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Purity or Distraction

By Jared Warner

Willow Creek Friends Church

November 1, 2020

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1 John 3:1–3 (ESV)

1 See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. 3 And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

The past few weeks, we have looked at several of the discussions between Jesus and the religious leaders near the end of his ministry. I think these discussions are deeply moving, and extremely relevant in our culture today. There are many layers in the answers that Jesus gives, because there is more going on beneath the surface of the discussions. The first thing we really need to consider is who is involved in the discussions. Too often we demonize the Pharisees because in the gospels we see them facing off against Jesus, and we tend to forget that there were good Pharisees. One of the deepest and most meaningful conversations in the gospels is between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus. It is in this conversation that the most recognized verse of scripture is found. We see Nicodemus in a more positive light. These others come across as accusers, testers, or even demonic. They are quite literally antichrist.

These men were not necessarily evil men. They were righteous, devout, and scholarly. These were the teachers and encouragers. They were the sources and distributors of wisdom. Within every established organization there will be individuals that fill the role of the Pharisee because these are the people that preserve the heritage and the policies of that organization. Pharisees see themselves as the defenders of faith and truth.

What is the battle they are called to defend? This is where I have found myself over the past few months. They were devoted to their cause, they argued their points, and they stood up against their opponent. I find this honorable. I have great respect for those that are willing to stand up for what they believe in, to the point that they are willing to die for their cause. A few years ago, I read Jessamyn West’s The Friendly Persuasion. This book follows a Quaker family through their lives highlighting several humorous and challenging events. The wife in this family, is a recorded minister in the Friends Meeting, and her husband supports and encourages her in this. But they are a young family and have progressive ideas when considered against the elders within their meeting.

If people know the history of Friends in America there was a period called Quietism. This era of our history was often very legalistic. The elders within the meeting in many ways controlled the meeting. For example, people did not wed without first gaining the permission of the elders and if you were to wed without the approval you could be removed or written out of the Meeting. It sounds bad but these elders were generally good people, and it was not uncommon for the elders to come visit families to ask queries. They would come visiting to ensure that you were living out the faith and they would provide encouragement as well. In one of these visits the family in the story had just purchased an organ. At this time, music was not something Friends saw as a worthy pursuit, and because the wife was a minister they put the organ in their attic so that the presence of a musical instrument would not cause a Friend to stumble. One day the elders came to visit. The family along with the elders enter waiting worship and during this the husband heard the children walking in the attic he became nervous. And he could hear that they were getting close to the organ. He did not want the elders to think poorly of his wife or his family, so he began to pray verbally. And the kids began to play the instrument, so the husband would pray all the louder and more fervently. Eventually the kids were coxed away from the organ and the husband could stop praying, and the elders rose and said they did not realize how spiritual he was until he prayed, because they could hear the music of heaven while he prayed.

That is a funny part within the book, but their lives were filled with struggle as well. The story took place around the Civil War, and like most men their sons struggled with their religious faith and their citizenship of our nation. When war broke out the sons had to decide if they would be conscientious objectors or participate in the battle. There was one conversation that struck me in this interaction, the son was passionate, and he told his father that he was willing to die for his faith. Because in their understanding the war was being fought to abolish slavery. And the father said to him, “I am glad you are willing to die for you faith that is honorable, but are you willing to kill for it?”

This story has stuck with me and as I considered the conversations that Jesus had with the Pharisees I began to wonder about my life. I am willing to die for my faith and I know that the Pharisees are right there too. But the thing is that the Pharisees were not only willing to die, but they were willing to kill for their faith. When we think about our faith today, I wonder are the things we are arguing about with each other so important that we would kill those that oppose our faith.

I mention the story by Ms. West because she is a quaker author and she wrote about one of those times in our Friends history where changes were occurring. The world was dramatically changing as well. It was the beginning of the industrial revolution. And it highlighted the struggles that the younger generation had in living their faith in their daily life and speaking to their acceptance of change to those that often saw the change as being opposed to the true faith.

How do we live our faith? That has been a focus of Friends for most of our history. We do not have rites or sacraments that can be uses to demonstrate our devotion to God, only how we live. There is a danger of becoming like the Pharisees in this sort of expression of faith because our actions must reflect that. I both love and struggle with this. I love it because it is so free yet there are times where I fail.

Today we read 1 John. The letters John wrote are wonderful. I made mention that I tend to focus on the gospels while I preach and I approach the letters the apostles wrote with some hesitation. I love the epistles, but often the things they write are bound in cultural context that we must study more deeply to fully understand what is being said. When we do not take that time, we might develop a systematic expression of faith that could potentially be skewed from the truth that Christ may have intended. This could happen because some of the words in the letters are situational advice given for a certain time and place and not universal. But John is a bit different. John is the disciple Jesus loved.

Imagine that statement. Imagine writing that statement about yourself, and not having people dispute it. Imagine writing that statement about yourself and people agreeing with it for centuries. John was a bold individual if you ask me. He was one of the sons of thunder so bold is pretty much his family name, but he was bold and loved by Jesus. If only we could be so bold.

John lived an amazing life. He was probably the youngest disciple, and he was also the oldest meaning he was the only one to die of natural causes. If tradition is correct it was not because persecutors were not trying because John was imprisoned, exiled, and attempts were made on his life, yet he persisted. Probably because he was so bold. He devoted his entire life to following Jesus.

According to tradition John eventually took a step back from active pastoral ministry and became an encourager to the younger generation. He took a step back and allowed them to rise to the challenge, to participate in the adventure with Christ, and he became their mentor.

 In John’s letters he reminds those that claim Christ to remember Jesus. Remember how Jesus lived, remember how Jesus died and to remember the hope Jesus provides. He reminds them to abide in Him. I love this word abide. It means to remain in a place, to tarry, to stay in the house, to stay overnight, to dwell. It means to stay alive, to stand against opposition, to hold out, and to not to waver or flee. It can also mean to remain undisturbed.

This word abide is something I feel our culture needs to focus on today. This concept is what the entire society of Friends is built upon. Remain with Christ, unwavering and undisturbed through the craziness of this world. Abide with him. And John goes on to say that those that abide with Christ will be more than servants, but we will be his friends if we keep his commandments. Friends because we will know what he is doing. Servants just act according to directions, friends abide. Friends have conversations, and friends willingly participate.

John encourages us to abide, and not to shrink from him in shame. He reminds us of God’s great love. It was John who first wrote “For God so loved the world that he sent his son, not to condemn the world, but to save it.” God loves the world. He loves his creation to such a great degree that he came to redeem the world to himself after we rejected him. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us,” John says, “that we should be called children of God; and so we are.”

This is a powerful concept. For those that have turned to Christ, for those that abide in Christ, we are not merely redeemed or saved from our own destruction, but we are adopted. We have been accepted into a family not because of the things we have done, but because Jesus has brought us. Have we ever really thought about this?  We were like stray cats running around the neighborhood, and Jesus put out a dish of food. We ate that food, and we began to hang around, until one day we were no longer a stray cat, but we had a family. This is what Jesus has done for us. He brought us in. A stray cat’s life is short, but a cat that has a family is a cat that survives for years. The wages of sin is death, but Jesus removes that wage from us and allows us to abide. See what kind of love the Father has given to us, he has brought us in and has made us a part of his family.

The world does not understand this. God still loves every other person in this world, just as my little sister loved every cat, but it is only the cats that abide that become the pet. It is the pet that knows the love that the family has for them. The world looks at Christ as a threat, maybe as something that will cause them harm. They see the care as a potential trick, or as bondage. They do not understand the security and liberty within the family of God.

And we do not fully understand either. Have you ever tried to pet a stray cat? You might get close but if you get too close you might meet claws and teeth. It takes time to domesticate a cat. It can sometimes take months or years. But over the course of time something changes, we become accepted, and we find a place within that family or community. We might have different rolls within, some cats chase mice while others might be a companion. No matter what we are still accepted. This is why John says that what we will be has not yet appeared. We do not fully know today what we will be tomorrow. When I was a student in high school, the idea that I would be a pastor was no where on the horizon. It was literally the last thing I wanted to do. I did not like speaking, so speaking in front of people regularly was totally out. But as I remained with Christ, this became the thing I was drawn too. I was drawn not because of a desire for power or influence, but because I love God. I love God because of the grace that He has had for me. I know what it feels like to be forgiven. I know what it feels like to be restore, redeemed, and given a new opportunity.

God made me his child through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, his son. God made me his child and as I abide with him, I have become aware of aspects of myself that I did not know before. I am a child of God and through that relationship I have found or have been shown where I fit in a larger community. And this is what I am called to be.

There is still struggle. I am a leader within a religious organization. I love the Friends church. For me this is the greatest and most pure expression of faith because we take seriously the idea to love the lord with all that we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves. I want to participate in keeping the religious expression of Friends going so that the next generation can experience the life that I have had. This can be a struggle, because at times I can think and live in the manner of Friends, instead of abiding in Christ. I can then become like a Pharisee. I can take on the role of defender and protector of the faith without see where God is at that moment. I can be distracted by my own ideas of God and be disconnected from him. When this happens, we displace God from his rightful place, and we attempt to fill that role ourselves. We begin to think that we or I have done this myself.

We look at the world around us, we look at the things the younger generations are doing, we look, and we may not understand what is going on. It may appear to be odd to us, but the question we need to ask is are they abiding in Christ? At times we as devout followers of Christ may get distracted and forget what it was like early in our faith. We forget how odd we were to the previous generations. We forget that we once struggled and eventually became acceptable because we were abiding in Christ. John encourages us to seek purity, which is to seek righteousness, or devote our lives first to Christ. If we do this, we allow God to direct us. We allow the Spirit to lead.

The question the father asked the son in Ms. West’s book remains. It is honorable to die for our faith, but are the things we see disagreements about something we should kill for? It is an extreme thought. A concept I doubt we have fully examined. The Pharisees were willing to kill Christ to preserve their religion, and they became the villain of scripture. Jesus commands us to love God with all our heart, with all our body, and with all our mind. And to love our neighbor as ourselves. Let us today focus on that.

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