St. Peter Baptizing the Centurion Cornelius, Francesco Trevisani (1656-1746)
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Sixth Sunday of Easter
1 John 4:7-10
May 9, 2021
One of the most beloved verses in Scripture is John 3:16:
For God so loved the world(Jn 3:16)
that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him
might not perish
but might have eternal life
It is very beautiful and moving but somewhat vague.
The lines that follow can be easily misinterpreted as meaning that we be saved, receive eternal life, by mentally acknowledging the mission and divinity of Jesus.
For God did not send his Son into the world(Jn 3:17–18)
to condemn the world, but
that the world might be saved through him.
Whoever believes in him
will not be condemned, but
whoever does not believe
has already been condemned,
because he has not believed
in the name of the only Son of God
Some readers of John the Evangelist, the author of the Gospel, would have interpreted this passage in this way. (Please see the commentary for April 17, 2021 for an explanation of the different people to whom we apply the name John.) Love is important in every time and place, but the word has many different meanings. A twentieth century theologian wrote that love has run through our times like a greased pig. Love always makes itself felt but the meaning is hard to grasp onto. Most people would define love as a feeling and often merely being polite and “nice.”
There is no universal definition of love for Gentiles in the time of the early church. Yet most would define it as something to do with two people forming a union for mutual betterment. It was most clearly seen when two noble and good people gave the best of themselves to each other. It would rarely have been directed to God at all for as the Greek philosopher Protagoras wrote “man was the measure of all things.”
As with so much else in his Gospel, John the Evangelist took his understanding of love from the experience of the Jewish people for whom “God is the measure of all things.” When they looked at their history, they saw that God was very involved in it and they called that participation “love.” Love was not deduced but experienced and indeed experienced as a people.
John the Presbyter (elder) wrote this letter to correct some of the misconceptions developed by later Christians. Many if not most of these occurred because these new Christians were unfamiliar with Judaism.
The first is that love comes from God. It is “not that we have loved God, but that he loved us.” (1 John 4:10) This means not only that God has loved us first but that we must gain our understanding of the meaning of love from him. Any idea of love which is not based on the experience of God is, at very least, inadequate.
Jesus, the word of God, is the clearest expression of God.
In this way the love of God was revealed to us:(1 Jn 4:9)
God sent his only Son into the world
so that we might have life through him.
It is in the life of Jesus that we experience the love of God at its clearest.
As we have seen time and again in this letter, this love is revealed at its fullest in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is the self-sacrifice of the Good Shepherd which both shows us how deep the love of God is but also allows us to participate in it and receive this new life.
We are explicitly told that the Father “sent his Son as expiation for our sins.” (1 Jn 4:10
As noted previously, the word we translate as “expiation” is used nowhere else in the New Testament than 1 John. The Presbyter gives his readers a lesson in Judaism. He says that Jesus is “expiation for our sins.” The Greek word hiasmos would have been understood as “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Even people born pagans would have understood that a sacrifice was a physical event which formed a relationship with God. The presbyter then reminds them that the Jews understood this relationship to require living in a certain way.
Next week’s reading will direct our attention to the practical living out of this way of life. This week we need to look rather as to the meaning of “knowing” God. John the Presbyter again must show his Gentile readers that “knowing” and “believing” were experiential. We know God, not merely things or teachings about him, by experiencing him most importantly in Jesus. When we love each other with a love that, however dimly, reflects the love that Jesus has for us we show that we know God. This love reveals that we are truly begotten by God, that is we are his children. No matter what else we do or say or can be said about us if we are not loving like Jesus, we do not know God and are not begotten by him.
John knows how important love is because it is only in the practical experience of loving each other that we “know” God. The love that reveals God is one in which the person sacrifices him or herself for the good of others. As we have seen knowing the scriptures is important indeed essential to putting and keeping us on the right track but that is just the first step. All the talk about love, all the study about love is nothing if there is not the experience of love, the experience of God that connects us with others.
It is often said that love is “divine” and it is indeed wonderful. Both John the Evangelist and John the Presbyter remind us that for Christians calling love divine in not an analogy but a statement of fact. Love that understands itself purely humanly may be noble and good but will not explain reality and ultimately and occasionally tragically will fall short. This divine love is extended to all, but Christians have the great gift of knowing from whom it comes and should act accordingly. By loving as Jesus, Christians will show that we have the answers to all the problems of life to a world that is discovering that it has the answers to none.