Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles, Duccio di Buoninsegna, c. 1308 – 1311,
Museo dell’Opera metropolitana del Duomo (Siena)
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Seventh Sunday of Easter
1 John 4:11-16
May 16, 2021
Paraphrasing an old Italian saying the 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote: “Man is neither angel nor beast, and unhappily whoever wants to act the angel, acts the beast.”
John the Presbyter (elder) shares this concern. (For background on the authorship of John’s letters, see the commentary for April 11, 2021) We have followed him these six Sundays of Easter and saw that the community his great predecessors the Evangelist and the Beloved Disciple formed and inspired had become fractured and divided over the nature of sin and redemption. The differences had become so complete that he referred to his opponents as “antichrists.”
As we come to the end of our reading of the first letter of John, is there a lesson for us? Unfortunately, there is, and it is both timeless and timely.
Scholars are not certain what exactly the opponents of John believed but, as we have seen, they thought that because they intellectually accepted the truth that Jesus brought new life, they were then free of sin.
This is understandable. We will read in this week’s Gospel:
They do not belong to the world,(Jn 17:16–17)
just as I do not belong to the world.
Sanctify them in the truth;
your word is truth.
Passages like this need to be read with a knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures. Many of the people who entered the community that began around the Beloved Disciple did not have the necessary sympathy or understanding of the Old Testament and read this as a license to live as they desired. We see this as well with St. Paul especially in the letters to the Corinthians.
This is timeless because a desire to be freed from sin without having to examine ourselves or change our way of living is deep-seated and not limited to any time or place. The 20th century American historian H. Richard Niebuhr wrote that most Christians desired, “a God without wrath (who) brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”
The more things change the more they remain the same.
John the Presbyter is telling his people that as St. Matthew says: “By your fruits, you shall know them.” He is asking the people who follow him to look at how they are behaving and contrast it with his opponents. Sweet words and even profound theology are not enough, we must show that we have loved each other.
We have seen that this means sacrifice especially in giving of oneself (see the commentary for April 18, 2021) and care of the poor.
The writings of John have emphasized that the power of God is here and now and having reminded us again “that if God so loved us, we also must love one another” (1 John 4:11) he tells us that “No one has ever seen God” (1 John 4:12a)
This is a clear echo from the prologue of John’s Gospel:
No one has ever seen God.(Jn 1:18)
It is God the only Son,
who is close to the Father’s heart,
who has made him known.
This is made even clearer later in the body of the Gospel: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)
Thus, the conclusion:
Yet, if we love one another,(1 Jn 4:12b)
God remains in us, and
his love is brought to perfection in us.
The love that God has showed us reaches its conclusion, “perfection,” when we love others. This we cannot do alone and will always be part of being a Christian.
This is how we know that we remain in him(1 Jn 4:13)
and he in us,
that he has given us of his Spirit
The Spirit is the abiding presence of God through which we can continue to abide in him and love each other.
On this we will be judged. John’s opponents do not believe that they will need to be judged because their, very un-Jewish, understanding that Jesus as savior does not require it.
The Spirit is the Paraclete, our advocate, who will be with us when we are judged. This section continues with:
In this is love brought to perfection among us,(1 Jn 4:17)
that we have confidence on the day of judgment
because as he is, so are we in this world.
In this world we must seek to love each other:
This is the commandment we have from him:(1 Jn 4:21)
whoever loves God must also love his brother.
We began by saying that this is not only not only timeless but timely and we can understand that by asking who are my brothers and sisters?
Most Christians would answer everyone. This is correct but John indeed all the writers of the New Testament have a more practical bent. To understand we must again go to the Old Testament first.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin;(Le 19:17–18)
you shall reprove your neighbor,
or you will incur guilt yourself.
You shall not take vengeance or
bear a grudge against any of your people,
but you shall love your neighbor as yourself:
I am the LORD.
Neighbor here is the equivalent of brother or sister. It usually means a member of the house of Israel. It came also to include resident aliens or others favorable to Israel:
God executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and(Dt 10:18–19)
who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.
You shall also love the stranger,
for you were strangers in the land of Egypt
Part of the horror that John the Elder felt in writing this letter was that some of his own spiritual family had failed as neighbors. They understood that to fulfill their role of bringing Jesus to the world they would need to be neighbors to each other.
We see this overflow of love most clearly in the Good Samaritan. The man beaten and left by the road as a member of Israel had a claim on the Priest and Levite but none on the Samaritan, not only a foreigner but an enemy. Yet it is he who the Jewish audience of Luke must answer was the true neighbor: the brother.
As we reopen and refocus for the new world into which we will enter, we need to recognize that we will need the Spirit to abide in the true love which treats all as brothers and sisters. John knew that his community had become so divided that it could no longer be able to be the presence of Jesus in the world. We will need to know the same. The church, to be blunt, our parish can offer nothing to our community unless we first offer love to our fellow parishioners.