Before we begin, I need to admit that I struggled with this passage. Usually, I love John’s first letter, it’s always a beautiful reminder of who we are. But typical of John, he also slaps me upside the head…even if in the gentlest of ways, it’s still a slap.
My problem began when I wanted to write about sin, but actually had trouble doing it. And I didn’t know why. I have lived with sin my entire life. I have been pretty intimate with it. I could tell you stories that would illustrate my affair with sin, but it might come off as bragging…and thus another sin. Anyway, we all sin. We all have stories and many of us have the scars to prove it.
I think where I fell short is when I tried to answer the question I wanted to ask you all, “What is sin?” But that question lead to another, “Why does God allow sin in the first place?” And then that lead to a million more questions. Each time I would come up empty. It wasn’t until I gave up trying to chase that rabbit that it dawned on me. Perhaps I am empty, because Jesus emptied himself on the cross to wipe out my sin, our sin.
Not sins as in the plural sense, but sin in the singular; ‘the sin,’ or all sin. As we continue to celebrate the Easter season we continue to feed our Easter joy by remembering the cross and resurrection. On the cross, Christ shed his blood for the forgiveness of sin. His sacrifice was our atonement. His death was so that we could live. His resurrection defeated death, and thus defeated sin.
In remembering this, the question shifted slightly to this one: “How do we live without sinning?”
If we are born into sin then how do we live up to the righteousness of Jesus Christ who, as John writes, “was revealed to take away sin?” This is a two-sided question, with a two-sided answer. We live and therefore we sin. And we sin because we live. It seems like no matter how we toss this coin, we are guilty.
What kind of crazy God would do this to his creation? A God of grace. Our life is a grace-filled life, thanks be to God. And God alone. And so the coin really is sin on one side, and grace on the other. Like the coin itself, the two sides cannot be separated. They are bound to each other. We are born into sin but receive grace. You cannot separate one from the other.
Paul Tillich writes, “We do not have a knowledge of sin unless we experience the unity of life, which is grace…Grace is the reunion of life with life.” Grace is powerful and transformative. Tillich adds, “There is something triumphant in the word ‘grace:’ in spite of the abounding of sin, grace abounds much more.”
And yet, ‘sin’ remains a bad word. But sin is not the issue, is it? The real focus is whether there is more mercy and grace in God, than there is sin in us. And God’s mercy and grace for us, is not born out of our sin but out of God’s love for us.
Now if we were to do a word search in our new pew Bibles, we’d see something very interesting. There are nine different Hebrew words and five different Greek words that are loosely translated to mean ‘sin.’ The majority of these words are not really sin but evil, in that it is contrary to God’s nature. These words are mentioned a total of 418 times.
In contrast, love is translated from 3 words in both the Greek and Hebrew combined, yet love is mentioned 538 times. No matter how you translate it, or how you do the math...love wins. To Tillich’s point, there is more mercy in God than there is sin in us.
So, back to the question: How do we live without sinning? We don’t. Just as we don’t live without God’s grace.
As Barbara Brown Taylor points out, “We spend a lot of time in the Christian church talking about God's love for sinners, but we sure do go to a lot of trouble not to be mistaken for one of them.” Churches sometimes spend too much time, or too little time talking about sin, worrying about sin, or simply sinning. Sin has kept people like me in business for thousands of years. I am indebted to John House who keeps showing up every Sunday.
But when we focus too much on sin, or its effects on us, we tend to overlook the other side of sin, the most important part of it all…God’s grace through Jesus Christ. And how quickly we forget that the Christian church is built among sinners, by sinners and for sinners. We are not a museum of saints any more than the Bible is an ancient history book collecting dust on a shelf. We are more of a hospital for sinners, trying to live by the very living words of Christ.
John’s letter is a reminder, not of our sin but of God’s love. He writes, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.” Our God is a God who takes only one stance with us: We are His beloved children. I cannot recall any other god in human history that loves sinners.
Our Father, who art in heaven, may his name forever be holy because through Jesus Christ, he has made us his beloved children. No matter what we have done or what we have left undone. By his mercy and grace alone, we are loved. And what’s more, we are His beloved sons and daughters. There is no safer place to be than in the family of God, and there is no other way to enter this family than through Christ the Son,… Christ our brother.
Christ gives us freedom to live life in God’s home, with God’s name. No longer orphans, but somebodies. We have names, and God calls us by our name. No matter who we are, God welcomes us home with joy and grace. Any one who has ever invited difficult guests into their home will know that it is one thing to tolerate them...but to actually welcome them into your life,...as part of your family?
What sort of love could this be? Who is sufficient for these things? God. He loves us as we are. Because of his love, we do not need to seek forgiveness as much as live in the forgiveness that has already been given to us through Christ Jesus. Christ restores us back to God. This is the Good News we hold on to beyond the joy of Easter.
We must never forget that we cannot do for ourselves what God has already done for us. Does this mean we live without sinning? No. It just means we live now and forever through Christ Jesus who takes away the sin of the world. Does this mean that Christ stood for sinning? No. But Christ did stand for sinners and with sinners, and He loved them. Christ also sat with sinners and He fed them. Christ died for sinners and saints alike. To live in the righteousness of Christ, means we too are called to live and walk among sinners, praise and worship God with sinners, make sacrifices and even give up our life for sinners.
Jesus did not separate himself from us, but instead united us to God’s love and grace. We too are called to do the same. Our faith in Christ has freed us from sin. And empowered us with the Spirit to live in unity with God and God's beloved children in both our earthly and heavenly home.
For the beloved sinners like you and me, the fuel of such divine love is a profound realization of what’s truly important...witnessed in the words of the slave owner turned pastor, the great Congregationalist, John Newton said, “that I am a great sinner, but that Jesus Christ is a great Savior.” Brothers and sisters, beloved children of God I am a great sinner, but Jesus' redeeming love and sacrifice is much greater. All praise be to God. Amen.