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The Saint in the Mirror
October 30, 2011
I John 3:1-3
Most, if not all, of us shared a certain common experience this morning. We looked at a reflection of ourselves in a mirror. What we saw will vary widely—fresh faces and faces wrinkled with age, some countenances bright and expectant, others weary with care. Well, this morning our short reading in I John holds a mirror of a different sort before us. This passage invites us to look beyond the physical surface of our lives and see ourselves as we truly are. So on this All-Saints Sunday, let’s look upon our lives through the eyes of faith. When we do that, what do we see?
The first thing the author of I John would have us see is the love that the Father has given us. “See what love the Father has for us that we should be called children of God.” When we look at ourselves in a bathroom mirror, we may quickly see all the flaws, the quirks, the imperfections, but fail to see the truest thing about ourselves. Tomorrow many people will don some sort of mask to celebrate Halloween—pirate masks, princess masks, monster masks, and so on. For a time, these masks hide the identity of the person underneath. Similarly our fears, our insecurities, guilt and pride mask the image of God that is our true identity.
Of course, Baptism is our sacramental way of unmasking and revealing our true identity.
This morning during the sacrament of Baptism, we told Carlos the truest things that will ever be said about him: that he has been claimed by God, that he belongs to God, that he is a beloved child of God.
Later in life, Carlos may choose to be a doctor, a band leader or a photographer, but some elements of his life are already decided, and the same is true of all of us here. I’m talking about matters such as who our parents are, where we are born, and what our race and the nationality are. Yet our status as beloved children of God is life’s most important given. As John emphatically declares, “That is what we are!”
But why don’t we see ourselves as God-inhabited people, people who have been gifted with the love of God? Well, John’s answer is that it’s because our blindfolded, sinful world doesn’t recognize Jesus. The implication is that, once we see Jesus for who he is, we are able to see ourselves for who we are.
The story of Zacchaeus is a case in point. Zacchaeus was a despised tax collector. In the eyes of his community, he was an outcast and a traitor. If there had been an Occupy Jericho Rally in those days, he would have been the target of the protests. But Zacchaeus must have been a curious person, because when he heard that Jesus was passing through his town, he shinnied up a tree in order to see Jesus. But when Jesus called Zacchaeus down from the tree and offered to come to his house and break bread with him, Zacchaeus suddenly saw himself in a new light. Through his encounter with Jesus, he saw himself in the light of God’s love for a forgiven sinner. This episode with Zacchaeus ends with Jesus saying, “The son of man has come to seek and save the lost.” Jesus sought out and saved those who had lost sight of the fact that they were the beloved of God, and made in God’s image. We often say, “See Jesus, see God.” We might also say, “See Jesus, see ourselves as God’s beloved.”
So that is what we are now—but what about the future? What’s to become of us? John says that what we shall be has not yet been revealed. He speaks in a veiled way about the eschatological future, that is, life beyond death or in the Kingdom of God. His reserve echoes that of the Apostle Paul, who was similarly disinclined to say more than he knew: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully.”
Yet while what both John and Paul speak with reserve abut the future, they are both confident that our destiny is to be like Christ. When Christ is revealed, John affirms, “we will be like him for we will see him as he is.” The love that God has given us now will one day be fully realized. At present we are but a dim reflection of Christ, but one day our face will shine with his glory.
This hope of future glory can be a great comfort when we are in the midst of various trials and suffering. As German theologian Hans Kung put it, “God’s love does not protect us from suffering; God’s love protects us in the midst of suffering.”
In one of his sermons, the well-known preacher, Tom Long, tells of a good friend, a young mother who died of cancer. During the last week of her life, when her pastor was visiting, she made a very unusual request. She asked him if he would gather some members form the church and come to the hospital to anoint her with oil. He was unaccustomed to this. This was not part of his tradition and he said, “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t practice magic, I practice ministry.” Indignant, she said, “I’m not asking you to practice magic, I know that I am going to die.” “Then why do you want me to anoint you with oil?” he asked, and she replied, “It would be a sign that, even though my body may die, my union with Christ is complete, and I am healed in the love of God.”
We can’t see what we shall be, or what our loved ones who have died have become, but we know that our promised future is to become the people our baptism claims us to be: people who are destined to share in the life and the likeness of Christ. Irenaeus, the early Church Father, put it this way: “God became like us so that we might become like him.”
Now before John lowers the mirror that he holds before us, he wants us to see the challenge that God gives us. True, we are God’s children now and, yes, we live in the hope that when the future is revealed, we will be like Christ. But between now and then we have work to do. John describes our growth in love as a purifying process. He says, “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”
Our work of purification, or preparation, for the life to come is similar to work of a sculptor. I’ve heard sculptors describe their work as being able to see in the stone the figure waiting to be liberated. Their task as artists is simply to chisel away everything that doesn’t belong to the figure in the stone. The third-century spiritual master Plotinus explains our daily work as the saints of God with a similar image. In his treatise “On Beauty,” he writes: “If you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also, cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast…and never cease chiseling your statue, until there shall shine out on you the godlike splendor of virtue.”
Friends, open your eyes of faith and look into the mirror. The reflection you see looking back at you is one of God’s saints, created in the image of God, loved by God, and yes, destined to become like God.