The Privilege of Sonship
Kevin Rees — October 4, 2015 - audio file posted at: kevinrees.sermon.net
The welcome of all welcomes sits against a backdrop of the rejection of all rejections.
Welcome. It is a simple thing. I would venture to say that this very morning three-quarters of us have this word emblazoned somewhere in our home—on a welcome mat, in a wreath, clutched in the concrete hand of a painted garden gnome—“You’re Welcome Here. Come On In. Make Yourself at Home.” Such a simple concept: welcome. If someone holds the door for us, we say, “Thank you.” The customary response is, “You’re welcome.” If we invite someone to a meal, we answer the door and say, “Welcome to our home. Please come in. May I take your coat? How do you feel about spastic dogs? If you are uncomfortable I will put them out back.” Why? Because we want others to feel welcomed.
Welcome. It is such a simple thing to say. Do we mean it? Don’t rush into that answer too quickly. Do we sincerely offer our welcome? Okay, to whom? Certainly not to everyone, right? We cannot logistically have everyone in the community over for dinner—we would be overrun and under-budgeted. Certainly not to the pedophiles on the FBI’s sex offender list, right? Those individuals are not welcome into our home where our children’s safety is of paramount importance. So, who gets our welcome? To the migrants, like the refugees who flood the borders and overwhelm the social infrastructure of Hungary, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia—do they get our welcome? Is it the same kind of welcome we give to next door neighbors or traveling evangelists or Aunt Bertha in for the night from Philadelphia? What about the undocumented workers from Latin America? What about the IRS agent? What about the visibly desperate man who came by begging for money earlier in this day, but who circles back around to ask your wife for $10 more dollars when you are still at a meeting and it is dark outside? Is he welcome? Would your wife agree with you on that one? Would your kids?
I can see the level of discomfort rising in this room. But please relax! We must discriminate in our welcome. It would be foolish and irresponsible not to filter some while allowing others. I know there is a political metanarrative that runs with this theme, but that is not at all where I am leading you today. I merely want to probe the concept of welcome and ask about who gets a welcome and who does not.
After all, there are many aspects of welcome. There is a home welcome—that is very intimate and highly selective. What about a community welcome—that is less “close to the heart”? Some of you know my family history; one that I am quite proud of. My older brother and sister are African-American, adopted in the early 70s as babies. I, the Anglo-baby, was the oddball in the family demographic until my younger sisters were born 4 and then 7 years after me. But when we moved to the urban sprawl of Washington D.C. in 1977, there was only one neighborhood realtors would show to my parents. All others communities were unofficially “off limits” because of our family portrait. We were, “Not welcome.”
Well, there is also a national welcome—who is allowed to call “the land of the free and the home of the brave” their home? Jihadists, supporters of ISIS, IT spies from China, militarized Marxists from Venezula, or how about Austrailian hacker Julian Assange of WikiLeaks or American intelligence personnel Edward Snowden who intentionally leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents and who fled to Russia? Who is “Not Welcome”?
But even still, there is a church welcome—who is truly welcome here at Tucker Street Church? Once again—don’t answer that too quickly for it is a multi-layered scenario. There is the gut-level, “Everyone is welcome here at Tucker Street Church,” which is true; which I hope continues to flourish especially to the vulnerable ones in our community. But what about the other end of the spectrum: the extremely vocal, highly conservative Christians? Are they welcome here, too? What about those precious people who don’t like to be zeroed out or called upon to pray? What about people who can’t bring themselves to commit to anything? What about those people who can’t read sheet music, who have no appreciation for church history, who don’t see the value in liturgy or even partial liturgy? Are they welcome here? You see, it is a tricky question. This is why churches trend toward homogeny over time; it takes great energy to be welcomers.
By the way, this that begs a corollary set of questions about first time visitors—what do they see and feel and know of our welcome at our church? How would they view our church? Putting fresh eyes on the entire Sunday experience—top to bottom from signage to order of worship to unexplained traditions to sermon length to quirks that are invisible to long-time members. From a newcomer’s perspective—what does Tucker Street Church exude of welcome? It could be a very healthy exercise for us to do sometime. But it will call for courage because it will probably point toward the need to adapt, which is possibly one of our weaknesses at this and most churches. But let that one cook for a little while.
Suffice it to say, welcome is important but difficult to do well. We are marked by our failures more than our successes. Who we welcome, how we welcome, when and where and why we welcome? But also the flipside of those perennial questions. Who do we not welcome, how do we contribute to the unwelcome of some, when and where and why do we communicate “You are not welcome here”?
I must say, “You are not welcome here” are some of the hardest words to swallow—whether spoken or unspoken. Like Mark Twain put it: “It is better to be alone than unwelcome.” I have been welcomed kindly, warmly, sincerely, generously by tens of thousands … but the few dozen times I have been categorically unwelcomed are the ones I remember in detail. I am not even an extroverted person—I have learned how to do extroversion as a trade skill with great exertion—however, my default setting is alone or in small settings with a book or a with game on. For extroverts, presumably, unwelcomeness might be even more devastating. But whatever our personality, “You’re Not Welcome Here” is a pill.
But let me say this with all sobriety—we, as the human race, have failed miserably with regard to welcome. We might get a barely-passing grade with welcoming Christians, maybe slightly higher grade with welcoming others who are already like us. But when it comes to welcoming God, we flunked out.
Our text today, although it is one of the brightest statements in the Bible, first gives one of the saddest commentaries in history. Our God, the Creator, the true Light that lights everyone in the world, Jesus Christ our Savior came to the world that he created and got this response: “You are not welcome here.” The whole world is guilty of this. The nation of Israel is guilty of this. You are guilty of this. I am guilty of this. But Jesus swallowed the insult, stood on our porch, and offered a reverse hospitality through the door we closed in his face. You do not welcome me, not as a fellow human, not as a brother, not as Savior, but I am willing to welcome you—not merely into my company nor my good pleasure, but into my very family. The turn-around is staggering. To the very ones who initially rejected him, Jesus gives the second chance. Yes, you refused to understand me; preferring your darkness to my light. True, you rejected knowing me in a relationship; knowing my gospel message, knowing my character. But my offer stands—to all who receive me, who believed in my name, I offer you the privilege of sonship into the family of God. This is the welcome of all welcomes set against the backdrop of the rejection of all rejections. You can’t get this invitation in any other way—you can’t earn it, you must accept it on faith.
9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.
11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.
12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,
13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
I. But to All Who Did Receive Him
The various layers of unwelcome are impossible to overlook. We the world who enjoy and depend upon Jesus for light and life and even more specifically Israel the covenant people who were tasked with, among other things, the duty to stand as a watchman on the city wall for Messiah—none of us recognized or received Jesus. But there was and there is still today a small portion; a minority … a remnant who came to recognize him as the Savior by God’s grace. To this remnant who receive him there is a transformation that occurs.
By definition, a subgroup is different from the whole. Our text says, “but to all who did receive him”—this creates a distinction. The Greek conjunction could be translated this way, “as many as”—which suggests that while all would not be too many who receive him, only a minority do. But Isaiah prophesied to this minority reception of Messiah, “Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? […] He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:1,3). He was invited, anticipated, but left out on the porch, and more so … deliberately nailed to a tree for shedding light on that which we preferred to keep hidden.
Let’s linger on the active refusal to receive Jesus that the world gave. No thanks. No reverence. No relationship. Probably not even a positive thought. If we meld it into the migrant crisis in Europe; Jesus is like a migrant at our border. But with a couple of major difference: (1) he is not an alien—he is a countryman, and (2) he is not a refugee, but the opposite of a refugee. Is there a word for that? Yes, there is—it is a missionary. Refugees flee from war. Jesus, our Missionary God, rushes into the warzone. But we stop him at the border. We say, “You are not welcome here.” Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). This reception; this welcome is the offer of salvation.
On a lighter side, salvation is like a Christmas gift. There can be a box wrapped with your name on it under the tree. But even though it is for you, it is not your own possession until you receive it. Maybe you disbelieve the sender of the gift has good motives. Maybe you insist on solely providing for yourself in a posture of self-sufficiency, thank you very much. Maybe you are sulking in the other room. I don’t know why—it is not rational—but the gift is not received until it is received, opened up, tried on, and knowing the character of the gift giver, Jesus … cherished. It is not too good to be true, but so good it must be good. There are some who reach out and receive this gift; this offer … who open the door. Are you one of this remnant or receivers of God who came to the world; who visited our own community … who, like John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” Are you among the minority that welcomes him here? Perhaps today is the day—even if you had been cold to him before, warm to him now with full reception.
II. Who Believed in His Name
The two sides of the same coin, so to speak, are receive and believe. You can’t have one without the other; just like you can’t have faith without repentance. They are fused together and interchangeable. The grammar shows us how receive and believe fit together—“all who did receive” are “those who are [continuously] believing in his name.” The reception is punctilear while the believing is present tense participle; on-going. We do not have to receive the gift of salvation over and over and over. No, it is a one-time transaction with the ongoing characteristic of belief. But notice the object of our belief—we believe in or into his name. He is the object of our faith. We do not have faith in faith. We do not have faith in good works. We have faith in his name; which is a way to summarize his entire personhood and work.
Can you see how Jesus flips everything around for the better; transforming evil into good? He comes to our country where he received no welcome but welcomes us into his country where we will never be turned away. He extends out his name which we despise and esteem as a non-valuable, but that very name is the bridge he is offers us to climb out of the cursed family of Adam and into the blessed family of Jesus; that name at which every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:10-11). And just think, he allows us to use his own name thereafter. We pray in this name. We preach in this name. We baptize in this name. We go forth under the banner of this name. We recognize one another through this name. We adopt this name as our new family name. But even more than our adoption of his name; he adopts us legally, fully, eternally … which brings us to the principle blessing.
Are you trying to dissect receiving Jesus from believing him? It cannot be done. There is no way to be receptive to him without also believing in him. He doesn’t leave us that option. We cannot be a fan without also being a follower. It is as simple as a heart-felt “yes” to Jesus’ work on the cross as the only door to the family of God; to forgiveness of sin and eternal life. Belief in Jesus is the hinge on which eternity swings. Have you settled the issue of faith in Jesus? Settle it today. Give him your “yes” today.
III. He Gave the Right to Become Children of God
This is where we have been heading all morning—“but to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” This is the privilege of sonship!
Contrary to popular belief, it is not biblically accurate to say that all people are God’s children. This is sentimental, but off the mark. All people are God’s creation. All people are image bearers of God and likeness sharers with God. All people are the beneficiaries of God’s love. All people are God’s possession. All people might even be described as God’s “offspring” as Paul allowed in his sermon to the Athenians, quoting from one of their own poets to build a bridge to the gospel where he argues that we are able to be much, much more than mere offspring of God (Acts 17:28-29). All of these have dignity and purpose and joy. But not all people are able to claim the vaulted privilege of sonship to God.
We are not automatically in God’s family simply by virtue of being alive. Naturally, we are actually named “children of wrath” and “sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2,3). However, while naturally we have no hope of escaping our cursed family tree, spiritually we can become something we were not previously—children of God. The Jewish readers would have scoffed at the suggestion that their Jewish ethnicity was insufficient to qualify them to claim sonship with God. They would likewise balk to hear John remove from the equation linear descent from Abraham through Isaac as the way to trace back to the family of God. On the contrary, only by receiving Messiah Jesus into the innermost part of the heart by believing that he is who he says he is and did what the Scriptures say he did is one called a child of God.
But notice that it is God’s sole act. We, the children, do not petition for acceptance. No! It is the prerogative of the Father to name his children. This privilege is afforded to us through the merits of Christ—he earned it, he shares it, he will keep it. In the same vein, there is an obscure but beautiful promise that we, the redeemed, will each receive from God a new name that no one yet knows (Revelation 2:17). These are benefits of sonship; by-products … blessings.
But it is stressed three times for emphasis that this whole arrangement is not something we did or generated or even thought up. This is from God alone. “Who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” It is not a DNA thing; it is not a good work thing; it is not even a human decision thing—God pulled this off beginning, middle, and end. We receive it. We believe it. But we can never claim any part of it! Just like any adoption! The child does nothing to find a parent, to win the parent’s heart, to sign the legal documents necessary, to pay the fees and dues, or even to keep the parent’s good pleasure. All of that is from the parent to the adopted child. It is a flood of grace and love.
But from that point of adoption onward, there is a new status, a new name, a new family, a new group of siblings, a new address, sometimes a new citizenship, sometimes a new language. “Behold I am making all things are new” (Revelation 21:5).
At the start of the day, we were looking at our inescapable crime of failing to recognize the true Light in our midst and our refusal to welcome our Creator into our home. But by the end of the day, we are called out of darkness into his marvelous light, transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of his dear Son, adopted out from our cursed family of Adam as sons of disobedience and children of wrath being welcomed into the very family of God by grace through faith. This is quite a reversal! This is quite a moment. This is the day that the Lord has made; today is the day of salvation.
The lines are drawn. The borders are fixed. We are either in the family of Adam or we are in the family of Jesus. The Scriptures do not leave us any margin here. I know I think it a lot, but I don’t say it often enough, however now is the time to do as Paul commanded the church in 2 Corinthians 13:5. The church! Not the godless masses in the marketplace, but to the church he said, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test.” It is very easy to be in church yet without being in Christ. It is possible to be aware of God, to know facts about God, to even use the vocabulary used by God, yet without being adopted into the family of God.
I want you to examine your welcome of Jesus. In salvation, yes, but also in day-to-day life. His welcome of you is stellar, but what is your welcome of him? Have you been warm to the thought of him visiting you, but then do you keep him out on the porch? Have you put the fence up at the borders of your heart like Hungary did last week? Have you shut the door because you don’t want him to see the inside of your house, so to speak? We do not have to be ready for him, we just have to receive him as he is, believing in his name. The clean-up is the by-product not the prerequisite of sonship. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”