“Little children, love one another” ... Saint John on his death-bed, from the Saint John window in Chartres Cathedral.
I John can be divided into a prologue (1: 1-4), that serves as a commentary on the hymn that is the prologue to the Fourth Gospel (John 1: 1-14); a conclusion (I John 5: 13-21), that draws on the theme of the pre-redactional conclusion of the Fourth Gospel (John 20: 30-31), and two main parts that are marked off by the statement, “This is the message (ἀγγελία, angelia, Gospel) we/you have heard” in I John 1: 5 and I John 3: 11.
Here we turn to the opening of the second main part of the Epistle, which defines the Gospel as: “We should love one another,” and holds up Christ as the example of love for one’s brother and sister.
In this section, Christians are referred to as the children of God, and we are told two things mark the child of God: righteousness and love. Righteousness is the theme of the first 10 verses of this chapter, which we looked at last week. Love is the overwhelmingly dominant theme of this new section, verses 11-24, with verse 10 acting as the transition. This section almost serves as a commentary on that part of the Last Discourse in the Fourth Gospel found in John 15: 12-19.
Once again, we hear the Gospel (ἀγγελία, angelia, message), but in terms of love, rather than light. Hatred is the mark of the children of the evil one and of his domain, but love is the great sign of having passed out of the kingdom of Satan, the kingdom of death.
Because it is enough
Jerome, in his commentary on Galatians 6 (Jerome, Comm. in ep. ad. Gal., 6, 10), tells the well-loved story that John the Evangelist continued preaching even when he was in his 90s and was so enfeebled with old age that they had to carry him into the Church on a stretcher. And when he was no longer able to preach or deliver a long discourse, his custom was to lean up on one elbow on every occasion and say simply: “Little children, love one another.”
This continued on, even when the ageing John was on his death-bed. Then he would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out.
Every week the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, exactly the same message: “Little children, love one another.”
One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?”
And John replied: “Because it is enough.”
If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is. “Little children, love one another.” If you want to know the rules, there they are. And there’s only one. “Little children, love one another.”
As John is concerned, if you have put your trust in Jesus, then there is only one other thing you need to know. So week after week, he would remind them, over and over again: “Little children, love one another.”
That is all he preached in Ephesus, week after week, and that is precisely the message he keeps on repeating in this letter, over and over again: “Little children, love one another.”
It opens this new section in I John: “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” He says it again down in verse 18, “Little children, let us love …,” in verse 23: “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he commanded us.”
He repeats this, over and over again. Faith in Christ and loving one another go hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other. There is no such thing as “loveless Christianity.” It’s like saying you can have a meal without eating anything. Where there is no love there is no Christianity. And John says it over and over again to his readers – because it’s worth repeating, because, indeed, it is enough.
Verse 11 “the message you have heard from the beginning …”
Does this refer to the beginning of the world at creation, or to the beginning of the Church and the teaching of the apostles? Either way, it has always been the same: believers should love one another.
“ … that we should love one another.” That is not merely a duty; it is proof of true Christianity. The heretics boasted of their union with God and their knowledge of the truth, but they had no love for the believers. They separated themselves and lorded their will over them. They had no community spirit.
The heretics, particularly the gnostic heretics, boasted about new teaching. That is why John repeatedly referred back to apostolic authority, which is foundational and unchanging (I John 1: 1, 5; 2: 24). Many new doctrines have come and gone.
When John says we have to love one another, does he mean that as Christians we have to be gushy towards one another all the time? Worse still, romantic, on an emotional high, or even erotic?
Instead of leaving us wondering, John gives us a concrete example of the sort of love he is talking about. Contrasting opposite extremes, he first gives a counter-example, of how not to be, and then follows this with a positive example of how we should be.
In verse 12, John reminds readers of the story in the Book Genesis of Cain and Abel. He says, “We must not be like Cain.” Cain, first-born son of Adam and Eve, was jealous of his brother Abel, who was righteous, and so Cain murdered his brother.
John says this is how the world works. We should not be surprised, brothers and sisters, if the world hates us. The world is like Cain all the time. This verse also reflects the Last Discourse in the Fourth Gospel: “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you” (John 15: 18).
But we should be different. We have moved from death to life. “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another (our brothers and sisters). Whoever does not love abides in death.”
But, unlike the world which acts like Cain, we should be surprised if our Christian brothers hate us.
“All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.” Loving your brother or sister in the faith is one of the key indicators of a genuine Christian. And if we are not doing that, if instead we are hating our Christian brothers or sisters, perhaps we need to have a deep look at ourselves.
But love is about a lot more than just not hating. So, if Cain is the negative example, what about positive love?
In verse 16 we have the positive example:
“We know love by this, that he [Christ] laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
Christ laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. It’s there in black and white, in the second half of verse 16. So often we congratulate ourselves, thinking our Christian love for others is adequate. But is this how loving I am?
Once again we hear echoes of the Last Discourse in the Fourth Gospel: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15: 13).
John goes on to say how our love for one another has to be practical love. In verse 17, he relates love and sacrificial love to our attitude to material possessions: If anyone “has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need,” can we say God’s love abides in them if they refuse help?
The writer is not talking there about pity or feeling sorry for the other person who is in need. He means if I sit here in my comfort and luxury and watch a Christian brother or sister in need and talk about it but do nothing about it, then I haven’t even started finding out what love means.
Look at what John says in verse 18: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” I can’t just talk about it; I have to do something about it.
And the fact is, says John, when I start doing that, then I really start knowing I am alive as a Christian. When I start doing that I really start to know that I belong to the truth, to the real Christian family of true brothers and sisters: “And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”
The “this” of verse 19 can refer to what has just been said, by the practice of love, or to what follows, by the greatness of God. If we opt for the first meaning, the practice of love assures Christians that they are on God’s side (“from the truth”). If they are aware of past sins, their hearts can be easy, for God knows their weakness and God’s powerful mercy can forgive sins.
Loving with actions and in truth is far more demanding than just thinking about it and giving intellectual assent to the idea, paying lip service to love, or loving people when it suits us.
It is all summed up in verse 23. This is his command, this is what God wants me to do. We are to believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and we are to “love one another as has commanded us.”
The emphasis on the name of Jesus is also a favourite theme in the Fourth Gospel: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15: 12).
Keeping the commandments is the supreme source of our confident calling on God, and here we find a reflection on themes in the Last Discourse in the Fourth Gospel. The summation of the commandments is to believe in Christ and to love one another – the very points of faith and practice in which the false propagandists are deficient.
There is a well-known story about a new rector who preached the same sermon over and over again. On his first Sunday in his new parish, he preached a riveting sermon about love. Everyone shook his hand at the door and said: “Great sermon!”
But when they came back the next week, he preached exactly the same sermon, word for word. And the next week. And the week after that. Week after week after week.
Someone finally asked him why he kept preaching the same sermon about love week after week after week. And he said: “Well, everyone told me what a great sermon it was. But I think I’ve got to keep preaching it until they actually start doing it.”
It’s simple. But it’s so hard to do.
Next week: I John 4: 1-6. the right spirit and testing the spirits.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group on Wednesday 19 November 2008.