11/5/17: Prepared By Hope, 1 John 3:1-3
Prepared By Hope
First Lesson: Revelation 7:9-17
Second Lesson: 1 John 3:1-3
Rev. Scott Dickison
Like each of the books of the Bible, 1 John was written for a certain age and addresses a specific community of faith, but apparently this group of ancient Christians were asking the same questions we do about how the gospel speaks to our deepest human questions: Who am I? What’s the purpose of my life? And perhaps most of all, What’s to become of me when I die?
And sensing, I think, the anxiety about these questions and mysteries, the writer of 1 John—called the elder in other letters—responds, and does so in a way that’s refreshingly modest. First, he reminds his congregation of what they already know: You are beloved children of God, created with beauty and purpose—remember this, first of all. And then he’s honest about what we do not, and perhaps cannot, know, which is what our future will be with any detail—As for what’s to come, this has not been revealed, he tells them. No need to connect dots in Scripture and hang on this verse or that verse—the details of what will come are a mystery.
But then he brings these two together and assures them, and us, that whatever is to come of us, it will be rooted in who we are now, which is beloved children of God. Whatever is to come, whoever we will be in death will spring from who we are in life.
In the end, this is the great promise of our faith: that life and death are somehow bound together. And I think it’s true in at least two ways. The first has to do not with death but with dying—and there is a difference that we don’t often respect. Christian faith has a good deal to say about death, what happens when we die. Some of it helpful and rooted in Scripture, some of it less so. But the church has not always spoken well about dying, about how we should walk that final leg of our journey. In this we’ve mostly followed culture and treated it with silence. Some of the finest wisdom I’ve heard about these things came from a hospital chaplain when I was a seminary student doing my best to navigate a summer as a hospital chaplain and coming face to face with death and dying for the first time. He told me, We die how the live. In other words, a person will meet death in the same way she lived her life. So a person who’s been kind and generous in her life will meet death with the same kindness and generosity. But on the other hand, a person who’s been small and fearful in life will meet her death with the same. Some, he admitted, may find strength enough to change who they are in this time of necessity—what another chaplain called “cramming for finals!”—but most of us will fall back even more into the rhythms we’ve kept to this point. Who we are in death is rooted from who we are in life.
But this is true on a deeper level and has to do with who we are after we die. The great hope of our faith is not simply that life and death are bound together, but that who we are in this life reflects something of who we will be in the world to come. If we understand ourselves to be beloved children of God now, we will be beloved children of God then, and so we need not fear. It’s a hope we see modeled in Jesus. Just as he remained God’s beloved in death, so too will we. Just as was raised to live and love again, so too shall we and all those whom we love but see no longer. And it’s through this hope that the elder tells us we are purified, just as Christ was pure.
This is word “pure” needs some unpacking. The word translated here as “pure” and “purify,” agnos in Greek, is not found often in Scripture and refers to a kind of ritual purification, like what one would do in ancient times before entering the Temple or before engaging in some other holy action or event—fasting or time spent in prayer, even ritual bathing. This “purification” is a way of preparing oneself physically, mentally and spiritually to encounter the holy. Or better yet, to make oneself ready to receive God. In other words, the elder tells us the purifying hope that death is not the end is a hope that prepares. Just as Christ was prepared by a deep and abiding knowledge of who he was—or better yet, whose he was, God’s beloved Son—we too are prepared through this knowledge. We are God’s children, now; and so no matter what’s to come, we need not fear.
In her beautiful book, Gilead, which won her the Pulitzer Prize back in 2005, Marilynne Robinson tells the story of John Ames—an aging pastor of a small church in rural Iowa in the 1950s. The book is written in the form of an ongoing series of letters from Rev. Ames to his young son, whom he fears will not remember him. It’s revealed early on that Ames has recently learned he is dying, and in coming to terms with this coming death, he begins to write his young son. And in these letters he tells his son the story of his life, and especially his family—all the different characters that fill up their family tree, or any family tree.
He tells him about his eccentric great-grandfather who lost an eye in the Civil War, and when he glared at his grandchildren from his good eye, Ames said it felt as if he had “poked” you with a stick. And then there was his own father, who was also a pastor, and whose expectations always felt out of reach. He confesses to the boy that to that day he felt he was a disappointment. He tells his son, whose name is never revealed, of all his times of doubt and of faith, of regret and failure, but also of amazing grace—such as meeting the boy’s mother when he was advanced in age, and the gift of having a son so late in his life after he had given up on that dream.
The power in this story lies in Ames’ knowledge that by the world’s standards, he has very little to give his son. He has no amount of money of note, he’s always lived in the church parsonage, so has no property to leave, and he will not live long enough to see him through those difficult teenage years and into adulthood. But what he does have is the story of his life and his family, which he hopes to convince the boy is his story, too. He wants his son to know, even after he’s gone, whose child he is, to understand something about the grace that’s passed down through generations of family, and to find some hope in that. At the very end of the book, after Ames has revealed as much as he can about his life and has shown us, the reader, the power of knowing who you are, he leaves his son with these words:
Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave.
In an interview, Marilynne Robinson explained that by “prevenient courage” she means that for a Christian person, “courage is not triggered spontaneously by the moment. It’s in fact something that, if you believe in God, will pre-exist the circumstance in which courage is required.” For a Christian person, she says, there’s a “strength available” that has the power to take us through and beyond any pain or difficulty that life can bring—even the pain of death. And like this gift from an aging father to his young son, it’s found in knowing who you are: a beloved child of God.
There is a strength available.
Do you believe this? I do.
I do because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in many of you, and you have too. Those of you who, by no choice of your own, ave experienced an ordeal, a sickness, a loss, and heard people say to you, “I don’t know how you do it.” And the truth is, neither do you. You don’t know how you do it, in fact “how” doesn’t even seem to be the right question. You just do. You just keep living. You wake up in the morning, you make it through your day, you get in bed, you sleep, you wake up and do it all over again. There is no secret, it isn’t glamorous, you just live. You live in stretches of hours that turn into days and then months and then there comes a time, almost out of the blue when you realize that you’ve made it. You’re on some “other side” that for the longest time seemed as much a fantasy as those first days of your grief. But here you are. It doesn’t seem like much, but some strength had seen you through. The way morning light appears almost out of no where after a long, dark night. I strength was available.
And yet this strength comes in another way. It comes not just from the inside out but also from the outside in. It comes in the form of the people God puts in your life. Family and friends, of course, but also the unexpected people you find, or that find you—or it seems, you find each other. We deceive ourselves if we think we ought to find all the strength we need from within. This strength that is available to us in our time of distress is often to be found in others. Through prayers, through note cards and phone calls. Casseroles and concern and presence. This is where the strength comes from. You’ve seen it. You’ve felt it. And you’ve been it. There is a strength available, yes, it’s found in here, the heart. But it’s also found out here, in the church. And it’s true that anyone can provide a measure of this strength, but when it comes from the church, from within the body of fellow travelers on this pilgrim journey of faith, I believe something more is possible. A special strength is available. A strength that’s rooted in a hope that’s difficult to describe. To those on the outside it may not make much sense. But it’s hope not just in some loose belief things “will get better,” but in the deep conviction that God is with us, even if it doesn’t.
It’s hope that comes from knowing who you are. Knowing you’re part of a particular story, about a particular God, told by a particular people that we call the church. Not just the church of us here assembled today or in this generation, but the church that spans back generations. All the people, all the lives, all the saints that have led us to this moment. It’s hope that comes from the promise that in God’s time we’ll one day join them.
And as often as we remember these things—as often as we remember those who came before and the ties that bind us together across space and time, we remember not simply who we will be, but who we already are. We prepare ourselves to receive God, not just in what will come, but in this very moment. Thanks be to God. Amen.