Easter 5: 3 May 1 John 4:7-21
1 John takes us round in circles. We keep returning to the same themes, yet on the way we meet new insights and observations. In 4:1-6 the author invites his hearers to challenge those who claim to have the Spirit. They may not have the truth at all. In fact, they may represent a form of the 'anti-Christ', a term the author had used in 2:18 in connection with those who had left the community (2:19). In 2:17 he had warned against the world's values. In 4:4-6 he suggests that the separated group finds support in the world. In 2:12-14 he speaks of the 'young men' who had overcome the world. Here in 4:4 the same language of overcoming reappears. It reappears in the next section, which hints at major conflict over belief (5:4-7). The author is reinforcing the budding leadership in this community ('the young men') who had held fast to the faith and did not sell out to what might have made their religion of greater appeal in the world of the time (greedy for possessions and self indulgent experiences; 2:17).
He wants however to do more than reinforce a group and its set of beliefs. He is also concerned about people and the way they live. This also appears to have been a matter of debate. He suggests that those who left did not really understand this dimension of what it means to be a believer (as we saw last week; 3:17-18). Our passage commences with a strong statement about what needs to constitute Christian community: love (4:7). Like Paul in 1 Corinthians, the author elevates love to the highest possible level. It is the sign of the divine in us and through us. Being born of God is evident in our living lives of love. 4:8 makes it even clearer. Love is the primary characteristic of God: God is love. So obviously, the signs of God's presence are going to be acts of love. Anything else - however spiritual - misses the point.
The author's understanding of love comes from his understanding of God's initiative in sending his Son (4:9, echoes of John 3:16). The aim of love is to enable people to 'live' (4:9) - which has to mean sharing God's life and having the life in themselves which God intended in the first place. It is totally loving and totally generous. In 4:10 he repeats the argument, but takes it further, and also uses the traditional image of sacrifice. The new element is the emphasis on God taking the first step, rather than on love as something we generate, or ought to generate, towards God. Love generates love. Our author is saying: God starts it all. Being loved enables us to love not just by offering an inspiring example, but because love frees us from the things that would otherwise block us from loving, including guilt and fear. This is why, whenever the author speaks of the commandment to love one another, he nearly always brings it back to God first loving us. That love is enabling, the more we let it reach us and set us free.
In 4:11 he returns us to the commandment to love one another, with which the passage began (4:7). In 4:12-14 he now offers further reinforcement. What is the evidence for God? No one can see God. But there can be evidence. It comes when God's love produces its effects in us, comes to fulfilment in our lives in a way that we show love. It is a wonderful claim: if you want to see God, look at people loving. That's your evidence! The mention of the Spirit might remind us that for Paul love is the supreme fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22).
In 4:15-16 the author takes us back around to thoughts about God's love in sending his Son and back to the assertion that God is love (4:16), which we found already in 4:8. It is a huge thought and certainly the source of what the author is saying here, and of so much else. It is so hard to grasp that people have wanted to put buffers in-between God and us which somehow make it add up or justify that God loves us: like God could only love us in this way by making sure all the debts were paid by someone, or by making sure someone took the prescribed punishment. The thought of unmediated generosity is too hard to bear!
In 4:17 the writer brings us back to the impact of such love. Not only does it produce the best evidence for God when it is brought to fulfilment or perfected, but it also enables people to stand on their own two feet with confidence before God. The author touched on this theme in last week's passage (3:20-21). Here in 4:17-18 he explains that love deals with fear. A fear-based life, including a fear-based spirituality, needs liberation. The author is using a word in 4:17-18 which means: "perfected, fulfilled, completed, matured". It is a theory of human well-being. The relationship of love will deal with fear which may have been in the relationship. God is to be acknowledged, held in awe (fear in that defined sense), but not feared. The author contrasts the God of love with an implicit theology which is based on fear.
In 4:19 he brings us back to the argument of 4:10. It is God's initiative which sets in motion this liberating process which enables love to happen. Love does not happen because we do what we are told by God - certainly not in fearful obedience. In 4:20 he does not therefore wave a big stick. He simply states that claims to love God which are not matched by sharing God's love with others are inauthentic. Something is fundamentally askew with them. People may bolster their assertions of spirituality and perfection with such things as big numbers ('the world listens to them' 4:5), fantastic miracles, deeply moving experiences, profound inner peace of mind and tranquility, but if the primary evidence is not compassion and caring, right down to the level of straightforward involvement in social justice (3:17), then it is religion, but it is not what Jesus is about, according to our author. His vision of being human before God appears to be not grovelling in fear, but standing on one's own feet with confidence before God (even on judgement day), and, for the present, letting love reach its fulfilment in our lives.
First Reading: Easter 5: 3 May Acts 8:26-40
Gospel: Easter 5: 3 May John 15:1-8
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