On Mother’s Day we had the joy of welcoming a little girl into the life of our congregation through the sacrament of baptism! It seemed a particularly fitting day for this young family to entrust their child into the care of the Church. On the second Sunday in May we pause to honor the gifts of mothers. Their gifts have been more brightly illumined in the past 15 months in this age we call COVID! Moms have learned to homeschool their children while keeping up with their paying jobs. They’ve cooked countless meals in quarantine and reminded their children repeatedly of the tasks that come with independent learning. The house has been in a constant state of invasion with very few residents interested in keeping it clean! So this little girl, baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ, reminded us of why we moms happily set about the many tasks that come with parenting our children! We serve simply because we love them!
This tiny girl, wearing a beautiful white dress, was at a very sweet age. The sleep deprivation of the earliest months had passed and she hadn’t yet started to say, “No!” She knew that her parents are in charge and already learned that she needs to follow their lead. She trusts them completely and rests well in the safety of the home they have fashioned for her. In some ways, these toddler years are easier than when children begin their journey into adulthood and try out their wings. What is both exhilarating and terrifying as parents is the age that our children begin to drive, go to college and define themselves apart from us. When we are no longer the enforcers of helpful rules, who will be? What authority will they recognize and obey?
In John’s first letter that he wrote to fellow believers, he challenged them to name the God they chose to obey. To choose a god is to be ready to obey that god. So which one is it? Whose rules are you ready to follow? What or who will be the driving force behind all your choices? Obedience describes the nature of our faith. It is a gift because who we choose to serve narrows our options. But obedience to any outside force also becomes our greatest struggle. By age two we’ve learned to stick our chin out and answer, “No” to our parents. Keep that image in mind when you consider how willing you are to accept the sovereignty of anyone or anything over your life! We are a stubborn people and we cry out from an early age, “Me do it!” Fortunately for us, when we choose to follow the intrusive God, who interrupts our labors, we discover that we are loved. That love makes it much easier to obey!
To choose a god is to be ready to worship that deity. John used repetitious language to remind us that God the Father and Jesus the Son are one. Tom Wright gives his own translation of these verses: “Everyone who believes that the Messiah is Jesus has been fathered by God. Everyone who loves the parent loves the child as well.” So what do we learn about God when we look at the Son? Most notably that God is willing to sacrifice on our behalf. Like any loving parent, we would give up our life to save that of our child without a second thought. We hear in these words that God loves us unconditionally, not because we’ve completed a particular list of holy tasks. Most other gods punish disobedient subjects who can never measure up to their standards. The gods of many religions exercise their power by vanquishing their enemies. We worship the God of Jesus Christ because our God’s show-of-force is by dying for the sake of all others. This is the God we choose to worship.
John went on to say that anyone who has the Son has life. He laid a foundation for the earliest believers to claim that their lives hinged on their faith in Jesus as the Son of God. This is the new life into which the little girl was baptized on Mother’s Day. Maybe we need to look at our own experiences of faith to understand what that means. Remember when someone exclaimed to you, as you awaited the birth of your first child, “Kids will change your life!” We nodded knowingly. After all, we’d read lots of books that prepared us for baby. We had a custom-designed nursery filled with diapers, pacifiers, and toys. We’d watched other parents raise their kids and had carefully critiqued their flaws, knowing we would do better. We knew, without a doubt, that we were ready for this child! And then they were born. After just a few months of parenting, we found ourselves saying to other expectant couples, “Kids will change your life!” Depending on the day, we stated it with a glowing smile or a sigh of exhaustion! What does that new life look like when we have taken a child under our wing and into our home? Can we truly describe that?
In 1966, in response to the Civil Rights Movement, Peter Scholtes wrote the words to the familiar hymn, “We are one in the Spirit.” It took him a matter of hours to put the lyrics to music because the God he worshiped inspired him. Do you remember the words to that song? “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord…and we pray that all unity will one day be restored. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love…” This composer lived in the world that the Apostle John described. In the first three verses of the fifth chapter, John dropped the word “love” five times! Love enables us to obey God. Love for God will catapult us into the world to be of holy service to those around us. What does this new life look like that comes from our baptism? We have a deep understanding that we are loved. We work alongside of our neighbors to better our communities. We worship the God we choose to obey.
John went on to say that everything that comes from God conquers the world. I don’t typically look at my day in terms of what I have conquered! I remember feeling like I had conquered the laundry as a working mother of four children when the pile changed from “dirty” to “clean.” When I’m able to throw away the post-it notes that are stuck all over my desk top because I’ve completed the tasks, I feel as if I’ve conquered my to-do list. But what does it mean that the God I choose to worship has conquered all of creation? In John’s Gospel (16:33) Jesus used this same language with His anxious disciples: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But cheer up! I have conquered the world!” How do we work alongside of Christ to conquer the world? Do we do it for ourselves or for others? John urged us to look at the world in which we live with the eyes of an outsider. What fits well under the umbrella of God’s love? What choices can we make that either reflect this powerful, loving God or eclipse our view? What language do we use when talking with others? Is it sacred or filled with profanity? What do we feel in our heart toward the driver who just cut in front of us to shave a few seconds off their commute? What words do we have for a neighbor who lets their dog dig up our flowers and whose kids jump dangerously on our trampoline? What does it look like to conquer the world just as the One we choose to worship has done for us?
John wrote this letter in an effort to bring his straying congregation safely back into the fold of faith. He challenged them to recognize the contradictions in their way of life that claimed obedience to the God of Jesus Christ but, in fact, made gods of money, power, prestige, or (even more innocently) family? The gauge by which we measure our discipleship is how we love others. Do we treat folks like family even when conflict arises? Or do we shake the dust off our feet and close ourselves off from them for good? By what actions would outsiders know that you are a Christian—yesterday, last month, or last year? How have we been compassionate toward complete strangers during this pandemic that has tested and tried all of us?
John asks this congregation to decide which God they choose to worship and obey. Those who are welcomed into the Christian faith through the waters of baptism are assured that love is their birthright. Through the sacrificial blood of Jesus, we are made one. We are “blood relatives.” By the work of the Holy Spirit we are unified and empowered for service. This God invites us to choose whom we will worship. This God asks us if we are willing to be obedient to a new way of life. This God of Jesus Christ has conquered the temptations of the world for us and reaches out in boundless love to claim us as family! Hallelujah!