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Fellowship Based on a Common Profession of Faith

{ Tags: , \ Jan5 }

The first letter of John is the liturgy’s Christmas treat. We began reading it during the weekdays following Christmas and will be reading it until the week after Epiphany Sunday, the traditional closing feast of the Christmas season. That the letter is read during Christmas should not be a surprise since Christmas is the celebration of God’s gift of self in Christ, the Love that is born of a virgin.

The letter provides snippets of thought that preachers readily incorporate into their sermon, especially when the topic is about social justice (cf. 1 Jn. 3:17), spiritual discernment (1 Jn. 4:1), love (1 Jn. 4:7-8), prayer (1 Jn. 5:14-15). I say “snippets” because when seen in their proper context, John’s first letter can be difficult to understand.

Scholars date it to about 100 AD and locate Ephesus as the place where it was written. The author while he may not be the same one who authored the Gospel of John is generally described as intellectually belonging to the Johanine tradition. The intent of the letter is pastoral, that is, it is directed to helping the author’s community of faith remain in fellowship. There has been a schism within the community; some of their members have left. The author calls them “anti-christs” (1 Jn. 2:18). They have ceased from professing the truth about Jesus Christ and have broken fellowship. The core of the message is found in 1 Jn. 3:23: “This is the commandment: that we should believe in the name of Jesus Christ… and that we love one another just as he had commanded us”. Just who this group was and what kind of Jesus they professed has been studied. It is suggested that these may be the Docetists, those who claimed that Jesus Christ is not God-incarnate but God-appearing-as-human. The Gnostics taught the same thing. These are a group that considered itself harbingers of a secret knowledge that has been left by Christ who they thought to be Divine but never human. In 2:20, the author distinguishes his addressees from those he calls “antichrists” by saying: “You have been anointed by the Holy One … and all of you have gnosis (knowledge)”. By this he meant what has been received “from the beginning”, the preaching of the apostles.

Below is a thumbnail of a graphic outline I prepared for the first letter of John, click on it for the larger picture.

Click here for a larger view

The first letter of John is difficult to break into an outline since the flow of the argument appears to be spiral, not linear as we are accustomed to. The points of the spiral are the themes of life, love and truth which are all found in God who is light. To abide in God is to abide in life (eternal life), truth (the confession of the truth about Jesus) and love (fellowship with those who have experienced God’s love in Christ). If we keep this in mind, the following sub-divisions should be understandable

1:1-2:17
This letter is about the life that is the light (cf. Jn. 1:4). Where there is LIGHT, there is TRUTH about Christ and the LOVE of those in fellowship with us
2:18-3:10
The antichrists, in not professing the Truth about Christ have also shown they were not of us when they left our fellowship. In this they show they are not “of God” but “of the Devil”.
3:11-4:21
Let us love one another, (remaining in fellowship) showing it in concrete ways as those who have experienced God’s love.
5:1-12
Let us profess the Truth about Christ. Our profession is bolstered by testimonies that are reliable.
5:13-21
Summary and Conclusion: Do not pray for those in mortal sin (= the sin of apostasy?). Keep away from idolatry (=the idolatry of false doctrines)

1:1-2:17 defines the purpose of the message (fellowship) the premise (“If we say…”) and the addressees (children, fathers, young people, that is, parents, sons and daughters, all of which are children of God) and their primary commitment, to do the will of God.

2:18-3:10 addresses the concern that has arisen due to certain people who have broken the fellowship. By breaking fellowship, they have shown “hate” towards the community, a “hate” that mirrors that of the world that hates Christ and those who belong to him (cf. Jn. 15:18-25). To break fellowship is a sin, a refusal to do what is right.

3:11-4:21

is a description of the kind of love that should reign within the community of faith. It is a love where each one is ready to give up one’s life for the other. It is the love of those who have experienced God’s love expressed in Christ who laid down his life for others. That love is also expressed in one’s obedience to the apostles (cf. 4:6).

In 5:1-12 the author describes the kind of witnesses that testify to the truth of the profession about Christ: blood, water and the Spirit. The insistence is on the reality of the death of Christ which is denied by Docetists and Gnostics. The blood and the water are those that flowed from the broken heart of Christ. The Spirit, is the breath that he handed over. All three are featured in Jn. 19:30.34.

The concluding words refer back to some of the ideas in the letter. In 1 Jn. 5:16-17 the author distinguishes between mortal and non mortal sin. On this is based the Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sin. The final exhortation in verse 21 is about idolatry. This is not about images but — using the tenor of the letter as our basis — the idolatry of false doctrines such as professed by the antichrists.

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