Category: Gospel of John

Born of God — Lectionary Reflection for Easter 6B (1 John 5)

1 John 5:1-9 New Revised Standard Version

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree. If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son.

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                Jesus’ famous conversation with Nicodemus focused on the question of what it means to be born again/born from above (Jn. 3:1-10). Nicodemus had a difficult time getting his head around Jesus’ words because he was taking them literally. In doing that, he missed the point of rebirth. That is, to be in Christ is to become a new creation. Literalism too often gets in the way of hearing the message of Jesus.  Such was the case with Nicodemus. We encounter a similar word here in chapter 5 of 1 John. The author of the letter/sermon, who is known as John, speaks of being born of God, which I take to be the same as we read in John 3 (especially if we read this as being “born from above.” Rebirth here as in John 3 is connected to belief in Jesus as the Christ/Messiah. In other words, there is a lot of overlap between 1 John 5 and John 3.

                The imagery here is familial. John continues to envision the church as a family, in fact, the church is understood to be the children of God. To believe in Jesus as the Christ is to take on a new identity. We become part of a new family. John once again uses the language of love, noting that those who love the Father will love the child. So, if we if love God, we will love God’s children (the church).  We do this by loving God, which involves keeping God’s commandments. John doesn’t specify the nature of the commandments here, but he insists they are not burdensome. I would say that for John belief and obedience to the commands are one and the same. In other words, to believe that Jesus is the Christ is not simply giving assent to a creedal statement. It involves living for Jesus by obeying the commands of God. If we do this, then we will conquer the world. To put it differently, believing and loving, require doing. Lindsey Jodrey picks up on this noting that in Johannine literature, with the one exception of 1 John 4, where the Greek noun pistis is found, belief is understood to be a verb. Jodrey writes that “For John, one does not have faith. Rather, one believes. It is something you do, a muscle that you exercise. John cannot conceive of disembodied, inactive
‘faith’” [Connections, p. 274].  

                The reference to conquering the world reminds us that the early Christians held an apocalyptic worldview. They assumed that they were engaged in cosmic battles. We see this in the Gospels, in Paul’s letters, and in Revelation. It’s present here as well. From an apocalyptic viewpoint, the assumption is that the old world is passing away and a new world is emerging. To believe is to participate in this cosmic battle, though the weapons used here are not physical. They’re spiritual in nature. The good news that John has for us is that in this cosmic battle, God has the upper hand. In fact, that’s why we believe Jesus is the Christ. It is in his death and resurrection that victory has been achieved.

                This becomes clear in verse 6. Victory comes through belief/affirmation that Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is the one who came by water and blood. The Spirit testifies to this truth. So what does John mean by this? To be honest it is not clear. John may have in mind the birth of Jesus (water) and death (blood). There may also be sacramental connections—baptism (water) and eucharist (blood). It’s unlikely that John has a sacramental meaning in mind, so more likely we’re talking of Jesus’ birth and death being the key to victory.  The verse ends with an affirmation of the
witness of the Spirit of Truth.

                The reading from 1 John 5 ends, according to the lectionary, in verse 6. However, verses 7-9 are worth considering, as they add depth to the statement in verse six concerning the witness of the water, blood, and the Spirit. John writes that the water, blood, and Spirit all agree concerning the coming of Jesus. There is a trinitarian feel to the statement, but we shouldn’t push that too far. But, the point here is that they all agree concerning the ministry/person of Jesus, and beyond that God’s testimony is greater than any human testimony (the testimony of the Spirit). As we read this closing argument it appears that John is countering a docetic Christology that denies the messiness of the incarnation (water of birth and blood of his death). That does seem as if it is a major concern for the congregation, as the infiltrators who have disrupted congregational life may have been denying the reality of Jesus’ physical existence, including his death. But, the Spirit of God bears witness to the truth that is revealed in the messiness of water and blood.  

                This gets us back to the opening lines concerning John’s reference to the children of God, those who are born of God. It’s appropriate for us to think here in familial terms, with John taking on a paternal role in his concern for the community’s welfare. This is the family of God and together they experience victory in Jesus. That is a good thing to remember in this individualistic world we live in. While the reasons why a “spiritual but not religious” movement has emerged, one that tends not to be institutionally connected, is understandable, John would have trouble conceiving of such an entity. The individualistic side of this movement is a modern reality, that presumes we’re all free agents, able to
connect with God on our own terms. John envisions instead a family into which we’ve been born. Here John is concerned about the threat of division. Schism was considered a great sin by the ancient church because it tore apart the family. It undermines the principle of love. God is love, and those born of God will love their siblings because that’s what family does. So, together as members of the family of God working together in the power of the Spirit we can conquer the world!

 Note: For more on 1 John, I suggest my book  The Letters of John: A Participatory Guide (Energion Publications, 2019).

Walking in the Light of God – Lectionary Reflection for Easter 2B (1 John 1-2)

1 John 1:1-2:2  New Revised Standard Version

 

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him, there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.  

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

 

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                Jesus has risen from the dead. That is the good news we proclaimed once again on Easter Sunday. We will continue to celebrate that message until we reach Pentecost Sunday (though in reality, we should celebrate the resurrection every Sunday and not just during one season of the year). The Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter takes us to the story of Thomas’s encounter with the risen Christ. He won’t believe the message of the resurrection until he sees Jesus for himself. Thomas gets his wish. As for the rest of us, Jesus tells Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn. 20:19-31).

                As a reflection of what we read in the Gospel of John, the reading from 1 John, which accompanies the reading from the Gospel (the epistle readings for Year B come from 1 John—see my book The Letters of John: A Participatory Study Guide for more background on this letter). In this epistle, or perhaps better, this sermon, the author of 1 John writes: We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 Jn. 1:1). This is the word to those of us, who, unlike Thomas, do not have the benefit of a personal visitation from the risen Christ. We might not have the opportunity to see or to touch him in the way Thomas is said to have experienced the resurrection. Nevertheless, we can receive this testimony offered by the author of John and in believing it, we can receive the eternal
life that God has for those who believe. Having received the testimony, the admonition is to walk in the light, as God is light.

                Regarding this letter that looks more like a sermon or an essay than a letter, we know not its author or the date of its creation. Tradition connects it with John, son of Zebedee. It is presumed by tradition to share its authorship with the author of the Gospel of John. It does have similarities in style and vocabulary. We cannot know any of this for sure, but it likely comes from the same community that produced the Gospel. 

                This is the message that the author wants to pass on to the community: “God is light and in him there is no
darkness at all” (vs. 5). Not only is God light, but “if we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true” (vs. 6). On the other hand, “if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (vs. 7). John connects God’s identity as light to our walk of faith. Fellowship is dependent on walking in the light of Christ. As Charles Couser points out, that ‘light’ is not a cosmic or intellectual symbol but is clearly an ethical one.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 397]. We are called upon to walk in the light, but John is realistic. He understands that we are likely to sin and fall short of what it means to walk in the light. In fact, if we say we do not sin, then we lie. But, if While sin is likely to occur, they will be cleansed from sin through the blood of Jesus. John seems to understand that sin is likely to occur because he tells the reader that if we say we do not sin, we lie, but if we confess our sins, that is, we’re honest about who we are, then we will be forgiven.  

                When it comes to sin, John wants to encourage his readers to pursue a life without sin. That should be our goal, to live in perfect harmony with the will of God. However, sin is likely to persist. So, this call to live a life without sin is aspirational. Now, John, at least to this point in the sermon, hasn’t defined sin, but we can use our own definitions of sin to interpret the message here.

                Although John is realistic about our propensity to sin, he does offer a solution to our problem with sin. When it comes to the propensity to sin, we are told that we have an advocate, a defense attorney, who will speak on our behalf. The Greek word translated here as “advocate” is parakletos. It’s the same word that appears in the Gospel of John, where Jesus speaks of the coming of the Spirit (Jn.16:7-11). In this case, the author of the letter uses parakletos to describe the work Jesus engages in as our advocate when charged with a propensity to sin. Not only does Jesus serve as our advocate, but he is also the atoning sacrifice for our sins and the sins of the entire world (1 Jn 2:1-2). Even as John doesn’t define what he means by sin, he doesn’t define atonement (Gk. Hilasmos). It’s unlikely that John has in mind here a form of penal substitution. Quite possibly he has in mind the idea that was prominent in Jewish literature of the era, in which the intercession of martyrs on behalf of the people might bring forgiveness (2 Maccabees 12:39-45). There is nothing here about the death of Jesus placating an angry God. What he does assume is that Jesus’ death on the cross mediates to us God’s forgiveness, doing so as our intercessor/advocate. He does this not for us only, but for the kosmos as well. Thanks be to God! And let us also walk in the light, even as God is light!

 

LeCompte, Rowan and Irene LeCompte. Christ shows himself to Thomas, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54879 [retrieved April 4, 2021]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/maryannsolari/5119341372/.