Many, many books have been written about the complex nature of the relationship between sons and fathers. As a son – and a father – I can attest that my relationships with my dad, and my two sons, are at the same time a constant source of bemusement and at the heart of who I am myself. Family legend has it that when I was delivered the doctor remarked that he didn’t often see or feel moved to comment on family resemblances, but ‘this one is ridiculously like his father’. I think both dad and I have felt slightly miffed by that remark ever since. I remember as a teenager reading and being slightly horrified by the claim that as sons, we all eventually turn into our fathers – a process that began inexorably in my late 30s when I was amazed to hear myself sounding and acting in ways that reminded me of my dad – even now, people who know dad well often fall about laughing when they first meet me. I guess as a young man the idea that I would eventually turn into my father didn’t seem a very attractive prospect – I wanted to be utterly unique, of course – now that the metamorphosis clearly has gone beyond the point of no return, not only have I become resigned to the idea, but I’ve come to realise that if I was destined to turn into anybody, I could do a lot worse than my dad.
So in the passage we read this morning from the first letter of John, the writer is saying something very similar to that. It’s more or less an argument from genetics, because the first thing to notice is that he doesn’t refer to his community – or to us – just as Christians, as people who have chosen for whatever reason to get on board with this religion and see how far it gets us – but as children of God. Behind it is the idea that Jesus is God’s Son and so as people who are joined to Jesus’ resurrection life we too have become children of God. Which means there’s a connection between who Jesus is and who we need to be. And there’s a connection between what we hope for in faith and what our faith challenges us to be – if our hope is to be transformed into the likeness of Christ at the end of all things when we are gathered home to God, that we will see Jesus as Jesus is and be transformed into who God always intended us to be – then in the here and now the challenge for us is to live consistently, to grow into the likeness of Christ. So our future hope of resurrection generates the need and the challenge for us to be holy in the here and now.
We should really have read a few verses further on – in verse 9 the writer goes even further in using a biological analogy beloved by ancient writers. The idea was that the father’s genes – the father’s seed – lived on in the child and determined who the child would be. Forget mum, of course, for ancient biologists mum was just the incubator, and forget your new-fangled notions of genetic variability. The Elder says in verse 9 that if you’re really a child of God then you can’t sin, because God’s DNA is in you. Yes, there is a bit of a contradiction here with last week’s more realistic observation that we’re kidding ourselves if we believe we don’t sin. But the point he’s making here is about consistency between who we claim to be and how we live. If we claim to belong to Christ then there needs to be some evidence to back that up. Essentially it’s the same claim Jesus himself makes when he says, you know the tree by its fruit.
I guess there’s a passive interpretation of this, and there’s an active interpretation. One of the problems with the ancient world’s way of looking at things is that individual men and women seem to helpless pawns caught in the middle of a power struggle being waged by God and the devil. You’re either a child of God or you’re a child of the devil, and your own conduct shows which you are – when you sin that’s the devil asserting his parental rights over you. It’s a black and white way of looking at things that overlooks our human responsibility for our own actions as well as our human capacity for being hopelessly, gloriously, inconsistent, for believing contradictory things at the same time, for acting in ways that are inconsistent with what we just said or did five minutes ago, but there’s still a valid point. If we say we follow Jesus but act in ways that are judgemental or selfish or unloving, then we’re actually not following Jesus at all. The more active interpretation of all this is that the author is challenging us to make the move from talking about our faith to living it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian executed by the Nazis in World War 2, picks up this idea when he talks scathingly about Christians who settle for ‘cheap grace’ – the sort of grace that doesn’t cost us anything because it’s just a sort of private spirituality, or religious lip-service that doesn’t actually get translated into the taking of risks or the hard option of solidarity with the suffering of men and women in the world around us.
But the letter-writer we call the Elder doesn’t just leave this as a sort of spiritual paternity test, because he goes on to talk about how we grow into the likeness of the one we claim to follow. This is more subtle, and it acknowledges what Paul is also getting at in his letter to the Ephesian church, that as Christians we start out as spiritual infants and have to grow to maturity in Christ. It’s actually good if, as new and enthusiastic Christians, we look ridiculously like the one we call our Father. But that is just the beginning, and the challenge in our spiritual life is to gradually be transformed into the likeness of Christ. And the letter-writer says, using another one of the ancient world’s favourite arguments, that you turn into what you spend your time looking at. That if you consciously have a focus in your life, an ideal image, then you gradually come to resemble what you are looking at. It’s an argument that’s still got some currency today, it’s why for example we make such a fuss when footballers and pop stars behave badly, because they are a formative influence on the kids who look up to them. It’s one of the reasons behind the enduring Anzac tradition, because we project onto the teenagers who fought at Gallipoli the qualities of self-sacrifice and loyalty that we ourselves want to be defined by. The point is not just that we read the stories and marvel at the heroism, but that we see a personal connection between them and us, the DNA of Aussie mateship that’s built in to who we are and informs us of what we might become.
And the letter-writer says, if we are really focused on the example of Jesus then we will not sin. It’s an exaggeration, even in terms of his own argument, but the basic point is good. The more we become conscious of and intentional about the focus of our own lives, the more obvious the contradictions become. When we live in ways that contradict who we say we are, we become conscious of the fact that something has gone wrong. When we find ourselves living competitively or self-protectively, when we find that our life as a community has become infected with gossip and backbiting then we need to recognise that there’s something in our basic spirituality that isn’t working. And so we need to re-focus.
And the author is working up to his main conclusion, which is that it’s about relationship. Christian spirituality is never about sitting on top of a mountain by yourself, it’s always about living in the real world of family and community. You become Christ-like by growing in love for those around you. And you learn to grow in love for those around you by becoming more like Christ. If that sounds circular, don’t worry too much because, as every teenager has worried since the dawn of time, you do inevitably turn into your parents. And that’s because faith is not just belief, not just a matter of turning up to church on Sundays. It’s relational and it’s genetic. Because God’s love, that we see manifest in Jesus, is part of the deep structure of what it means to be human. You are created in God’s image, created to resonate with God’s love and to grow towards it like a flower turns toward the sun. And because in the relationship you have with God, God takes the initiative.
In our Gospel reading the disciples, still in the evening of that first Easter Day, are gathered in bewilderment and understandable fear when the risen Jesus appears in their midst and says, ‘peace be with you’. And he eats with them just as he always has. The meaning is that, just as resurrection life is different from and deeper than what has gone before, so also is it continuous with the life of the community that Jesus has shared. As the community of the risen Christ, we celebrate the reality that as we gather in his name we encounter the presence that gradually, over a lifetime, transforms us into his likeness.