First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Easter 2

William Loader

Easter 2: 8 April  1 John 1:1 - 2:2

The opening words of 1 John may remind us of Genesis 1:1. They also remind us of John 1:1, although their emphasis is more that of John 1:14, which speaks of the Word becoming flesh and our seeing his glory there. Yet there is a shift of focus. If becoming flesh was the means whereby we could see the glory of the Son according to John 1:14, the attention in 1 John is concentrated on the humanity itself. It was a real Jesus with flesh and blood, one whom one could see, hear and touch! It is emphasised to the extent that the sentence almost falls apart in the middle through repetition! What is more the 'we' of John 1:14 ('we saw') has now taken centre stage. Jesus was really human and 'we' are the key links with who he was and what he taught - and there is no fellowship, therefore, with him without fellowship with us (1:3)! A big claim.

The lofty declarations of John's gospel are being earthed in something both really human and really historical. Later we will read that a group (apparently quite large) has split from the community (2:19; 4:5). One of the issues appears to have been over the real humanity of Jesus. His divinity had so captivated these believers that they appear to have played down his humanity and perhaps denied it altogether - except as a kind of cloak for his divinity. The indications are in 4:2 and 5:6 and their contexts. In 4:1-6 the author has to counter claims that the Spirit was assuring these believers that they were right. In 5:6-7 the issue appears to be denial that Jesus died a real death. Perhaps the same argument was raging in its early stages when the gospel writer gave such emphasis to the reliability of the witness who saw water and blood flow from the side of Jesus when he was stabbed (19:35).

The writer of the letter is engaged in a salvage operation. He, too, will have been inspired by the gospel (like those whom he opposes) and uses similar language, though often in ways that lead most to conclude that the two are not the same person. The gospel writer imagined Jesus praying in John 17 above all for unity of believers. He obviously sensed the danger, which by 1 John has come about. Now the writer of the letter, a senior figure who describes himself as an elder, is trying to retrieve the  situation. He does so by reasserting the humanness of Jesus and reasserting the authority of himself and his associates who are obviously claiming to be the ones who can ensure continuity with the Christians before them and with Christ himself.

The situation is delicate. If he comes through in a heavy handed way, he will drive some to join the dissident group. His solution is to assert and repeat some key themes. Not all were in dispute. All would affirm that God is light; but the author challenges the truth of such affirmations when people insist they are pure or above sinning. All would affirm the importance of truth; but the author confronts the need for integrity. While he will later also speak of a spirituality which generates goodness and prevents a life of sin (3:7-10), he begins his message by asserting that we simply must face up to our wrongdoing and not deny it. What is more we ought to acknowledge it openly. That is what 1:9 means by confession, not private repentance.

While doubtless sensitive hearers would recognise that the author wants those dissidents to admit to their ways and return, they would also hear in the ring of statements typical of 1 John, that the author is stating realities which apply in every age. Clearly for him God is concerned about right relationships and restoring wrong ones. 'God is light' is not metaphysical speculation, but a call to honesty and integrity. The God who is light will later be designated the God who is love (4:8; 4:16). It is not the fear of the searing gaze which evokes the call to confess, but the initiative of the God who cares and wants us to begin anew.

The author's way of relating this to Jesus sounds in some respects more like Paul than one might expect from one inspired by John's gospel. What is fairly peripheral in the gospel becomes central in the letter: the death of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice. The 'blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin' (1:7). It finds its echo in 2:2 which speaks of Jesus as the atonement for the sins of the whole world. Clearly for this writer such images succeeded in articulating effectively what the gospel writer saw encapsulated in the very living person of Jesus as he encountered his contemporaries and invited them to life in God. However the images work, the writer invites us to open our eyes wide to see the breadth of that love. It includes hope for believers who are also going to fail. In one sense he combines the notion of sacrifice with the person of Jesus by holding before the hearers the image of Jesus in heaven advocating on our behalf (an image also present in Hebrews, but there linked more with the role of the high priest praying on behalf of people facing hardship on their journey).

It is interesting that 1 John asserts the centrality of love and relationship while insisting on ensuring links with the real Jesus and real, continuing church. This is not a spirituality cut adrift from history, 'undirtied' by administrative and institutional issues, as some would have it (a disembodied faith). Jesus has not been dissolved into a symbol. Flesh and blood and real human relations are not an encumbrance, but are themselves the theatre of the divine. Later we will read that the 'spirituals' have become carried away to a degree that they have neglected such very basic things as helping a neighbour in need (3:17). Ideals have a way of blinding people to earthed justice, leading sometimes to people fighting the battles of freedom on behalf of the world while scarcely comprehending the fate of those crushed in the process. People make mistakes; sometimes they are disastrous. At this point in the letter the writer is asserting: nevertheless! Even in our worst failures there is grace, if we dare to risk it.

First Reading: Easter 2: 8 April Acts 4:32-35
Gospel: Easter 2: 8 April John 20:19-31

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