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Spittin’ Image

April 23, 2012

“Spittin’ Image” 1 John 2:29-3:10 © 4.22.12 Easter 3B by Tom Cheatham @ First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

“Spittin’ image.” That’s one of those odd phrases whose origin is a little fuzzy. I vote for the theory that says it’s a slurring and corruption of “spirit and image,” referring to the resemblance between a man and his son. For example, my late uncle Cary, my dad’s half-brother, was the “spittin’ image” of their father. If you put a photo of Oscar Cheatham, Sr. next to that of Cary, you would have been hard pressed to tell the difference. They had the same hook nose, the same pointed chin.

But besides such physical resemblance, there is another kind of likeness between children and their parents. It’s behavior that mimics a parent’s actions and speech. Common phrases are: “You are your father’s son.” “My mother, myself.” “A chip off the old block.” “Like father, like son; like mother, like daughter.” “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” So parents have to be careful that what they say and do provides a positive example for their daughters and sons.

The text for the morning is also about family likenesses. The question with which the author and his church struggled is still an important one: how do you recognize the children of God? Someone can claim divine parentage, but there is no DNA test to confirm or dispute such an assertion. In the Elder’s day, was his church right in their denial of familial status to that split-off group down the road? Or despite their contentiousness and their different viewpoint, were those people brothers and sisters of Jesus? Are the people whose sacred writings, practices and/or doctrines differ radically from ours part of the family of God? Or the folks who say they are spiritual but not religious, who like Jesus but not the Church? The members of certain hate groups claim to be Christians and might even have the word “church” in their names. Are they God’s children, beyond the broad sense in which we are all God’s creatures? Or let’s ask a more pointed question: are we God’s children, siblings of Jesus?

How do we tell? How do we know? The Elder offers some clues, some answers, intended to help the members of his community, both when they looked in the mirror and when they encountered others who claimed to be believers. What he says can be summed up in one sentence: you can tell who the parent is by the way the child acts. The writer is blunt: “everyone who does what is right is born of him” and “everyone who does what is righteous is righteous, just as he is righteous.” The children of God act like God, whom the Elder sees as loving, caring, and just, not angry, vindictive, and destructive. “Like father, like son; like mother, like daughter.” They have his Spirit, reflect his image. “Spittin’ image.”

Maybe such a test sounds like an obvious one, the kind of answer to which we today respond: “duh!” But we must remember than in the ancient world, religion did not necessarily have anything to do with ethics or behavior. The business of the priest and the worshipper was simply to say the right formula and offer the proper sacrifice. Philosophers were the people who spoke about morality and proper action. Many in the Elder’s church would have come in with such expectations. What was obvious to a Jew, whose religion was strongly ethical, was news to a Gentile, whose religion had to with burning incense and bowing to statues of Caesar or Zeus, not with the way one conducted business or treated one’s spouse.

The author’s opponents were claiming that what you did with your life, how you acted, how you related to others, could neither confirm nor deny your claim to divine parentage. To be a child of God was a purely spiritual matter. It was about right thinking or superior knowledge. These folks eventually came to be called “Gnostics,” from the Greek word “to know.” The Gnostics, then, were know-it-alls. Their ancestors were some of the Elder’s opponents. They said that it wasn’t behavior, but one’s level of thinking that showed whether one was saved or not. If you were one of the initiates into how the universe really worked and where you really came from, you would be saved from this corrupt material world. Those with superior knowledge were God’s children. Such ideas are still around, even thriving, and we still call them “Gnostic.” The sage was right: “there’s nothing new under the sun.”

Against those who discount action in favor of so-called spirituality, the author insists that it does matter what we do. One of our preliminary principles of Presbyterian church government puts it well and agrees with the text. We affirm “[t]hat truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ And that no opinion can be either more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what [one’s] opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it” (F-3.0104).

Our behavior is the best indicator of our parentage. The more we grow in faith, the more we become like the One whose children we are, the more we are molded into the spittin’ image of God.

But assuming we do want to follow in the Father’s footsteps, how do we know what he is like? For the Elder, the Child of God par excellence, the example to all other children, is the firstborn, Jesus Christ. In the Gospel from this tradition, Jesus says: “The Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise” (John 5:19). Typically it is the firstborn daughter or son who carries on family traditions, who feels the burden of keeping the linkage with past and future. If you are a firstborn you know what I mean. So, too, with the family of God. It’s Jesus, our elder brother, who points the way for all of us, his sisters and brothers by baptism. We become more and more like him, and thus, more and more like God.

The author is very specific about the behaviors and the way of being appropriate to those who are growing in grace, bearing more and more resemblance to their divine parent. In the first place, no one who is growing up in the household of God makes a practice of sin. That’s what the Elder means when he says that no one who abides in God sins. Of course, we’re sinners and we sin, but God’s children don’t make a habit of doing wrong. It’s an aberration, a violation of our fundamental identity, to commit sin. It’s not who we are as God’s children to be anything other than reflections of God’s love and justice, grace and generosity. With God’s help, we follow closely in his way, the way of Jesus Christ. We watch what he did; we learn from him. And we imitate his behavior. “What would Jesus do?” is a cliché, but it really is a very good measure of faithful action. The Elder is clear: whatever they may claim about themselves, those whose life is a tissue of lies do not belong to God, but to the forces arrayed against the one who gave us birth. Those who delight in doing wrong, who are forever planning their next act of abuse or exploitation, who have no regard for their neighbors, who abuse power, all who do and think such things, they do not have claim to be called God’s children.

So God’s children imitate Jesus. But there is also something else true of them. Because they follow a different set of values, they are likely to be rejected by the world. That was what happened to Jesus. Can the other members of his household expect to be treated any differently? Certainly the Johannine community was struggling with its relationship with the culture. They had become a kind of enclave of righteousness in a corrupt world. Or at least that’s how they saw themselves.

Historically, being at odds with the culture has not a common experience for Presbyterians. Remember, we were once a “mainline” church, which meant we were influential in the society, right in the mainstream of its religious life. We sought and found engagement with the world so that our influence and affluence could transform it for Christ. We rejected sectarian isolation, so we pretty much looked, acted, dressed, and talked like everyone else. No one could look at us walking down the street and know without a doubt we were Presbyterians the way someone could an Amish man or woman or an Orthodox Jew.

But perhaps the Elder would simply remind us that the process works both ways and carries with it risks. We can also be transformed by the world, shaped in its mold. There’s proof that what he says is true. Studies have shown that the much-lamented losses the Presbyterian Church (USA) has experienced over the past several decades are due not so much to members joining conservative churches, despite the oft-repeated claim that they have. In 2009, the latest year for which I have figures, there were 3,000,000 out there who still claimed to be Presbyterian but are not on any roll. Many of these folk are still people of faith; they left the church—any church—in order to be true to Jesus. Others got hurt, and they want no part of the community of faith that so betrayed and wounded them. But many others from what I have heard are now thoroughly secular people.

And even sometimes those who are still in the church are pretty secular, not much different from the world around us. In my ministry over these 34 plus years, I have seen people in congregations and presbyteries scheming, politicking, forming alliances, and using dirty tactics to get what they want. Money, power, and community influence counted for more than faithfulness and compassion, as people were elected elders or respected in the church on the basis of who they were in the town, not because of their devotion to Jesus. The Elder challenges us with a question: is our life together a demonstration of what God intends for all humanity, is it distinctive in its justice, goodness, and generosity? Or are have we become so immersed in the culture that we can no longer recognize how far astray we’ve gone?

So we recognize the children of God by their imitation of Jesus and by their different values and loyalties. But finally, those who are the children of God live with hope. We don’t despair even when we can’t seem to get our act together, even when the pull of the dark side is strong. We don’t give up, even when as singer Jackson Browne once put it, we walk those “lawless avenues” more than we walk in the way of Christ. We keep on hoping. For as the old cliché has it: “God is not finished with me yet.” There is more to come, more than eye has seen or ear heard, more than we can yet imagine. Right now, we are God’s children—surely a marvelous gift, a privileged status. But there is more, so much more. We don’t know quite what we are to become. But we know this: the goal of our lives will be fulfilled—to be like Jesus.

And sisters and brothers, that is why we live the way we do, why we do what is right, why we shun lawlessness, why we love and receive love. Because we hope in God. Because we know that he is doing something in our lives for which we will be eternally grateful, something we cannot do for ourselves. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” What an incredible promise. What an empowering hope. What a blessed privilege.

Thanks be to God!


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