1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Gospel of John and the Letters of John were all written, if not by the same person, then by members of the same community, in situations of conflict and anxiety. The Gospel was written as tensions between the Christ-following community and the others in the synagogue where they worshiped came to a head, and the Christ-followers were driven out. The Letters were written in the face of a new conflict within the community.
When we read the New Testament, and indeed the entire Bible, we find ourselves in effect reading other people’s’ mail. The first writers and readers of the Biblical texts were privy to a great deal of information about the life and history of the communities for which they were writing that we simply know nothing about, to say nothing of cultural data that are at best unfamiliar to nonspecialists and at worst unknown even to scholars.
There are places where First John seems maddeningly obscure, where the text is grammatically ambiguous, where we long for some additional context that would clarify one issue or another. Raymond Brown, often considered the dean of twentieth-century New Testament scholars, wrote a commentary of more than 800 pages on the three short documents that we call First, Second, and Third John, much of it dedicated to elucidating various difficulties and making educated guesses about the details of the underlying situation But for all the difficulties in this literature, the main point of contention is actually quite clear. It’s repeated rather frequently, in ways that might make the reader wonder about how best to follow the author’s train of thought but leave no doubt about his preoccupation.
The author of the First Epistle of John proclaimed the coming of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, the eternal Word of God, in the flesh. The opponents against whom the Epistle was written denied this in some way, likely teaching some form of an old heresy called docetism: believing that Jesus was some kind of spiritual apparition and not really a human being. According to this teaching, Jesus seemed to live a human life, seemed to suffer and die on a cross, but didn’t actually do any of that.
And this, we read in the First Epistle of John, simply won’t do. For one thing, the commandment that Jesus gave to his disciples to love one another–a commandment that First John repeats and refers to constantly–has a different force if it comes from a disembodied spiritual being who only appears to be human, as opposed to a very real flesh-and-blood man who is about to feel the nails being driven into his wrists and feet. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” said Jesus to his disciples. These were no empty words; they were not the words of a far off king or spiritual guru giving instructions to his lowly followers to undertake something he considered completely beneath him. They were the words of someone with skin in the game–real, physical, vulnerable skin.
And on the other hand, as the passage we read today teaches us, Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection give us hope and courage whenever we face any kind of fear, any kind of trial, any kind of suffering. When Jesus came in the flesh, with all the joy and sorrow, pleasure and suffering, that a human body is subject to, God’s very self was joined to humankind.
And when God raised Jesus from the dead, that meant God’s victory over every weakness, sorrow, and suffering that humankind may undergo. That was the victory; that was the conquest; and we share in that conquest through faith in Christ, who came to be a human like you and me, suffered sorrow and pain like you and I do, died like you and I will, and rose from the grave–as you and I will also.
Thanks be to God!