The striking truth of this festival is not how the church remembers the saints who have gone before us; even though we rightly chime the bells and speak the names of those who have flown away (Psalm 90:10) from our midst in the past year. The real joy of this day is found in connecting those who have departed with the current, living church and we are all counted together as one. So, let’s sing “Behold a Host” and “The Church’s One Foundation” knowing we are with them and they with us, knit together beautifully in the mystical body of Christ. What we say of those children of God who have already come up out of the great tribulation, who have entered their rest and are forever blessed and who now worship in God’s temple as they are sheltered by Christ’s own living flesh, must also be said of us now by faith. After all, it’s ALL Saints’ Day and that includes you and me. Unlike the reading from Revelation 7, which teaches us about the church triumphant, the Gospel Reading from Matthew 5 and the Epistle Reading from 1 John 3 draw our attention to the church militant who longs for her Lord’s Final Advent. To put it in more theological terms, the church’s eschatological hope establishes and strengthens her present faith. A hermeneutical key to our 1 John reading is Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” and Romans 5, which I will get to in a moment.
John’s writing is theologically dense, and preachers will do well to give some careful attention to the weighty vocabulary. We will find in these three short verses an embarrassment of riches for delivering a sermon. Do not waste your time with an everyday illustration; it is all here. Which word grabs your attention the most? Which of John’s terms or phrases is heavy enough to run through the whole sermon? Luther would say that, in his prayers, he could rarely get passed the words, “Our Father.” Luther’s explanation to the introduction of the Lord’s Prayer demonstrates how intensely he had meditated on that phrase. Those words are a tender invitation to believe we are His true children and He is our true Father, so we would be so bold and ask Him anything as His very own children. I am not sure if one can get beyond the word “Father” in this pericope either, but you should see from this one parental term how these verses all hold together. The joy and assurance in this word is to recognize how tenderly God deals with us that we should be called His children. The vocabulary is intensely baptismal, just as the whole letter appears to be a catechetical address to the baptized.
I would suggest as you study the text, to pick up one word at a time, turn each of them about, and see what is there. Notice the weight of the nouns and adjectives: πατήρ, τέκνα θεοῦ, κόσμος, ἀγάπη, ἐλπίς, ὅμοιοι αὐτῷ and ἁγνός. Now examine each verb: ἴδετε, δέδωκεν ἡμῖν, γινώσκω, οἶδα, καλέω, φανερόω, ἁγνίζω, ὁράω and the various tenses of εἰμί. Then you can start working out the major phrases and how each one holds together with the others. Notice, for instance, how the phrase “ὅτι οὐκ ἔγνω αὐτόν” is a reference to the Son and not the Father; even though grammatically it seems as if it should be the Father.
John’s use of the διὰ τοῦτο phrase in verse 1, indicating the reason for something, is a powerful demonstration of God’s work in Holy Baptism. Baptism must be presumed to make any sense of the confusing transition from the Father to the Son in verse 1. John already presumes we are joined to Christ in Baptism. Therefore, we are called God’s children, but it is not only about the Father’s adoption of us in the Son. I would argue that the baptismal language of John is a parallel to Paul’s baptismal language in Romans 5:4: “ὅτι ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ ἐκκέχυται ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ἡμῶν διὰ πνεύματος ἁγίου τοῦ δοθέντος ἡμῖν.” The overwhelming love of God has been given to us (John). The question is How? Paul says this love has been, “...poured out… through the Holy Spirit.” The love that is poured out is not the same as the Holy Spirit, who has been given (Paul’s use of ἐκχέω is attached to Acts 2:33 and the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost). The Holy Spirit is poured out at Pentecost, but He has now become the Agent by whom we receive God’s love. How did we receive such a love as this? Since John’s Gospel gives linguistic and theological context to his letters, we should consider John 1:12-13 about becoming children of God “by right,” or in other words, by being adopted in such a way that the adoption is considered a “new birth.” In John 3, we discover (as we did in Jesus’ Baptism in John 1) that the new birth comes by water and the Spirit.
Baptism is, therefore, clearly the context for this pericope. The love of the Father has been poured out on us in Holy Baptism, as we are covenanted to the death and resurrection of His Son, and the Spirit has been given. He has called us “τέκνα θεοῦ” and so we are (present tense), but Baptism is not given as an end unto itself. Because it unites us to Christ (Romans 6 and here in 1 John 3), we will suffer the fate of Christ in the world. The world will not know us as it did not know Him, but being found in Christ also brings with it the “ἐλπίς” (Romans 5 and 8, and Hebrews 11) of the future life and the hope of the resurrection.
Resurrection is hidden in the “appearance” language. Again, you could preach an entire sermon on appearances: living by faith versus living by sight (believing the divine promise in Baptism versus the world’s perception of progress and success). You will know best whether the comparison between what is seen and what is promised should be applied individually (the believing soul) or corporately (the church) in preaching this into the context of your people. The hope that comes with Baptism will be comforting especially to those who are tempted to regard their self-worth according to their work (occupation) and earthly success, as well as for the congregational leaders who are tempted to measure the success of the church according to worldly standards. What we really are now, by faith, will be made known when Christ returns.
Lastly, it naturally flows to preach the power of, “this hope in Him.” Namely, it makes us holy, just as Jesus is holy. Any talk of living a holy life will then rightly flow out of Baptism through which God has united us to the person and work of His Son. To live a holy life means to believe that what God has said of us in Baptism is true. There is no compulsion here, but only joyful freedom for those who live as children of the Heavenly Father. The whole church, with all the saints, will rejoice to have that hope and live in it until her Lord comes again.
Sermon Helps: Dr. Francis Rossow of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO offers notes on I John 3:1-3.
Sermon Helps: Dr. Kent Burreson of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO offers notes on I John 3:1-3.