Listen to Sarah’s Message: Children of Love or read the text of her sermon below.
Lesson of the Day: 1 John 3: 1-3
See what love Abba God has lavished on us
in letting us be called God’s children!
Yet that in fact is what we are.
The reason the world does not recognize us
is that it never recognized God.
My dear friends,
now we are God’s children,
but it has not been revealed
what we are to become in the future.
We know that when it comes to light
we will be like God,
for we will see God
as God really is.
All who keep this hope keep themselves pure,
just as Christ is pure.
So, I want to tell you about an old theological idea that used to be the dominant view, but that we’ve pretty much forgotten about. There are two fancy words for it: theosis, and divinization. They mean the same thing. You can choose whichever you like more. Theosis or divinization. Here’s the idea in a nutshell: God became human, that humans might become God. Or, in the classic formulation, “God became man, that man might become God.” God became human, that humans might become God.
Growing up Baptist and then Presbyterian, I never heard of that. I learned something more along the lines of, God became human to fix all the stuff we horribly screwed up and to try to make us marginally tolerable to God. There was certainly no talk of us becoming like God. I never heard about this in seminary, and I’m pretty sure if I’d talked about such an idea on an ordination exam I would have flunked. A lot of modern Christianity is pretty invested in the idea that we’re hopelessly broken, guilty, depraved, and God became human just to fix this big mess we made, and the most we can hope for is to be sort of barely tolerated by God.
But for the vast majority of Christian history, and around most of the world, theosis has been a central theological concept. It stretches all the way back to a guy named Athanasius who’s the father of the Nicene creed. He pretty much defined what orthodoxy is. He lived in the 300s, and he pretty much defined mainstream Christianity. He articulated a lot of the orthodoxy for the early church, and he believed this idea that God became human, that humans might become God. We aren’t just sort of barely tolerated by God in spite of all the horrible inclinations we have deep in our hearts.
No. We are children of the divine, holy and beloved, and our true nature is to return to that divine source, to grow up into the image of Christ. To be bearers of love, beacons of healing and forgiveness, to embody God as Christ did, that’s our true nature. That’s the idea of theosis. The primary task in this framework is to wake up to the reality that it is our nature to be like God. Following Jesus is about being set free from all of the obstacles we’re holding on to that keep us from loving. It’s a beautiful idea, isn’t it?
The community that wrote 1 John wouldn’t have had the fancy word, but they’re working on the same idea. We are children of God, and we are becoming like God.
Children of God
These three little verses pack such a punch. Let’s work our way through them. First, our primary identity is children of God. We need that reminder! Every week. I’m sure at some point our worship will change, and we’ll have some other refrain we begin with. For now we say it every week because we need the reminder that we’re not defined by how the world sees us.
We have lots of secondary identities. We are friends, and lovers, and spouses, and parents, and offspring. We are men and women and gender fluid. We are gay and straight and lesbian and queer. We are working and retired, and unemployed, and underemployed, and overworked. We are teachers and nurses and project managers and therapists. We are white and black and Native and Japanese and Mexican and mixed and we’d rather not say. We’re renters, and homeowners, and staying with friends. We’re liberal and conservative and independent and socialist. We’re Christians and agnostics and seekers and really not sure. There are endless ways the world defines us. Those are just some of the labels.
There’s also the deeper, more subjective sense of whether the world values us or not. And whether we value ourselves or not.
But underneath it all, steady as a heartbeat, flowing like the river of life is this reality: you are a child of God. Scripture gets at this in a lot of different ways: Out of the dust of the earth, God made people, male and female God made them, and called them very good. In life and in death, we belong to God. I am convinced that nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God. See what love Abba God has lavished on us, calling us children of God, and that is what we are.
Unrecognized by the World
But the world doesn’t recognize that.
When this letter was written, it was written by and for folks on the margins of society. Christians were a tiny minority, viewed with suspicion. At best they were irrelevant and stupid. At worst they were subversive trouble-makers.
In that context this community is reminding each other: you aren’t trash; you aren’t nobody; you aren’t what they say about you; you are somebody. You are a child of God. The world hasn’t woken up to that. But it is true. You are a child of God.
The message is still the same today. “The world” is any voice that would deny or diminish a person’s identity as a child of God. That voice might be the voice of society’s judgment, or the voice of someone you know, or an internal voice. The world is any voice that denies the innate beauty and holiness of each person made in God’s image.
We all have some of those worldly voices within us. But the less we allow ourselves to be defined by those voices, and the more we relax into our identity as children of God, the more free we become to see the divine spark in others as well.
This works really well as a practice. I like it at airports. There’s lots of humanity at an airport, and lots of waiting. So there’s time to look around, say, while you’re waiting barefoot on a filthy floor, holding your socks and belt. Sometimes I have the presence of mind to feel my feet on the floor and think, “Child of God, holy and beloved. And then look and think, “TSA agent: child of God, holy and beloved; father traveling with young children: child of God; business traveler who’s far more efficient than I ever will be: child of God.” Each of us, weary and hopeful, both, child of God.
This practice works in grocery store lines, in traffic, and in the waiting room at Urgent Care, in the ER—anywhere there are other people, especially where frustration runs high, and we are inclined to judge and label and forget who we really are.
In the face of all the identities we carry and that everyone else carries, scripture reminds us, this is first: child of God. Not what the world says, but what God says: child of God.
Becoming like God
This is what we are, and we are becoming even more. 1 John says, It’s not yet revealed what we will be, but we will be like God. There’s that idea we talked about at the beginning: theosis—we are becoming God; divinization—we are meant to be divine. The idea that not only are we children of God, but like a seed growing into a rose, we are growing into something we can scarcely imagine.
It’s not something we accomplish—any more than a seed works really hard to become a rose. It’s just the God-given nature of a seed to grow and bloom. In the same way, becoming more like Christ, becoming more fully in tune with love, this is our God-given nature.
That’s the part that’s so freeing, especially in the face of religion that can be so moralistic. Our tradition reminds us: We are made to be people of love and light. We don’t have be extra good, or work really hard. It’s just who we are; it’s what we’re going to become, no matter what.
If there is a task, it’s to allow it to happen. It’s the old hymn, “Have thine own way, Lord.” If there’s something we’re supposed to do, it’s gradually put up less of a fight about love, slowly release the obstacles we’re holding. Of course, releasing obstacles isn’t always easy.
Thinks about all the things that keep us from genuine love. Fear—that’s a big one, anger, impatience, resentment, pain, scripts we learned in childhood, habits that have become second nature, coping mechanisms that have begun to cripple us. With each one, the invitation is to release it, when we’re ready, as we can, so that we can become who we really are, and lean more fully into love.
I had the opportunity recently to watch kids taking swim lessons. The pool was full of splashing and diving and fun, and over in one corner there were the really little kids, the ones who were being allowed in the pool without their parent for the first time. They were working on back floats. The teacher would take a kid off of the side of the pool, bring them out into the water, and say, put your head on my shoulder, lean back, stretch out your legs. And every child would hunch up, try to sit up, hold themselves up, hold their head up. Because what sense does it make to lay down on water? So patiently the teacher would say, it’s okay. Put your head on my shoulder. Stretch your legs out. And the kid might lower her head a fraction, stretch out one leg.
The teacher would say, Good job. That’s great. You’re doing great. You’re going to be swimming in no time.
That’s what the work of God’s love in our lives is like. It’s like water that miraculously holds us, and there are teachers who encourage us, and our task is to stop working so hard to hold ourselves up, and instead surrender. We lean back, trust, let go of all we’re clenching, and relax into our identity as children of God.
Here’s the good news: We are children of God—we, and everybody else. We are not what the world says about us. We are children of God. And it is in our nature to be like Christ, breathe the Holy Spirit, and be one with God.
And this is not our doing. It’s God’s. It’s the power of love at work within us. Bit by bit, breath by breath, we consent, we relax, we become who we really are and love as we’re intended to love. This is the work, and the promise. You are a child of God, becoming ever more fully a part of God.