First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Easter 3

William Loader

Easter 3: 22 April  1 John 3:1-7

This passage is cut off from its beginning and its ending. It begins in sense in 2:28 with the focus on the future appearance of Christ. 2:29 then also makes the connection between who Christ is and what we need to be. The theme then flows into our passage. It picks up the notion that we are God's children and by implication the promise which that brings for the future. Behind it is the thought that as Christ is the Son of God so we are children of God. When he appears we shall be like him, because we shall look at him and find that a transforming experience. It is a thought expressed elsewhere by Paul in Philippians 3:21 and in 2 Corinthians 3:18. The writer is saying: our hope is to become like Christ then in the future and our challenge is to become like him now. So 3:3 indicates that the hope helps to generate the present effort to make ourselves 'holy'. In the same way 2:28 had argued that as Christ is righteous so we ought to be.

3:4-6 turn these thoughts into negative mode. People who sin are acting contrary to God's will or law. The whole point of Christ's coming, according to our author, was to destroy (or take away) sin, what is contrary to God (3:5). So it simply does not make sense for anyone to be claiming to be one with him and to sin at the same time. It would show instead that such a person has not been transformed, i.e.. has not seen or got to know him. In 3:7-8 this is expanded into language about the devil and God. People are caught in the conflict between God and the devil. You show by your behaviour which side you are on.

In 3:9-10 the author goes even further, explaining the same thing in the imagery of birth. It assumes a kind of human biology according to which the seed/sperm continues to exist in the child and so determines the life of the child. The author is using it to bolster his argument that if people claim to be one with Christ there must be evidence to demonstrate it. Perhaps he was thinking of the work of the Spirit.

At its simplest the passage is saying: don't just say, do! It uses a range of images in doing so. They include the idea that people become what they look at (especially as an ideal image). There is something transformative in having such a focus. Next there is the idea of being born, suggesting that somehow we become a different kind of being and that as such we cannot sin because it is contrary to our nature. Then there is the seed/sperm which makes sinning impossible. That is a stupendous claim and not true in practical experience. But the author is not arguing statistics here. He is making the point that we can become the kind of people for whom sinning is an unreal option.

Some people may feel tempted to steal fruit every time they walk past the fruit shop display. For most it won't even occur to them. Our author goes further and wants to argue that it becomes unnatural for such people to sin, contrary to their natures. It is true at least in the sense that it is not credible that such a person would continue to live a life of contradiction. Our author is stating the way it really ought to be, because there are people he knows about (probably those who left the community; 2:19) who claim such a relationship with Christ but do actually persist in sin. In 1:8-10 he laid down the challenge that people should not kid themselves that they have not sinned. Here he takes the opposite tack, arguing that if people do sin, it is clear evidence that something is wrong.

The argument is mounted within the framework of the opposition between God and the devil. It is also based on an understanding of why Christ came: to destroy the works of the devil. We might stake out the game differently, but we might also see stark alternatives. What does the author mean by righteous/righteousness (2:29; 3:7), sin (3:4-5, 8); being 'holy' (3:3)? This defines the game. For the author the name of the game comes out at regular intervals. The next instalment is immediately following the passage in 3:11, 'For this is the message which you heard from the beginning, that we love one another.' It recalls the opening of the letter and places loving one another firmly in the centre. The language of destroying the works of the devil is talking about dealing with what does not come from love.

This then enables us to see 3:1-7 in perspective. It is not about how many morality boxes we can tick to qualify ourselves as righteous or as a child of God. It is about whether love flows. Here, too, it is not about how many acts of love we summon up our energies to perform - ticking the goodness boxes, but how much we open ourselves to receive the love which God gives, which in turn flows through us to others. Love gives birth to love. Later the writer will speak of our loving because we were first of all loved by God (4:19). The author might say today: no amount of doing good deeds and no amount of having impressive spiritual experiences will count for anything if it is not connected to a real change that is relational. It may be cosmetic goodness and religion, but without that love it is nothing much. Paul made much the same point in 1 Corinthians 13.

Gospel: Easter 3: 22 April Luke 24:36b-48

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