Children of God

Sermon for St James Colwall and All Saints Coddington, Christmas 2 2011

“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or the will of man, but of God”. This is a very familiar quotation and the phrase, “children of God”, slips off the tongue very easily.  And the Lord's prayer reinforces it every time we say “Our Father”, but what exactly do we mean by it?  What does it mean to be a child of God?  What effect should it have on our lives?

I would like to start by going back to the Fall in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis.  I expect that many of you will have heard this read as the first lesson in the service of nine lessons and carols.  I heard it in the broadcast from Kings College and I must admit it made me squirm a bit with God appearing to be an arbitrary deity, offended because his trivial command had been broken, and Adam as usual blaming the woman.  Are all our woes inflicted on us because Eve stole the apple, disobeying God’s command, and then gave it to Adam?

It has been understood in that way for centuries, but to interpret this for us today, we need to understand why it was written.  Israel was, and to some extent still is, defined by the exodus from Egypt, a sort of national epic.  But to start that story one needs to have an explanation of how the Israelites ended up in Egypt and that is what Genesis provides, starting as we all know, with the story of creation and the patriarchs.  So Genesis is a prequel, a sort of “new readers start here”, section to the Bible.  It used ancient stories, a mixture of myths and fable, but in this mixture there are grains of truth which illustrate our human condition.

For me the most important part of the story of the fall is the apple, the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  It is this above all, the knowledge of good and evil, which makes us human and distinguishes us from the animals.  An animal cannot commit a sin: it can only follow its nature.  Now you may say that dogs do know when they have done wrong, but I think that when they go around with a hangdog expression on their faces, it is because they know they have offended the person who is the source of their food.  We, on the other hand, know what is good and evil independently of rewards or punishments and can choose between them.  In that respect the serpent was right: “if you eat of the fruit of the tree, you shall become like God”, the source of all good.  So to be children of God we need to have a strong sense of good and evil.  But it is the fact that we sometimes choose evil which is the source of all our woes.  The thing is, we not only need to know the difference between good and evil but also to choose the good.

Now I think it is very interesting that John says, “he gave the power to become children of God”.  Our inherent knowledge of good and evil is rudimentary and needs to grow. In that respect we are very much like children.  We need to learn that poverty is an evil and so is greed, which is often the cause of it.  We need to learn that truth is good and lying evil, even when it may hurt us.  And we need, like God, to hate the evil that is in the world and do something about it.  Our knowledge of good and evil should define our values and shape our lives if we are to become children of God.

So God is the source of our knowledge of good and evil, but he should also be the source of our purpose in life as children of God.  So if you are a child of God, you should have a purpose in life.  If you ask yourself why are we here, then the answer should somehow be reflected in our knowledge of God, our Creator.  But if you do ask yourself, why are we here, then we tend to get hung up because we can’t think how our lives fit into the wider scheme of things, and in any case our lives seem so humdrum often that it is hard to put a purpose to them, apart from earning enough money to keep body and soul together.

Well, we are here because God put us here, so to some extent the answer must be that our purpose is to be the best we possibly can in the situation we find ourselves in.  And we can do this in even the most constrained of circumstances.  I have visited a number of old and immobile people over the course of my years as a reader and many of them were a joy to visit.  Even though bedbound you can still spread a little joy in the world and make the job of those caring for you a little easier.  And that’s a noble purpose.

But if you are in an ordinary job the day-to-day press of events seems to carry you along without thought and the years can go by without your thinking about where you are going.  In this case, it is time for a review.  A job should be something you want to do almost irrespective of the money.  Of course if you’re starving you will take any job that can keep the wolf from the door, but most of us are not in that position.  But if you find your heart sinks at the thought of going into work every day, then it’s time to change either the job, or the way you do it.  How about starting the day with a smile to your colleagues?  After all if we are children of God we should be happy.  But above all, review frequently where you are going – a suitable subject of prayer – and then take action.  I wish I had done myself it more often in my career!

Of course some people are quite sure what they want to be.  Doctors, nurses, the clergy, missionaries and aid workers and many other people have a vocation which provides them with a purpose for doing what they do.  Here I think the question is one of motivation.  Why do people do these sometimes thankless tasks?  It is not enough for the children of God to say I have a calling, it must be motivated by love of the people they are ministering to, if it is to flow from God.  The city of God is a city of love.

And that brings me to my final point: the children of God know good and evil, they have a purpose in life but also a vision of where they want to be.  We pray, “thy kingdom come” and we should have faith in the power of God to bring it about.  But also we should not just sit back and expect God to change things.  This is our world and we need to have a vision of how it should be and then work hard to bring it about.  Let us not be content with the world as it is.  Let us create it anew as God would have it.  How about a world with fewer guns; less inequality; more justice; and less distortion of the truth.  Unless we have a vision of what we want the world to be, we will not be able to change it.  Christians are here to change the world and as children of God they have the power to do it.

I would like to end with the Lord’s prayer because it says exactly what I have been trying to say, but better!  I will use a modern version, so I would like you to simply hear it and reflect on the words.

“Our Father in heaven, / hallowed be your name, / your kingdom come, / your will be done, / on earth as it is in heaven. / Give us today our daily bread. / Forgive us our sins / as we forgive those who sin against us. / Lead us not into temptation / but deliver us from evil. / For the kingdom, the power, / and the glory are yours / now and for ever."