Scripture Readings: Acts 3:12–19 | Psalm 4 | 1 John 3:1–7 | Luke 24:36b–48
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” 1 John 3:1
The children of God.
This image sounds so lovely; but what does it actually mean? Or rather, how do the Holy Scriptures want us to understand it?
There is a general way we could speak of being God’s children, as a way of affirming the connection all of creation shares with its Creator. In this sense, we’re all God’s children. We all owe our existence to God’s creative initiative, and so in a way we all can feel a sense of belonging to God, and together. In a general sense, this way of talking of being God’s children isn’t wrong… but it’s also not what the author of 1 John is talking about.
For the author of 1 John, being called a child of God is not at all an abstract idea about the nature of all humanity… but rather, it describes a unique relationship with the Living God, in which our connection to Him has been reconciled… reunited… re-created. In other words, we are dealing here with another facet of the New Reality brought about through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God. In our Scriptures readings today, we are again invited to trust that in Christ’s death and resurrection the Living God, Father, Spirit, and Son, is at work re-creating His family… through the gift of forgiveness.
The idea of being God’s children goes way back to the early days of Israel, when the LORD set out to rescue them from oppression in Egypt. Though the LORD had bound Himself to the family of Abraham centuries before, it’s not until God commissions Moses that they’re spoken of as God’s offspring: In Exodus 4:21-22, God sends the reluctant Moses to speak on His behalf and demand that Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, let Israel go. While to Pharaoh they were merely slaves, his own property, the Living God saw things very differently: “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son.” This one group of oppressed slaves was being claimed by the LORD of all the earth. Regardless of how the world saw them, God saw them as His children.
After their rescue from Egypt, the relationship between God and His covenant people grew even deeper, as God began to make known what being in God’s family looks like. In the context of the Laws that set out how Israel was to live, the book of Leviticus sums up the underlying purpose of their whole way of life: “For I am the LORD who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:45. See also Leviticus 19:2, 20:7, and 20:26). They were to be shaped by God’s own life, His character, goodness, and holy love, which was to transform their own private lives, and how they treated each other. As a parent adopts a child, and brings them up to share in their way of life, the LORD had rescued Israel to share His holy life with them… so they could grow to be like Him.
The book of Deuteronomy sheds even more light on the subject, making clear the connection between being God’s children and ongoing faithfulness. In Deuteronomy chapter 7 we hear these words addressed to Israel:
“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and who repays in their own person those who reject him. He does not delay but repays in their own person those who reject him. Therefore, observe diligently the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that I am commanding you today.
(Deuteronomy 7:6-11). And again in chapter 14: “You are children of the LORD your God… you are a people holy to the LORD your God; it is you the LORD has chosen out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” (Deuteronomy 14:1-2).
Though all humanity, and creation ultimately belong to Him, there was something special about the LORD’s connection to this one family. The Living God had rescued Israel, and had adopted them to be His chosen children, and called them to share His life… to become like Him here on earth, shaped by His own holy love, and to be faithful to their Heavenly Father, who had always been faithful to them. As the author of 1 John would state many centuries later, the lives of God’s children were to be marked by His righteousness, completely incompatible with wickedness or sin. Yet the story of Israel, found throughout the Holy Scriptures, right from the start, serves as a sober reminder of how quickly God’s children can turn away; rejecting the One who had come to save them, and share His blessed life with them.
This sad storyline leads us all the way to our reading today from the book of Acts, to St. Peter’s words addressed to his fellow Israelites standing just outside God’s Temple.
The first few chapters of Acts recount how after Easter, the Risen Lord had ascended to the right hand of the Father, in Heaven, and had sent the Holy Spirit of God to indwell, empower, and unite all those who placed their faith in Him, at the feast of Pentecost. This led, as we heard last week, to all the first Christians actually living out the ancient calling to be God’s family: sharing their lives, their resources, and caring for one another in holy love… day by day, drawing others into this new way of life.
One day, St. Peter and St. John were heading to the Temple to worship God, when they came across a man who had been unable to walk ever since he was born. Here they saw someone from their own people, their own family, cut off from the place of deep connection with God and their Jewish neighbours: that is, the Temple. Due to his disability, the man was unable to enter into the Temple, and instead of sharing in the family blessings of God’s people, he had to resort to begging from his neighbours every day.
But if we read Acts chapter 3 we’re told that St. Peter and St. John did something that many of us today have a real hard time with when we come across one of our neighbours who is struggling and in need: “Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’” (Acts 3:4). They refused to look away from his painful situation, and instead, they made an effort to make a connection with him. In short, they treated him like a brother, instead of as a stranger. But then we’re told they did something even more astounding:
“Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms...” (Acts 3:6-10).
Just as Jesus Himself had done so many times before, now the disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit were bringing God’s re-Creation to light… restoring broken bodies, raising up those who were suffering, offering the gift of new life all in Jesus’ name. They were sharing in Christ’s own mission to rescue God’s shattered world… bearing witness to all that Christ has done to bring God’s reconciliation to His unfaithful children, and to all the earth… by giving us forgiveness.
That day, St. Peter and St. John were living out the New Reality of the Resurrection, which we heard from Jesus Himself in our Gospel reading this morning. Luke 24:44-48, “Then [Jesus] said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you— that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
All throughout the story of Israel, God was always at work preparing a way for the ultimate, worldwide rescue mission: that for the sake of all nations, Israel’s Messiah would suffer and die, and then be raised again… kickstarting God’s re-Creation… and then “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem” and from there to the ends of the earth. As witnesses of these things, St. Peter and St. John encountered that man, and invited him to share in God’s New Creation in Jesus’ name, which leads us to the rest of Acts chapter 3 which we heard today… Where these two Apostles point beyond themselves to the power of Israel’s God at work… whom Israel had rejected by crucifying His Son.
Acts 3:13-16, “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.” The miracle of this man having his body completely restored becomes a sign for the full restoration that Israel needed as well. They too were cut off from full fellowship with their faithful God by the same sin and unfaithfulness that had led them to reject Jesus... God’s ‘servant’… or as this word in Greek is also translated God’s “child”. The righteous One who had completely shared in the life and holy love of the LORD, was rejected and crucified by the ones He came to save. By those who were called to be the children of God.
It’s in this moment when the Good News of the Risen Lord breaks through. This moment, when the people’s sin and betrayal is being laid bare, that the Apostles share with them that all has not been lost. That despite their unfaithfulness, God’s goal from the very beginning was to rescue His wayward children, to restore their broken relationship, to fill them with His Holy Spirit, and share His holy love, so that, being forgiven, all the families of the earth might be reconciled to the LORD as well… that all of humanity might be called the children of God, through Christ. Through the forgiveness made possible for all in His precious blood, and in sharing the New Life of His resurrection.
St. Peter goes on in verse 17: “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets” (Acts 3:17-22). Repent… turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out… as we await Christ’s return to bring universal restoration.
Friends, the hope for Israel, for humanity as a whole… for you and I to truly be God’s children has come to us once and for all in Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord: the One at work re-Creating and reconciling us to the Living God… forgiving us, and shaping us with His holy love into the renewed family of God we were always intended to be.
St. Peter himself was a living example of God’s re-Creating forgiveness at work: he had denied Jesus three times, but the Risen Lord had embraced him. We all have our own experiences of failure, and hopefully, of forgiveness too… of having relationships break down, and sometimes having them be remade. Our world today is in desperate need of this kind of re-Creation… of finding a way forward, away from all our brokenness.
The Good News is, in Christ, the Living God has opened up this path for us: the path of forgiveness, and New Life. In Christ we find, that despite all of our failures and unfaithfulness, God longs to draw all of us into His restored family. In Christ not only Israel, but all of humanity are being invited to share in God’s own life of holy love. So may we share in His mission: making God’s forgiveness and New Life known in the name of Jesus, that through our witness, others might come to be called children of God.