the present (and even there, as we have seen, we can have distorted vision.) We rarely look to the future because it has not yet occurred. We don’t know the particulars and events of the future. Neither does the New Testament, but it does know the goals and purposes of God for humanity. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus make that clear. In Jesus we see not only what God intended us to be; we also see what we shall be by divine grace.
For John, Jesus is the model and example of what we shall become. For those who forget that God is ambitious for us, such a claim sounds blasphemous. Certainly if someone today should say, “I’m just like Jesus,” we would be offended. But the truth of the gospel is that, because of God’s commitment to us – because of God’s tenacity in pursuing noble goals for creation – because of a love that will not let us go and that inspires and accomplishes our redemption, every one of us will at some point be like Jesus. And so we cannot truly answer the question of who we are without including this future dimension because God creates us as much from the future, pulling us to that goal, as God does from the past and present. Such an awareness should color how we look at one another and how we look at ourselves. I remember reading about a British teacher who bowed to his prepubescent students at the beginning of every class. He said he did so because he did not know who any of his pupils might become and what they may accomplish in life.
NOT YET…….UNFINISHED………IN PROCESS is stamped across the life of each child of God today. Jesus comes in sacrificial love to say that we can trust God to finish weaving our lives, however broken and incomplete, into a pattern of wholeness and beauty. We are invited to come and be nourished by the transforming grace of God, the Author and Finisher of our faith. If we trust this God who makes all things new, we will regard all people, including ourselves, with patience, hope, and expectation.
Now some people may hear all this and raise some legitimate questions. Does all this just automatically happen? Will we be like Jesus whether we want to be or not? Does God do it all so that nothing is required of us? John is aware of our part in the drama of redemption. He speaks of placing our hope in Jesus and of the purifying process that goes on one step at a time until we reach our goal. And he points out that this purifying process does involve our response. But that is all another sermon. And in truth, the emphasis of this passage is not on what we do, but on what God does.
So, who are we? We are God’s children right now, whether we feel like it or not. And we will each in our own way become like Jesus. We are in process, and because we can trust God to achieve heaven’s goals for us, this future reality helps define who we are right now.
So let us claim our identities. And when the evidence or circumstances or set-backs of life would move us to despair, let us take courage and hope in the gospel truth that ultimately our identities depend more on who God is in committed love than who we are in our faltering faithfulness. And that, my friends, is Good News – the Best News ever! Amen.