How great is the love that the Father has lavished on us!
Rt Revd Debbie Sellin, 1 November 2020
Revelation 7: 9–17; 1 John 3: 1–3; Matthew 5: 1–12
Over recent years, there’s been quite a rise in the interest in family history. I think it’s been helped by TV programmes such as Who do you think you are? where people go on a journey of exploration, trying to learn and understand more about who they actually are. My husband was born in Northern Ireland. He was there partly by chance – his father was working there for about six or seven years and he was born there – but he’s never felt Irish and he’s never really gone back. But at the time of Brexit, and working in a university with lots of European connections, he decided it would be quite convenient to apply for an Irish passport, which he duly received. We had lots of conversations at home about that but, nonetheless, he has applied for his Irish passport and has got it.
Our elder son, who is now 27, was intrigued by this and began researching online what that meant for him. Was he entitled to an Irish passport? And he discovered he was. What’s thrown him is that, since birth, from an Irish perspective, he has been seen as an Irish citizen, but he didn’t realise and has never really thought about and has never acknowledged. And it’s been incredible to see what impact that has had on him. Something about his identity, something about who he is, that firstly, he hadn’t really understood and, secondly, he had never actually embraced. Well, he’s in the midst of applying for an Irish passport as well, and quite what that will mean to him, as he thinks about who he is, time will tell.
Something deep within us needs to understand who we are – who we truly are. And how we live within that identity is sometimes a lifetime’s work.
In our epistle reading, John is writing to a group of Christians in the early church. And life is really difficult for them. They’re facing persecution. It’s dangerous to be a Christian. We think that Paul is writing in Ephesus, and living there, they’re having to meet in secret. It’s not that they’re limited by number like we are just now, but they’re having to meet in secret. I once had the privilege of being in Ephesus and you can see marks on people’s front doors in the stone – the sign of the fish was the secret code to say that this is a place where we can meet and gather and worship and learn more about Jesus. But it was difficult to be a Christian. The Romans were sending Christians into the lions’ den. Just imagine what that would have been like. How do they live as Christians with that threat of danger around them all the time?
John writes to them, and he writes many things. But part of what he is doing is to offer them hope, and to offer them a wider perspective on who they are; to remember the joy and the privilege of who they are. From a different translation, these words ring out in this letter, ‘How great is the love the Father has lavished on us!’ Imagine that: God the Father has lavished love on us. As they’re hearing those words and living under danger, they are reminded that God the Father has lavished his love on them. And how great is that love that we should be called ‘the children of God’! That is who they are, the children of God. And John carries on with his emphasis … and that is what we are. That is who we are. We are the children of God. And to those early Christians, you can just imagine how that felt, hearing those words afresh. You are loved by God. And he has brought you into his family. And you are his children. That changes their name and it changes their status – called as God’s children and living in the reality that that is who they are.
You are loved by God. And he has brought you into his family. And you are his children.
Jesus’ death and resurrection has opened up this new relationship with God the Father and has allowed a new identity for every Christian. We are part of God’s family. We are his children, and we are co-heirs with Jesus, his Son. And as we live as a member of God’s family, we develop the traits and personalities – because you expect a family likeness when we belong in a family. You’re here in your family groupings, and I’m sure you spend an interesting time seeing where some of the family traits come down through generations. Often you’ll say to a baby, gosh, you look so like so-and-so. But as they grow older and traits develop and personalities develop, you can see just where that has come from, and there is a family likeness that you expect to see in families.
There are traits and personalities that we expect to see as we live as God’s family. And our gospel reading helps us see that a little bit more. Really challenging words, the Beatitudes, and slightly confusing. ‘Blessed are those who mourn’ – how can you be blessed when you mourn, when you are poor, when you are humble, when you are meek? Part of what Jesus is doing is saying, the values of the Kingdom are not the same as the values of the world. You need to understand this upside-down way that God sees us. His values are the true values, but they’re not the same as the values we see around us day by day.
Jesus came as King, not dressed like I am or like the Queen is, but born in a stable. The king who left the glory of heaven came to earth to live a lowly, humble life – the king who washed the dirty feet of the disciples. This is what the Kingdom of God looks like, and it’s contrary to often what we see around us.
But as we live out our identity as God’s children, so we develop those traits and personalities for ourselves. As we live in humility, as we live humble lives, we rejoice because we sense the peace of Jesus in our lives. When we acknowledge our vulnerability and our frailty – and that’s a hard thing to do, to recognise that we are in need – but when we recognise our need of Jesus, we’re able to stand with him, knowing his presence in our life, knowing that we don’t have to do it alone. And when we come alongside those in need, seeking out the lost, the people on the edge, we discover that Jesus is already there, and we join with him. So yes, we are blessed. We are blessed when we live as God’s children, living as Jesus did, living out God’s Kingdom values.
What’s all that got to do with Confirmation? Well, Confirmation is about who we are. It’s about claiming our identity. It’s a celebration, today, of membership in God’s family. And candidates, you’re probably very excited about today, but not as excited as we are, because welcoming people into God’s family in this specific way is such a joy. I’ve already seen it on Mary’s face, rejoicing in what she sees before her, as she has spent time with you and learned more of your journeys. We rejoice with you today, and we celebrate membership of God’s family that we are all part of.
There’s also a public commitment: that you’re standing today to commit to live as Jesus has asked us to live and to commit to living out that identity in your day-to-day life. This isn’t just for Sundays. You’re sent out at the end of this service into the world, and that’s when the work begins. We live as Jesus has called us, wherever he sends us. And he’s already there. So we join with him in bringing light to the dark places. And today you’re standing to say, yes, that is the way of life that I am committing to. As a member of God’s family I commit to bring light into the dark places – which is why we give you a candle, to remind you of that.
And Confirmation is also a time when we call upon the Holy Spirit. We might not live lives such as the early Christians, with that threat of danger and persecution around us, but choosing day by day to live a Christian life is a challenge, and we cannot do it alone. And so we call upon the Holy Spirit today to come upon each of you, to fill you afresh, to equip you to be God’s children. And we believe that he does. We believe that the Holy Spirit comes afresh to fill you anew, and will continue to do so. It’s not a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Holy Spirit wants to fill us day by day, to be who we truly are, to live as God’s children.
How great is the love that the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is who we are.
We are praying for you today, and we will continue to pray for you. And we rejoice with you. Amen.