Holy Imagination!

24 Apr Holy Imagination!

Holy Imagination!
Mark 10:13-16 and 1 John 3:1-7 
April 25, 2021
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church

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If you watch a group of young children playing together, one of the first things you’ll notice is that each of them believes that they are more than they appear to be.  Give them a bunch of pillows and blankets, and they are no longer small children, but mighty warriors constructing an impenetrable fortress.  Tie a tea towel around their neck and they transform from a mild-mannered kinder-gartner into an invincible caped crusader.  Give them a leftover cardboard tube and suddenly they are a wizard, a musician, or an astronomer scouting the stars.

What looks like simple fun is actually vitally important work in a child’s development.  Imaginative play develops important psychological and emotional capacities in children, helping them to learn to solve problems, create new possibilities, and—perhaps most importantly—develop the belief that they can one day change the world.  Imagination transcends the limits of the present physical world and the limits of a child’s inner world, opening new ways of seeing and being.

Somewhere along the way, however, imagination begins to become less important than knowledge.  As we get older, we tend to be more concerned with what is than with what could be.  Education gives us amazing tools for learning about the present world and about ourselves, opening new and exciting opportunities to us.  But sometimes that knowledge begins to curb our imagination and with it, our capacity to think creatively and experimentally.  It’s not that knowledge is unimportant, but knowledge is limited without imagination.  Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.  For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world … Imagination is everything.  It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”

What’s true for education is also true for the life of faith.  As followers of Jesus, we pursue knowledge of the Bible, knowledge of God, knowledge of theological doctrine—all important things—but if we’re not careful we can become so enamored with the knowledge that we fail to cultivate an imagination for what God is actually wanting to do in us and through us.  Plenty of biblical scholars are not Christians, for example.  They have knowledge, but no imagination therefore, no relationship.  The truth is that we need both.  We need a strong foundation of the knowledge of God, and we also need a holy imagination in order to live into the relationship with God we’re called to and live out the vision for eternal life God has for us, both now and in the future.

Maybe that’s why the writer of 1 John consistently refers to his audience as “children.”  Scholars refer to 1 John as an epistle, a letter, but it is more like a homily.   It is an invitation to cultivate a childlike imagination for the kind of life God has made possible in Jesus Christ.

Earlier in the homily, John lays out the difference between the accumulation of knowledge and cultivating an imagination that leads to action.  It’s one thing to have knowledge of the truth and say, “I am in the light” which is John’s metaphor for walking with Christ.  But if a person cannot use that knowledge to imagine and then demonstrate love for their brothers and sisters, then the person is “in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness”, John says in chapter 2 (vs. 9-11).  John is writing and preaching to a community where some folks from the outside have slipped in among them, denying that Jesus is the Messiah.  John uses the word “antichrist” to identify these false teachers, and he urges the community to refute their falsehoods with their knowledge of the truth of who Jesus is (2:20).  But it can’t stop there.  Their knowledge of the truth has to become activated in their imagination so that knowing who Christ is leads them to act as the people he calls them to be: “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him” (2:29).  It’s John’s way of urging the community of faith to move through the stages of truth we talked about last week—to move from knowledge—searching and hearing the truth—to embodying the truth.  And imagination is a crucial part of the work of embodying.

According to John, those who are born of Christ are the “children of God.”  We might say that the children of God are the product of God’s imagination going all the way back to creation when God created humanity in God’s own image (Genesis 1:26-27).  In the prologue to the gospel of John (which was likely written by the same writer who penned 1 John), we read that Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the perfect image of God, the one who has “made him known” to the world” (1:18). Those who receive him have been given “power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).

What I want you to be sure to see is that all of this is at God’s initiative, out of God’s imagination, and through God’s love.  “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (1 John 3:1).  But we aren’t merely God’s children now, John goes on to say.  We are to imagine something more. “What we will be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.  And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (vv. 2-3).  To put it another way, as children of God we are to imagine that we can and will become like Jesus, the perfect image of God!

Here’s where the imagination is so critical.  We’re not just to imagine that we’ll become like Jesus someday, in the sweet by and by.  We are to imagine ourselves reflecting the person and image of Jesus Christ now and—remember the embodying part—we’re to act accordingly.  Like children wrapping themselves in the garb of the superhero they want to be, we are to “put on Christ,” to borrow the Apostle Paul’s language (Romans 13:14, Galatians 3:27).  As a child might imagine changing the world by being a force for pure good, children of God who imagine that they can be like Jesus also “purify themselves just as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).

This is the real superpower for disciples of Christ.  The more we, as children of God believe that we are in the mold of Jesus, the more power we have over sin.  “You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin,” says John.  “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.  Little children, let no one deceive you.  Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous” (vv. 5-7).

This might sound less like imagination and more like delusion, given the human propensity for sin even among those who are striving hard for holiness.  So what does John mean?  Earlier in the homily John admits that sin is and always will be a reality in the life of every believer: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” he says in 1 John 1:8.  But here’s the difference:  sin doesn’t have to be the deciding factor.  It doesn’t have to define us, to limit us, to keep us locked in shame and doubt.  Instead, the more we imagine ourselves being formed in the image of Christ through disciplines like prayer, service to others, meeting Christ at the Lord’s Table, immersion in the Scriptures, having accountable relationships with other believers, and engaging in regular worship and confession of sin, the less sin is able to maintain a chokehold in our lives.  As theologian D. Moody Smith put it, “The work of Christ brings about the birth from God that is freedom from sin, but a freedom that must be ratified continually by willing and doing what is right, as John never tires of urging [us].”

Given all of that, think about how critical holy imagination is for children of God.  If we cannot imagine that victory over sin is possible, then we are doomed to remain trapped in a never-ending addictive cycle of sin, guilt, and shame.  That kind of cycle is a good indication that we aren’t, in fact, living as children of God but rather, in John’s words, as children of the devil, who “has been sinning from the beginning” (3:8).  If we believe we are born of God, however, we can imagine a life that is not dominated by the constant cycle of sin because our lives are modeled after Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  The proof of our imagination is ultimately found in the results, says John: “The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters”.  

When we do fall short, as we inevitably will, a holy imagination allows us to receive God’s mercy and to revel in God’s love which is the most powerful force for transformation that we will ever encounter.  Some of us have developed over a lifetime of practice a form of self-loathing such that every time we mess up, we beat ourselves up mercilessly.  At the other end of the spectrum, some of us, also developed over a lifetime of practice, have a habit of self-indulgence that we use to shield us from really having to change.  Neither one leads to life or health or growth.  The image we want to see is that of a child who makes a mess but still knows she is welcome to crawl into her parent’s lap to be comforted as she makes amends.  John is not saying we have to be perfect or feel terrible about ourselves.  He’s telling us to develop a more robust imagination of what it means to live as God’s children.

A child at play believes he or she can be or do anything, from leap tall buildings to time travel to saving lives.  A healthy imagination breeds creativity, confidence, and a vision for the best of what life can be.  Imagination can lead to discipline in pursuit of an desired goal, a focus on what to embrace and what to avoid or let go of in pursuit of that goal, and the imitation of the kind of people we want to be.  As children of God. we need to cultivate healthy imaginations for the kind of people God created us to be—people made in the image of Christ, who model our lives after him, who love God and one another—and then allow our imagination to lead us to develop the habits and practices to get us there.

Friends, that is how we change and how God uses us to change the world!  Holy imagination!  Amen.

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