From the First Letter of John:
Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 John 3:2a (NRSV) – February 21, 2014.)
The author of this letter could simply have said, “We are God’s children,” but he didn’t. He emphasizes the present tense of the statement by adding the word “now.” In fact, in the original Greek text, the word nûn comes first; it means “at this time” or “at the present.” It emphasizes the present tense of the verb – “Now we are God’s children.”
This is so hard, it seems, for some — probably for most — people to grapple with and understand. Somehow it seems appropriate that today’s Old Testament lesson is the story of Jacob wrestling with an unnamed man (understood to be the angel of God) through the night and being renamed Israel, “the one who wrestles with God.” (Gen. 32:22-33:17) We all seem to wrestle with the idea that we are God’s children now, that we are forgiven now, that we don’t need to do anything to earn God’s favor, that grace is freely given.
Human beings, it would appear, are hardwired to expect the world always and everywhere, even when God irrupts into it, to work on the basis of reward and punishment: behave this way, receive a reward; behave that way, suffer a punishment. God turning everything on its head, so that the “reward” comes first and the behavior is a thankful response to it, is so surprising, so uncharacteristic of the way humans act and think, that we just can’t grasp it.
So John writes, “NOW we are God’s children.” We don’t have to do anything — and, in truth, we can’t do anything — to earn that status. We don’t have to wait for it, either. It’s now; it’s present; it’s what we are. And we find ourselves troubled by that; we wrestle with that!
There is a strain of midrashic theology which treats the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel at Peniel as a metaphor for his dealing with his own “shadow side.” It sees the nighttime struggle as Jacob grappling with the repressed and negative aspects of his character. His shadow side is made manifest and acknowledged in the person of the unnamed man, and then conquered and integrated into a healthier, more holistic personality. Jacob faces his own treachery, deceit, and dishonesty, and conquers it to become whole. Of course, Jacob represents all of us; he is “Everyman” in this scenario.
I think there is more than a grain of truth in that treatment of the Peniel story; we are unable simply to accept the truth of God’s unmerited favor and so we wrestle not with God but with our own nature, with our inability to receive God’s blessing, God’s adoption of us as God’s children. But there it is, a very real present truth: “We are God’s children now.” Accept that, even if it requires some wrestling with yourself.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.
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