This week’s readings certainly challenge us to explore what it means to live in love and unity together. This is especially the case with our second reading. Somewhat unusually, this is also almost the same text as our second reading last week. Certainly it deserves attention. For this reading is drawn from the First Letter attributed to John: a letter which takes us deep into the intense Christian disputes and theological divisions of the first two centuries of Christian Faith. For make no mistake, Christians have always had arguments with one another...
The letters of John, scholars tell us, are likely to have been written by one or more people who shared the same church traditions as the person, or persons, who wrote the Gospel of John. We can see that, can’t we, by the language which is used: such as the repeated emphasis on words like love, light, and life in Christ. This is different language from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and from that of Paul’s letters. For what we find in 1 John is an attempt to help Christians keep to the heart of the Faith proclaimed in John’s Gospel, in the face of new questions which had arisen. Naturally, as time went by, the Gospel of John had been used and interpreted in different ways by different people within the Church. They were developing their understanding of what it meant to be Christian, all of them based on the same Gospel of John. How then should Christians proceed together? This is the question our reading today seeks to help answer.
What we have in 1 John is an example of what we also have to do in our own day. For we must honour and use the wisdom of Faith which has come down to us, not least in the Gospels. Yet we also have to work out together what this means in our own circumstances. In the case of 1 John, the author was no longer facing the kind of external conflict, with the Jews, which is clearly reflected in the Gospel of John. Instead, I John is concerned with conflict within Christianity itself, in the context of new concerns which had arisen. So the theology of 1 John, though using similar words, is slightly different from the Gospel of John, in order to address these different issues.
Above all, the author of 1 John was concerned with Christian disunity. For there were some who had split from his own Church tradition and were speaking about Jesus Christ in ways which seemed to be betray that tradition, although they were clearly drawing upon it themselves. Most likely these people were some part of the very broad movement which we now call gnostic Christianity. This took various forms, all drawing upon biblical and existing Church teaching. In the case of the opponents of 1 John, these were probably people who, like the Gospel of John, held a very high understanding of Jesus Christ as God and Saviour. However, to the concern of the author of I John, they seemed to neglect the full humanity of Jesus. Consequently, 1 John argues strongly that salvation rests securely on the down-to-earth witness of Jesus, and on attention to down-to-earth aspects of Christian life, like baptism, sacramental and sacrificial living, and sharing in the Holy Spirit in the Church as a whole. Indeed, as we hear in our reading today, 1 John insists that we can only really share God’s eternal life if we share, or abide, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This, as I said last week, as the Gospel of John says, is not primarily a matter of what we believe, in the sense of what we think in our heads about Jesus. Rather it is a matter of we how we share in the life of prayer and love which flows between Jesus Christ and the Father, which, vitally, includes abiding in the love and unity of the Church. The major fault of those whom I John was criticising was not that they were immoral. They seem to have lived well. Nor where they lacking in attention to Christian theology or witness. Indeed, it seems as if, in their own day, they were actually being successful in growing churches. No, their principal sin was that they were cutting themselves off from others because of their sense of rightness about their own interpretation of the bible and Christian tradition. For as I John chapter 4 says, ‘God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God in them… Those who say ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.’ In other words, Christian Unity is not an optional extra. It is at the very centre of what it means to be in relationship with God. For in Christ, we are already all one. We cannot ultimately live apart from one another, for to do so, as I John says, is to live apart from God.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel that 1 John is the very greatest book in the Bible. In contrast to the Gospel of John, it is a little narrower in its understanding of God’s love for all creation. It is certainly also a little intemperate in its use of language to criticise its opponents: not least in its use of terms like ‘antichrist’ to attack them. Today, especially after the bloodshed of Christian history, we do well to be a little kinder in our conduct of Christian arguments. Yet 1 John is a vital corrective to our human tendency to distance ourselves from other with whom we disagree. It is a reminder that schism, i.e separation from others, is a more damning sin than heresy, i.e not getting our beliefs right. Christian history is littered with examples of Christians who have gone off into new churches full of confidence that they and only they have the right beliefs or the right morality. That still happens today among us. The truth is that we belong together and we need each other. It can be hard at times, but we need each other to keep us honest, to keep us humble, to keep us human. Catholic need Protestants, conservatives need liberals, contemporary evanglicals need the Orthodox. For there is no perfect Church on earth. There is a perfect Church, but it is not Anglican, or Roman Catholic, or Orthodox, Uniting, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, or any of the myriad of other more recent denominations. The perfect Church lives only in God, through Jesus Christ, with all our different gifts and imperfections. It is created and sustained by the love of God, through which, and only through which, we have life and life in all its fullness. In the name of that one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Jon Inkpin, for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Easter 7 Year B, Sunday 17 May 2015