First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Easter 6

William Loader

Easter 6:  13 May  1 John 5:1-6

Our passage begins with an argument based on parents and children. If you love a parent you love the parent's children. This does not necessarily follow in real life, but it does for our author. He is finding just one more way of stressing the importance of Christians loving one another. Loving God and loving people are two different, but nevertheless inseparable things. Our author focuses primarily on relations among Christians. We might legitimately extend it to all human beings (although the author would not use born of God of all human beings).

As we have heard before in 1 John these are the commandments: loving God and loving one's fellow Christian. They are not heavy demands, not because they are not serious, but because their fulfilment is part of the dynamic of the relationship as the author has explained in the passage we looked at last week. We love because he first loved us - the one effects the other. Love begets love.

In 5:4 the author swings back to the issue of right belief. In 4:1-6 he had used the language of victory in the context of not submitting to the false beliefs espoused by those in conflict with the author. The same image occurs in 2:12-14 in association with the 'young men' and is linked with the threat of the world (2:15-17) and associated with that is the comment about the antichrists who espouse false teaching about Christ (2:18-19). These links reappear in a new form in 5:4. Again we have victory over the world. In 5:4 'faith' does not mean the act of believing so much as it does right belief. The opponents also believed that Jesus is the Son of God - but not in the way the author does. In 4:2 the false prophets who claim the Spirit's inspiration are said to be denying that Jesus Christ came in the flesh. That is also the issue in the opening statement of the letter, where seeing, hearing and physically handling are emphasised (1:1-3). Jesus was a real human being in history.

5:5 shows us more about the belief which the author is countering. These people are apparently happy to assert Jesus came by/in water, but not by/in blood. What might they have believed? If water alludes to baptism and blood to Jesus' death, then they might have espoused the view that Jesus was baptised but did not really die. Perhaps they thought the Spirit or Christ entered Jesus at his baptism and returned before the death, a position we often call adoptionist. Then the issue would be the separation of Christ from Jesus as two persons. The rest of the letter does not indicate that this is the problem. Rather the issue seems to be the real humanity of Jesus. It is more likely that these people considered Jesus so divine that they were happy to speak of his baptism, but not of real human death; his being was such that he was not a full human being of flesh and blood. He only seemed like a human being. This is usually designated a docetic (dokeo - I seem) christology.

We find some evidence in John's community that this was a problem when we read in John 19:34-35 about the spearing of Jesus on the cross. The narrative says blood and water came out of the body - exactly what they would have expected of a normal human being. 19:35 then gives major emphasis to the fact that this was really so: 'And the one who saw it has testified and his testimony is true and he knows that he is speaking the truth, so that you may believe'. Obviously someone was disputing it! Those disputing it were not saying only water came out - as one could interpret 5:5 - but were saying that no such thing happened because Jesus Christ was not a human being.

So in 5:5 the author appears to be dealing with a problem that would arise again in the second century. Its basis is not lack of faith, but an enthusiasm that goes too far in hailing Jesus' divinity to a point where the real human Jesus is denied. Its modern forms appear when people portray Jesus as a superman: never troubled, never sad, always on top of things, and then present Christianity as a recipe for triumphant living. They forget Gethsemane and the cross. This sometimes takes the form of the crass propaganda of consumerist Christianity - promising wealth and success. It can also emerge in much less dramatic contexts where people have a sense of failure for being depressed or going through hard times because if only they 'would trust and obey' they 'would be happy in Jesus'. The 'happy Jesus' does not measure up with the Christ of the cross.

Denying the humanity of Jesus is often associated with denying other people's humanity and our own. The author links loving God with right belief about Jesus and he links such right belief with loving people which also must include taking their humanity seriously. 3:17 shows the 'spiritual' believers who had left the community neglected both.

In their defense however we need to acknowledge that wherever John's gospel is taken literally as a historical description of Jesus this danger is present, because the author of the gospel revels in portraying a Jesus larger than life who embodies and expresses in every scene a supernatural knowledge and power which goes far beyond anything we find in the other gospels. If people do not recognise that dramatic intent, it is not difficult to conclude that the Jesus of John is not really human. The fourth gospel doubtless inspired the error - and still does. But that is a misreading. Already in the final levels of redaction (such as in the incident with the blood and water but also in the final discourses) we can see that the author is worried about potential splits in the community over the matter. John 17 has Jesus pray for unity. 1 John is evidence that the concerns were well founded and the split eventuated. The splits keep happening - and we keep praying for unity and wholeness.

Gospel: Easter 6: 13 May John 15:9-17

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