See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3 All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. I John 3: 1-3
So, what is this “Christian Faith Formation” that you are hearing and reading about of late from me and others? The passage you just heard has something to say about: 1) What is Christian Faith Formation for? In other words, What is the goal of Christian Faith Formation? 2) How long does it take? 3) What does it require of us?
But first, I begin with a young woman’s testimony that I read some years back. She did not grow gracefully into adolescence, she said. At the age of thirteen, every time she looked into the mirror, she fixated on her nose, which she thought had become too big for the rest of her face, on her ears (when did they get so big?) and on the pimples breaking out in all the most embarrassingly prominent and visible places. Her feet seemed to have outgrown her legs, too. That might explain why she was always tripping over them, and having trouble with some basic moves in basketball that used to come more easily just a few years before.
Her father bought her a pair of earrings out of the blue one day. When she put them on and looked at herself in the mirror, she began crying.
“You only bought these to make fun of me!” she said. “Look how they highlight my Dumbo ears and my big fat nose. They’re even the same color as my zits! Thanks a lot, Dad!”
All Dad could say was, “I thought they were beautiful, like you are!”
“Yeah, right, Dad!”
And so the earrings sat in their box for the next few years, hidden in the back of the girl’s dresser drawer, forgotten.
Most of us here have gone through that awkward, confusing, intense intermediate stage between childhood and adolescence and lived to tell the tale. But only to land in another in-between stage of growth at least as awkward, confusing, sometimes painful, and yet full of wild hope and infinite promise. It’s called life, especially, life between the here and now and that event which John describes in verse 2 of today’s passage: “when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
That brings us to the first question: What is the goal of Christian Faith Formation? It is not just information, but transformation, transformation into the image of Christ, to “be like him” in spirit, character and conduct.
Those of us who work with immigrants learning English and preparing for citizenship might have an insight into this. You are helping people learn a culture, a language and a citizenship different from what they grew up with. As they learn these things, they are not only informed, they are, to some degree, transformed. The new language, culture, rules and ideals of citizenship that they are learning don’t just add new words and facts onto those they already came with; they actually change the learners in some ways.
As my father learned English and became nationalized 60 plus years ago, new possibilities and dreams opened up for him, ones that would never have been possible had his family stayed as displaced persons in war-torn Europe. Even before they got on the boat leaving Antwerp, the prospect of a new home was making of him a new person, in some ways.
Christian Faith Formation is like that. It’s like someone has handed us an immigration visa to a country we’ve never been to, and yet which seems vaguely familiar, and hauntingly compelling. In the meantime, here’s some information about that country, its customs, its president and its governance, its landscape and its language, with funny-sounding words like “resurrection, redemption, grace, holiness, sanctification, reconciliation.”
Even if our current world uses these words, we must not be too quick to think we already know what they mean. This new country’s language and culture require a whole new outlook; we have to become something like children again, and admit how much we have yet to learn, and seek the help of others who are also on the journey of becoming citizens of this new place. Well, “now are we the children of God,” John tells us.
As children growing up into their new and coming identity, prepare for awkward, embarrassing moments. Learn patience with ourselves and with others. And the value of interdependence and cooperation: all the students of this new language and culture need each other’s help. No one’s getting there alone, on their own.
Fortunately, for our adjustment to that new world, we know someone from there. He is among us even now. He’s quite engaging and interesting, trustworthy and generous, enough like us to be able to communicate genuinely and compassionately with us. But he’s also different enough to grab our attention and make us want to learn more about him and his world, even, to want to become more like him so that we can share his world. And we have a guide for travel and citizenship from the emissary of this country, given through others who have gone there, detailing their journeys there.
Of course, Jesus is the emissary of that world. Our travel and citizenship guide for this new country is the Bible. And the kingdom of God is that new World which calls to us, and which is coming to us. The church is the class of emigrants who need each other to make the journey and learn the culture and the language of that new country. It is already here within us and among us in faith, hope and love, in the righteousness, peace and joy of the Holy Spirit that we share.
But, as John said in today’s passage, “this world did not know” the king of our destination country for who he is. Be aware, then, that Christian faith formation, or transformation, will often go against the grain of this society’s values and demands. Christian faith formation involves taking on Christ’s narrow purpose—pleasing his Heavenly Father—along with his supremely wide range of love for all people.
John’s words, “when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” also address the second question: How long does this Christian faith formation take? Like any education, it goes until our graduation ceremony: “when Christ appears….then we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
Knowing the date and time of our graduation ceremony is above my pay grade. But whenever it happens, then we can say not that seeing is believing, but that Seeing is becoming.” Seeing Christ “when he appears” will complete our lifelong, ongoing transformation into his image. For, in Christian faith formation, we are learning to “see Christ” in every sense of the word, “see.” That’s what my spiritual director asks me: “Where and how do you see Christ at work in your life, of late?” It’s a good question to ask ourselves at the end of each day: “Where and when did I see Christ at work in my life today?”
With that we begin to address the third question: What does Christian Faith Formation require of us? When comes the day of our graduations, our graduation caps and gowns will consist of our likeness to the image of Christ in character and conduct. You might say we are sewing and weaving these gowns together in the school of life and love through those three threads I have mentioned before: of 1) Biblical study and devotional life, with 2) our relationships and fellowship, and 3) the service and witness activities by which we put our study, life and prayers into practice. Those activities and efforts will bring us back to Biblical study and the devotional life with all the more interest, experience, and hunger to learn more. And with a greater need for each other, whatever our age and stage of life. And so the threefold cycle continues.
Christian Faith Formation, or transformation, is a lifelong education with lessons to learn and challenges to overcome at every age and stage of life. We are not only learning stuff, facts, things or ideas: we are learning to see all the better who Christ is, and we are learning to know who we are: Children of God.
When the day of our graduation does come, these robes of Christ’s image will not only fit aright, they will be beautiful, resplendent, magnificent and glorious, just like Christ himself. Like for that girl who thought her Dad had given her those beautiful earrings to mock her awkward pre-adolescent appearance and self-image. Five years later, preparing for her high school graduation, she rummaged through her dresser drawers for something to wear with her cap and gown. In the back of a drawer, among various pens, pencils, knick-knacks and doo-dads, she found a little felt-covered box. Opening it up, she saw the long-forgotten ear rings that her Dad had given her. Trying them on, she saw that their colors and shape matched the high school colors of her cap and gown perfectly. As she contemplated them in the mirror, dangling from her ears, she remembered how awkward she had looked to herself, and how torn and troubled she had felt about them five years before. But since then, her face, her ears and her nose had all caught up with each other in a beautiful proportion and symmetry that her earrings bracketed so marvelously. It was as though her father, when he had given her these earrings five years before, had foreseen exactly, perfectly, who she would be, how she would look, and what she would wear on this graduation day.
In a few months, she would go to college on a basketball scholarship.
Five years earlier, when he gave her those earrings, her earthly Dad could never know who and how she would be in this moment. But God knows such things. God knows better than the world, even better than ourselves, who we are and who we shall be: like Jesus. In Christ, the true image and the pattern of our true and eternal selves are already there and visible, under construction in us and waiting to be revealed “when he shall appear.” And then the whole of our travel and citizenship guide and preparation will make sense, too, for our having traveled the road it lays out, and seeing the destination it describes.
In the meantime, don’t let the world define you. Nor can our trials, troubles and temptations, nor our titles and our trophies, our successes and possessions, define us truthfully. God knows better than we or anyone else who we are and who we shall become. God knows us and names us as his children, even as Jesus.