I have preached before about the fact that we are all children of God, but I am going to remind you of that, again, today so that we can talk about one of Jesus’ more challenging teachings.
The ways to identify ourselves are endless. We focus on certain ways in certain situations. In a professional situations, we’re likely to identify ourselves by our professions. If we’re part of the dating scene, we’re likely to identify ourselves by our physical attributes and our socio-economic level. At a family gathering, we’re likely to identify ourselves by our relationships.
All of these ways to identify ourselves, however, are subject to the environment we’re in. They shift and change with the environment. One minute we’re spouses. The next minute we’re professions. The next minute we’re parents. The next minute we’re friends. The next minute we’re snappy dressers. Although all of these things identify us, none of them identify our essence, who we are essentially. They are inadequate. They define aspects of us, but not the whole of us, who we really are.
Today, I’m going to tell you who you are essentially, who you really are, who you are underneath all of those other things you are, who you are at the base of your existence.
As we have learned through our faith lives, underneath, above, and beyond all of those other things, we are a beloved children of God. That is who we are essentially.
This is the heart of what Jesus came to reveal to us. Jesus came to re-mind us; that is, he came to give us the mind of Christ, which enables us to understand that we are created in the image of God. Jesus came so that we could re-member ourselves, so that we could realize that we’re members of God’s household. As Jesus said, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you” (Jn 14:2)?
I don’t know how many of you remember the Academy Awards during which Sally Fields won the best-actress Oscar for her role in the movie Norma Rae. Sally Fields began her acting career on television while she was a teenager; first, as Gidget and, then, as the Flying Nun. Both of them were kind of silly roles. As Gidget, she just had to be cute and, as the Flying Nun, she just had to be innocent and naïve. You may remember that as the Flying Nun she had to wear that horrible costume. It was a TV version of a nun’s habit, but it had these big flaps on the wimple, which is the part of the habit nun’s wear on their heads. The wimple had to have big flaps because that’s how the Flying Nun flew. It was pretty silly. So, Sally Fields wasn’t taken seriously as an actress, either by herself or her colleagues. When she got older she had to work hard to establish herself as a serious actress. It took time. But, finally, there she was, winning the best-actress Oscar for her portrayal of Norma in the very serious film Norma Rae. Her colleagues finally respected her! And, if you remember, when she got to the microphone and received the award, she gushed, “You like me! You really like me!” Finally, she felt loved and accepted by the people whose opinions mattered the most to her. She had arrived.
Well, that’s how we live our lives. We do our best, but we often don’t love or respect ourselves or think others love and respect us. We don’t feel that we do good enough, serious enough work. We don’t think that we deserve that Oscar award for our role in life.
But, when we have eyes to see and ears to hear, when we really take in what Jesus came to reveal to us, we realize that God isn’t like the members of the Academy, to whom Sally Fields had to prove herself. Unlike the members of the Academy, God loves us just because we exist. Sure, there are times we could have done better and worked harder to be good people. Sure, there are times when we’ve out and out just done wrong, either to ourselves or to someone else. Sure, we’re not perfect. If God handed out awards based on the perfection of our performances, none of us would win one for our role in life. But what Jesus came to reveal to us is that that’s not how God loves. We’re created in God’s image, members of God’s household, and beloved children of God so, no matter what we do, God loves us. God loves us because of who we are, not because of what we do or don’t do.
When, like Sally Fields, we finally say to God, “You like me! You really like me,” that’s what’s called, in theological terms, “justification by grace through faith alone.” By the grace of God, we realize that God loves us no matter what we’ve done or not done, and through faith we believe it.
This belief in God’s love for us is essential to salvation. Since only love heals, our reception of God’s love is essential. Only when we believe ourselves to be loved by God can we love ourselves. The moment that we believe that we’re loved by God, sin’s hold on us loosens. We begin to heal. Although we’re never entirely free from sin, it no longer holds us to the extent that it did. And, as we’re healed, we’re more able to love others. Love begets love.
Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest and author of many spiritual books, puts it this way:
Your true identity is as a child of God. This is the identity you have to accept. Once you have claimed it and settled in it, you can live in a world that gives you much joy as well as pain. You can receive the praise as well as the blame that comes to you as an opportunity for strengthening your basic identity, because the identity that makes you free is anchored beyond all human praise and blame. You belong to God, and it is as a child of God that you are sent into the world.
This is the context in which we must hear Jesus’ words to us today in the Gospel According to Luke:
But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. . . . Do to others as you would have them do to you. . . . Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. (6:27-31, 35b)
Once we accept that we are the beloved children of God we are to live into that identity. When we go out into the world, we are to act as children of God would act. So, how would children of God act? Look at how God acts, and that is how we are to act. As Jesus says, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (6:36).
Wow, that’s a tall order. I’m to act like God? At this point, it’s important to point out something about what Jesus says. He doesn’t say, “feel love for your enemies, feel like doing good to those who hate you, feel like blessing those who curse you, feel like praying for those who abuse you.” Jesus doesn’t say anything about how we’re supposed to feel. He just says how we’re supposed to act: do good, bless, pray. It may be impossible to feel love for our enemies, but it’s not impossible to act in certain ways toward them.
Jesus also doesn’t say anything about our enemies being transformed. He doesn’t say that our enemies will become our friends, or that our enemies will treat us well. That’s not the point. We don’t act out of love in order to get something in return, as he makes plain in verses 32-34:
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.
No, we don’t act out of love in order to get something in return. We act out of love because that is the essence of who we are as children of God made in God’s image.
Our enemies may not be transformed, but we will be. As we love, do good to, bless, and pray for those who are our enemies, who hate us, who curse us, and who abuse us, we are transformed. We’re transformed more and more into our true identity as children of God. As Paul says in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, “All of us . . . are being transformed into the . . .image [of the Lord] from one degree of glory to another” (3:18). In theological terms, this is called “sanctification.” When we accept that God loves us, we grow in our love of God, of ourselves and of others. We are enabled to do good to others, to bless others, and to pray for others, even if they’re our enemies. And each time we do so, we grow into the image of the Lord from one degree of glory to another.
As we’re transformed, we begin to understand that those who hate, curse, and abuse others do so because they haven’t yet understood the degree to which God loves them. They haven’t yet understood that they are the beloved children of God. We do to others as we do to ourselves, so if we hate ourselves, if we curse ourselves, or if we abuse ourselves, that is what we do to others. It’s the person who has realized that God loves him, who has forgiven himself, and who loves himself who can do the same for others.
When we see someone who hasn’t yet identified and defined himself as a beloved child of God, and who acts out his hatred for himself on others, we’re to respond as God would respond: with compassion and mercy. In doing so, we might just be God’s instruments, enabling that person to experience the love of God and to experience himself as a beloved child of God. Remember what Jesus said about his enemies while he was dying on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). He could just as well have said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know who they are.”
Corrie Tin Boon survived the Holocaust, but her family didn’t. They were Dutch Christians caught by the Nazis for hiding Jews in their home. She watched the horrors of the genocide from Auschwitz, and barely survived. Following the war, she became famous for her book The Hiding Place, which shared the story of her family. The popularity of the book gave her the opportunity to share her faith with thousands of people on speaking tours.
One such evening, after she had spoken about the forgiveness of Christ, a man approached her whom she recognized as one of the guards from Auschwitz. She immediately felt all of the horror, pain, and hatred from those years of persecution. He told her that he had listened to her talk, and informed her that he had been a guard at the death camp. She told him that she recognized him. Crying, he asked if he might receive the forgiveness of Christ of which she had spoken. She thought to herself that she could not, but she remembered the command of Christ to love your enemy and to forgive seventy times seven the person who has wronged you. She prayed that Jesus might give her the strength to forgive the man, and as she prayed, she felt a sensation begin in her heart and flow through her hand as it touched his. Then she heard herself saying, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I forgive you.” The man collapsed at her feet and wept a prayer of thanks. She later discovered that he had become a minister of the gospel, and that many people had come to Christ through his ministry.
This man, who had been a guard at Auschwitz and who had most likely committed unspeakable acts of hatred, realized who he is while listening to Corrie: a beloved child of God. And Corrie’s forgiveness of him blessed his realization. In that moment, he was enabled to live into his true identity and begin the process of being transformed into the image of the Lord from one degree of glory to another.
And Corrie, remembering that she is a beloved child of God, was able to forgive this man who had been her enemy, and she was thereby transformed into the image of the Lord one more degree of glory.
Who are you? I want you all to tell me who you are underneath all of those other things that you are. Come on, say it: “I am a beloved child of God.” PAUSE WHILE CONGREGATION RESPONDS. Let it sink into your mind and heart. Really feel it. Take it in. Now, turn to the person next to you and tell them who they are. Go on, it’s kind of corny, but do it. PAUSE WHILE CONGREGATION RESPONDS.
Now that we all know who we are, I will end with the following prayer by Anselm of Canterbury:
Almighty and tender Lord Jesus Christ, just as we have asked you to love our friends, so we ask you to love our enemies. You alone, Lord, are mighty. You alone are merciful. Whatever you make us desire for our enemies, give it to them. And give the same back to us.
If we ever ask for them anything that is outside your perfect rule of love, whether through weakness, ignorance, or malice, good Lord, do not give it to them and do not give it back to us. You, who are the whole truth, correct their errors. You, who are the incarnate word, give life to their souls.
Tender Lord Jesus, let us not be a stumbling block to them nor a rock of offence. Our sins are sufficient to us, without harming others. We, slaves to sin, beg your mercy on our fellow slaves. Let them be reconciled with you, and through you reconciled to us. Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, April 17, 2016, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.
 “Accept Your Identity as a Child of God.” In The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom. New York: Doubleday, 1996, 70.
 From Tim Carpenter, SermonIllustrations.com.