Easter 4: 29 April 1 John 3:16-24
In 3:11 the author had recalled his hearers to the beginning in two senses: the beginning of the letter and, as there, to what had been the message from the beginning. He summarises that message as the instruction that we love one another. 3:12-15 looks at the negative side: hate. It includes the letter's only direct reference to the Old Testament: Cain, the murderer. 3:14 uses the traditional notion of resurrection to declare that the true sign of moving from death to life is the move from hate to love. That can happen for people here and now. The life promised in the good news shows its face as love; its opposite is death and hate.
Our passage begins with the author addressing the nature of love. He points to Christ's love. Christ laid down his life for us. Within the letter we might associate this with Christ's laying down his life vicariously, as a sacrifice (eg. as in 2:1-2). But he goes on to urge that his hearers lay down their lives for each other. Here the focus is obviously not vicarious sacrifice, but love which goes the whole way in the interest of others. In John 15:18-19 Jesus speaks in a similar way of laying down his life for the disciples as his friends. There, too, the focus is the generosity, not theories of atonement. Similarly in John 10 Jesus speaks of laying down his life in the interests of his sheep.
3:17 shows the earthiness of these reflections. Such love has to include consideration of the well being and needs of others. While the focus in 1 John is very much on life within the Christian community, often the statements are just as applicable in a broader sense. It should not be necessary to argue that engagement in God's love includes engagement with a world in need with all its complexities, political, social and otherwise; but strangely, as in the writer's day, there are Christians who do not make the connection.
The writer is fond of 'hooking' paragraphs together by ending one with the theme which will be the focus of the next. We see it in the transition from 18 to 19 ('truth'), 22 to 23 ('commandment') and 24 to 4:1 ('Spirit'). The focus on truth in 3:19-22 has less to do with truths and more to do with integrity. In 3:19 persuading our heart really means persuading our mind or conscience. 3:20 contemplates that people may have troubled consciences. They should not necessarily see that as a problem. Their focus needs to be on God - despite what they feel. This is of course a good way of dealing with a troubled mind. From the rest of the letter it is clear that the author means that people need to give their primary attention to God as the God of love and light - and not primarily to their own feelings. Faith alone, not feelings! A good antidote for those depressed by not being able to sustain the highs of spirituality promised or pretended in some Christian communities.
Such faith or such focus results in confidence. That means, for the author, confidence in relating to God. This stands in contrast to some models of piety which assume gross lack of confidence before God and show it in body posture. The word, here, includes the notion of boldness, standing upon one's own feet, speaking freely and openly (literal etymology: saying anything, parrhesia). Love does not generate a subservience of dependent grovellers, but a group of people free and able to be themselves - a wonderfully refreshing notion. 3:22 then picks up the widely cited saying about being heard when we ask for things. It is always a problem if transferred into a consumer society: I will get what I want! In fact the author clearly sees it in the context of what happens with shared wills. We get what we need when we engage in the life of God and are doing God's commandments. It is a way of affirming the sufficiency of God and God's love.
The writer clearly envisages a relationship with God where people are not diminished, but encouraged to stand on their own two feet with confidence. It is a relationship which is responsive: I can say what I need. I will be heard. It is also one where there is a communion of will and intention and action. It is easy to hear 'commandments' (3:22) as indicating either the ten commandments or something even more elaborate. Our author always puts the focus on what is centrally significant. Thus 2:23-24 spell out the commandments that matter. There are two: we need to believe in Jesus Christ and we need to love one another.
3:23-24 brings together much of what the writer has been saying in the last two chapters and so functions as an interim summary. 2:18-27 focussed on right belief, 2:28 - 3:22, on the command to love one another. The next chapter will return to right belief again. 'The Spirit', mentioned at the end of 2:24, gives the clue to what will follow, where the author will challenge the claims of those who think they are speaking by the Spirit, but are denying the whole picture about Jesus. They are denying his real humanity, just as in their behaviour they are probably also the ones being attacked in 3:17, who deny the earthiness of love: for love means real human caring.
Gospel: Easter 4: 29 April John 10:11-18
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