Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Fifth Sunday of Easter
1 John 3:18-24
May 2, 2021
Have you ever been asked if you were “saved” and felt that you didn’t quite know the answer John the Presbyter (elder) who wrote the first letter of John will help us answer this from today’s reading.
If the person who asked the question is a traditional Protestant, he is assuming that to be saved means to have had a strong and unmistakable experience that God has chosen you for his own. If she has a good grounding in Calvinism, she knows that this reflects the belief that humankind is hopelessly corrupt and broken, and even God cannot make us holy and whole. Therefore, God accepts – saves – some people by ignoring their sins. They are not changed by God’s grace, it is a free and gratuitous gift of God. Therefore, after one has had this experience, a person cannot be unsaved. It is permanent. No wonder that it is called being “born again.”
There is a great truth here. No one can save himself; God’s action must come first and is absolutely necessary. Yet Catholicism believes that we are not totally corrupt. God’s grace – that is a relationship with Jesus – can change us so that we become more like Him. Therefore, although the church has an ancient and well-developed mystical tradition, no one experience of God is definitive. Although our actions cannot save us, they will show if we are in a right relationship with God. The Catholic question is “Is your conscience clear?” After examining our consciences, do we find ourselves free of Mortal – deadly – sin which would sever our relationship with God?
John the Presbyter addresses this basic issue. (See the commentary from April 18 for more background on John the Presbyter)
In the section before our reading today, he writes of love:
The way we came to know love(1 Jn 3:16)
was that he laid down his life for us;
so we ought to lay down our lives
for our brothers.
We learn love from Jesus most especially by his offering of his life on the cross for us That Jesus really and truly died and rose in his body as we have seen before was denied by some of the people to who John was writing. Yet self-sacrifice is the essence of love for John. (See last week’s Gospel on the Good Shepherd). Love must also take on flesh, be real and effective.
If someone who has worldly means(1 Jn 3:17)
sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion,
how can the love of God remain in him?
Love is revealed in the way we live our lives in the flesh. Thus, he first line of today’s reading:
Children, let us love not in word or speech(1 Jn 3:18)
but in deed and truth.
Deed and truth are both necessary.
Some of the people to whom John the Presbyter is writing may have misunderstood John the Evangelist on salvation.
For God so loved the world(Jn 3:16–17)
that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him
might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son
into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.
Like Calvinists they seem to have believed that once one had a relationship with Jesus you were beyond sin. Indeed, at the beginning of the letter the Presbyter writes;
If we say, “We are without sin,”(1 Jn 1:8-9)
we deceive ourselves, and
the truth is not in us.
If we acknowledge our sins,
he is faithful and just and
will forgive our sins and
cleanse us from every wrongdoing
Today he clarifies what he means. If we cannot assume salvation, how will we know that we are now enjoying eternal life?
Now this is how we shall know(1 Jn 3:19)
that we belong to the truth and
reassure our hearts before him
If our hearts – conscience – tells us that we have sinned “our hearts condemn us” (1 John 20:a) then we know that God is stronger than any of our sins “for God is greater than our hearts and knows everything” (1 John 20b)
If our conscience tells us that we do not have a serious (mortal) sin, then “we have confidence in God” (1 John 21:b) and we know that we are enjoying eternal psychological introspection but must begin with, of course, a relationship with Jesus and understanding his teachings and the doctrines the church has developed from them.
The Presbyter sums them up succinctly.
And his commandment is this:(1 Jn 3:23)
we should believe in the name of his Son,
Jesus Christ, and love one another
just as he commanded us.
For John “believing in the Name” is to accept that Jesus was fully God and fully man and really died for us and then loving our neighbor. We take this for granted at least intellectually but we must remember that the Presbyter’s audience did not. It is very healthy for us to return to this passage and look at it anew. For our heart to reassure us that we are with God, we must commit ourselves to knowing Jesus as he is and seeking to actively love each other in the most practical sense. Doctrinal formation is needed for conscience formation. Without this our consciences will never be well formed and clear
It is obvious that this reading reflects the concerns and even the language of today’s Gospel. Why then was it needed to be written?
One of the factors is that the new members of the community did not have a firm grasp on Judaism. The author of the Gospel – John the Evangelist – would have assumed that when he spoke of the vine his hearers would have known that he was referring not only to common agricultural practices but also to the “Song of the Vine” in Isaiah. In this beautiful hymn, God tells Israel that he lavished his attention on them, but they rejected him and went wild. (We looked at this passage in the commentary for October 4, 2020)
The key lines are:
He (the LORD) expected justice,(Is 5:7)
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry
The cry is the cry of the poor which is always heard. Jews would have understood that there can be no connection with God, in the language of the Gospel, we cannot abide nor remain in him where there is injustice. Non-Jews or those who did not spend time with the Jewish scriptures would not have understood the reference and not experienced the imperative.
There are many lessons to be learned from this passage. We can see why the church has developed the understanding of conscience and the preferential option for the poor. But as we read through both the Gospel and the Epistles of John we can see as well why we accept the Jewish scriptures as being not only inspired but important for us today. As St Augustine said: “The New Testament is concealed in the Old, and the Old Testament is revealed in the New.”