Text: 1 John 3:1-7
Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure. Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law. And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin. Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not; whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him. Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous.
I think much of what masqueraded as "faith" in my upbringing amounted to posing the question, "Do you believe in magic?" Do you believe that God created the world in seven days? Do you believe that man was created from dust and that woman was created from a rib bone? Could Jesus really walk on water and turn water into wine? The words "hocus pocus," used by magicians to pull rabbits out of hats, may come from the Latin phrase "hoc est corpus meum" -- which means "this is my body." This was the Latin phrase that supposedly transformed the Eucharistic wafers into the literal flesh of Christ. Do you believe that a piece of bread can actually turn into human flesh before your very eyes? In my upbringing, in order to have the kind of faith that saves, you needed to believe in this kind of magic.
Today's text refers to a subtler kind of magic. How do you make sin... disappear! The first epistle of John, of which today's text forms a part, contains a text which has often formed a central part of many Christian liturgies: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." But today's text explains that Christ "was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin." "Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not." How can it be that we "deceive ourselves" if we say we have no sin, and in the same breath, claim that we have no sin in Christ? It's magic!
Some liberal Christians prefer this kind of "soul" magic to the other miracles described in the Bible. First of all, to modern, rational, humanistic minds, it seems an easier type of miracle to believe in. Sin is kind of an abstract concept anyway, so making it disappear by some esoteric formula seems more reasonable. Even if you find it distasteful to believe that God temporarily reversed the laws of gravity when Joshua stopped the sun from setting, you can easily embrace the idea that God can purify us of our sins through Jesus Christ, right?
Conservative Christians are less likely to dismiss the forgiveness of sins as an easy miracle. They'll point out that Jesus himself said it is easier to believe that Jesus can make a lame man walk or a blind man see than to believe that he can cleanse us of our sins. In fact, some will even tell you that if you can't believe that God parted the Red Sea or turned all the rivers of Egypt into blood, you will never believe that the blood of Jesus washes your sin away.
But what if the greatest miracle of all is to see all things, including ourselves, as they really are? What if the greatest miracle is to take responsibility for our own actions? What if believing in magic not only doesn't help us do this, it actually prevents us from doing it? Some of us know first hand how harmful the Christian sin magic can be. Once you have been a victim of it, it is hard to see texts like the first epistle of John as harmless.
My first encounter with Christian sin magic took place in a Lutheran Church in Helsinki, Finland. I was twenty-two years old, a Mormon, and was in Finland on an internship sponsored by Brigham Young University. Nobody knew it, but I had only narrowly avoided committing suicide just weeks before. A young man I had met in Helsinki had invited me to attend this service with him. Early in the liturgy, we read the confession: "We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves." As I read this confession out loud, tears streamed down my face, because I knew it to be true.
I knew I was in bondage to sin because my life was full of emptiness and despair. I knew I was in bondage to sin, because I had wanted my life to end, though I was certain that once it ended I would spend an eternity in Hell.
I knew I was in bondage to sin, because I was gay. I was gay, and eight years of fasting and praying and pleading with God to take this desire away from me had only left my desire for men stronger. I had had fantasies of castrating myself in the sink with a kitchen knife, because Jesus said, "If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off." But no matter how desperately I had wanted to free myself of this temptation, it only grew stronger.
And now tears were streaming down my face, because here was the pastor pronouncing the absolution and telling me that God forgives us all our sins for the sake of Jesus. It was that simple. For the sake of Jesus. It seemed to me that where I was once full of darkness, now I was full of light.
My friend and I approached the pastor after the service. My friend told the pastor I had something to tell him. I stood there trembling, full of fear. I didn't know what I wanted to say, I only knew how desperately hungry I was. I said, "I think I want to leave the Mormon Church." He put his arms around me, and gave me a full, warm embrace. He simply said, "No matter what anyone tells you, never let anyone make you believe that anything can come between you and the love of God." That was the beginning of my redemption.
I had my "fifteen minutes of fame" in Helsinki. The local Christian newspaper did a cover story about me, about the x-Mormon Missionary, the x-cultist, who had been saved. The reporter who did the story wanted me to pose for the cover photo holding up the Mormon "funny underwear," the special undergarments that all Mormons receive when they go to the temple. I refused. I didn't think the story should be about Mormonism, it should be about the fact that a sinner had been saved. But the Mormonism angle was what kept everyone's attention. I was asked to speak at numerous church events in Finland and later in the United States about how I had been saved from Mormonism and the bondage of "works righteousness."
I made my way from Helsinki to Marquette, Michigan, where I joined an evangelistic Lutheran congregation called Prince of Peace Lutheran Church while I finished my B.A. in History and French at Northern Michigan University. When I left the Mormon Church, my parents told me that I was under the control of the Devil, and that I would be eternally damned for leaving the church. A former Mormon friend of mine wrote me a letter to tell me that I was apostate and had become a tool of Satan. My parents told me I was cut off, and they refused to provide any financial support for me to complete my schooling in Michigan because they believed I should have returned to Brigham Young University -- a place I knew I couldn't return to because being there had almost driven me to suicide. The people of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church became my best friends. They became my family. They helped me find jobs to put myself through school; they donated food and clothes and furniture. I still have a lovely green lamp that a woman at that church gave me as a gift. We've put it in our guest room, where it still reminds me of the light of hospitality.
But those friends at Prince of Peace, whom I thought I could trust completely, with whom I thought I had become equally yoked in Christ, turned on me as quickly and with more hate and vengeance than my former Mormon friends and family ever had, when they discovered I was gay.
When I moved to Minneapolis to go to grad school, I left Prince of Peace with a tearful goodbye, telling them that they had truly become my family in Christ. They invited me to visit often, and reminded me that I would always be part of their family.
A year later I returned for a visit. When I attended church at Prince of Peace the Sunday of my visit, I brought a male friend who lived in Marquette, whom I had also been visiting. He was a friend of mine from my year at NMU. Something about two men attending that service together deeply upset a woman in the congregation, and she went directly to Pastor Juenger, to report to him that she suspected I was gay. Pastor Juenger and his wife had promised to take my friend Chris and me out to lunch after the service. We waited in the fellowship hall for the pastor to take care of some business first. And we waited and waited. We were told the pastor was in a meeting. I did not realize that the meeting had been convened about me.
Pastor Juenger finally emerged. We got into the car with him and his wife. Chris and I were informed that we would not be taken to lunch after all. Pastor Juenger then proceeded to lecture me about what a terrible sin homosexuality was. He tried to impress upon me that Hell was a place where I would suffer unbelievable anguish and pain for all eternity. He pleaded with me to repent of my sins. Then he took Chris and me directly to the bus station in Marquette and left us there. The message was clear. Please get out of town. Please just leave, we don't want your kind here.
I was shocked. I felt betrayed and humiliated. My friend Chris was straight and they had apparently assumed that he was gay, and that there was some kind of relationship between us. I was devastated, hurt and angry. I had no idea how Chris would react. Would he be angry with me, for putting him in a situation where he had been assumed to be gay as well? Not being a Christian, Chris was very gracious about the whole situation. Rather than take it personally, he tried to cheer me up.
I had sincerely believed that these people understood hat we are all sinners, and that in Christ we are without sin. Shortly after returning to Minneapolis, I received a package from Marquette, Michigan. It was full of letters. Pastor Juenger had initiated a letter-writing campaign at Prince of Peace. The message of all the letters was the same. Perhaps Pastor Juenger had even told them what they should write. I was going to Hell. God hates sin, but God loves the sinner. Please, John, please turn from your sinful lifestyle if you do not want to be forever in Satan's power.
I had not realized that the Christian sin magic is a two-edged sword, that the same St. John who wrote "he is the propitiation for our sins" also wrote: "Even now there are many antichrists.... They went out from us, but they were not of us.... He that committeth sin is of the Devil."
One problem with Christian sin magic of this type is that since sin is inferred and erased by a process that is invisible and subjective, we never know who is good with God. Perhaps the appropriate stance under such circumstances would be deep humility, focusing inward on oneself and never assuming that we know the status of any other human being or their relationship to the Source of All Being. But we human beings are seldom saintly enough to have the amount of humility required to believe that someone else might be just as saved as we are, especially if that someone else is different from us.
I remember in Helsinki speaking with a woman about my conversion. I noticed the entire time I was speaking to her, she was staring at me in a very peculiar way, as if she were scrutinizing my every word and facial feature. Finally, after I had finished my narrative she said, "Yes, I guess you are really saved. One does not find such joyfulness in one who is not saved." Apparently, if my demeanor had not been joyful enough, my salvation would have been false. But that was the least of my worries, since apparently entire classes of people -- like gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people -- may be assumed not to be cleansed by the sin magic, regardless of how much joy or faith in Christ we may personally have.
Actually it is not just gays and lesbians who are assumed not to be saved by the sin magic, but all of humanity, unless they have explicitly claimed the name of Jesus Christ. The author of the first epistle of John says:
Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son as the Father. (1 John 2:22-23)
We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:6)
He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life. (1 John 4:12)
We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one. (1 John 4:19)
Isn't this the spirit that makes it possible for us to kill tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis in the name of American freedom and the American way?
At a certain point in my life, when I thought it would be better to be dead than to be gay, believing that Jesus' blood somehow magically made me pure actually helped me. It was the only way I could feel good enough about myself to find the courage to go on. For those of us who are in that place, if believing that Jesus is our propitiation helps us to be better people right here and now, I won't discourage it. I know that in a real sense, Jesus can save, because believing in him saved me from suicide. All I ask is that those of us who do believe it remember to hang on to it in the deepest humility. We can never, ever assume we know who is or is not saved by that blood which was supposedly shed for all.
But personally, experiences of later years have led me to confess agnosticism on whether Jesus died for my sins or yours. I say, To hell with sin magic. We should neither make more nor less of sin than what it is. Compassion should be the living heart of our faith, whatever name we claim, and ultimately we must take responsibility for living that, and changing our behavior when we fall short of that, not beat ourselves up, not tell ourselves we're going to Hell or that we belong to the Devil, just pick ourselves up and keep trying to fix what we did wrong and do better the next time. It still requires humility, and for that humility I pray, remembering Jesus, who prayed for it as well.
In God's name, amen.