First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Easter 7

William Loader

Easter 7:  20 May  1 John 5:9-13

The letter is reaching its climax. 'Testimony' or 'witness' is legal language. It is used frequently in the Gospel of John. It is a very strong way of affirming something as true. The emphasis here is on the testimony which God has given. We might ask: about what? What truth is on trial? The answer lies in what precedes: that Jesus really did come in the flesh and really did die! Jesus was real. That is God's testimony about his Son. The writer sees this as critical.

5:10 adds an argument that this truth is self-authenticating. He is probably thinking of the Spirit in the believer. It is like the anointing referred to in 2:20 and 26-27, which teaches people they are right (a daring and dangerous idea). Those who do not believe this about God's Son - that he came in the flesh - make God out to be a liar. This is very strong language, reminiscent of 1:8-10. Eternal life depends on faith in God's Son and believing about him in a particular way. Without such belief there is no life. As our comments on the Gospel passage note, we are seeing here the early hints of a movement which would later produce the Gospel of Judas and its like, in which Jesus' materiality, his flesh and blood, is seen as only an encumbrage, product of a depraved deity, from which Judas' deed will liberate the real Jesus within, through his death. The author of 1 John sees clearly the perversion of history and of spirituality which such dualism promotes. 

Lifted from their context, 5:11-12 can stand on their own away from the heat of controversy as general statements of truth. In their context they are part of a highly charged argument. 5:13 also sounds very general, but it,. too, belongs in this specific context. The letter is concerned that people get it right, because their eternal life depends on it. The set passage ends with 5:13. The argument does not. It asserts the confidence of those who believe rightly: God hears them when they pray (5:14-15). But now in 5:16-17 they are told not even to pray for those who do not believe the right way and have left the community. Their sin is unpardonable. Don't pray that it be pardoned - is what 5:17 really means. Then 5:18-20 state reassuring words to those truly born of God, who believe aright. 5:21 ends the letter or sermon with a cutting blow: keep yourselves from idols! Idolatry is an entirely new topic and comes as a surprise until you realise that it is equating the other Christian group with idolaters.

In the heat of conflict, claims are made which we would no longer affirm. We have learned not to write off those who disagree with us and never to close the door on forgiveness. It took the church a long time and much anguish, especially after widespread apostasy in times of persecution, to win through to the affirmation that love never ends. It should have been there for us already in the story of Peter, but sermons like this one and Hebrews (especially 6:4-6) reinforced the unforgiving approach.

Was it all worth the struggle? Did it matter? While we might distance ourselves from some of the author's threats, we cannot lose sight of the positive side. This author affirms eternal life not as something which implies denying our humanity and Christ's, but as something which affirms and expresses itself in and through our humanity. The issue is not a piece of dogmatism of no import, but whether our faith is holistic or not. That has enormous consequences, not only for what we say about Jesus, but also for what we do to each other. That is a constant theme in 1 John. Notice that the ending reasserts values which see human beings able to stand in confidence before God, able to be heard and taken seriously. The 'life' and 'eternal' life which is the author's chief theme as 5:13 states it, echoing the prologue in 1:1-3, is not life in heaven, or life within through mysticism, or life in elation through spiritual gifts and experiences, but life lived out in human and divine relationships of love.

Can we affirm all this and still have blinkers? I think we can. One might say: the author did, at least in stepping away from restorative grace in the part we are not encouraged to read. 1 John is an enigma: wonderful in what it affirms, but rather vacant in what it omits and vagrant in its rejections. Before we moralise, we need to understand that the author is preoccupied with conflict within the community and is not sitting back (or reaching out) to reflect on the plight of all peoples. Christians are the problem and the way they relate to each other. In that crucible of conflict we see bright treasure (God is love!) as well some which love should leave behind. Has anything changed?

Gospel: Easter 7: 20 May John 17:6-19

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