I really like the word, “beloved.” I think there is certain purity to the word. Not only that, but there is no denying the intent. If you are beloved, then you are the object of the affection of another. Being beloved is not about your choice; it is about being chosen. And that’s what we are. We are God’s beloved at First Presbyterian Church. Whether you have been here 20 years or just walked in the door, I am here to tell you that you are God’s beloved – right here and right now.
Doesn’t that feel good? Beloved is such a great word. Being Southern, I can even say it with a wide variety of inflections, and it doesn’t change what it means. If anything, it reminds me how important the person I’m describing is to God – no matter what I am feeling at the time. But what does that mean, exactly? Yes, we are chosen by God – but why does 1 John call us beloved?
Most scholars believe that 1 John was written during a time when Jewish communities were trying to distance themselves in the eyes of Rome from followers of the way of Jesus – for political reasons, but also to escape persecution. Likewise, those in John’s community were responding to competing beliefs about Jesus as a Spirit and claims that some had a secret knowledge of God’s presence. Some were saying that the pleasures of the world would trap you, and they moved into seclusion. Some were saying that this world is only temporary, so you can do anything you want.
As I say these things, it occurs to me that not a whole lot has changed. We often separate the humanity and divinity of Jesus, so that his suffering was really more of an inconvenience and his resurrection was like stepping into a phone booth to put on his super hero identity. Believers separate from believers for political correctness or to martial resources to fight for moral superiority. There are those that claim a certain knowledge of God – and more often that is becoming an argument to demonstrate that there is no God.
Meanwhile there are mega churches and even established denominations that try to create secret societies with Christian books, music, movies, and coffee shops. Still others embrace the world shamelessly. You may have heard about the Pastor who had his congregation set up a “gofundme” site for a private Leer jet to support their international ministries. Then there is the congregation in Florida that lost its nonprofit status after hosting a body painting party for college co-eds.
And yet – I believe that they, and we, are all God’s beloved. The author of 1 John was a bit more particular than that. He was referring to his specific community of believers. And from that standpoint, it is only those who act like God’s beloved who are truly beloved by God. So, while I want to hold on to the notion that God’s choice is not determined by ours, I do want to stay true to the meaning of beloved in 1 John. I think that perhaps a better way to say it is that – through the love of God – we have been claimed as unique in all of God’s creation.
We have been claimed, called, and set apart so that God might act in and through us, and we have been given a choice. The choice before us is the same as it was for those who crucified Jesus, and it is a choice that leads to life or to death. Our passage from Acts reminds us that we are fortunate enough to live on the side of history that responds to the resurrection of Jesus. That does not mean that we are without sin. It means that through faith in Christ we are not defined by our sin. We are defined by God’s grace and mercy and by the fact that even in our limited capacity the power of God brings healing and wholeness – sometimes even because of our limitations!
And so we have a choice to make. The choice is between faith in the power of God and in the power of our own hands and hearts and minds. Of course these things come from God, and God expects us to use the gifts we’ve been given. So, how do we know? How do we know when we are like the beggar in the court expecting gifts defined by our limitations? How do we know when we are like the others who whisper over the power of a person we admire? How do we know when we are truly acting on behalf of God to offer healing and wholeness?
It seems to me that it comes down to representation. Peter chided the crowd [my words here], “Do you really think that I can do what only God can do? Did you not know that in your hunger for God you have already rejected God?” Peter gives the credit to God – not like an NFL player after a touchdown, but penitently and humbly. Then he forcefully uses the opportunity as an invitation for others to become penitent and humble.
Penitence and humility and identity seem to be common threads in these passages, and I think that they hold the key to understanding who we are, who we are representing, and how we can see the power of God unleashed. I’ve seen that happen a lot in my life. I bet you have, too – whether you have called it the power of God or not.
One particular memory I have is from a mission trip to the Duval Home for special needs in Florida. I was the Assistant Camp Director that summer, and we took a tour bus full of kids from north Georgia to a mission site in Florida. We arrived in the dark at their guest housing area that took us off the beaten path, and our tour bus got stuck in the sand. We got everyone off the bus, and one of the counselors and I organized the most powerful of prayer circles. We were calling down the power of God upon those spinning tires while groveling, “If it is your will” like good Presbyterians. And then the Camp Director, in her wisdom, said, “Amen. Everyone go to your cabin. Zach, organize the boys and let’s get the food secured. Lights out at 11.”
You see, I thought that God would surely move that bus if we just committed ourselves and asked in the powerful name of Jesus. I don’t know why, because that is not the faith that my forebears taught me. But I guess that’s what we do when we get in tight spots. We let the limitation define us rather than the expectation that God has a different set of priorities.
As the week went on we found that Jesus was really more concerned with knitting us into a community through shared experiences. Jesus was more concerned that we might see disabled people as people with disabilities – not for political correctness, but because they could help us see that we were beloved by God. That is how I saw the power of God unleashed – not through a bus metaphysically unmired, but through the acceptance of those we call unacceptable. And it moved me. It moved me deep inside to repent, to turn in a new direction, and to understand that God’s actions in and through me are not limited to the good I can do or the problems that I let define me.
The thing about the problems we face is that they are still real and still need to be dealt with, and most of them take place in the context of relationships with people we love and respect. That’s why I love the way Psalm 4 says, “When you are disturbed, do not sin.” It reminds me of a story about Abraham Lincoln's secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, who was angered by an army officer who accused him of favoritism. Stanton complained to Lincoln, who suggested that Stanton write the officer a sharp letter. Stanton did, and showed the it to the president. "What are you going to do with it?” Lincoln inquired. Surprised, Stanton replied, "Send it.” Lincoln shook his head. "You don't want to send that letter," he said. "Put it in the stove. That's what I do when I have written a letter while I am angry. It's a good letter and you had a good time writing it and feel better. Now burn it, and write another.” Sin – as Lincoln knew and as we find it in today’s readings – is often related to things that separate us from each other or divide our community.
So, it seems to me that the first faithful response is to recognize what is sinful and what is not, and sin – whether it’s something I do or we do – typically moves us toward separation. The next thing our scriptures call us to do is to repent. It’s not enough to say you’re sorry and keep on doing the things that made you say sorry in the first place. So often we are like the confessor who says, “Forgive me for I know exactly what I am doing.” It doesn’t really work that way.
True repentance creates a change in the way we interact with the world. It results in changed behaviors – not because of guilt but because of love. And when we get to that point – when we have fallen in love with grace and mercy and the opportunity to invite others to experience them – that is when our expectations change from asking God to do something into looking forward to see what God will do next. Through true repentance we find out who we are, and we become open to what we will become.
“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”
We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there. And God is continually knitting us together as a people who bear witness to the power of God to bring healing and wholeness through faith in Jesus Christ – the one whom God raised to show us how powerful repentance and forgiveness can become. You and I are witnesses of these things. And we have some choices to make. May God be glorified in all we say and do, whether we are together or apart. Amen.