Acts 3.12-19 & 1 John 3.1-7
I heard a friend speak earlier this week, and at one point during his lecture, he relayed a story about a team of researchers that were observing how and why children play with the toys they play with. The researchers would bring in a parent and his or her child, and in one corner of the room, the researcher, parent, would sit down at a table. The researcher would then turn to the child and then say, "You can either stay here with your mom or you can over to the other corner of the room and play with the toys." Over there in the other corner was a box of toys and a bright carpeted area to play in. Above the carpeted area there was a mirror that allowed other members of the research team to observe the child as he or she would play with the toys. They were to observe which toy the child played with the most – in other words, which toy the child liked the most. If the child like the big red truck the most, they would write down big red truck. If it was the stuffed doggy, they would write down stuffed doggy.
They would take note of this and then would have the parent and child come back another day. Only this time, the researcher would say to the child, "You can either stay here, or you can go over there and play with the toys. But if you play with the big red truck (remember they observed that this was the toy that that specific child had chosen by themselves in the earlier session), if you play with the big red truck, I will give you a bag of M&Ms when we are done." What would you expect to happen?
Of course the child's going to want to go after the bag of chocolate encased in a candy shell that allows the chocolate to melt in you mouth and not in your hands. I bet there are even a few of us older people who might even do something as simple as that for a bag of chocolaty goodness. But that's not what interested the researchers. They found that after you make playing with child's favorite toy a requirement for getting the promised reward, the child ended up HAVING to play with that toy. Before, you can imagine a little girl or boy zooming around the carpet with their big red truck, making the sound of the engine, and picking up and dropping off loads of plastic frogs, blocks, and Barbies. Now the child kind of sits there half heartedly rolling the truck back and forth wondering why her mom is taking so long. In other words, the first time, the child GETS to play with their toy. The second time, the child HAS to play with the toy. The expectation of reward, which one might think might enhance the experience, has only ended up ruining it.
How do we end up doing the things we do anyways? It seems to me that our first two readings that we've heard today focus much on what God would have us do or not do. In our reading from Acts, we see Peter speaking to a crowd of people, and what is he trying to tell them? He trying to tell them who Jesus is, what Jesus has done, and finally what they should do in response. In our reading from 1 John, we hear the author trying to explain what the life lived in Christ looks like. He is trying to explain that living in the light has a bearing for how we live out our days here on earth. Yet, I think the question still remains: How do we live out these words that we gather around in our worship assemblies?
Peter seems very much concerned with what it means to be a people of the story of Jesus Christ. He recalls what Jesus did for us on the cross. He recalls how death and the grave could not contain him as he bursts forth from that tomb. But then he makes a call to repentance. He makes that call for the people make a change in their lives in live them in different way. So why should we heed Peter's words this day? There are a couple of different reasons. #1: We could hear them only as a promise of a future reward. Yet will the promise of a future reward be able to sustain us throughout our lives and provide the motivation to live out a repentent life? Or will the promise of reward (and the implied punishment if not followed) simply cause us to begin to hate having to play with the toy that once cause wonder and joy to well up within us? My feeling is that we will would end up like that little girl who can barely tolerate HAVING to play with the toy just so she can get her reward at the end of this experiment we call life. Following in the way of Christ must mean more than the expectation that we will get some goodies like angel wings, streets paved with gold, and dinners with grandma and grandpa. Otherwise, we will simply end up despising all the things that we HAVE to do to make God love us.
Thankfully, that is not what God wants from us in our lives. God wants us to live fully and freely! God wants us to live joyfully and abundantly with a grace and love that is able to embrace the whole of creation. God wants us to live not in the expectation what we or I get out of this deal. God's will is that, when the Son is revealed to us and in us, our lives will be changed, not because of what we have done. Not because of how we've kept up our part of the bargain, but only because of what love Jesus has done and given to us in our lives. We are to live out lives as if there is a toy chest of love, grace, and abundance that is open and available to us all to play with and share with the rest of creation. God's will for us is to be able to say to ourselves, "I don't have to earn God's love. It has already been graciously given to me. I GET to share what love God has given me with the rest of the world around me." And that is a life that is full of life and wonderful opportunities that is able to fulfill us physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Some days this easier to feel than others. Some days it feels as if there has just been a ton that has been taken away from us. Yet, those are some of the days in which we need to hear those words "God forgives you." "Jesus is given for you." "God loves you." and "There is nothing in this world that can separate us from the love of God that we have in Christ Jesus our Lord." These are words of gift. These are words of promise. These are words of life.