Scripture: 1 John 2:28-3:3
In human history we accomplished so much. We invented and mastered agriculture which has enabled us to thrive, we continue to make breakthroughs in combating illnesses, we put people on the moon, and someday we will likely put people on other planets. It seems that with enough time, cooperation, and resources we can accomplish just about anything. It is just about, because there are some goals that still lay outside of our reach. In fact, we have yet to accomplish humanity’s oldest quest: The quest for immortality. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest known examples of human literature, and it tells of Gilgamesh’s failed quest for immortality. Qin Shi Huang, first Emperor of the Qin Dynasty in China, died in 221 BCE when he consumed a lethal dose of mercury that was part of a potion that promised immortality. He was the first of several Chinese emperor’s to suffer that fate. Spanish Conquistador Ponce De Leon expedition that led him to be the first European to set foot on Florida happened because he was looking for the land of Bimini and its rumored fountain of youth. The search for immortality is not just found in Eastern mysticism and ancient legends. Many people tried a scientific approach. The father of modern physics, Sir Isaac Newton, devoted a lot of time alchemy which he hoped would yield the “elixir of life.” There is a lot of evidence that Newton suffered from mercury poisoning as a result of these experiments. Even today, there are people who seek to find ways to extend their life through the unproven science of cryogenics and freezing their remains until they can be revived. It seems for as long as there has been human civilization, people have tried to find a way to live forever. I am sure that people will continue on this quest, which is honestly a waste of resources.
One of the fundamental believes that we hold as followers of Jesus is that the death has lost its victory, the grave has lost its sting. We believe that even though we die, we live. We hold that that there will be a day where there is no more crying, no more suffering, and no more death. There will be a time when we enter a world without end. In the United Methodist funeral liturgy it states “blessed are those who die in the Lord” and the reason for this is that in Christ we may be clothed with glory.” This morning’s scripture is a reminder that as Christians we do not have to fear death because we can celebrate life. It is a reminder that while we may look forward to glory with expectation, here and now we are already children of God.
Outside of Revelation, the epistles of John are the most recent books included in the New Testament. 1 John was likely written somewhere in the late 80s or early 90s of the first century, this was close to sixty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. At this point some Christian churches were entering their second generation, and the faith was still spreading. John, who is typically regarded to have been the youngest apostle, is now an old man. He wrote this letter as a circular letter that was meant to be passed around multiple churches. In a lot of ways 1 John reads like a kind grandfather giving wisdom to his grandchildren. The fact that 1 John tends to address the audience as “dear children” really helps drive this image home. Given that, I find the choice of words in this scripture to be particularly interesting.
It has been my observation that the older a person gets the more they tend to focus on the past. Yet John, who is in his 80’s and possibly his 90’s here is not focused on the past. It would not surprise me if he faced that temptation, he might have thought of writing this entire letter as a “back in my day” diatribe. That is not found here though. The tense is never looking backward. Everything in this scripture is based in the present or the future. In fact, this section of scripture has a great balance of what is and what is to come. For instance, it urges us in the present to continue in Jesus and it reminds us that now we are presently children of God. Yet this scripture also reminds us that Christ is coming back and when that day comes “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is”
This scripture hints to the complex realities of our faith. We remember and celebrate a past event- the death and resurrection of Christ. Yet, we live out the reality of that grace in our everyday present. Then, at the same time we look expectantly to a future reality where that grace is fully realized in a world without end. To be a Christian means we hold the past, live the present, and claim the future simultaneously. This makes sense I suppose, since we worship an eternal God and serve a risen savior who was, who is, and who is yet to come. As we struggle with what it means to live out our faith in the present we can make the mistake of over emphasizing the past or over emphasizing the future.
Starting at a very early time in Christian history, we put a great emphasis on tradition. It is long been important to followers of Christ to remember and honor the past. However, we can get a bit carried away with this. Our faith experience can become all about what we have done. We can get stuck in a rut where we endlessly look back on the faith victories of the path. When you get someone stuck in this place to open up and talk about their faith they relay stories of when they met Jesus years or even decades ago. When we dwell on the past we fail to carry out the urging of this morning’s scripture to “continue in him so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.”
Unfortunately, I have heard colleagues in ministry tell stories of entire congregations who fell into this trap. These churches become museums built to themselves, where all of the artifacts are preciously preserved and marked with memorial plaques. At the same time these churches do not even remember the last time they had a baptism in their sanctuary, and their stories of serving the community are from a different generation. We absolutely can claim, honor, and celebrate the past. However, our faith story, both as individuals and congregations, need to also be based in what we are currently doing to make disciples and transform the world.
On the opposite side it is possible to get carried away with emphasizing the future. We absolutely believe that there is a day when Jesus will come back, when he will judge the living and the dead, and that God’s heavenly kingdom will be established over a new heaven and a new earth forever and ever. However, if wishing that day would come sooner than later becomes the most important aspect of our faith, then things are a bit out of balance. We need to be cautious of Christian escapism. This is where instead of engaging a broken, fallen, and scary world we look instead to the future when Jesus comes back. The major focus of our life should not be waiting for that day that Jesus comes back or calls us home, because we would rather escape this world then love it. Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to make disciples of all the nations. If our focus is on escaping to a more prefect future then we cannot continue in Christ, because we are not following his commands. This means that when we arrive in that future world without end we will be unable to approach the throne with confidence or unashamed because we would have failed to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Instead of living in the past or always gazing to the future may we instead remember the past, anticipate the future, and live in the present. As Christians we claim eternal life. That is not a future reality, we can and should celebrate the new life found in Christ now. One day, like the precious saints we remember today, we will one day be clothed in glory. However, friends we are clothed in Christ now so may we continue in him so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him in his coming. This means we love and serve others with the same love and compassion that Jesus has already shown us. Because of Jesus, we are now God’s children. That is what we are; so may we earnestly act like it. May we do what is right, and may we seek to live as Jesus, to be pure as he is pure.
In just a few moments were are going to celebrate the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again. Jesus is Lord of the past, the present, and the future. In the same way our celebration of life is all encompassing. There has been a tradition for a while now to refer to Christian funerals as a “celebration of life.” I think that is a fitting title, because for those who are in Christ we do not just celebrate a life well lived, we celebrate a life that is to be lived eternal. We celebrate that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, a communion of saints, which has gone before us. We celebrate that, here and now, Christ is with us and we can live life to the full by long God and loving neighbor. We celebrate because “we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” So brothers and sisters in Christ, may today indeed be a holy celebration.