Today we celebrate the life and witness of William Temple, great theologian of the Church of England, courageous advocate for social justice, and Archbishop of Canterbury, a revered voice of hope for Britain in the darkest days of World War Two.
I wonder what Archbishop Temple would make of the times we are living through now? He would surely say he’d seen worse, but I doubt he would discount the challenges we face as a species, a nation, a church, and as families and individuals struggling to handle the threats and tragedies of COVID, economic and political uncertainty, unrest on the streets and isolation in our homes. This diocesan convention, both gathered and distanced in cyberspace, is itself a reminder that these are not normal days.
I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t acknowledge that this is also a complicated time for me as your bishop. As you all know, I am in the early days of recovery from addiction. I am also returning to you only to retire at the end of the month. So I meet these coming weeks as an occasion both for reconnection and for closure, and I feel drawn to reflect on the path we have walked together over the past thirteen years. What strikes me most about this path is that it is not of our own making. We enter onto it just as followers of Jesus have done since the day the Gospel was first proclaimed. And inevitably in doing so we open ourselves to change.
Today’s passage from John (1:12) puts it succinctly: “To those who received Jesus and put their faith in him God gave power to become children of God”. Our journey begins when we receive Jesus into our lives and surrender ourselves to him in trust. That is what it means to enter onto the Christian path, the zigzag trail that has been forged by Jesus’ leading and our following. As we follow, we become God’s children.
I’d like to spend some time on what John is saying here, because I think it casts light on the journey we have all been on, and I invite you to notice if anything in what John is saying about becoming children of God touches on your own experience and the experience of the congregations you represent.
So let’s start with the obvious question. Quite apart from John, what does it mean to be children of God? We all have a general sense of this, I think. Most of would say that to be a child of God is to possess an innate dignity, and if pressed further we would say that this dignity has its source in the fact that we are loved by God. I know this is what I have in mind when I mutter “child of God” under my breath at the person who has cut in front of me on a two-lane road only to begin driving really slowly. Rather than cursing him or her, I am trying to remind myself that this pesontoo is someone for whom Christ died.
And this brings us to what is perhaps the most important implication of the term “child of God.” If we play this idea out, being a child of God is not so much about us as it is about who God is and how God relates to us. God is like a parent who cares fiercely for her offspring, often at great cost. God loves us as we would like our earthly parents to love us, that is, with a love that persists despite whatever disappointments or tragedies we inflict on them. When we praise God for his boundless mercy and his righteous judgment, we are identifying God as the archetypal parent, forgiving us over and over when we do wrong, defending our cause when it is we who have been wronged by others. So perhaps to become children of God is to become a people shaped more and more by the knowledge that we have nothing to fear from God, because God will never revoke his special love for us.
But of course there is a potential problem with this line of thought, since, as we all know, it is much too easy to assume that our special relationship with God as God’s children is a privileged one. After all, is everyone a child of God, or is it just us? This morning’s passage from John is obviously addressing the church as the community which has received Jesus and believed in him. What about those who have not received Jesus or have not believed in his name? Is God their parent too?
This is a fair question, and one that is a real source of anxiety for many Christians, as perhaps it is for you. Many of us are Episcopalians because our tradition encourages us to view everyone as a child of God without exception. So what do we do with the undeniable tension in John’s Gospel between Jesus’ little flock and a largely hostile world? It would be easy to conclude that John does view salvation as something reserved for a chosen few. There have certainly been voices within the church that have taught this very thing.
But such a reading of John doesn’t stand up under scrutiny. Later on in John, Jesus declares that when he is lifted up — that is, lifted up on the cross — he will draw all people to himself. Not some, but all. We can argue fruitlessly about whether individuals and groups can resist being attracted to the sacrificial love of God. The point is that from God’s side no amount of resistance or disbelief can place someone beyond the bounds of God’s love.
That means everyone is a child of God! But this may still leave us wondering whether John is claiming something specific about us Christians when he says we have been given power to become children of God.
Here’s what I think. John is clear that every human being is a child of God, beloved of God without exception. But he is also insisting that our life with Jesus takes our own experience of being beloved to a new level — a level so explosive and life-changing that it gives being a child of God a whole new meaning.
The key word here is power. We are given power to become children of God. This isn’t power in the sense of coercive force, but power as ability or capacity. John is saying that God has given the followers of Jesus the capacity to do or be something that we could not do or be on our own. What is this power? John’s answer is found in the meditation on divine love we know as the First Letter of John.
That letter provided one of the readings for All Saints Day last Sunday, so you may recall what John says there: “See what love the father has given us, that we [that is, the church] should be called children of God; and that is what we are …. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when God is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”
Now we could spend all day unpacking this, but the gist is this. God is love (as John says a few verses later), and the more we take that in, the more we are re-formed in the likeness of that love. That likeness is the ability, the capacity, the power which we are given as we follow Jesus deeper and deeper into the astounding and unsettling reality of that love which lies at the heart of everything. As we grow to understand ourselves as the object of God’s mercy we ourselves become instruments of that mercy. So becoming children of God in this special sense is not a denial of God’s parental care for every human being, but a confirmation of it.
This brings us back to our initial reflection on the path we have walked together as a diocese. As I said then, we enter onto that path when we receive Jesus into our lives and surrender our wills to him in trust. Paradoxically, this act of surrender, in which we acknowledge own dependence on God, issues in our empowerment to do God’s will. In Christ, our weakness becomes the power of love, even for those whom we would otherwise reject.
But this is not quite yet the end of the story. The tradition of Christian moral reflection has a lot to say about power, and in the context of these reflections what it has to say is this. The possession of appropriate power always brings with it an obligation. We cannot be expected to do things if we don’t have the means to perform them, but if we do have the means to do good things, it becomes our duty to carry them out to the best of our ability. Our entry onto the pilgrim way begins in faith, but it ends in service. We become empowered children, so that in Christ’s name we may regard everyone as a child of God and serve each person accordingly.
Surely this is why we bother to gather in convention, however virtually. Not merely to reconstitute ourselves as a religious body, but to own God’s mercy in our own lives, and so to become ourselves a people of mercy.
This can mean many things, but here are a few which, I dare say have captured the imagination of this diocese along the way:
First, mercy means humbly following Jesus into the neighborhood, and assessing the extent to which we are actually in relationship with the households, the schools, the businesses, the police and the service agencies that surround us. If we find that these relationships have worn thin, it is time to risk reaching out to our neighbors and to learn from them.
Mercy also means being repairers of the breach, honestly facing how we have contributed to social systems that dismiss the reality of racism, grinding poverty and cultural blindness. This is not just about black and white. In the regions we serve as a diocese it is also about Appalachia, about our rust belt cities, and about the vanished Native American populations after which so many of our towns and counties are named. How do we join forces with the whole Episcopal Church to repair our corner of God’s world?
Finally, mercy means not giving up on respectful and loving conversation about seemingly irresolvable issues like abortion and women’s rights — issues that cut right through the middle of this church’s heart. We avoid these and other difficult conversations — and I include myself in this — because we are afraid that we won’t be able to have them without tearing each other apart.
But it’s been clear to me from the moment I knew you that you possess the hunger and the courage to take these external and internal challenges on. Now is a time to stoke up that hunger and to exercise that courage once again. In the Episcopal Church — for good or ill — the comings and goings of bishops provide occasions for collective self-assessment and renewal. Each of us, myself included, is invited in what Martin Luther King Jr. called the fierce urgency of now to enter onto the path of Jesus once again, letting our hearts be broken open by the mercy of our crucified and risen Lord and surrendering our wills to his. Then and only then will we find within ourselves as John go on to say, “the power to become children of God, born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). May it be so.